Diego Flash Jr.

A camera can reveal a part of the world you might not otherwise see.

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When I was a little girl, my parents bought me a Diego Npower Flash Jr. Rugged Digital Camera. It was merchandised from some Nickelodeon show I had never watched or heard about; my parents saw a cartoon of a young boy on the plastic packaging in the store one day and assumed it was meant for kids, which it was. The camera came brightly lime-colored and really caught the eye. I had confessed to them my desire for a camera earlier that year after my grandfather showed me his old Pentax K1000 he never used but wouldn’t let anyone else have. The fantasy of holding my grandfather’s camera up to my eye, the flash exploding across a car or a swing or a migrating frog in the park, every photograph coming out immaculately framed and balanced and interesting because I had composed it and taken it and was interested in it, blinded me to the limitations of my Diego, with its real-image viewfinder and soft focus. No object or person became immune to its gaze when I held it in my hands. I took pictures of my house, my neighbors’ houses, a housefly I managed to catch sitting still, the sewer grate, the mailbox from multiple angles, the mailman who wasn’t a man but a woman, every cloud in the sky.

I was eight years old. I had just graduated from the second grade.

My parents existed in a liminal income bracket. The state categorized them as rich and taxed them accordingly, but they firmly denied their wealth, and when I looked around me, at our two-story ranch-style home, indistinguishable from the infinity mirror of two-story ranch-style homes running up and down our suburban street, and compared it to the mansions of the  rich I saw on television or in the movies, I believed them. We were one of many; I was one of many.

But I also felt protected, and I had a room to myself with toys and stuffed animals and my own television and laptop and tablet, and the sun shone at such an angle across my curtained window in the morning sometimes that it seemed impossible anyone else could know anything about what it was like to grow up where I grew up.

I took my camera to school for show and tell, and I ran around with it during recess snapping pictures of Harrison Dodson while he played handball and four-square and wouldn’t notice, a boy who when I tried to talk to him disabled my central nervous system and rendered my speech in tongues. I don’t think I uttered an intelligible word to him till the fifth grade.

Every other weekend or so my parents liked to drive up to Los Angeles for some event at their college alma mater, usually a basketball game. They dressed me and themselves up in their school’s colors, and sometimes I’d express interest in supporting the team of a school I felt almost no allegiance to besides whatever loyalty my parents insisted on because of their personal history with the place, and other times it seemed wholly pointless. I liked to study our seat-neighbors instead — the middle-aged bachelor to my parents’ left who attended every game in the same faded hooded sweatshirt; the young couple behind me who conferenced over the details of their social lives for the upcoming week instead of watching the game; the pair of widows to my right who never lost a chance to insert an anecdote about their grandchildren into their conversations with my parents. I eavesdropped on these people’s discussions, shot them brief but analytical looks during exciting moments in the game or as I crawled across stray soft drinks and adult legs the size of my torso on my return from the bathroom. My parents disliked my curiosity in strangers, but for good reason: I once punched a boy in the face in the checkout line of a Green Thumb who made the mistake of staring at me. This is a story my parents tell me about regularly but that I have no recollection of. They say I laid him out, that he went all spread-eagled across the aisle and cried. So basically my parents feared for strangers’ safety. I apparently didn’t see my relationship with them as a symmetrical one.

It’s weird to feel guilty and ashamed for the unremembered actions of your childhood. It’s like apologizing to someone for tripping over themselves next to you on the street.

We drove into L.A. as usual several weeks after I received my Diego, which at the time I still carried around with me wherever I went. Most of the pictures I had taken up until that point had come out unfocused and blurry, like unintended action shots, which I blamed on my lack of hand-eye coordination back then but now think the fault lay with my laptop and its crappy file-transfer. I had yet to develop a program for deciding what did and didn’t deserve photographing, so as we cruised the 405, I took pictures of the passing cars and the belching jawline of the Marathon oil refinery that always managed to conquer the view along that stretch of the freeway. The oil refinery looked like the kind of structure born from a dystopic parallel universe ruled by radical self-aware A.I. The American flag lay painted across its central collection of distillation columns, which filled me with a sense of unease whenever I saw it and made me rethink what taking the pledge of allegiance every morning at school really meant.

The game started in the evening. The team was playing some school I didn’t know, which meant the game would be what my dad liked to call a “laugher.” I took pictures of the arena from our seats up in the rafters, turning the camera sideways and diagonal for different angles, then transitioned to photographing our beverages in their cupholders, our shoes, my dad’s arm on his armrest. One of the widows sitting next to me told my parents, “It looks like you’ve got yourself a budding photographer there,” and they all laughed for some reason, which made me feel embarrassed, and so I stopped taking pictures and pulled my knees up to my chest, making a fetus of myself in my seat, and waited for the game to end. The woman continued her comment by telling my parents how her grandson wanted to act when he grew up.

Because the game occurred at an odd time, we hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so my parents decided to go to the student union and get food at one of the fast food restaurants after the game ended. We walked across the courtyard separating the arena from the student union, the pallid lamplight painting everything the color of an old daguerreotype. My parents liked going to the student union because it gave them the opportunity to recount stories I had heard a hundred times before from their time as students. Here lay the stairs they used to meet at to go eat lunch together in between classes, here stood the bench my mom used to sit on right before biology class her freshman year, here rested the wall my dad tripped over during the undie run his junior year, on and on, more stories than time or distance. It sometimes felt like they wanted to prepare me to write a biography of their relationship when I grew up and adapt it into some sort of romantic comedy.

A decent food court occupied the third floor of the student union, with a Panda Express, a Rubio’s, a Sbarro, and a pretzel place none of us ever went to. We favored the Sbarro, though my mom sometimes defected to the Panda Express and my dad to the Rubio’s, usually on the same occasions. Their cravings seemed to communicate with each other through soundwaves in the air, a detail I’m sure they wanted me to capture in my future retellings of their star-aligned romance. We all went to the Sbarro’s this time and ordered our standard pepperoni calzones with a side salad and large soft drink.

The interesting thing about the student union was its either philanthropic or negligent indulgence of L.A.’s homeless population. It never failed that when we ate there, a person, dressed in multiple layers of the kind of shredded pastel grays, blacks, and browns you only ever found on the deeply impoverished, with a shopping cart commandeered from the nearby Ralph’s full of all their belongings in tow, would be sleeping at the far end of the food court in a makeshift bedframe of plastic chairs, sometimes with an emergency thermal blanket I always mistook for a giant sheet of foil. It was never the same person, which made me think the local homeless had come to some kind of arrangement where they alternated shelters on campus or around town, with a schedule posted somewhere in the town hall, which obviously presupposed a level of organization and resources the poor rarely ever demonstrated.

My parents had shooed me off to go find a table by myself while they dealt with some hang-up at the register, so when I noticed the thermally blanketed mass athwart two chairs in the corner of the room, I was standing alone at a table about 20 yards away. I couldn’t distinguish a head or body, but if past predicted present, a homeless person lay beneath the gleaming sheet attempting to steal some rest before the building closed and the campus police forced them back onto the street.

To put this moment in context: An important aspect of the place I grew up was its utter and total effacement of poverty. My parents called it a master-planned community, and as far as I could tell the “master plan” consisted of eliminating all possible evidence that a single dimension of life lacked the comforts of the privileged. Every block and street came with strictly manicured man-planted trees and flora; the man-made lake required an annual membership — so they’d managed to make the “public” lake private; the planners zoned land with the goal of residential areas never lying so far away from commercial ones that the drive became inconvenient but never so close that commercial traffic ever penetrated private neighborhoods. Gated communities abounded. The city had earned the title of the country’s safest numerous times, and it wasn’t impossible to convince yourself that the media fabricated news of crimes to push socialist policies through local, state, and federal governments, inevitably raising taxes, and nothing, I repeat nothing, was as unholy and evil and against the laws of nature or man as raising taxes. When my parents heard the phrase “raising taxes,” the whites of their eyes devoured their pupils and they entered into an unhearing, foamy-lipped, anti-communist rage that challenged all accepted notions of indoctrination. The logic ran that raising taxes was an absurdity, because nothing was wrong, and we had our own lives and city to prove it.

In other words, seeing a homeless person for me matched any other person’s experience of seeing or meeting a celebrity on the street or an astronaut in full regalia or a historical figure returning to us from the dead. Every nerve in my body demanded I apply myself to the situation somehow. I felt my Diego around my neck, hanging from its strap. Some recently awakened instinct insisted I put my tray down on the nearest empty table and take a longshot to capture the setting of the scene, which I did. I then moved in closer, keeping my eye pressed to the viewfinder. I snapped a medium shot and bent myself into a cat burglar’s crouch. I circled around, about five yards away now, needing a face, something to give expression to the figure the homeless person cut sleeping alone on the third floor in the corner of a student union. I arrived within a hair’s breadth of his body, my circle nearly half complete. I snapped a low-angle, then a high, then a level, then a Dutch, then repeated the sequence, but I had no idea what I was doing. Collecting as many photographs as I could just seemed like the right thing to do. It felt like I was filling up some empty space somewhere, correcting an imbalance in the karmasphere. I didn’t bother checking the LCD to inspect each photo; my urgency assured me that none of them could turn out poor or misjudged. I crouched near what I believed was the homeless person’s head. I imagined a dark beard draped below a dirt-stamped face with small walnut eyes.

Just as I crested the assumed crown of the man’s head, I heard my mother whisper harshly from across the room, “Amanda, get away from him!”

I froze as if cross-haired. My mom’s forcefully whispered demand delivered me into a new and fearful awareness of my situation. I watched the homeless person; he didn’t move. I looked over at my mother. She was closing the distance between us, hand outstretched, ready to grab and pull me away.

I failed to take another picture. I got the sense from my mother’s strained tone that I had committed some kind of crime or transgressed an unspoken boundary. The contrast between her alarm and my original eagerness produced an ambivalence in me that eliminated thought or action. My mother dragged me back to the table.

“You don’t bother them, Amanda,” she said as she put me into my seat and guided the tray with my sauced and plated pepperoni calzone in front of me. I stared at it, my appetite gone. “You don’t know what could happen.”

My father ate his calzone and scanned the food court like nothing had happened and conversations like this one occurred every day.

“I wanted pictures of him,” I said.

“Take pictures of the room,” my mom said. “Take a picture of the sky through the window and get a photo of the stars. Take a picture of the people working at the restaurants. People want to see pictures of happy things, things that are interesting. You need to learn that if you want to be a photographer.”

My mom worked as a corporate executive at a large bank and possessed no interest or training in photography that I knew of except that which she had learned on her own taking pictures of herself, her friends, her family, landmarks in cities or countries she vacationed in, etc., but I didn’t doubt the authority and accuracy of her claims. My parents penetrated into the mysteries of the world with such ease and agility it seemed no subject existed beyond their comprehension or experience, even those that pertained to the deepest parts of my unconscious. I had never said I wanted to be a photographer, but if my mother insisted I did, then I must have been pursuing the dream without knowing it. And pursuing it deficiently. I could not trust my instincts. My interest and curiosity did not ensure the interest and curiosity of others. I sat there quietly, adapting to my mother’s disapproval and my new understanding of my purpose before eating my calzone.

I carried my camera around with me less after that. I took pictures only alone, usually at the park, which was heavily wooded and offered a variety of subjects to balance the frame, especially when dusk came around and made long teeth of the shadows. I knew no one would question photographing the beauty of nature.

As I grew up, I kept myself up to date on the latest advances in camera technology, and I replaced my Diego with more powerful models when I could, but I didn’t conduct myself the way I assumed serious young photographers did, searching for compelling subjects or the best angle and lighting to capture them by. I went to college and majored in communications. I met a man, Vince, and we got married. I got a job as a sales coordinator, then a different job as a marketing director, which actually wasn’t all too different — I just had more responsibilities. I quit that job to do freelance work at home when my husband and I had a child, a girl we named Nicky, who possessed blue eyes like me but black hair like her father. She didn’t learn to walk until 18 months old, and she didn’t say her first words till the age of three. I grew genuinely frightened for her and then ashamed of myself for my fright, because it assumed there was a way she should be instead of the way she was. We bought her a camera when she turned eight, because she asked for one, as I had at her age. I’m not sure why. Later that year, we decided to take a vacation to the Amalfi Coast, a place recommended to us by a couple of friends who had gone several years before. Nicky brought her camera with her. I brought mine too. We took pictures of the beach and the ocean and the trees and our hotel room, and we asked the waiters and waitresses at the restaurants we ate at to take pictures of us eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, though we weren’t actually eating; we were just sitting and smiling around the table waiting for our food.

At the end of the vacation, as we waited for our flight home at our gate at the airport, Nicky asked if she could see my pictures from the trip. I looked down at her sitting in her yellow-blue floral dress and white open-toed sandals and blinked. “Didn’t we take the same pictures?” I asked her, surprised by her request, because I could only remember her following me around and pointing her camera at the same objects I had.

“No, look,” she said, digging into her blue backpack and pulling out her camera. She turned it on and brought up her pictures on the LCD. She cycled past a host of them that I knew also existed on my camera, a couple that didn’t — lifeless, psoriatic buildings she must have found something personally interesting in — then stopped at one I hadn’t taken with her, a picture of a woman sitting on the side of a street with a basket in her lap filled with hand-knit dolls. She wore a white shirt streaked with dirt and a frayed black skirt but no shoes. Her black hair hung past her shoulders in yawing, stringy bands. She stared into the camera, her expression simultaneously vacant and haunted.

“When did you take this?” I asked Nicky.

“The day we got here,” she said. “Look.” She thumbed to the next picture, this one of several young boys, shoeless, standing together on a street, each one with a pack of gum in their hands, sizing up passing tourists. The next one: an older man sleeping on his side in the inset doorway of an abandoned townhouse. Nicky kept swiping, more men, women, boys, girls, all of them in torn clothes and desperate-eyed. I tried to recall when we had passed all of these people, the opportunities Nicky would have had to take these pictures, but every street I summoned up from my memory appeared before me in uncertain detail, an oil painting of vaguely passing cars and pedestrians and sky and sun and asphalt.

My husband, Vince, came back from the restroom and saw Nicky and me staring at her camera. “What are you guys looking at?” he asked, plopping down in the empty seat on the other side of Nicky. He looked at the LCD screen. Nicky had paused on a photo of a man and woman in unwashed clothes sitting along the curb of a street. Vince looked at me and then back at the LCD. “What’s this, sweetheart?” he asked Nicky.

“Pictures,” she said.

Vince nodded. “I see that.” I felt my stomach beginning to spasm with a low-pitched anxiety.

Nicky continued cycling through her photos. They had transitioned back to a bunch of low angles of the resort, as well as some of the palm trees lining the streets, and one level photo of several rows of blue umbrella’d beach chairs running along a bank of sand. “Do you like them?” Nicky asked.

Vince smiled and took a moment to reply. “I like the ones of the beach and the resort.”

Nicky smiled back at him and then returned to looking at her pictures. I studied her downturned face, trying to read the effect of Vince’s calculated praise in the set of her small pink lips, the cast of her eyes. She looked pleased, but I couldn’t be sure.

Later, on the flight, I looked through my photos on my camera while Nicky slept in the seat next to me, by the window. Vince sat to my right in the aisle seat. I discovered that without knowing it I had limited myself to pictures of pink and orange landscapes at sunrise and sunset, to waterfall-curtained caves illuminated by refracted daylight, to magic-hour longshots of ocean cliffsides barnacled by expensive two- and three-bedroom condominiums. All beautiful, but they could have been pictures of any tourist destination that had ever graced the cover of a traveling brochure. Welcome to Amalfi-Fiji-Kauai-Tahiti in the United Cities of Paradise. I stared at the seat back in front of me. A blank built-in monitor for in-flight entertainment gleamed back. A movie played on Vince’s next to mine that I didn’t recognize. It looked like a spy thriller; the characters, two handsome men in billowing unbuttoned shirts, were running at night through a seaside resort not unlike the one we had just left, crashing into pedestrians and extras dressed up to look like pleasure-seeking tourists, some of them in the middle of eating a meal. The cinematographer appeared to have put optical filters over the lights so that the actors and the set gave off a rich golden hue. Or maybe it was a color they had created in post. Either way, it made everything look expensive.

The following week, Nicky, Vince, and I went out for dinner, Nicky still in her cleats and shin guards from the summer soccer camp I had signed her up for. We decided on the Chinese restaurant near the laundromat. We all enjoyed the sesame chicken and the Mongolian beef — they did something to the meat I couldn’t put my finger on. On the drive to the restaurant, the news on the radio mentioned a small wildfire burning in Trabuco Canyon, about 40 minutes from where we lived. I turned up the volume to listen for possible calls for evacuation, but the newscaster didn’t mention any.

At the restaurant, Nicky relayed her day at camp with the distracted one-liners of a hungry child. Vince and I managed to piece together that they had practiced dribbling and played several scrimmages. Nicky apparently scored or got an assist in one of them. Our food came as we questioned her. She continued her rapping, transitioning to how Jane, her best friend, wanted to come with us the next time we vacationed in Europe.

“She wants to see all the pictures I took on the trip,” Nicky added, putting some rice on her plate. “We could show her yours too, Mom!”

I dribbled a thumb of chicken between my chopsticks, unsure if I wanted to confront the issue of my photography again so soon. “That’s all right, sweetheart, you just show her yours,” I said.

“But yours always look so weird. I want Jane to see.”

“Weird?” Vince asked, his mouth full.

“Yeah, things are always bigger and rounder and taller in Mom’s pictures.”

“That’s just the angle of the camera,” I said. “You can do that too if you want.”

“Mine never turn out how I want.”

“No one’s ever do.” I finally ate my piece of chicken. “You’ll get better with practice,” I said after swallowing.

“The next trip I’ll take a thousand pictures.”

Vince reached over for more of the Mongolian beef. “Just make sure you’re careful about who and what you take pictures of, Nicky,” he said. “Not everyone is so copacetic about that kind of thing.”

Nicky frowned. “What’s copacetic?”

“It means, you know, like agreeable.”

“But I need to take as many pictures as I can, don’t I, Mom?”

I reached for another piece of chicken as I thought about our vacation to Italy and Nicky’s photos, the morbidity of their character, the mercilessness of their gaze. I imagined her behind the camera, walking through the streets, approaching unknown curb-squatters, predatory gum-sellers, and then I saw myself as a girl in her place, the tall shadows of Italy’s homeless congregating around me, drawing a black screen over the sky. “Listen to your father,” I told her, refusing to consider the image of her alone in the street any further.

“But you just said to practice.”

The piece of chicken I wanted fell from my chopsticks onto the table. “You can practice and be careful at the same time.”

Her frown deepened but she didn’t protest anymore. I recaptured my piece of chicken and dabbed it in my rice. I struggled to meet Vince and Nicky’s gaze throughout the rest of the meal. A heaviness I didn’t want to acknowledge distracted me. Thankfully, they managed to carry the conversation without my help.

After we finished eating, Nicky said she needed to go to the restroom. Vince chaperoned her to the back while I waited for them outside by the exit. The temperature sat in the mid-60s. I noticed a dark-haired little girl playing with a bouncy ball in front of the laundromat next door and watched her for a bit, imagining taking her picture, the streetlights around us coloring everything memory-yellow. You often saw patrons of the laundromat waiting outside the building for their clothes, smoking or staring off into the distance, or their kids playing hide and seek in the adjacent parking lot. Watching the children made me smile even while I quietly reprimanded their parents for not keeping an eye on them.

I felt something bounce off my thigh then. I looked down and noticed the bouncy ball on the ground just within arm’s reach. I bent down to pick it up and held it out to the girl, but as she came over to accept it from me, the door to the laundromat banged open, and an older woman came rushing out, talking animatedly in Spanish. She grabbed the little girl’s shoulders and turned her back to the laundromat while the girl resisted and reached out for her ball. The woman snatched the ball out of my hand, gave it back to the girl, and continued guiding her into the laundromat without acknowledging me. I stood there looking after them a moment before letting out my breath, trying to remember when exactly I had stopped breathing. Several minutes passed without my moving. It took Vince and Nicky exiting the restaurant to pull me out of my paralysis.

“All set,” Vince said, signaling that we could begin our migration to the car. I let him and Nicky walk ahead of me. They decided on a race, and I watched them sprint for the car about 20 yards away, maintaining my distractedly slow gait, unable to sacrifice my confusion for their games.

On the car ride back to our house, I stared out the window, having recovered myself somewhat. I didn’t want to think about what had happened, but I found myself replaying the scene in my head. I tried to imagine what the mother could have said to her daughter, what she must have convinced herself was happening. I yelled out at her that I only wanted to give her daughter her ball back. But even in my mind, she didn’t listen. She left me standing there in perpetuity, the origin of an undetermined threat. The suggestion of her fear upended my entire self-understanding. I looked out the window and saw the city passing by in a newly alien light, a veil of uncertainty lurking in every familiar street and neighborhood where stood the homes of a friend or acquaintance of mine. I remembered the years of admiring all the happy houses and gardens and spotless driveways — they formed a mental tunnel through my memories that offered only a single half-formed interpretation of life.

As we pulled up to our house, my mom texted me, telling me she had just heard about the nearby wildfire on the news and asking me where I was. I read the message and sighed, annoyed for no reason. I typed out two sentences: “I’m fine. I’m home.” I didn’t wait for her response. I got out of the car and followed my husband and daughter to the front door. She knew where I was, in a house like her neighbor’s, on a street exactly like her own, in a city I had never left.

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