It seems Sunday is laundry day in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Walking past Sainte Marie’s church on Manchester’s west side, just as the bells are letting people out of morning mass, I see a wink of color between the leaves of the maple tree on the corner. The tired sweaters, towels and bedsheets glow jewel-deep against the blinding white of the lapped shingles.
A man comes out on the lower floor as I frame the image in my lens. His hands are on his hips, his elbows cocked as if hitching up a gun holster. I lower my camera and find him on the other side of the crack in the sidewalk, poised against the fence post.
“Hi, there,” I say.
“What are you taking pictures of?” he demands.
“The laundry,” I say, pointing over his head.
He looks round slowly, maybe thinking this is a ruse. But he sees what I’m looking at, and gives a sigh like a creaking gate.
His name is Bill. He’s lived here most of his life. It’s changed a lot though, he says. All these people–his voice drops, his arm motions like tracing a wheel–coming in, all up and down this street.
“I don’t know what Obama’s doing,” he says.
I smile. “I don’t know, either,” I say.
When Bill first came to the neighborhood–well before that, in fact–this side of the river was all French and Irish. On the other side, it was the Germans and the Belgians.
“Which are you?” I ask him.
“Me? I’m Irish. Scottish and English, too.”
He says it with something that goes deeper than pride.
“That’s a good camera,” he says. “A good brand.” He pokes his chest. “I take pictures, too.”
I ask if he uses a Nikon.
“Me? No. I’m from the old school. I use film,” he says. Then, ducking his head like a turtle about to pull in, he admits, “I take different kind of pictures.
“So,” he continues, “what are you? A traveling photographer?”
Why not, I think. “That’s right,” I say.
Bill says he’s done some traveling–to the Great Smoky Mountains, to Lake George, to Canada. It’s great up there, he tells me. People are friendlier than here, they’ll let you live your life without interfering. He advises me to visit the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal, where they have a great bar. If you go down below the lobby, he tells me, you can find a subterranean passageway that will take you all around the city underground.
“Have a good afternoon taking pictures,” he says, shaking my hand. “Maybe I’ll see you around here again.”
I walk down Amory Street as far as the bridge, then loop back on Bremer, up the hill again into Rimmon Heights.
The streets have the deserted look that Sunday afternoon gives to everything. When the odd car appears, the people get out, look at me funny, and disappear again into buildings after I walk past.
Their looks bother me, though I suppose they’re only curious about me for the same reason I’m curious about them.
I stop in front of the French-American meetinghouse to take a picture of their iconoclastic advertisement for Twisted Tea…what, I wonder, would Manchester founding French think of that?
I telescope my lens into someone’s backyard, focusing it on a shrine that consists of an orange tarp and a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
People emerge onto their second and third floor porches, laughing, arguing, drinking beers, hanging up more of their bright-colored laundry. They fall quiet again as they stop to watch me.
I have a camera and I’m holding it up into an alley on their street. They walk by that alley every day, and they never saw anything worth taking a picture of.
I suppose we’re all like that, when we’re being looked at and don’t know why. Why do we assume that people are looking because there’s something wrong with how we look?
It’s curious, and it’s also annoying, because it makes me afraid to take pictures of what I really want to capture.
Like the Indian woman in a blouse studded with rhinestones, her hair following behind in a long plait, who folds her arms across her chest while crossing the street in front of a low-rider that’s blasting Wu-Tang Clan.
Like the woman with pink hair who comes out of the adjacent building, carrying a crying baby.
I want to take pictures of the boy who rides a BMX past me, with the elongated limbs and neck of a Maori warrior, and of the two men with sepia shadows under their eyes, who come out to smoke cigarettes just as I stop to take a picture in front of the laundromat.
One of them is muttering to the other in a voice like Steve Buscemi’s. After I get my picture, I realize he’s talking about me.
“What are you taking pictures of?” he asks me.
I point to the sign on the brick wall above us.
“E T C?” he says inquiringly. “Oh. Okay.”
“It’s interesting,” I said. “And there’s a cool lens flare.” I show him the screen on my Nikon.
“Oh. Okay.” He drags on his cigarette. “You get a picture of Saint Marie’s? There’s a good view from here. Even better views on the roof.”
“Really? What’s on the roof?”
“Oh.” He gestures. “You can see all the way down to Manchester. I can see it from my window–I live right up there.” He points to the third and fourth floor windows on the corner. “That big moon a couple weeks ago? It was right against the steeple at Saint Marie’s.”
“I did see that!” I nod. “That was really something. I hope you took a picture.”
“Oh, just my phone. That’s all. But you should go up there if you want some good pictures.” He pauses, his head falling to the side. “You want to? I can take you up there.”
I hear the other guy snort.
I walk away, telling them, “Have a great day.” Inside, I’m thinking, “Do I look like a fucking idiot to you?”
But that would be a stupid question. I’m wandering around a deserted neighborhood of Manchester, taking pictures of clothes and backyards and broken signs. Of course I look like an idiot…or, at least, like someone who might go anywhere.