Building superintendents see all, know all. Your dirty secrets are kept hush-hush by those who pile your garbage on the street and answer 3:00 a.m. emergency calls to fix a toilet you broke because you were using it as a podium in one inspired, drunken moment.
When they're not tending to the needs of an apartment complex's finicky demands, supers have their eyes on the street. The sidewalk is where the real drama unfolds. All the world's a stage, and it seems to pass the superintendent's eyes. Over the course of twenty years as a super in Manhattan, Steve Dalachinsky was one such observer. In down times between mopping hallways, being armchair psychiatrist to the building's tenants, and tossing out junkies, the man wrote poetry. A Superintendent's Eyes (Autonomedia, 2013) is a collection of prose and poetry that brings to light Dalachinsky's clear-eyed observation of both life inside and outside 192 Spring Street. The work's appeal is not limited to New Yorkers or urbanites; anyone with an interest in the Beats and jazz-poetry will find kinship in this collection.
New York City drama, however, is not limited to lyricism. Included in A Superintendent's Eyes are 29 photographs by Arthur Kaye, which variously add dimensions of clarity and abstraction to Dalachinsky's poetic record. The effect of the combined efforts—poetry and photography—make for a sublime urban chronicle. The everyday is elevated to lift up the commonplace.
Recently I sat with Kaye to discuss his participation in Dalachinsky's collection. We drank whiskeys outside, under the shadow of Grand Central Station, and commiserated. Ever ready, Kaye had his camera on the table and was quick to pick it up and snap a few shots when something struck his eye. He reminded me of a duck hunter hiding in the weeds, waiting for a fowl flyover.
Some of the photographs in the book are related to poems on the same or opposite pages; some are not. I selected a few of my favorite shots, all of which appear in black and white, and asked Kaye to discuss them. Take, for instance, the image below, which accompanies poem #70, "the remnant."
In "the remnant," Dalachinsky tells the story of finding a Jamaican man in the stairwell of his building, sheltering himself from the cold. The man was soon gone: "basically he had left the hall fairly clean leaving behind only a folded scrap of paper," on which was scribbled a poem called "Camp Dream."
The photograph, besides illustrating an almost ghostly remnant of a passing poet, is pleasing. The horizontal pattern is only briefly interrupted by the crumpled piece of paper. The wad is a subtle punctuation mark in an otherwise flowing image.
"I spent a good hour taking pictures of this photo: I shot up, down, wide, close," says Kaye. "I shot 25 different versions of the same basic idea. It was important to get it right."
Reading A Superintendent's Eyes and examining the photographs, one partakes in the battle of deciding whether the images reflect the poetry, or if the photograph is the real poetic element. It is up to the reader to transpose the poetry onto the photograph, or vice versa. What's clear, however, is that no pairing is random.
Accompanying poem #3 "a basket of pomegranates," for example, is not a photograph of the over-sized fruit, as one might initially suspect, but instead the image is of a pile of garbage bags on the curb.
The poem recalls a moment when Dalachinsky discovers that the garbage bags he put on the sidewalk have been (once again) slashed to pieces "by those seeking treasure." The pomegranate, too, must be slashed to retrieve it's treasured bits. In Kaye's attendant photograph, the tied top of the garbage bag looks similar to the stubby crown of that mysterious fruit.
The four centerfold images stand out. The first time I saw the collage I didn't realize I was looking at four pictures of the same television. Rather, it appeared to me as if Kaye was peering through the window of a resale shop, where four TVs and lots of books were on display.
The photo is not overly busy, but it contains great detail. Take a closer look and you'll see some happy coincidences in the book titles we can read. Facing us is a copy of Men in Prison by Victor Serge, a thinly veiled fictionalized account of the political writer's time in jail. Up and to the right, barely visible in the photos above, is a worn copy of Jack Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy, a book of adolescent love. The author had great influence on Dalachinsky. "Steve wanted to rearrange the books, but I said no,” recalls Kaye.
"He was wearing a hat for that last picture," he continues, "but I told him to get rid of it and lean forward. He needed to remove the hat to become a person. To become relatable."
In a stack of videos on the right, one can also discern the title White Man's Burden. And so, in this lasting image, we take notice that the all-seeing super is relegated to inward observation. It is now Dalachinsky, not his tenants or passing New Yorkers, who provides the quiet drama.
New York City, Poetry