We kept in touch by emails, mostly. Jake wanted to sell me his laser printer. He had upgraded and offered me his relatively new one for $25. I agreed to meet him after work and he would drive me out to his condo and drive me back with the printer. Fair deal.
He told me to bring along my camera. I had bought myself a used Cannon. What appealed to me was working with black & white film. I studied several manuals and books about the technical aspects of photography and I couldn’t grasp it very well. I didn’t have a mathematical mind, and found that most manuals are terribly written. Trial and error is how I taught myself how to use computer software and I was trying to do the same with the camera.
My subject of choice was derelict factories, warehouses, dockyards, rusty tankers, boxcars, junk yards, run down brick buildings. The goal was to get a collection of these haunting black and white images that I would title, “Old Economy.” (The name had a better ring to it before the tech bubble burst.) This world was going away forever, and I wanted to capture what was left. It was a refreshing change from the pastel coloured , steel and glass, sterile environment of downtown and the West End. I haven’t had much success so far, except for some wonderful images of an abandoned dock side repair complex on the North Shore.
Jake was an amateur photographer in his own right. He was annoying to speak to on the subject because he was obsessed about the technical. To him, the equipment seemed more important than the photographs themselves. It was similar to what he said about his gun’s fire power being more important than the actual experience of paintball. He didn’t have a vision. His collection was a mix of portraits, landscapes, some architecture, close-ups, panorama. Like he was trying to figure out each function of the camera, rather than taking a picture of something that caught his eye. Perhaps, that is the best way to proceed in the long run. I could use some of his technical know-how. He could use some of my creativity.
I met him after work and we drove across the Cambie bridge to his place further south on Main. I had been there another time before. It was a typical Vancouver condo that was thrown up during the 80’s and early 90’s real-estate boom. California style, no balconies. As far as I know, it wasn’t leaky, like so many others in the city made at that time.
We tested out the printer to my satisfaction. His wife and kids came home. The kids were noisy, and the wife was stern and silent. She declined reply to my greetings. I don’t think it was out of malice. Leaves me wondering if she is abused?
Jake recommended a site for shooting that sounded appealing. He said he knew of an abandoned warehouse in the east end. It used to house an old lumber wholesaler back in the 60’s and 70’s. It was good timing because we both knew that an hour before sunset was the best time for long shadows. We drove out there and looking from the distance there was almost nothing left of it except some of the steel skeleton frame.
We had to slip through a cedar hedge and a flattened down part of a chain linked fence, topped with barbed wire. The ground was layered with large gravel chunks and boulders of broken concrete. There was rebar, wheel rims and broken wood pallets strewn about. Patches of weed life popped up in a few areas. There were mud puddles and a general smell of oil and chemicals.
I took a few ground shots of the wreckage and we walked over to the skeleton about a hundred yards on the other side of the yard. It was a melancholy walk, without conversation. Just the sound of us crunching on the gravel and broken glass. I began to feel uneasy. This place was desolate. Shrubs and tress walled off the outside world beyond. The low light gave it a dreamy, surreal atmosphere. A damn good spot to whack somebody. I kept Jake in front of me just in case.
The long shadows from the beams of the skeleton were spectacular, and I hoped the images would come out well. Only now did it strike me as peculiar that Jake wasn’t taking any pictures. He didn’t even have his camera with him. More paranoia. It seemed that he was watching me closely. Fuckin’ psycho.
He asked me to walk over to where there was a sagging gate, which led out onto an old lane to some unused railroad tracks, which were overgrown with weeds. There were a few pieces of rusted sheet iron. I stuck my foot under one of them and turned it over onto another, which made a startling metallic clang. Jake seemed pissed off that I made a loud noise. Might attract a curious witness Jakie boy?
“This is where the train used to stop. They would unload the wood right off of it into the yard.” He said.
“You sound like you remember it like it was yesterday.” I was happy for any conversation.
“No, I didn’t grow up here. My wife did though. Her elementary school used to border onto it. I saw a picture in her yearbook and you can see the yard in the background, fully operational. For whatever reason, it went out of business. The old building turned into a crack house/squat for a period of time. That’s why they tore away the skin off the building. Probably afraid of lawsuits.”
“It’s hard to believe anything would want to live here. Even rats and alley cats. Why didn’t they build something new here, is it toxic or something?”
“ I hear that it has been bought up to build a little strip mall but they’ve been haggling with the local government for zoning permits. It’s been going on for ten years. In the meantime, it remains this.”
“They ought to rent it out as a film set for a post-apocalypse movie.”
“Horrible isn’t it? And yet, squatters sometimes set up a mini-camp here.”
“They can have it. Who gives a shit if they do?”
“Brendan, my wife grew up around here. People live in this neighborhood. Would you want thieves, junkies and whores making camp in your backyard?”
“Look, I don’t want to argue about it.”
‘She’s a thievin’, lyin’, cheatin’ whore’. A little country ditty popped into my head.
“It’s funny. They can’t simply force the squatters out.”
“I don’t see any squatters. Where did they all go?”
“They left on their own right. Nothing permanent. However, I noticed that on your friend Grady’s website that they have marked this as unused land.”
“Look, I told you he wasn’t my friend.”
He didn’t listen and continued.
“They have a campaign declaring that unused buildings and land should either be, well, used or occupied by armies of the homeless. Their group, what are they? Solidarity with People at Risk? Propose to help people build temporary shelters. They want to set up a fucking shanty town right here. Set up a shanty town and attract media. Idiots will see the story on tv and think, oh God, how can this happen in Canada? More money for free housing for the poor! I’m sorry man, but there is plenty of social support for these people. This isn’t Brazil.”
“How would they convince people to live here?”
“Easy, they can do all the shooting up and whoring that they see fit. No rules out here in the wide open air.”
I had nothing left to photograph and nothing left to say. Obviously, Jake didn’t bring me here for esthetic reasons but to make a point. I hate when people try to forcefully sell me things, even opinions. What does he want me to do, help him torch the place when they set-up camp? No thank you. I told him I wanted to go home.
We were driving back and Jake chuckled to himself for no apparent reason. He turned to me and said,
“Do you remember Travis Bickle’s line from Taxi Driver? ‘One day a big rain will come down and wash all the scum off the streets’.”
Did Jake see himself as the Big Rain?