by James Allen
I am a picker. It is my living and my avocation. I search out items that some people don’t want or need and then sell them to others who do. Children are natural pickers. I was. I played at it when I collected bees in jars that were dusting blossoms in the orange groves surrounding my family’s home, or when I was wandering along swampy lakesides and hidden banana groves and found caches of stolen liquor or mossy old canoes.
My father would bring home bulging canvas sacks stenciled with bank names, bags of copper pennies or weighty half dollars and we kids would sit around the mounds of coins as if around a camp fire and shout bingo sounds when we found an S penny or silver fifty cent piece. At fourteen years of age, I used those coins to run away, searching for the lush drifting continent that existed only in my mind, where the people spoke in cryptic tongues, and feasted on honey and sling-shotted gem-feathered birds, sleeping at ease under open skies. I never found that place, but the police found me and shipped me back home. Picking, I guess, is a kind of extenuation of that search.
Once, unthinkably near to our house, in a deep, waxy green grove, I followed a path to the mildewed shack of an unshaven, alcoholic hermit. He made fantastic drip paintings on a portable turntable that splattered pure liquid color outwards like sun rays. Years later a taxicab pulled up to the curb in front of our house and rolled the old man out on to the street like a duffle bag of dirty laundry. He lay still, good as dead. This was my first grappling with the concurrence of beauty and pain, art and the hidden.
Mothers don’t counsel their sons to be pickers. No adult aspires to be called a picker. In the South it is a pejorative term. He is thought to be a salvage man, lowly and ignorant, living hand to mouth, maybe a thief that doubles back at night and steals what couldn’t be bought outright for pennies. I have tried hard to bring some dignity to the work, traveling countless roads in my home state, acquiring things that I thought were telling – handmade furniture and slave-made pots and pieced quilt tops and carved walking sticks. Many people who sell me things are burdened with their possessions, or ready for the old folks home or pining for the grave. Some are reluctant sellers, some eager. Some are as kind and gentle and welcoming as any notion of home, some are mean and bitter and half crazy from life and isolation. In America everything is for sale, even a national shame. Till I came upon a postcard of a lynching, postcards seemed trivial to me, the way second hand, misshapen Rubbermaid products might seem now. Ironically, the pursuit of these images has brought to me a great sense of purpose and personal satisfaction.
Studying these photos has engendered in me a caution of whites, of the majority, of the young, of religion, of the accepted. Perhaps a certain circumspection concerning these things was already in me, but surely not as actively as after the first sight of a brittle postcard of Leo Frank dead in an oak tree. It wasn’t the corpse that bewildered me as much as the canine-thin faces of the pack, lingering in the woods, circling after the kill. Hundreds of flea markets later a trader pulled me aside and in conspiratorial tones offered me a second card, this one of Laura Nelson, caught so pitiful and tattered and beyond retrieving – like a child’s paper kite snagged on a utility wire. The sight of Laura layered a pall of grief over all my fears.
I believe the photographer was more than a perceptive spectator at lynchings. The photographic art played as significant a role in the ritual as torture or souvenir grabbing – a sort of two-dimensional biblical swine, a receptacle for a collective sinful self. Lust propelled their commercial reproduction and distribution, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary.
These photos provoke a strong sense of denial in me, and a desire to freeze my emotions. In time, I realize that my fear of the other is fear of myself. Then these portraits, torn from other family albums, become the portraits of my own family and of myself. And the faces of the living and the faces of the dead recur in me and in my daily life. I’ve seen John Richards on a remote county road, rocking along in hobbyhorse strides, head low, eyes to the ground, spotting coins or rocks or roots. And I’ve encountered Laura Nelson in a small, sturdy woman that answered my knock on a back porch door. In her deep-set eyes I watched a silent crowd parade across a shiny steel bridge, looking down. And on Christmas Lane, just blocks from our home, another Leo, a small-framed boy with his shirttail out and skullcap off center, makes his way to Sabbath prayers. With each encounter, I can’t help but think of these photos, and the march of time, and of the cold steel trigger in the human heart.