Deep breaths. Count to 10. Focus on that person’s shoes. Do something.
You didn’t bring Dramamine. This is a train. You have motion sickness. And then you chose the seats facing backward. Why didn’t you put this together, Lukas?
“It’s gonna be okay,” I let slip out. Bella, sitting across from me, has in earbuds. Thank goodness, she won’t think I’m crazy.
Today is a big day. As a kid in rural Mississippi, I dreamed of New York City. Live in some terrible apartment. Get a job busing tables at some diner that pays too little. Write the Next Great American Novel in my time off on some fifty-year-old typewriter purchased from some Greenwich Village shop that Bob Dylan once walked in. Live on Cinnamon Toast Crunch and the fear that the real world might knock down the door at any second and tell you the rent is two months late and it’s time to move on.
But the dream is dead.
I am a first-year student at Yale. This whole writing and photography thing? It has to be just a hobby. I need to make MONEY. I’m at smart-kid school now. They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And those “whos” they are in the political groups. The consulting clubs. I’m sure that’s why the bookstore has so many LSAT practice books.
At Yale, it’s heresy to enroll in classes that fit your prospective major in your freshman year. So I took it as an excuse to let the dream breathe for a little bit. Stretch its legs in the library and listen to one more song before starting on the homework. The five minutes that becomes 10 minutes that becomes an hour before you finally turn off the music and throw your phone in airplane mode because the discussion post is due in an hour.
Consider this my 2-hours-out warning, and I’m sure as hell going to enjoy this final 60 minutes. So I applied to Intro to Digital Photography. 35 other people did too. For 10 spots.
The application asked who my favorite photographer was. The answer? Probably Pete Souza. I wrote Matt Eich instead; it’s art school after all.
And two months later, here I was on a train to New York City to see a Garry Winogrand exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum for class. Hadn’t heard of Winogrand or the Brooklyn Museum before.
Our class was to meet at the museum, and I had tagged along with Bella, a classmate, to get there. She’s a New York City regular – her sister is an art school student in the City. She taught me how to buy a ticket on the Metro-North, the train line that does the two-hour journey between New Haven and New York City. She didn’t warn me about the backward-facing seats, but how was she to know I can’t even get on a rollercoaster without throwing up?
Finally, we are almost there. Bronx stop. Just 15 minutes to go. Bella says when we get to Grand Central Station that we will switch onto the SUBWAY. The NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY. My mom will be proud. My grandmother will be terrified when she hears about it at the next holiday.
“The Subway leaves in 3 minutes,” Bella said as we stepped off the train into the underground platform, “Let’s go!”
She took off running. And I followed. Up the stairs. Was that a MOUSE? Through a throng of people. SORRY man in the trench coat with the briefcase, I didn’t mean to bump you!
“This should have some money left on it,” Bella handed me a spare Subway card as she swiped herself through. No time to go buy a new card from the machine.
And suddenly, I was there. Entering a dark room with black benches in the middle. Multiple projectors beam toward the walls, turning them into a collage of photo slideshows. Without a clue of how to act in a situation this foreign, I pick an empty bench and sit down.
Then a man in a suit sat down next to me. Great contrast to my disheveled hair and high school tennis sweatshirt. I belong in a tourist trap, not in this fancy art museum. The Walking M&M at Times Square is calling my name, come get a photo!
But then I looked up and forgot about everything. Where I was, who I was, what I needed to become. First, it was a photograph of a Texan in a cowboy hat humbly climbing a staircase while rows of cars flank the background. Where is he headed? But then the next photo comes. A family getting out of a white car on white sand, heading up the hill as if they see a world I cannot. And then before I can even question where that might be, a group of people ranging from a middle-aged mother to little kids is pointing to the sky. At what? I can’t tell. I turn around to search for the answer, and I’m greeted by a woman in a white bathing suit arms outstretched against the blue sky with an amusement ride blurred in the back.
The rest of the class eventually left, but I stayed. Staring at the world of Winogrand, the America of the 1950s and 1960s, and realizing that I didn’t have answers to any questions his photographs were asking.
But I knew I wouldn’t find them without a camera or pen. After I had seen every photograph, I walked out into the winter New York City air. Past a diner. Past a secondhand store. Onto the train and back to New Haven certain that the final hour before I slammed the music off and went into the real world would never be enough.
So, is a photograph worth a thousand words? Well, they gave me a new life. And that’s worth way more than a thousand words in my own Next Greatest American Novel.
Our guest posts are submitted by amazing photographers and writers all over the world.
Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…
Lukas Flippo is a first-generation low-income student at Yale University from rural Mississippi. Lukas is a photojournalist, with work appearing in the New York Times, TIME, IndyStar, and the Sun Herald. Lukas’ work, including a series on found photos, can be seen at Lukas’ website.
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