Looking At Something

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When you spend a year doing one thing and not much else, you go a little nuts.

At least I do. If I don’t get to write or take pictures, I get seriously crabby. I start thinking of projects. I declare to no one in particular, with much defiance, I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY, BY GOLLY, I WILL MAKE STUFF.

It doesn’t even matter what it is as long as it’s something. Which is how I started a winter break blog about being on winter break, or a blog about pups in sweaters, or PROBAATD.

It’s how I, an aspiring copywriter, started Franco Looking At Something — a wordless, writing-free, un-captioned photo project.

The concept is simple. There are cool things everywhere. You just have to look.

Sure, that’s easy to say when you’re in an awesome city. Even then, though, we’re subject to Getting Used To Everythingitis.

Everything on FLAS is taken with an iPhone 4S and Instagrammed. I’d toyed with the idea of using DSLR pictures, but the iPhone’s portability allows for more spontaneity and, let’s face it, it’s the camera I have with me at all times.

Sometimes the city’s so beautiful I do nothing but press a button. Other times I capture the mundane. My favorites are often the ones nobody likes.

The most popular so far? This one.

Take a gander. Hang a while. Raise yo hands in the air and wave them like you care a lot.

Because it’s important.

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Chinese Takeout

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My favorite type of travel is the long, lingering kind. The kind that sees the best of somewhere as well as the not so best.  The kind that lets me sit, study and hang.

It’s how I ended up in Staunton, Bristol and Fredericksburg. Their one main attraction, aside from a guaranteed paycheck, was that they weren’t Richmond.

When you stay in one place too long, the awesome becomes the norm. I remember arriving in San Francisco a few weeks ago and marveling at the big blue sky. “Oh yeah,” Franco said. “I guess it is pretty blue.”

It’s strange to think you can get used to this. But you do.

You develop a routine. You find your favorite coffee shop. Your Chinese restaurant. Your greasy breakfast place. It’s inevitable and yet deceptively satisfying.

Look at those tourists, you tell yourself. You’re not one of them.

Because they don’t stay in one place long enough to look past the big blue sky. They don’t know you don’t walk until the light tells you to walk. Or to order first before finding a table. Or to know the difference among what’s trash, what’s recyclable and what’s compostable.

You notice the absurdity in finding system and order in a place the ‘60s became the ‘60s, where cyclists wear helmets and nothing else, where nudist communes are just around the corner.

But you suppose when you’re free in most aspects of life, you can afford some structure.

Back East, there’s nothing but that.

You live to work. You know the endless grind that frustrates and disappoints, so much so that you take it out on people you’ll never see again. You push and you shove, fighting to be first to sit on the train, to walk 4 seconds faster, that your line is better than theirs so they should get behind yours.

You know it’s never really about the dude slowly crossing the street so much as it is about that shitty thing your boss said or that shitty thing your landlord pulled or that shitty thing that happened on the subway.

Just a year ago, I was that person. I remember visiting law firms in San Francisco and being more dressed up than the lawyers. Lawyers who did things. Who went home to their kids.

Who had lives.

It fascinated me so much I decided to go back this summer as a jobless wandering wanderer.

Because here, a late night means dancing past midnight. A commute means walking under the big blue sky. And a hectic afternoon means having to go to three coffee shops on the same block before settling on one.

It’s a glorious existence because it isn’t forever. Soon, school will start, the days will run together, the nights will blur, the end will come.

And so will the grind.

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To the ends of land

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I don’t have a hometown. Or at least I don’t have just one.

Saying Richmond feels untrue. By the time I moved there, I was a fully formed human being. Saying New York feels incomplete, because I spent a good chunk of my formative years in the Philippines. Saying the Philippines only touches on the beginning. And makes people ask what happened to my accent.

If home is where your heart is, then I’m a citizen of nowhere in particular, which is just another way of saying I have no real identity. I’m a mishmash of sorts, and for this I feel I can assume whatever personality I need at any given moment. I can blend in, use and lose my accents, one of which often emerges in a drunken haze.

“Where ees my MACdonalds?” I might say to you in slurred Taglish (Tagalog + English).

It’s one of the few remnants of my time on the other side of the world. That and my propensity to think I have some kind of survival skills in the outdoors. Like, if I happened to be left alone in the wild I’d be able to rub two sticks together and make fire. Or dip my index finger in my mouth before pointing to the sky and saying: NORTH.

It’s how I end up in these situations.

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On one of those San Francisco days when you can wear a T-shirt without having to pretend to be warm in it, I ended up on a leisurely hike. Leisurely, that is, as defined by avid outdoorsy people and He Who Kicks Ass For A Living.

As for me, I’d spent the last year walking three blocks to and from school and biking when necessary, like when I was in school super late and it was way too dark to brave the elements on foot (which, in downtown Richmond, is all the time).

Whatever dudes, I said to my imaginary naysayers. I can do this.

And do this I did.

I climbed some steps. I stood next to a wall. I walked on an incline so steep those 75-year-olds walking their Chihuahuas had no chance to get past me.

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The best part was seeing the many different shots I could take of the Golden Gate Bridge. The farther I walked, the more it revealed itself. There it went, behind a branch. And then between some shrubs. And then between some other shrubs.

I stopped every time I saw it, forcing the San Franciscans to surely roll their eyes. By the time I got to a clearing where the bridge was in full view, it suddenly was no longer picture-worthy. It wasn’t even trying anymore.

I tried quite a bit. I panted up some steps and paused somewhere mildly steep. I thought back to a dark period shortly post-undergrad when I ballooned and, upon stepping on an elliptical, immediately got tunnel vision. I now suspect there was a strong correlation between my beer pong prowess and the size of my stomach.

But that’s all in the past. I’m now in late 20s territory, where drinking is observed in moderation. Things come in dishwasher-safe glasses now, and I know just how long until I roll over and fall asleep (Not that I drink in bed alone or anything, ever).

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I even climbed atop a rock overlooking certain doom into more rocks. None of those pictures are here, of course, because I was too busy enjoying the view. But if some do happen to emerge and I appear to be crouching on all fours seemingly uttering a yelp of some kind, know that that was a momentary lapse of bravery.

I was very, very brave.

The one not defining thing I love about New York

The thing I love about New York, or should I say one of the things since this thing isn’t necessarily the one defining thing I love about it, is that it’s full of surprises.

Last night I had one of those hellish nights in which nothing really went my way. My body, ragged from four hours of sleep, was against me. Sunday not caring it was Sunday, and me having to work through it, was against me. And the subway, perpetually under construction and leading a rousing game of “Let’s see how many times we can make Karen transfer in what should be a 30-minute trip,” was against me.

In the morning, I fared no better. I had more work at the office and laundry (one of those frustrating New York things you can’t do on weekdays unless you don’t mind spending your post-work fatigue watching telenovelas or an extra $25 or so having someone else do it for you).

I carried the cart and its me-sized bags down three flights of stairs before stopping at the lobby long enough to think: It’s Labor Day. Which is kind of a holiday in some circles. Is the laundromat even open?

Fumbling through my always frozen BlackBerry, I tried to find the phone number for my usual local laundromat.

But which one was it? There are like, I don’t know, 30 in a five-block radius. No matter. I picked the first one that came up in search results, convinced its comrades kept a similar schedule.

Irregular hours, said the automated voice.

And the others?

BlackBerry. Ever frozen.

Fudgefudgetyfudge.

I lugged the cart and its me-sized contents back up three flights of stairs, stormed through the apartment, searched for the number on my laptop to no avail, resolved to walk the three or four blocks to see for myself, maybe grab a cup of coffee just to soothe my soul, perhaps some breakfast too, and hopefully stumble upon a laundromat open long enough for me to cross off one thing on my to-do list.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Four. letter. words.

Scowl scowl scowl.

And then I found this. I never did do my laundry.

The most fun you can have without doing something even more fun

Karen I need your help with something. I have an idea for a new Facebook profile picture, but I need someone who’s skilled with a dslr and has a reporter’s ability to get the goods and get em quick…

Flattery will get you everywhere.

Intrigued, I said yes without knowing much other than: “Planking. On 3rd Avenue, just after the light goes red, and the street is clear.”

I guess that’s all I needed to know.

A Saturday or two later there we were in his living room, discussing the game plan. I watched him do some test planks on the floor. I figured I’d take the picture from the sidewalk, you know, far away from traffic, potential cab mishaps, accidental bus run-ins, a delivery guy on a bike late for his scheduled drop-off or simply on a mission to destroy anything in his path (Those guys are not to be underestimated).

But then he kept saying “we” this and “we” that.

We?

Planking, of course, is that web sensation that went viral months ago. It even got celebrities in the act, from Justin Bieber to Hugh Hefner to Flavor Flav. AKA America’s finest. It caused unfortunate deaths, was labeled an affront to civil rights and became so mainstream the interwebhipsters said enough was enough. It was all about owling.

But Ryan didn’t care. He, of course, is the kind of guy who wears an ugly sweater to a non-ugly sweater party. Who says, “It was probably the most I’d ever laughed at a movie… but it could have been better” without a hint of sarcasm (For the record, he was talking about “Bridesmaids”). Who gets Bob Saget (or someone who eerily sounds like him[1]) to record him a personalized voicemail greeting.

Outside, we scoped out Third Avenue for the most suitable planking spot. We settled on a corner in front of a deli or maybe a bakery, with a life-sized statue of a chef holding a platter of some kind. It stood there flashing its smug, toothy grin as if to say, “Go ahead and try. You’ll never get the settings right.”

Indeed, the sun was so incredibly bright that all my test shots were washed out. These test shots involved me darting into the street at red lights, at which, for some reason no vehicle ever seemed to be waiting. Knowing I wouldn’t have time to adjust anything during the real thing, I had to get it right beforehand.

It didn’t help that I was wearing one contact in one eye, because I was unaccustomed to taking pictures wearing glasses. Even worse, I didn’t realize until I’d left the apartment that the one contact happened to be in the eye that before then had never touched the viewfinder.

Soon, Ryan was about three car-lengths away, waiting for the light to change. We’d decided that when it turned red, I was to run to the center of the crosswalk while he assumed position at the center of the hopefully empty avenue. I’d take a few shots standing up, a few crouching.

Green. Yellow. Red.

A truck ambled past. Ryan shook his head.

Green. Yellow. Red.

This time, a bus.

“Are you going to take my picture?” said a passerby, smiling.

I clutched the camera a little tighter. The universe was against us. I wondered what would happen if I were to fail. Let’s say the battery suddenly died or I tripped running out to the street or the contact in my one good eye spontaneously cracked. Are there do-overs in the world of planking? What if a stray cab squashed him the second time?

A cab stopped in front of me to let some passengers out. As I waited for it to pass, Ryan shot out to the middle of the street. I ran after him, cursing myself for my propensity to be easily distracted. He was already facedown on the pavement by the time I stumbled into my spot.

Click. Vertical. Click. Higher. Click. Crouch.

Just as I was getting comfortable, it was over.

“That was some serious planking,” said a guy crossing the street. “Cabs don’t care about that stuff.”

Ryan later said it was all very zen, until from the corner of his eye he saw a cab turning onto the street.

I told him this likely set a precedent for his Facebook profile pictures.

This old thing? he’d say to his admirers. I was swimming with swordfishes, bungee jumping atop a volcano, scaling the third tallest mountain on this side of the globe – at the same time, mind you – all for the sake of finding a profile picture worthy of all my profile pictures.

I wouldn’t expect anything less, really.

Ryan, after all, is the kind of guy who bikes across the country building houses, because it’s kind of fun and kind of noble. Who shimmies through cricket-filled cave crevices with 15-foot drops. Who lies facedown on Third Avenue, errant cabs and skeptical interwebhipsters be damned.

FOOTNOTE
[1] Ryan took forever to respond to my inquiry (Got to fact-check, you know), but his response to my question of whether that really was Saget was: “Hells yes.”