A Rainy Day In Ann Arbor .
The best photography happens when you'd rather be doing other things (sleeping, eating, staying indoors dry and warm). I love the photos I took the two days of sheeting rain in TOKYO. Moody, intimate, cozy. All so very hygge. So, I gathered my lenses, layered up, and headed out into the rain.
I parked across from the Nichols Arcade -- now celebrating 100 years. The arcade is a covered walkway, a tunnel between State and Maynard, two parallel streets. Its a cozy destination lined with quaint Ann Arbor boutiques and cafés.
At the entrance of the arcade, I noticed a man wearing a topi (skull cap) reading the Quran. As I approached the arcade entrance and him, I was a bit guarded at first. I turned my body away a bit, noticing him but pulling my lens to my face to obstruct my view. I was curious but nervous at the same time.
Most people have a fear of religious zealots - Islam in particular - any religion generally. I have a specific fear dating back to when I was 13. We'd just moved into our newly-built home. It's in a nice neighborhood in a safe area. My parents still live there, going on 46 years. That first summer, I was home alone a lot. It was hot. The yard was still dirt. No air conditioning yet. I had no friends.
A group of three older women knocked on my door one afternoon. I answered out of curiosity, boredom maybe, and because I wanted to appear polite. Somehow at age 13, ignoring the doorbell was contrary to my Pavlovian conditioning. They were dressed in layers of wool fabric far too heavy for such a hot day. Their hair was done up, but slipping out of buns and braids and sweat dripping down their temples and their face. One woman's mouth had a dry caking in the corners of her lips.
They asked if my parents were home. I said no. They proceeded to try to proselytize me for what was probably 15 minutes but felt like an eternity. I feigned interest out of an immediate awkwardness and fear. I felt paralyzed. Stopped. I simply didn't know how to say "no." The entire time they spoke, I was thinking of how to end the conversation and to make them go away. They gave me a small pocket Bible and said they would come back to check in on me the following week. Somehow, I took it and said "Okay." I closed the door and felt a sense of dread.
We have a family Bible in the house. It's a beautiful old book with feathered edges and a well-worn cover that has been handed down a few generations to my dad. There are rosary cards tucked between pages for people whose names I've never heard. There are sepia wedding photos of people whose faces are blank to me. There is a permanent crease where a bookmark has lain too long. It smells musty and cold the way basements and attics smell.
I grew up Christian but not particularly religious. My dad was raised Irish Catholic in the forties and fifties. He recounts living in a Catholic boarding school in Windsor under the Ambassador Bridge. The youngest of eight kids, he was sent away. It's still unclear to me why. He still rubs his knuckles and utters an animated "Crack!" every time he recounts the wooden ruler rapping his hands. "Those nuns were cruel," he would lament, with a sour look on his face. He was the only one in his family to leave the church.
In 1971, he converted to Methodism for my mom. She grew up in a Scottish, Protestant home. We got new Easter dresses and spring coats and fancy new shoes every year, but I never knew any of the kids at church and the arts and crafts projects were a bore. We always went for pancakes and eggs at the local diner afterward though. My dad recited grace on "important" holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and when someone died) or when someone more religious than us ate at our house.
I knew my parents would wonder about this other Bible. Questions wouldn't be about not reading or studying it enough, they would be suspect about why I was reading it at all. Once my mom replied to my dad mentioning a church event, "Please tell me you're not going to become one of those people," most likely referring to any one of my paternal aunts. Early on, I got the hint.
So, to avoid thorny questions, I hid that Bible in the back of my closet in a wooden keepsake box with a silver toggle latch. Just to be sure, I tucked the box in the back of the closet under a metal rack of shoes. It was a safe place for now, but it felt like a chunk of plutonium that would eventually burn a hole through the floor. I felt its toxic radiation every time I drew near.
As I feared, the three women returned the following week. The doorbell rang . . . and rang . . . and rang. They knocked and rang again. I hid down beneath the large picture window in the front of the house, peering out to the porch with one eye but ensuring they couldn't see back at me. Once the coast was clear, I ran up and got that Bible from the box in the closet and held it in my hand. I felt guilty and wrong for throwing it away -- surely God would know. But it felt more distressing to keep it. I just wanted it gone. So, I disposed of it in the most respectful, humane way I knew. I placed it in a plastic Gap bag, pulled the drawstring tight, and buried it deep down in the outside garbage bin. By trash day that week, it would be out of sight, out of mind, and out of my life. Perhaps the women could sense I was a sinner and wrote me off for gone; they never returned again.
For years, I felt a little guilty about that Bible. Having it. Hiding. Discarding it away. That small piece of self-reproach lurked with the rest of it the lint catcher of my soul.
When I saw this man yesterday, clearly sharing the word of God, those feelings surfaced again. We chatted about a number of things. He's a doctor of internal medicine. Learning he's a doctor made him relatable and safe. We talked about his practice, patient responsibility, how living healthy is all about perspective and balance. We discussed travel. Japan. His homeland of India. He warned that India is a great place for photography, but not a safe place for women. Especially white women.
We chatted about the Quran. I read it parts of it in college. Almost 30 years ago to pass a midterm exam. I've read parts and pieces of a number of the sacred texts -- the Bible, the Bhavagad Gita, the Torah, and the Quran -- with my head but never with my heart. Maybe I should.
At the end of our conversation, when I outstretched my hand to shake his, he retracted and politely said "Men don't shake hands with women." We talked about the difference between platonic relations between men and women and giving over to "the dark side." We've all wandered there once or twice.
This man was is not a zealot and I am no longer 13. Really, we were both very much the same in that moment : two people on a street corner looking to connect with someone out in the world. As we parted ways, he offered me a small copy of the Quran. I thanked him and declined.
I turned the corner out of the Nichols Arcade North onto State Street just as Andrew stepped out of the Ann Arbor Coffee Roasting Café. Two more steps and we would have collided head on. I was immediately struck by the contrast of his bright red knit cap and flowing ginger beard with his electric teal button down. He has clear, smiling eyes and kindness in his face.
I simply asked, "Can I photograph you?" (Okay. Clearly not the smoothest opener.) I'm pretty sure I caught both of us off guard.
We sat outside on the rickety café chairs as rain fell silently just beyond the awning edge. I sat two tables away, leaving enough distance to photograph him with my long 70-200 lens.
We often begin conversations with "What do you do?" because it's our way of sorting people into our hierarchy of our world. Are you useful to me? Are you smarter than me? Could we be friends? It's also lazy. It's scripted. We all have our elevator pitches. It's easy to state "I'm a . . . " (doctor, lawyer, student, photographer) and simply be done. Instead, I try to ask "Who are you?" "What interests you?" "What are you working on right now?"
Andrew is a pedicab driver. I asked how he stays in shape to be a pedicab driver . . . then answered my own question aloud. Obviously, it's by driving a pedicab. (Duh.) He went on to tell me only part of a bigger story about how he rode his bicycle (not a motor bike) from Ohio to Ann Arbor, a more than 25-hour trek, with a trailer in tow. He stored his belongings at an ex-girlfriend's and is getting the rest of his life set up now.
Then I asked what he's really working on. He said that after three months of bureaucratic red tape, he's about to start as a U.S. postal carrier. Sensing that I wasn't quite getting there yet, I pressed on. "But what are you really going after? You are definitely a creative." Andrew dreams of doing "readings" for people, "people who need them" he clarified. He doesn't want to hustle for a buck, he wants people to come to him and see the value in his work. He wants his seekers to find.
I'm always quick to encourage people to follow their dreams with my "You can do it. Charge what you want, earn what you want" spiel. This is my small business coach and mentor mind. This is what has kept me hungry for many years. But I sensed that my rallying cry fell a bit flat here. I wasn't quite reading the room. And then I felt a little embarrassed. It was clear to me in speaking to Andrew how much I measure my own success in terms of money. In some ways, I've become the rat and my life the wheel I never wanted to tread. ("Be your own boss, work whenever you like, be free from it all!" they said.) It's clear to me that not everyone measures life this way. Andrew values freedom and self-determination. With little to own, little owns him.
Both success metrics are are valid. The grass is often greener. And I can say is that I know a lot of people who have achieved one means of success but secretly wish for the other. Many of them are my friends and neighbors. Often times, this is me. As much as I loathe superfluous possessions, I admit that I love my comfortable home, a nice car, and every single L-series lens that I own. As much as I declare that I could live out of a single backpack as a vagabond, I still love me a little five-start resort. I often daydream about becoming a National Geographic photographer, but always from the comfort of my well-chosen kitchen dining set while eating steak with my husband and son. The dream of unbridled freedom is best dreamt in the swaddle of a soft, comfy life. Simply put, it takes a whole lot of money to live that cheap.
I asked him his name again toward the very end. He said "I know your name is Karen, so I must have told you mine." I'm usually good with names, but I confess I was so distracted at the beginning that even if he told me (I believe he did), it didn't register at all. I'm glad I asked again. I also asked how I can be of help to him. He simply asked that I hire him in his pedicab if I see him riding by. I will, of course. And I hope our will paths cross again.