Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I remember walking along the streets of Philadelphia as a little boy with my dad, my face pointed nearly straight up as I gazed in wonder at all the tall buildings and interesting people that seemed to tower for miles above me. Everything was new to me. That is probably why I almost tripped over a man sitting on the sidewalk with his hands out, asking for spare change from passerby.

The man, perched near a subway vent on the curb, presented a heartbreaking sight. From the frayed cuffs and collar of his faded red sweatshirt, to the scruffy black stubble on his cheeks, to the greasy lump of cardboard declaring “HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP, MUST EAT” leaning against his knee, he presented a picture of utmost despair. I had never seen someone living in such horrible conditions, and the fact that he had nowhere to go for shelter but the sidewalk was difficult for me to fathom.My father just kept walking, with me in tow, seemingly paying no attention to the pathetic man’s pleas. As we walked, I could hear his mantra recede into the background behind me: “You got any spare change, sir, so’s I can eat? You got any spare change, ma’am, so’s I can eat? I only need a coupla dollars…” I felt so sorry for that man, the first homeless person I ever saw.

I was reminded of this incident many years later, when I went to a gallery of black and white photographs by acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark. I had never seen her work before then, nor was I especially interested in photography at that time, but I was instantly amazed by her unique perspective on American life, and her spotlight on the eccentricities of the mundane. Mark focuses on people in her photographs – from such subjects as homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and mental illness to the idiosyncrasies of our country in the forms of a rodeo, Coney Island, and even the Ku Klux Klan. The gallery full of powerful images in rich shades of black and white was both touching and inspiring. Most poignant of the photos on the wall was that of a homeless family from Los Angeles.

“The Damm family in their car” shows four hollow faces staring at you from the confines of their rusty old automobile, which is also their home. The children, Crissy and her younger brother Jesse, are in the back seat of the two-door vehicle, and in front sit parents Linda and Dean. The children appear to be trapped in their seats, blocked from the outside world by the door and their parents’ seatbacks. All of these people appear tired and dirty, with very little happiness in their lives. Linda and Dean sit with their arms wrapped around each other, staring confrontationally into the camera, as Jesse stares off into the distance while his sister Crissy cradles his small face in her hands. Linda’s legs reach beyond the frame of the picture, stretching past the open door into the foreground. Behind the family the road stretches to the horizon, though the background of this picture is blurry and out of focus.

Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph portrays a group of beaten and dejected people, weary from a life on the road. It is one in a series of photographs by Mark following this homeless family in their daily hardships. It is a photograph that echoes my own confrontation with homelessness nearly ten years previous, and one of which I have been reminded many times since.

I was walking from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station one morning last summer, on my way to a photography class at the University of Pennsylvania. Sunlight glared from its low angle on the horizon, peeking between the tall buildings that bordered my six-block walk. As I neared the university campus, I realized that I still had half a roll of film in my camera that I would need to have finished before class started at 9:00.

Therefore I continued walking down the streets of Philadelphia, pointing my camera here and there, trying to capture the essence of the entire city in about ten minutes. I had almost arrived at my destination when I saw an eccentric-looking man – who in fact reminded me of the Damm patriarch in Mark’s photos – pacing back and forth among some tables and chairs on the sidewalk. I slowed down when I reached him, and raised my camera to my eye. By quickly snapping the shutter, I was able to shoot one frame before he noticed my presence.

In the next instant, however, he turned and stared at me. I was about to simply turn and walk away, hoping that I had not bothered him so much that he would chase after me. Instead, in contradiction to my instincts and in stark contrast to my earlier encounter with the homeless, I approached this dirty and disheveled man and asked him if I could take a few more pictures of him. He never really gave me a straight answer, just sat down at the nearest table and continued to stare at me.

For some reason I considered this an appropriate sign of acquiescence, and so sat down across from him, all the while holding the camera and putting his image into fine focus. I was intrigued by his entire persona – a shaggy mane of gray hair above his leathery face of criss-crossing lines showing his age and failing health, a few days of coarse silver stubble on his chin, a sagging neck flowing into a loose-fitting tie-dyed tee-shirt. His hands were traced by veins under the thin tanned skin, and his arms looked bony and feeble as they emerged from the baggy multi-colored shirt. It was obvious that he had not bathed in many days.
I shot another frame; all the while this man just stared at me, unblinking and beginning to make me very nervous.

I was becoming worried that I had in fact bothered this man by sitting with him. Perhaps with my camera, I was invading the small amount of privacy that he was afforded living on the street. I had imagined that he would have liked someone to talk to, and therefore would allow, perhaps even enjoy, my presence there. I may have been wrong. Suddenly he reached into his pocket and pulled from it a conglomeration of things, all snarled together in a mangled heap that he placed heavily on the table between us. I could see a driver’s license, a book of matches, and a pencil among other things in the pile of debris. He picked up the license and said, “Will you buy this?” in a very weak and scratchy voice.

“Umm, no, I think you need that.” This prompted him to throw the license in my face, and it landed on the table in front of me.

I was getting very nervous, and tried to ease my way out of this increasingly volatile situation. I said, “Thank you,” to the man and started to rise from my seat. At this, he began shouting at me.

“Do you like Abbot?” he asked.

“What?”

“Abbot.”

“I like Abbot and Costello, sure.” I was saying anything that came to mind, just trying to appease him so that I could leave without causing a scene.

“Well, why don’t you just shout ‘Abbot?’ Abbot! Abbot! Abbbbooooottttt!”

At this point I was quite scared. I stood up, but he continued to shout at me, now throwing obscenities into the mix. People walked by our table, pretending not to notice this crazy old man and the foolish kid with a camera around his neck.

“Do you like Costello?” His demeanor had changed again, and he became timid in his questions.

“Yea, sure, I like…Elvis Costello. Yea. Which Costello do you like?”

“Abbott…Costello? Abbbooootttt!”

Then he threw the pencil and matchbook at me. I kept backing away, trying to reach the corner so I could cross the street and duck inside the University of Pennsylvania building that housed my class.

I said, “I’m sorry for bothering you, sir. But I think you need those things,” and continued walking. He just stared after me, crouching over the table with his scattered belongings. I quickly crossed the street and entered the fine arts building without ever looking back.

This experience was a shock to my naïve sensibilities. The man was not simply a subject, waiting to be photographed by some spoiled high school kid. My fantasies of a nice suburban life were rapidly diminishing as I continued to experience the world for myself, and I realized that I could not simply walk up and talk to anybody on the street. Who knew if that person would be dangerous, a threat, crazy, violent?

People were being treated like stray dogs or rats, or some other vermin of the city gutters, while at the same time no one was innocent, and no one was harmless. I could not help but wish for an America reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Alas, his world of bop music, hitchhikers and fifty cent pies is all but extinct. I had been hoping for a world that would somehow combine Kerouac’s quixotic vision with Mark’s images of life across America.

The American Midwest has never been romanticized more alluringly than in On The Road. It is a text that remains inspiring to countless dreamers who wish to drop the baggage of their lives and hit the road, in search of a new life or a new identity. The family on Mark’s gallery wall appears the perfect candidate for such a trip. Kerouac writes:

It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey. I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist. ‘Whooee!’ yelled Dean. ‘Here we go!’ And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.

The passage brings to mind thoughts of adventure and excitement, and creates the urge to go on one’s own journey across the nation. It stirs feelings of nostalgia for an America that might have been, but which I will surely never see. Looking at the photograph, I want the Damms to embark on a similar expedition across the open roads of modern America.

At first glance the Damm family embodies the characters of Kerouac’s classic: road-weary, broke, and exhausted, but free to live life on their own terms. The story behind the picture is slightly less idyllic, however; the Damms are not only broke and road-weary; they are poverty-stricken, having two children to support and no means with which to do so. The children are certainly not as free as one would hope, as their position in the rear of the car seems to foreshadow the path that their lives will take, trapped to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Innocence is lost, as can be seen in the eyes of even youngest son Jesse. The young boy’s forlorn expression is far more representational of the truth of his predicament than any novel or 8×10 glossy. The contrast between my preconceived notions and the glaring truth of what is, for the Damms, real life served as a compelling combination in my mind.

But how could I possibly relate to their predicament, having only seen the tree-lined streets of my peaceful middle-class suburban neighborhood? Perhaps the reason that they fascinated me so much in the first place is the fact that their world is so far removed from my own. In fact, it seems that all of Mary Ellen Mark’s images have this same appeal. I have never seen a meeting of white supremacists, never been inside a women’s psychiatric ward, never visited a homeless shelter. I have not yet been to a rodeo, or a gay pride parade, or even Coney Island. Mark manages to capture all of these and more in her photography, pulling me into settings far beyond my own experiences, much in the same way that Kerouac describes an America that once existed but is now relegated only to memory and legend.

I realized then that I could not simply hope to transform my surroundings into some fantasy in which I wanted to play a part. The camera can distort reality, but cannot create a new one. I have to resolve the clash between my own naiveté and the realities of life outside my quiet neighborhood. Of course, it is this romanticized view that I find so hard to remove from reality, as if the characters and events depicted in Kerouac’s novel could somehow leap from the page and go “adventuring in the crazy American night” as they still do in my imagination. The more I experience life for myself, however, the more I am able to separate fiction from truth.

I recently saw another picture of the Damm family taken by Mark, just a few years ago. It shows the family nearly a decade after their initial meeting with the prolific photographer. Unfortunately, conditions have not improved. The children are now nearly grown, and their parents look significantly older than the ten year lapse would suggest. Jesse has prominent scars on his face and scalp, and Crissy still clings tightly to her mother, even as a young woman. Dean, once the strong and imposing figure of fatherhood, now slouches in his obesity. It is clear that the family is still living day to day, and that the children have indeed become ensnared in the lives of their parents. It is a disheartening scene.

At the same time, though, it reveals this family in a way that a single photograph could not: we are able to appreciate their situation, as we have seen the family develop over the course of so many years. One feels familiar with their plight, and thus familiar with that of so many more people in America. It is impossible for me to say, with any conviction, that I can fully understand their lives or their difficulties. However, as Kerouac wrote, “I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it’s the same in every corner, I know the people, I know what they do. We give and take and go in the incredibly complicated sweetness zigzagging every side.” He felt that he could know all of America intimately, that by experiencing life in various locales across the country, he could understand life in all parts. Of course, this is as false now as it was half a century ago. It is true, however, that the more one sees of life in America, the more the eccentricities and oddities seem to blend into the overall landscape. While the camera may alter reality even in its quest to portray the absolute truth, it cannot change it. Once this is understood, it is easier to reconcile fantasy with reality. Idealized images on a wall present only part of the story.

One cannot possibly remain in his or her suburban bubble while living in one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world. I am still awestruck at nearly everything I see, but I am also able to interact and relate with other people more than I ever had before. While Kerouac’s beat nation no longer exists, and Mark’s surreal scenarios are the stuff of fiction to me, I know that people must view their individual worlds for themselves, and come up with their own truths and realities.

Works Cited:

Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1976.

This essay was written Oct. 2003 for the NYU course “Writing the Essay.”

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