Leering Billboards

‘…the car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt and we’re on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death. The sun has fallen down and the billboards are all leering and the flags are all dead at the top of their poles…’

(from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9thvHDskYvA).

I saw a triangle between fantasy, religion and law.  I saw a watchful man with his hand on his hip and the law on his side, separated from the crowd by the machines speeding past.  I saw politics, stories and figureheads of world religions mixed into one neon mixture, spat back out onto the maddening crowd below.  I saw the Holy and the damned.  The failures of a thousand people wrapped around the hopes of a few who never knew how much they had invested in this dream, this flashing light paranoia of a thousand suggestions and a hundred hooks wriggling with the baited breath of hope.  The engine of a city, hot air shouted up into the sky to meet the cold winds blowing in from the Atlantic.


Digital photograph by the author, if reproduced please credit as appropriate.


The city was huge, dauntingly huge.  Densely packed, the people but ants compared to the towering skyscrapers above and the labyrinthine subway below.  It was exhilarating, confusing, suffocating.  It was beautiful.  It was freedom in anonymity, in wave after wave of people crossing block after block: all with a story to tell, all with their own individual lives.  I heard every language in the world, I saw every skin tone a human can have.  I lived a thousand lives.  I lived my own life, with tensions brought bubbling to the surface and safety sought in solitude.  Love resided, not passionate romantic love but familial bonds broken by petty remarks and re-made by breaking bread and sharing food.  A mother’s tears in the taxi rank.  Discussions never had were evaporated at the thought stage, vibrated free by the hum of the stop-start vehicles choking the roads.  Directions not sought were instead shouted at by uniformed staff, hushed into lines, finger printed and bags searched.  Made to feel guilt by association.  You are an individual, you are the American dream.  You are the foundations turned into a crystalline memorial.  You are the kind individual who helped me to the front of the queue.  You are the tramp dying of heart failure, the homeless that hang around the port authority building looking for a break.  You are the actor on Broadway who signs autographs on the sidewalk after the show and then anonymously melts into the night.  You are in the queue at Shake Shack, awaiting your turn, your accent rebounding into the heat of the September sun.  You are the man who stands and pounds the tarmac, shouting ‘Jesus saves!’ whilst waving your homemade sign aloft in a salute to the holy.  You are the cab driver who never talked, the policeman who joked on the corner.  You are the band leader who was nervous to speak on the Radio City stage but held the audience in the palm of your hand.  You are the deli counter assistant who cannot understand my British accent.  You are the ant that makes this city run.  You are the love that lingers in my heart.


Photograph by the author using a cheap digital camera, if re-used please credit as appropriate.

The City

H was getting hungry but he would not abandon his post.  Wherever F moved H would not be far behind him, whether it was to go to the super-market to pick up some groceries, to the hairdressers for a quick trim or to the dry-cleaners to drop off some shirts that badly needed washing and ironing.  The objective was clear: watch F at all times and keep a detailed document on his movements and whereabouts throughout the city.  That city, New York of course, was in her pride and joy phase having survived the constricted and suffocating 80’s to flourish in the brand new and glistening 90’s, full of brash arrogance and misplaced confidence.   It was as if she had shrugged off her coat of decadence and thrown on a new glitzy number ready to dance again with the world, to show it who was number one in the super city stakes.  The murder and robbery rate had plummeted, the streets were safe to walk again and the city had never been cleaner then it was now.  In short she was a beauty, one in which H was slowly falling in love with the more time he spent with her.

H had moved from up-state New York to take this job, had moved from a countryside full of blossoming flowers and healthy trees, had moved to a city where the fields were blocks of concrete sown with silver tall buildings that touched the very roots of the sky.  Of course he had hated it at first, as all country-grown men do, feeling lost, belittled and dis-empowered in the city of sleaze but over the past few months he had grown to love the anonymity of the big city, to love to be able to mingle freely in a crowd which would not be the same the next minute never-mind the next day.  It was in this intoxicating mix of freedom that he was to slowly lose himself.

H had left behind a wife and two sons.  He had thought that mixing with the urban population of the city would slowly kill him, each sight of a loving mother cuddling her children a stab in his very heart.  This was not the case however as each sight of a loving family re-enforced in him a growing and steeled will to complete the case to the best of his ability and to fly back to his family as fast as humanely possible.  He could not contact them whilst he was on active service and he remembered now and then, most often as he watched a lonely F wash his plates in the kitchenette window, of the last kiss that he had bestowed upon his wife’s lips, of the last hug he had given his two young sons, as he departed that small safety net of a nuclear family.

Regardless he was settled now, safe in his cocoon of a flat in this buzzing city, keeping guard and watching every action that F carried out.  He would leave the flat only when F moved out of his, a hidden doppelganger mimicking his target’s every move, safe in the shadows and never risking to be seen.

There was no doubt that H was good at his job.  Indeed it was said in the department that he was the best, that the city wide force had never known better, but H did not let such talk inflate his ego.  He had a job and he did to the best of his capabilities.  Being a detective was coded in his genes but it was not his passion.  Being undercover as often as he had, he had refined several techniques that would enable him to become his target’s shadow, his very body double.  He would not risk lapsing into his own peace time conventions of relaxing but kept straight as a die, willing to stay in character throughout the length of the assessment.  This was his strength, but it was also his downfall.

That F kept a weekly ordered routine did not lessen H’s keen eye for detail.  Every Wednesday lunch time F popped to the local shop, bought a different magazine and took it to his flat to study.  It seemed to be the only divergent action that F took part in, his other activities could be timed to the minute, each one played to the same solemn ritual.  The magazines varied in tone and style each week, some were current affairs or satire others music reviews or national geographics.  F read each magazine with the same attention to detail, the same rigorous approach, and he could be seen jotting note down with a pencil onto paper.  How H longed to view those notes!

Irregardless it was out of the question, they remained locked and sealed in a safe that H could just see through the F’s flat window.  Clearly this was the crux of the mission where both the heart and the detail lay.  Long after F had retired to sleep H kept awake into the earlier hours, fostering wild notions of how he could break into the flat and open the safe.  As each week passed more and more notes appeared in F’s spartan bedroom, liberally covering his wall with detailed and wild notions of how to access this information that H was coveting.  He saw them both as in a duel to the death where the prize was the information of the ages, meticulously gathered from many sources, notes that laid bare H’s diabolical scheme.

The city that had held H’s imagination in such tight tandem, of the countless millions marching together under a metal carapace, slowly fell apart as his mind gripped the idea of breaking into F’s safe with such wild abandon that it pushed violently to the forefront of his mind and slowly worked deep into his memory, overtaking such small pleasures as the original bewilderment of his new home that had once nestled there.  Days and nights passed as if in deep sleep, comatose to the outside world.  H’s nails and hair grew without being tamed, his voice went unused and his eyes went without seeing.  What sustenance that he survived on cannot be said with much much certainty, nor what liquids he drank can be guessed.

The single light-bulb that supplied the light for his main room at night gave out one evening.

This was the catalyst for the fracture of H’s body and mind.

F had long since been left undisturbed, free to amble as he wished with no shadow chasing him, no doppelganger taking his last step in turn as his own.

The city had swallowed H fully.  He became a lost and vacant cause for hope.  The ancient Bakelite telephone rang unanswered long into the night, a nervous wife on the other end no longer participating in this game of silence.  The door to H’s flat hung limp and open.  A stack of notes left unfinished on the wooden table.  The window was left slightly ajar and through which, if one looked carefully, F could be seen carrying on with his routine as per normal.  H was never found, not even after an extensive search.  It was a given that he had vanished deep into the city, never to resurface, lost in the miasma of the crowds.


Taken by author with a Pentax S1a, please use CC if used elsewhere.