July 1st, 2019

caillebotte_man at his window


This evening I sat in the back yard as night was falling, and after nodding off a couple of times I woke and looked up, and the first thing I noticed was the utility pole that sits at the edge of the bike path, down at the far end of the back yard of the apartment next door. There are poles on both sides of the bike trail, and the ones on this side are quite simple. Comcast's heavy coaxial cable runs along the line of poles about halfway up, with AT&T's lighter telephone cable right next to it. At the tops of the poles are short cross arms with three PG&E electrical cables and their shiny insulators. Often, birds perch on those wires, but this evening they were empty.

The sight of this pole triggered a memory. When I was in high school I woke uncommonly early one morning, and unable to get back to sleep I went outside. Light was barely starting to come into the eastern sky, and as I stood in my driveway looking down the street, the length of which which it faced, I noticed the silhouetted utility pole, which also had a streetlight attached to it. It stood about sixty feet from our garage door. I was inspired to go back into the house and fetch the Kodak box camera we had then, and from my driveway I made an upward snapshot of that pole with the slightly paling sky behind it, and the branches of the nearby acacia tree shrouding its lower reaches. I was taking a photography class that year, and I developed the film in the school lab and made a 5' by 7' enlargement of that shot.

It wasn't a very good photo, or a very good print, being too muddy and lacking sufficient contrast, but for me it was an evocation of that moment on that silent early morning street of darkened houses, and of the years I spent in the house that was behind me as I stood there with that camera which, over those years, had taken so many familiar photographs, and of the moments in rooms of that house lit by electricity that had passed through the wires on that pole, and of telephone conversations I'd had that had traveled through other wires on that pole, and of the other familiar places to which all those wires connected along all the streets the poles lined, block after block and mile after mile, a network extended year after year while I obliviously led my mundane young life in my dull corner of that burgeoning metropolis.

For decades, when I would rummage through my old photos I would pause and look at that picture of the utility pole for a while and let it summon memories, some of them always the same and others different, as deeply buried moments resurfaced in the long-vanished light that had been captured on that thin piece of photographic paper. There were a few dozen photos I had taken that could do that, but I never got around to digitizing them and storing the digital versions in some safer place, and the photos and the negatives all burned last November. Now that life I led has two layers of nostalgia: one for the times and places of the past, and one for the lost artifacts which were the tangible bits preserved from those times and places. I no longer have those photos to evoke what had been lost long before. The ghosts themselves have died, and now exist only, and only for a while, in my fading memory.

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