When I was 29, my boyfriend broke up with me. Again. I had been involved with him since the tender age of 22, when girls are like tulip petals, and in those 7 years we must have broken up at least 5 times. We would break up three more before it was finally over. At that moment though, on the cusp of thirty, I was less like a petal and more like dried out bark, just waiting to catch fire the minute he sent off sparks. Once it was “over” I found myself so apathetic, I wondered if my tear ducts had actually stopped functioning. The next weekend, his friend Nick offered to fly me down to Atlanta, Georgia for the weekend, the not so nice intentions very definitely implied. I went anyway. I had never been to Atlanta, I love flying, and probably I’m just not a very nice person sometimes, so I went. It did not turn out the way either of us expected. We were awkward and not very much fun together when it came to the things we shouldn’t have been doing, but we were a great team at seeing sights. He took me to the aquarium, the railyards, the original Chick Filet, a hundred little civil war things. Nick was a photographer, and so everywhere we went there was a constant clicking that accompanied us, like we were a horde of insects scuttling across museum floors.
I came back resolved to two things; 1) to never talk to Nick again, and 2) to buy a camera, and so that’s what I did. It was a Panasonic Lumix, and I loved it immediately. I was never one of those girls who took pictures of friends or parties or graduations. The only camera I had ever owned previously was a cheap pink plastic thing my parents bought me to take to Space Camp. In the few photos of me that exist before this time, snapped in cars or dorm rooms, I am always squirming and uncomfortable because I knew how unphotogenic I was, with my squishy Irish face and my Dad’s tight lipped smile. But Nick had showed me I could just take photos of anything, and in particular, trains. So I put on my hiking boots, and went to the Cleveland Flats, which is our valley of crumbling industry, armed with my laptop and fascination.
I started like every other beginner by taking pictures of graffiti on boxcars. The graffiti led me into the abandoned warehouses, and the warehouses into an obsession with forgotten buildings. I found crumbling churches, huge storage areas where green plastic lent the piles of tires an Emerald City glow, decrepit masonic temples with secret symbols painted on the podiums. I had partners that would come out with me on my off days for adventures, and I scoured satellite maps for areas to explore in parts of the city I had never ventured before. It was, for lack of a less obnoxious word, empowering. I started to compose stories for our adventures, tales of fugitives or fleeing populations of gnomes. Each building I found became an ecosystem, a carefully balanced world of monsters and history.
I had been lost as a writer before this. Long diseased relationships, especially with people you truly loved, can do that to you. When there is a constant feed of personal drama, it’s hard to get your brain to think of something besides yourself. Buying that camera gave me a reason to look outside my own life, and the more I used it, the more in love I fell with cities. Now every city I go to is a museum and a zoo. I take care to notice details, architecture, to look in between cracks and go down streets I have no reason to. And instead of feeling like bark inside, I feel more and more every day like a varnished piece of oak, worn down by constant touch, but only getting shinier with use.