A Summer's Day, "Summer Time" by Joel Meyerowitz
Summer time! The first time of my life. No sooner do I
say these words than a window on memory opens. An image
appearsalways the first. I am leaning on a cushion
on the windowsill in the cascade of gridded light from
a fire escape. I am nine years old. It is a summer's day.
A storm is coming. Darkness, descending on the Bronx, dims
the rocky ball field and the ash piles in the empty lot
across the street and sweeps over the elevated train tracks
stretching into the distance and beyond over the tenements
and hills of the Bronx. A tattered sheet of rain drags
from west to east. Thunder rumbles. The air becomes heavy.
I smell the special blend peculiar to cities of warm rain
pelting dust and concrete. Blue and slow, the rain inches
up my street, spraying a shine on the blacktop where I
rollerskate (how smooth!) and play stickball (pitcher-batter-catcher)
and ring-a-levio and Johnny-on-the-pony and draw with chalk
anything I can conceive. As the line of rain reaches my
window, it stops! The left half of the street is stained
to a dark mirror; the right half, dusted with chalk scratch,
holds the wet line on its dry gray palmright there
in front of mepictured in the center of my window!
Slowly the rain pulls away. A growing glow of light fills
the air. Steam curls off the street. The hot blacktop slowly
exhausts its shining skin; continents emerge and disappear
as the street comes back to street again. The sun, growing
more intense, lopes without effort or pause over everything
standing in its path, glazing it all with white light,
until it lands on the stormy wall of the sky. Arcing like
a beam from a movie projector, it plays its prism of color
across the sky.
nearly forty years later, as I photograph, I often find
myself in the same state of suspension as I watch the world
shape itself before my eyes. It is as if I move back from
where I am and see myself seeing. I am passionately involved,
yet distant and objective, seeing all the details and feeling
the rush at the same moment. It's something like being
a child and being a grown-up at the same time.
important when photographing to see different things simultaneously.
Because there is so little time in the photographic moment,
it must be expanded by consciousness to let in as much
as can be contained. The photographer becomes the medium
through which all the moments that have been savored and
measured and found meaningful have passed, and now with
the addition of this newest element, all the rest are compounded
and recomposed providing a new vision of the whole.
photographs you have seen here are the distillation of
seven summers. They are my way of taking in and examining
with a finer hand the effects that moments in time have
had on me. I have arranged them, these fragile paper timeships
dusted with information, dense yet clear, so that they
might transport me back to that precise morning in July
when air and water were one, to that country road, to that
walk through the woods to the pond, to that unforgettable
piercing look into another face, to that bowl of dewy raspberries
in fresh sunlight, to all the promise summer holds as it
more than any other time of the year, brings me to a state
of mind where this dual relationship is fluid, in harmony.
In summer, I go back for a while to that other time. I
shed my clothes, walk to the water's edge, and step in.
I feel nature all around me. I wear it as a skin. I stare
into space as long as I can. I look deeply into other faces.
I lie in the sand and in the grass, feeling for what it
felt like the first time. Summer is a time for remembering;
it's the time when growing things make the seeds that are
their memory. It is a time for taking in.
remember the mornings, the promise of the day. I am lying
in bed in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania. It is early in the
morning. I am ten years old. The sun will soon rise in
the V of the valley. I know it by the creak of a gate and
the muffled ting of a cow's bell. Belle's bell. Far away
I hear the low groan of the oncoming train; the plaintive
moan of the horn mixes with the lowing of the anxious cows
in the barn. All of this smothered in the sleep I am rising
from. The train surges around the bend in the river, pushing
its note ahead of it. The pulsing, fading sigh prints itself
in me forever. I lift my head and raise the white curtain.
There is nothing there! The world is white: the haze off
the river has rolled up to the windowa whiteness
burns in the white. All I can see are the sounds of the
mornings in the city brought to me the sweet smell of warm
air over damp pavement, the cool of the night still hidden
in secret places. Suddenly waking, thinking it a school
day, I'm lost for a moment in time. Collapsing back on
the pillow, I remember it's summer.
out of bed in an instant. The house feels different. It's
breathing more slowly than it does the rest of the year.
Into the kitchen; my elbows take up the cool enamel chill
of the table. I read the back of the cereal box over my
crackling bowl. Murmurs from the courtyard behind me come
through the screen. Someone's mother is up hanging out
the wash in the boxed-in courtyard. I wonder if the man
who sings the rag song will come today, or the old violinist
with his hat out to whom we throw a penny wrapped in tissue,
torn between the desire to get it into his upturned hat
and the urge to bean him. Wandering peddlers and entertainers
come through the neighborhoodold Europe, carrying
its trades and traditions to the alleyways of the Bronx.
A pageant of Italian opera singers and sentimental Viennese
violinists, hawkers of old clothes and scrap metal, knife
sharpeners with their wheels on their backs, the organ
grinderall pass beneath my window.
few minutes later I find myself on the street. I'm in a
pair of shorts and a T-shirtmy favorite ones. I could
wear them every day of the summer. I've got on a pair of
black high-top sneakersthis summer's pair. How fast
they feel when they're new. I'm ready for anything. Ahead
of me lies an entire day stretching way into the night.
How many days will there be today?
sitting on the stoop in front of my building. I've got
a stick in my hands. A piece of that weed tree that will
grow anywhere, out of any crack; we call it the cork tree.
If you break off a branch and slice it in half, you can
pull out the corky substance in the middle and roll it
like an eraser between your fingers, or you can pop it
in your mouth and chew it. If you are really careful you
can push a smaller stick through the branch and hollow
it out to make a blowgun for spitballs. This morning, however,
I'm just rubbing it on the sidewalk, sharpening it, aimlessly,
watching the point develop and the shreds of bark and pulp
come off. A shadow falls across me; it's the milkman. The
tinkling of his bottles of milk, like small chimes in the
morning, comes with the shadow. He's got the Daily Mirror
under his arm. I can see it says, "Yanks Crush " Those
were the days. He gives me two bottles of milk. When he
leaves, I peel back the crimped paper hat on the bottle
and lift off the paper lid. Stuck to the inside of the
top is a thick layer of cream. I clear the yellow cream
from the lid with my pinky, put the lid back on, and suck
the fresh cream from my finger. A quick dash inside with
the milk bottles and I'm back on the street. Sitting on
the stoop is one of my friends. When I join him, he pulls
a handful of marbles from his pocket, beautiestiger
eyes. He shows me the meanest oneslit-eyed and yellow.
How did this piece of glass catch the fire of a tiger's
eye in all its fierce intensity? A piece of chalk appears.
A circle is made. We're down on our hands and knees. There
are so many things to see when you're down on your knees
on the ground. I look at the color of the pebbles embedded
in the concrete, tiny in size. I become a giant, lost in
looking. Later, when he leaves, I have a handful of sun-warmed
marbles. I roll them back and forth, listening to their
click and chatter. Back and forth, the filling up and emptying
of my hands, the sweet sifting feeling. These bits of glasseach
one a world, a cosmos in my hands. I hold one up to the
sunlight, blinding myself with the aura of the sun, watching
the color ignite through the marble and suspend itself
fractured in my eye.
first few grown-ups are beginning to pass by. They're going
to work. They disappear down the street and climb the long
flight of stairs to the El. Some of them seem to be happy.
There is no more talk of the war. My mother leans out the
window. Her firm, clear voice tips me out of my reverie.
Would I go around the corner to the storeyesthe
market and the bakeryyes! How I love this trustto
touch and pick fruit; cut butter from a tub; carry a warm
fleshy loaf of rye bread under my arm. Down the street
I go with the marchers to work, invisible between them,
watching their long early-morning shadows stretch across
the pavement, shoes attached to them. Hubcaps nearby showed
me a bent-out-of-shape world full of figures on stilts
and squashed dwarfs; the world is a fun house. I climb
the steps of the El with the workers and watch them push
through the turnstiles. The ching of the money and the
gulp and thud of the wooden turnstile have a gratifying
marching sound to them. I watch the little band carried
away by the train. The windows of the station give it the
appearance of a train. I look out and down on my neighborhoodthe
long block of five-story tenements, the wide black street,
the empty lots filled with ash heaps and crude ball fields,
the wild undergrowth and tree line along the trickle of
a finger of the Bronx River, where we catch frog and snakes
and rabbits and Japanese beetles (a big contribution to
the war effort by boys under twelve). Boy Scout knots and
traps were useful a hundred yards from the El.
the fringe of the outfield was a large bush that was left
standing because it seemed special in a mysterious way.
Crawling through its tangled branches, we entered a leafy,
dome-like hogan where the earth was stamped hard and the
sky was visible through an opening in the thicket. There
the mysteries and rituals and initiations of childhood
merging into adolescence took place. The shrine in the
outfield. Snakes we caught in the river, fifty feet away,
were sacrificed there. Scary stories were told to us there
by young men returned from the war, somber and hot-eyed
in the dusk. Sometimes a pipe was passed around. One afternoon
a teen-aged girl peeled off her clothes, slowly showing
us her mystery in the flickering sunlight. Like deer, we
restedmotionlessa circle of boys watching an
age-old ritual. She seemed shy, but determined and entranced.
Her motions, trapped in sun dapple, were both fixed and
blurred. I'll see forever two arms raised and bent over
her head, which lolled back on her neck, her cheek brushing
her shoulder as she pulled at the edges of a T-shirt echoing
the shape of her rib cage laced with sunlight. I could
hear the elevated subway clatter by half a block away.
market! I run down the steps and into the dark cavern of
the market. Tiers of fruit are piled on my left; glass
cases of butter and cheese and eggs are on my right. But
down in the back, up a step and in the gloom is where I'm
headedto Morris, the fish man, presiding over his
glassy pink and speckled gray display laid out on the ice
like a multiplication table. Here, under a dirty skylighthow
beautiful that light was, softly laying down a gelatinous
coating of shine on everythingstanding and waiting,
he had the time to share it. Next to all those slit and
motionless cutouts was a metal box. Tiptoes took you to
the edge. Inside was the rumble of water. It sounded deep
and far away. Moishe pulled back the big wooden cover.
The light penetrated down into the box. A school of gray
fish, long as baseball bats, thick and telephone books,
moved against the pressure of the running water. Did they
think they were in the sea? Did they know they were lost?
I reach in and pet the fish, run my hand down their flanks
and fins. Giant carp, gefilte fish to be, their eyes like
cold marble, give me the shivers.
the way back from the market, my penny burning in my fist,
I stopped in the candy store. So many things in bottles!
All those colors-gum balls, jelly beans sugar bananas,
chocolate babies, jujubes, rock candyjewels glowing
in a candy store. My eye was caught by something else.
Near the picture cards of ball players and boxers and airplanes
was something called mystery paper. It was a negative and
printingout paper. I picked one. It was easy; they
were all a mystery. I raced home with the packages, then
ran the five flights to the tarry roof. The sun was high.
I pulled open the small package and took out the shiny
negative and the dull paper. Pressing them together I aimed
them at the light and held them with such fierce pressure
that my thumbs turned white. Time crept by while I waited
for something that I couldn't see to appear. I looked around
the roof. Most of the time we were not allowed up here
with other kids, mothers fearing that one of us would throw
the other off instead of the balloon filled with water.
My eye caught sight of a shiny scarecrow of an object stuck
on the roof. It had two arms shaped like an H. A wire went
down to an apartment below. It was the only one. Had heard
that someone had bought a televisionsomething about
a box with a picture in it. For the moment, the picture
in my hands was all I wanted.
lifted the negative, my breath caught in my throat. There
was a man sitting on a chair in the country on a sunny
afternoon. His shadow falling on the ground beside him
was caught in that of the chair. His hand held a pipe on
his thigh. A cloud in the distance rested on his head.
My eyes came to his face. There was something in it that
seemed calm but then shifted to something else when I looked
at his eyes and the cloud together. I wasn't sure if he
was calm or wild. Someone was standing outside the picture;
just his hand and a long shadow came into the frame. The
sun was hard. My pulse was beating in my neck. What I saw
in the picture seemed beautiful to me. I looked at this
image, the size of a matchbook, so intensely for so long
that when I tried to stand up I couldn't. I was dizzy from
concentrating in the sun, and my knees were stuck in the
hot tar of the roof. After I had freed myself and run downstairs
to soak the print in vinegar, I thought: I want a lot of
these papers to see what comes out on them.
mother is in the kitchen making enormous sandwiches on
fresh rye bread full of aromatic seeds scattered like splinters
over and throughout the bread. My mouth is watering already. "We're
going to the pool," she says. I watch her hands arrange
and shape what I'll soon demolish. She takes great pleasure
in everything she does. Peaches and plums seem to leap
from the bowl into her hands. That summer I was too young
to go into the men's bathhouse and the pool alone. I went
with my mother and her friends to the women's lockers,
aware for the first time that I felt strange being there.
The lockers, in long avenues open to the sky, had Dutch
doors and were dark inside and smelled of powder and rubber
hats and chlorine. My mother and her friends crowded into
one. Standing as tall as their thighs, I pulled on my bathing
suit beneath their laughter and chatter. I looked up at
these naked women above me, stretching into and pulling
on their suits and caps, and saw their abundant bodies
rolling and swaying in the slivered light and shadow coming
through the Dutch door. My first image of women. Although
yearned to be in the men's lockers, I found it delicious
to be invisible among the women. I raced to the cool of
summer day my family rented a bungalow on the beach in
Far Rockaway. Each afternoon of that summer, our fathers
came, by subway or car, back to the sandy little lanes
the bungalows sat on. Tearing off their clothes, they raced
like kids down the beach to the water, where all the boys
waited for them. Hand-in-hand, men and boys ran in a line
into the surf, where we spent the hours before dinner riding
the waves. One day my father was late. I took someone else's
hand and went into the water. I stepped into a deep hole
that the tide had covered and sank up to my shoulders.
The sand collapsed in around me; the waves were pounding
overhead. My arms were pinned to my sides; the more I struggled,
the deeper I sank. I yelled bubbles; the darkest fear raged
through me; they were looking for me; my lungs were bursting.
I looked up and saw my bubbles going toward the light;
a hand came crashing down on my head and tore me by the
hair up from the hole and into the air.;
summer I slept in a room that was really the screened porch
of the bungalow. It was like being inside and outside at
the same time. The screen became a medium between me and
the world. The sun stretched and colored its way across
it; rain dripped and jeweled on the screen; insects wandered
and wove their paths through it; planes and clouds and
shadows were trapped in the squares and frame of the screen;
people entered and left. The world was a theater on my
afternoon is drifting toward the long, golden hours. I
grab my glove, climb out the window, and drop the six feet
to the street. The guys are on the move; the unspoken call
to the ball field is heard. The heat feels good on the
back of my arms. Across the street the infield glitters
in a mixture of broken glass and mica; you don't want to
slide! I trot onto the field and step into my position;
it's good to have a place you've earned. I look over at
my shortstopquick hands, the playmaker. Second and
first, speed and reach. Playing baseball is one of life's
great lessons! The solid whack as the ball jumps off the
bat; you move on instinct; sound and motion combine to
send you to the right place at the right time. The ball
skips into the pocket. Hard contact! Perfect! Even though
it's all happening fast, you c an experience it as if in
slow motion. Time is flexible if you care to see it that
way. I watch my teammates. Like a clockworks, we all move
together. Our timing, hinged on fractions of a second,
is precise, yet contains enough time to hold the ball,
lovingly feel the stitches, hesitate, watch, extend the
decision to throw just long enough to see it all, to give
it tension and beauty and then to hum the ball across the
infield and beat the runner by a step. Watching and acting
in the same moment, moving in harmony with others, taking
all the time you need for completionthese are gifts
that discipline provides.
light slowly draws out of the day. Someone's mother calls,
and we all head for the table.
photographs. I pile them up print after print, day after
day, summer after summer, building up a skein of images
with which I weave a braid of time, past under present,
now over then. Even now, years away from my childhood on
the streets of the Bronx, I hear the echoes of summer.
Those moments each of us carries in his own way, yet shares.
A screened porch; a sudden storm passing and leaving that
starched, fresh smell in the air; the warm body of a peach
in your hand; a freckled girl; the wildness of rose breath
in the evening; that slant of light falling on your bed,
telling you how late the summer is .
Jo-wul"-dinner's over"c'mon out." Music
to my ears. Ahead of us the night will be filled with games.
The chase was on. Ring-a-levio, kick-the-can, hide-and-seek-young
gods in their glory streamed from the tenements and gathered
on the ash heaps. Olympus in the Bronx. The hour between
the dog and the wolf was approaching. We begin to change
from those obedient children our parents know into the
frenzied packs and hunters of the night. We race through
the alleys in the darkness, baying in chorus or alone at
street light, moon light, car light, stealthily watching
lovers, peering in windows, shadowing parents on their
walks. The street's our circus of life. We run till we're
exhausted, and then we part.
stand panting, glistening in the darkness of the empty
lots, listening to my heart pound, looking at the light
in my window across the gulf of the street, wishing that
summer would never end.