—Vancouver, British Columbia
I’m not a photographer. The camera I took most of these pictures with was given to me one afternoon on a street in Vancouver. I sat writing on the steps of a house on Howe Street, near the corner of Nelson, when a young woman in a beat-up parka walked by.
She stopped a few meters away from me. “Hey man,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I also said.
“What are you writing?” she wanted to know.
“Oh, just this and that, some notes, you know …” I gave her my standard answer.
She smiled. “Can I take your picture?”
A camera with a huge lens appeared. I felt flattered. Introverted author is discovered in the urban decay of downtown Vancouver by a young, up-and-coming photographer and will soon be displayed in all of the world’s hippest “Urban Art” photo exhibitions. That’s how I pictured it. Crazy North America.
The young woman took a quick picture and introduced herself. Vicky was twenty-two, an art student, and lived with her aunt in North Vancouver. We talked about photography, and I told her about my digital Rollei that broke a week before, when I was crossing over the border into Alaska, 1500 kilometers away from here. Then I had bought a cheap Sony in Prince Rupert, which also broke shortly thereafter in the rainforest of Vancouver Island. And so here I was on the day before the last day of my Canada trip with just a Polaroid camera and one last roll of film, which was long expired and unfortunately didn’t produce pictures with artful color effects, just ones destined for the trashcan.
Vicky swung her camera off her neck and held it out to me. “You can have this one.”
“Bitte what?” I said. Or something to that effect.
“Take it, I don’t need it,” Vicky said.
I was perplexed. “But, but this … it’s an expensive camera!”
“You can give me your Polaroid instead,” said Vicky.
“But I don’t have it with me right now,” I objected. “And it’s a very cheap one. I bought it on eBay for one Euro!” That was the truth. “I don’t even have film for it!”
Determined, Vicky thrust the camera into my hands. It was a Nikon D40, not exactly the newest or most expensive model, but still a DSLR with a 105 millimeter lens—I had never owned such a nice camera.
She said her aunt had bought her the camera because she needed it for college, but she never really knew what to do with it. Tonight was her graduation, and tomorrow she was taking off for San Diego, and too much luggage would just get in the way. Possessions were just burdens anyway. Besides, you have to do good to others in order for good to be done to you, and giving away the camera was really good karma for her upcoming travels.
Vicky obviously had a screw loose.
As I was still puzzling over which type of loose screw this altruistic approach could indicate—was she a follower of some type of ancient Christian sect, a Buddhist or Hindu, like a real Dharma bum, or just mental?—I trotted alongside Vicky towards Coopers’ Park with the Nikon over my shoulder. Until recently she had worked at a bike rental place called Reckless Bikes and suggested getting two bikes there. “I can show you around. Places you wouldn’t find by yourself. Wanna go?”
A few minutes later I was sitting on a mountain bike and pedaling behind the incessantly talking and wildly gesticulating Vicky. For hours. In the May sun we rode along the False Creek river walk, past the Olympic Village to Granville Island, and through the streets of South Main. Vicky showed me the city, her city, the one she was born and raised in and the one she’d be leaving tomorrow. She told me about her studies, about her parents’ Croatian roots and her quitting drinking last year, but just in passing, not as if she wanted me to ask about it. She also wanted to know absolutely nothing about me. She came off as hyper and strangely absent at the same time. The more Vicky talked, the more mysterious she became, and more and more a feeling crept over me that even if I wasn’t there this curious creature would still be babbling away to herself.
Every once in a while she would stop to pick something up off the ground—for the book she was currently writing. She showed it to me. It was a big, black notebook containing all kinds of things picked up off the streets, next to handwritten notes. Scratched-up credit cards, filthy hairclips, greasy dollar bills, bent business cards, guitar picks soft from use, gum, condoms. At least the gum and condoms were still in their wrappers. Maybe her book was some kind of avant-garde art project, based on the Mémoires of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn—I don’t know. Still, I thought the notebook was a little gross. A smorgasbord of garbage, the diary of a hoarder. I pictured Vicky’s room and saw a dark cave into which things were carried daily, never to be carried out again; in which shoeboxes full of trash were stacked up next to rotten newspapers. I saw a margarine tub with old strands of hair, toenail clippings, and bellybutton lint and got an idea of what she could have meant by “too much luggage.”
I felt the Nikon in my bag, but didn’t take a single picture the entire afternoon. It didn’t seem right to me to fiddle around with the camera that had just belonged to Vicky right in front of her. Later we stopped at a camera store where I managed to get her some Polaroid film, which at that time was really hard to come by.
In the early evening we returned the bikes and walked to the hotel. We went up to my room, and I gave her the Polaroid. And then I realized that the memory card from my old Rollei didn’t fit in the new Nikon.
“You know what, just keep the memory card,” said Vicky.
“No, no, I can’t do that …” I tried to refuse.
“I don’t need it anymore,” Vicky insisted.
“But it has your photos on it!”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Doesn’t matter.”
I had been asking myself the entire time what the catch was to this whole trade. Did she want something from me—money, love, or just my body? Was she lonely and in search of new friends? Or a free place to sleep if she was ever in Berlin? The thought that the camera was stolen had also crossed my mind, but immediately seemed absurd. Vicky had a screw loose, but didn’t give off even the slightest bit of a criminal vibe.
I offered to send her the pictures or to upload them. She said that wouldn’t be necessary. I asked why. “I don’t need them,” she answered and touched my arm, smiling. “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” Then she scribbled her email address on a piece of paper, got up, thanked me for the Polaroid and the pleasant afternoon, went out the door, and left. No catch.
There were 759 pictures on the memory card. Vicky took pictures of buildings, street signs, and display windows, mainly from moving city buses and Sky Trains. One blurry picture after the other transferred to my hard drive, most of which were indecipherable. She obviously hadn’t really known what to do with the camera.
Strangely enough, a picture of me sitting on the steps of Howe Street was not there. Had she forgotten to turn the camera on? Or did she not find the shutter?
Then I realized: we also didn’t take any pictures of ourselves together. It was as if all of it had never happened. Or it happened in a different world, where you can’t hold on to the moment, where only the instant counts, a world that eliminates all evidence. Or was I now the one with a screw loose?
I tried out the camera. Never before or after have I taken so many pictures of a hotel room. Then I left the hotel and clicked away like a maniac across half the city. The next day and a half before my departure I did practically nothing else. Everything looked photo-worthy: the graffiti in the filthy alleys of Downtown East, the crystal meth zombies on Hastings Road, the facades of the rundown hotels and pawn shops, the Lions Gate Bridge with the picturesque mountain panorama in the background, the bike cops, the waterfront park, the tablecloth in an Italian restaurant, the scribblings on the bathroom stalls of a dim bar, my chewed fingernails, my feet chafed from walking, my incredulous face.
A few months later I was at a photo exhibition in Berlin, looking at the works of Fred Herzog. In 1953, the German photographer began taking pictures of the streets, buildings and people of his adopted home of Vancouver. He used a Kodak Retina 1 and color Kodachrome filmstrips, at a time when color photography was seen by the art world as amateurish or commercial. One of the exhibited photos showed a row of small storefronts next to slightly warped wooden houses with bay windows and gables, with an early skyscraper boring into the overcast sky behind them. The title of the picture was “Howe and Nelson, 1960.” The buildings didn’t look familiar to me, but the street names definitely did.
I looked it up when I got home. In the early afternoon of May 4, 2010, a half century after Fred Herzog, after the houses pictured had long been torn down and replaced by modern office buildings, I was sitting in that exact same spot and noted: “Short break on some steps in Downtown, corner of Howe and Nelson …”
The entry cut off suddenly and wasn’t continued until the evening, full of excessive musings of happiness as a result of the new camera.
I decided to write Vicky an email. She answered a few weeks later. She was doing well. She had spent a few weeks in Europe and was now back in Vancouver, where she was working on her book again. “I’m still sort of editing,” she wrote, “and I keep adding stuff to it.” As of now, there still wasn’t anyone interested in publishing it. “Maybe one day.”
She apologized for realizing too late that she never gave me the battery charger for the Nikon, as if that was some unforgivable faux pas of our transaction. Despite that, I hoped that only good things had happened during her travels. In any case, she was still very pleased about our exchange. “Your Polaroid is more of an art piece in my room,” she wrote. I could picture it well: my one-Euro camera as a valuable exhibit in her trash-museum.
“Let’s keep in touch,” the email ended. Famous last words. I never heard from Vicky again.
Thorsten Nagelschmidt, better known as Nagel, is an author, musician, and artist. He grew up in Munster and lives in Berlin and Hamburg. Until 2009, he was the singer, lyricist and guitarist of the band Muff Potter, releasing seven albums and playing more than 600 shows all over Europe. His debut novel, Wo die wilden Maden graben, was published in 2007. His second novel, Was kostet die Welt, was published by Heyne in 2010 and a musical version of the novel was released on the label Audiolith. An English translation is currently in the works. His third book, Drive-By Shots, a collection of insightful stories and photos from his various travels, was released in 2015. Nagel has had numerous exhibitions of his linoleum print series Raucher (Smokers), and a new novel and new album are in the works. Visit him online at www.nagel2000.de, www.facebook.com/nagel (Official) and www.twitter.com/nagel31O125GO.
Timothy DeMarco received his bachelor’s degree in German from Georgetown University and his master’s degree in German Language and Literature from Middlebury College. He has lived, worked and studied in Tübingen, Dresden and Mainz. He currently lives at the Jersey Shore where he teaches German at a high school and a university.