Like a Selfish Motherfucker

(Out Of The Crystal Buble)

The sticky blood is spreading slowly on the filthy mosaic of the train station. Two red puddles are growing on each side of the ragged old woman sitting on the floor, against the wall. She’s cut her hands’ wrists. Travellers are rushing past her, as if they wouldn’t notice her. I’m thinking she probably committed suicide recently and because of this no one noticed her. The pools of blood that are stretching around her seem to confirm my hypothesis. I’m looking into the eyes of passers-by and I’m seeing for the first time, a gesture that in a few years of living in the Romanian capital would become a reflex to me: turning away the gaze.

If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

It smells like urine, intensely, but I don’t get to think about it. I am surprised, perhaps not so much of the old woman lying dead in the station but of the lack of reaction of those who pass by. My look is intersecting with that of a guardian, a skinny gypsy standing about ten meters from the body of which blood is flowing. He is putting the transceiver at his ear and he’s babbling something, while looking at me with a gaze that seems to say that things are under control.

It’s the first time I’m passing through the North Train Station, the first time I see Bucharest. It’s 2005.

It’s 2014 as I write this. During these nine years I have not only learned the crystal bubble technique, but I took it to the level of an art. I sometimes think, as I navigate through the polluted traffic, through loud horns that pierce the cloud of smoke, surrounded by desperate drivers who sing in a choir the same rhymes from porn movies, that  am an artist of ignoring.

In Bucharest the ugly stare is a social convention. Men are tense and have an aggressive look, as if they are ready to beat you, women are stubborn in avoiding eye contact and display angry, contemptuous or concerned faces, adolescents have physiognomies expressing arrogance and elders are the most gloomy and stooped creatures that you can find in Europe if you come from the West. Only children keep a curious glance and seem not to be afraid of visual contact.

I learned to control my eyebrows, I learned routes in traffic from which I never deviate, I learned to take a margin of error to arrive in time between thirty minutes and one hour. I learned to listen to music in the car speakers or headphones, to dream while driving but better than anything I learned to look away. To ignore.

I don’t know if a society in which the ugly look is social convention is a sick society. I don’t know if a society that offers as alternative to frown the false smile, the stage grin is sick. I don’t even care, because my crystal bubble is impenetrable.

On a rainy Friday evening I took out my dog, an Airedale Terrier, at the normal walk. Behind the block, on the sidewalk, in the rain, 10 seconds away from a bus stop, a minute from a church and two minutes from a college, was sleeping, wrapped in blankets and cellophane, a homeless man. He had put, I don’t know exactly why, maybe to stay away from the rain, a bag over his head. As I stood there, keeping the dog on a short leash not to piss on the man, looking from my crystal bubble at the bag that was inflating and deflating clinging and loosening from his face, all the thoughts from above crossed my mind.

That homeless man was there every day, I watched him every day, but it was only then when I really saw him. I was surprised by this.

I have dedicated my next weekend to street photography, which I haven’t tried before. I left home my crystal bubble and went to the North Train Station. There I realized how selective my eyes can be. How easy it is to see just what I want to see. Around the Train Station, at that time, on that day, three quarters of the people were travelers, taxi drivers or residents of Bucharest that were there for various things. The rest consisted of prostitutes, pimps, beggars and homeless people.

From a hole in the asphalt, near the artesian fountain in front of the station, the homeless get out one by one and are heading, swaying like zombies raised from their graves, towards the CFR Polyclinic courtyard, right across the train station. Most keep plastic bags in their hands out of which they are eagerly breathing. In the bag is aurolac, a silver paint containing hallucinogen solvents. That’s the reason we call them “aurolaci”. They are of all ages, most seeming much older than they actually are, men and women.

The passengers waiting for buses in front of the station ignore them. Nor would it be better to do otherwise, because they are, most of them, aggressive. Sick, hungry, resentful, they have nothing to lose. They are full of hatred and, if you manage to convince one to talk, you’ll hear a story in which he is a victim. People say their story begins with the fall of communism when most of the orphanages’ residents have been thrown on the streets. But who is interested in their stories?

Under the Bucharest which anyone sees when visiting the Romanian capital there is another Bucharest, of the canals. In the network of tunnels beneath Bucharest there is another world, where the “aurolaci” live, like the living dead. It is said that there are several thousands, but who cares how many there are?

I remember them there in 2005 and I see that they are there now. When a situation doesn’t change for 10 years, it means it was accepted.

I’m taking out from under the jacket my camera and I’m shooting my first subject, an aurolac kid wearing a suit imitating a cartoon character. Earlier he came to me begging for money. In the background, at a fountain at which passengers should come to quench their thirst, another aurolac is cleaning his feet. That fountain is their source of drinking water and their shower, and there have been at it already three homeless only from when I‘m staying here. Immediately behind me, where the zombie yard is, I hear excited voices. A bottle and a ceramic pot break on the asphalt between me and the boy in a yellow suit. I pretend not to see.

A hideous aurolac woman is heading towards me yelling that I’m not allowed to photograph them without asking their permission, that they know their rights. They are European citizens as well, she tells me. I answer that I didn’t photograph her and ask her if the child beggar is hers. I see her blocking but I’m not waiting for her to find a reply. I’m leaving. I’m sensing the danger.

Among  the homeless quivering around the station confused, weak and sick, there are some who seem to be more vigorous. They are those who lead the others. In their world, the law is made with the fist. And with drugs. Hazardous homeless are those who protect the weak ones and provide them with drugs. There is a hierarchy also in their world, even their pack is organized. There, in the North Station, you are a possible prey on a field full of wild beasts that have nothing to lose. The camera is not only an attraction for them, a chance to get drug money, it’s also something they hate.

Documentaries have been made, foreign televisions made acclaimed films that motivated the Romanian televisions to do the same. But all these things always had the same outcome: there was a stir, then a formal action has been done, which meant disturbing their world with teams of gendarmes and immediately after things have returned to normal. But they have quickly learned the truth: people with cameras never bring changes into good, they only bring problems.

I, alone, with a camera, am only a vulnerable fool that assaults them. It’s like I would point a gun at them. This is true also for the prostitutes from the entrance in the station and the few gypsies that hover around there with no apparent purpose, and for beggars. These worlds are closely linked together by addictions, crime and drugs. I insist, however, to do some more photos, but I’m keeping a lookout. Most people I photograph have AIDS and there were cases when they use syringes as weapons, even against the police.

I’m surprising at me an interesting phenomenon: my brain has learned their odor, like the smell of some predators. More specifically it is an intense and pungent stench that alerts me immediately that an aurolac is five feet away from me. This seems to me a very “cool” feeling. I’m encouraging myself to enter their territory, through garbage and take photographs through a fence, relying on my smell to alarm me if a zombie surprises me.

With some I consent to talk and ask them to pose for me.

I catch others while looking for new places on their body where to inject drugs.

After some time I decide to take a tour in the center of Bucharest. I spend a few minutes next to an old man begging at the traffic lights. He’s earning between 40 cents and one euro at each color change.

In the courtyard of an abandoned building I start discussing with some families living there illegally. I learn from them that they are not considering themselves homeless. They are just evacuated people expelled from their homes who can’t find a place to work and blame the state that they don’t have a job. “Aurolacii are those who sleep there, where we are going to do our needs, came out of nowhere and we let them, cause winter is coming” they tell me and point to a man who stretched his clothes to dry over a pile of garbage.

In the center of Bucharest, at Unirea Shopping Center, on every corner there’s a beggar.

What draws my eye is a woman with a shard of mirror in her hand. I instantly remember the old lady who had cut her veins 9 years ago. This woman only seems narcissistic and is just going through a moment of public vanity.

At another traffic light a pregnant girl who cleans windscreens sees me with the camera and asks me to photograph her. She’s also showing to me the results of her work: four or five LEI (around one euro).

I conclude my series of photos from the street with a family who lives on Unirii Boulevard in a shack behind the hedge from the side of the street. The kid’s mother asked me to photograph her. It’s the second time this happens to me on the street, I probably caught, on the way, the right attitude.

I posted the first photo from this session on my Facebook page and I asked those who follow me to tell me what it’s expressing, to choose a title. Their suggestions were interesting: “Happiness”, “Blessing,” “Reconciliation”, “Joy”, “Carpe diem”, “La vita è bella”, “Ephemeral”, “Parental love,” “Simplicity”, “Embarrassment” “Serenity”, “Tenderness”, “Prejudice”, “Thoughtless”. Most of them have chosen “Happiness”.

Arrived back to my crystal bubble, I processed the photos and wrote this article. I don’t want to change anything with it. I’m frankly admitting that this was only an occasional photographic exercise, an intrusion into the world beyond the walls of the crystal bubble that I roll through Bucharest every day. It is far from me the idea of assuming an altruistic, social-humanitarian, or at least informational role. Nobody needs to be informed that these people exist. Everyone knows it.

Like a selfish motherfucker, I evaluated my pictures only from a photographic point of view. Yes, some pictures really tell a story. There are people with stories. I don’t care. I haven’t tried to find the name of any of them. They are the nobodies.

Nobody wants to know the stories of the nobodies.

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