Excuse me are you listening? 6-25
Sunday, January 6, 2008

Dear Readers,

My father took pictures.  He was always documenting the lives of others as if he had no existence of his own.  I never really thought about how much of my life is preserved on paper.  I mean photo paper.

I remember living at 578 Jerome Street, in the East New York section of Brooklyn.  It's a place that holds special memories for me, especially when I was a child.  The yellow and green linoleum tile in the kitchen under my feet was always cool to the touch.  The kitchen was the focal point and most important room in the apartment.  It was the epicenter of our home.  You could reach almost any room from it; the bedrooms, the bathroom, the living room and also the hallway leading into our apartment.  It was actually a duplex and Mrs. Williams and her husband lived downstairs.  She had four sons.  They all looked like the Jackson 5 to me.  They were all so cute.

Our kitchen table was of course the same sunshine yellow as the tiles on the floor and trimmed with a shiny aluminum frame.  I vividly remember when we got it.   I marveled at the slick shiny yellow upholstered vinyl chairs that were always so cushiony and cool when you climbed into the chair.  You could see your distorted face in the aluminum frame that held the chairs and the table together.  It made you feel like you were at the fun house everyday.  Now it would be considered as retro furniture.

When I look at the pictures my father took now, I remember every detail better.  It was as though he took pictures so that we wouldn't forget.  I wonder if my 3 other siblings feel the same way. 

By day, my father was a police officer with the 79th precinct in Bedford Styvesant in Brooklyn.  By night he was a photographer and magician.  My father wanted to be a crime scene photographer for the New York Police Department.  I asked him years after he retired why he did not just do that instead of being an officer.  He matter of factly told me that Black officers weren't crime scene photographers back then.  He said that he had to try though. 

I looked at him and said, “You're a Vietnam veteran.”  He looked at me with empty eyes and didn't reply.  I didn't know what relevance his silence had at the time.  I don't know if it has relevance today as I write this.  I wanted so badly to make him feel better.

He took photography classes on the weekends.  We were childhood models.  My mother would get my brother and sisters all dolled up and shiny.  Our hair pulled together our shoes shined and my father would start taking pictures, where ever he could.

At night when everyone was asleep, except for me, I would listen to him in the kitchen making up his photography concoction.  He would use the kitchen as his darkroom.   Three trays, photo paper, gloves and some tongs lay on the table as if he were a magician.  He would swirl the paper in the liquids and we would see the pictures come to life right before your eyes.   I can still smell the chemicals as I write this. 

The door to my memories of that time creaked opened.  The checkered yellow and green cool tile beneath my feet as I climbed up on the chair after I faked using the bathroom.  He never told me to go away.  I positioned myself where I was sure not to get in the way and would watch intently.

My father always took off his police uniform shirt off as soon as he walked through the door.  He would come in from work and usually stayed in his tee shirt and his department issued police pants.  He would put on some type of black apron to protect himself.

I would liken watching film developing to a doe giving birth.  It was always miraculous and somehow a natural process.  I never saw my father make a mistake while processing.  He was always careful with the chemicals.  The chemicals were just as hands off to the children as his department issued gun.

I never really thought about what kind of impact he really had on my life.  I love photography.  It's one of the reasons why I publish a newspaper today.   I am able to pursue a dream that he could not.   I never really understood this until one morning at 3:46 am.  I was talking to my siblings about what I could say that my father gave me.

    I figured that my father never realized how his photos created such vivid memories for us.  Almost every picture that we have of him, he has a camera hanging on his neck.  I think I will look at them differently now.  I will look at them as though he birthed them just so I could have memories that would last a lifetime.  I think that we all take our pictures for granted.  Photos usually document the happiest times in life.  They document impressions of what you want to revisit over and over again.  Except for the really horrible senior class photos from back in the day.  Whew.

I've learned a lot from him.  I've been dismissive about a lot of things.  My father taught me how to document lives.  I just have a different medium.  While looking through some of his things, there were boxes of random pictures of people we didn't know but I'm sure that my father knew each and every person as he danced from table to table with his laugh and his camera. 

His camera captured moments.  His slight commands, “ 'Tip you head', 'Stop laughing'. 'Move to the left'…”

In his hospital room, he would always have his camera.  People who he hadn't seen in ages became the new subjects of his lens.  I believe he hid behind his camera so he could always see people smile or see people in their own element.  He was at masterful at disguising himself as the guy behind the camera and not the guy who created great memories.

He was never too far from a camera, nor am I.  I'm not as dedicated to the lens as he was but I'll always been dedicated to the memories.

I miss my father terribly but his death taught me that there are things that aren't important enough to worry about. After he died, I had to rely on something to keep me uplifted and encouraged.  I'm stronger and ready for the New Year because of the photos that I have.

Challenges arise but remember the good times, keep the faith and document your lives on film and everything will be all right.


Rina N. Risper

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