Tag Archives: Passing Strangers

Memphis Portraits

Earlier today I was looking through some old photo albums on my desktop, happily remembering a trip taken to Memphis,TN during the Summer of 2008 with a former boyfriend, when I came across a few favorites images, those that had survived a 2010 hard drive crash – two are now hanging in a local library on display for the public. At the time of this trip I was madly in love and eager to show my then ‘new’ beau off to my dearest friends and share with him one of my favorite American Cities, a city that I once called home.

I had graduated from Memphis College of Art (MCA) in 2003 and can honestly say that my 3 years in Memphis were some of the best in my life, they inspired me to be the artist that I am today. Many people had warned me about the dangers of moving to Memphis, its often  tumultuous history leaves it with somewhat less than desirable reputation amongst some who thought that I was a naive mark; but I didn’t care. I visited the Mid Southern city years earlier and loved its energy. When I was looking to transfer to a different college I was thrilled to learn that Memphis had its own Art College and the rest is history.

I am always excited to visit my old stomping grounds and during this particular 2008 trip I took my former partner all over Memphis. Exposed him to Beale street, Graceland, art museums, rode the Main Street Trolley, ate some local fare – well he did, I’m the vegetarian and Memphis is definitely not known as the Veggie capital – and spent a memorable evening listening to some genuine juke joint blues.

These images below were my favorites because they were passing strangers, individuals that left an imprint and in their own way define the essence of an adventure. Contact is sometimes minimal but the impact is always strong and memorable.

The bartender at the juke joint, serving from a simple menu and enjoying the best perk of his job, the music.

The Blues Musician, playing his heart and soul out to a packed  and energetic joint.

Mike, a transient man passing through Memphis. when I spoke to him he was unsure where he intended to go

The Trolley Man. He was very much focused on his job.

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Rudy Sanchez’s Story

It all started with a friendly “Hello”.

Moments earlier I had walked pass him, distracted with a self-given mission to find and  interview the local historian, and sincerely felt that it would be unjustifiably rude of me to not show some gesture acknowledging his presence when I walked by him for the second time.

He was sitting alone, on a white washed wooden bench, and seemed content to watch the day pass by.

I consciously made eye contact with him, smiled and said ‘Hello’. He looked right at me with eyes as bright as a young child, smiled, returned my greeting and then he started talking. First about the amazing weather we were experiencing and then, without a transition or hint of what was about to open up, about the key moments of his life.

His name is Rudy Sanchez, and he was born in Coleman “a long time ago”. He shared memories about his childhood. Traveling with his family as a young kid to places like Wyoming, Nebraska and Oklahoma for sugar beet and corn harvesting. He proudly boasted how he could clear an entire acre of sugar beets all by himself at the age of 15. That was an experience we had both agreed that most 15 yrs old today could never imagine. Quietly I thought to myself that I couldn’t even imagine such an experience and I was more than twice the age of a 15-year-old.

Growing up, he shared a home with his family and another family. According to him there was no bathroom inside the house, only an outhouse. He remembered not caring about what kind of home that he and his family had, only that it at least had an outhouse outside.

In 1968 he and six other teenage boys stupidly packed themselves into a small cherry red mustang and headed toward a neighboring town for some fun. An accident occurred and four of the seven boys sadly died. Rudy, obviously, was a lucky one, but only barely. For many months he remained in the hospital hooked up to a machine. Many people came to visit him because he was a “miracle”.  He still bares the scar from the breathing tube attached through his throat. Years later his sister married the young man who was driving the ill-fated mustang. I get a sense that the union between his sister and his friend the driver was once a sore issue between him and his sister, but as he said several times throughout our conversation: “you can’t help who you fall in love with”. Wise man, this Rudy.

A few years after leaving the hospital he got into some serious trouble with the local authorities – he didn’t disclose those details and I did not ask, thought it was best to let him speak what was most important to him.

The severity of what he did had him looking at potentially spending some hard time in the state penitentiary. Fortunately for him the judge decided that he would instead go to Oklahoma for a Job Corps type of program where he learned carpentry skills and hang out with a few poetic hippies. Even today he can still recite from memory one  particular poem written by one of his hippie inmates.

After leaving Oklahoma with some carpentry tools given to him by the program he returned to Coleman and quickly traded those tools in for some beer.

Rudy was a true character to speak with. Soon into our chance meeting I noticed that he would repeat his stories and would ask me the same questions as if it were the first time. I then learned that he has a tumor attached to his brain and understood that some of his quirky and charming behaviors were probably and partially connected to the tumor.

Rudy’s arms are covered with poorly inked tattoos that he gave himself when he was a teenager. They were mostly of hearts and his initials. I asked why he inked his own name onto himself so many times, but he couldn’t give me a clear answer but so that he wouldn’t forget his name. I suspect there is more to the story than forgetting his own name, but knew that my curiosity would not be satisfied at the present time.

Rudy didn’t make much of eye contact during our conversation. He would look down or to his right at the passing traffic and kept calling me “Ma’am” despite that he was obviously my senior in age. He has large almost childlike brown eyes that expressed an eagerness to connect with someone and facial hair that reminded me fondly of the Wolverine. When it came time to leave him, he stopped me and said that I was a special person, and asked that I would write his story down for him and so I did.

It has been over a year since our meeting and I think of Rudy often. He is one of those individuals that you never forget because he reminds you that we all have a voice and  the need to be heard.  He wanted to share his story and, though I do not know how, knew that I would share it for him.


Jersey Portrait

Several years ago, in a congested New Jersey flea market, I spotted this visually fascinating woman sitting in the general dinning area and having a candid conversation with her husband and daughter.

I was walking by with one of my young nieces when the inspiration to photograph her overcame me. At the time I was sometimes shy about walking up to complete strangers with the hopes of gaining permission to take their photograph, it often felt a little intrusive and sometimes even a bit inappropriate; but the desire to interact with this woman and take her photo was intense. This feeling could not be ignored and I did not want to walk away without trying.

I remember feeling a knot in my stomach as I walked up to her and her family, with my little niece in hand, to ask if I could photograph her. She looked up at me with an inquisitive countenance as I explained that I had found her to be interesting and, if it was okay, would really like to take a photographic portrait of her. She laughed and cheerfully stated that she hoped that was “ a good thing”.  Smiling and feeling a little more relaxed I assured her that it was.

What lured me to this woman was her vibrant energy. She was a shapely older woman wearing a dark black wig with thickly rouged cheeks and blacken eyebrows. Around her neck was a long string of costume pearls that went with her printed blouse and black knee-length skirt.

Most people could not pull off such a unique ensemble. It would appear on many as a desperate and comical attempt to hold onto their youth, but she had the panache to make it work. There was nothing comical or desperate about her. She had confidence and after briefly speaking with her it was obvious that she genuinely enjoyed her life. Her Husband, a character in his own right, was eager to point out that she was a “knock-out”.

I came to realize, because of her, that confidence and joy is the key to successfully being one’s genuine self at any stage in life.