The Broken Photographer

by Phoebe Myers

A cold train seat is what I imagine when I envision my uncle Nelson*. A pair of grey Chucks, a different version of the same pair for years, with grey duct tape carefully over the holes, as if anyone was looking that closely. Anything and everything bizarre and macabre, the face eating incident from a few years ago in Miami, any particularly horrifying mass murder, was about all my uncle could talk about for a while. Or at least that’s how I saw it.

People have different temperatures, the social butterfly type being unbearably warm, a suffocating, tropical, heavy atmosphere. Nelson always seemed so chilly to me, not him personally, but everything I learned about his outside life, the world outside the confines of my grandpa’s cottage where I’d see Nelson twice a year. The world outside the comfortable traditions of clementines and strong coffee, politics and homemade Chex mix, of various retellings of past stories true and false, that made up my grandpa’s house. Traditions that maybe reminded Nelson of a time before his mother was in and out of psych wards, before his infamous fall out with his brother (which I still do not know the cause of), of the hour-long bus ride to his shrink with no one waiting for him when he came home. Of the endless stream of pitfalls of humanity that seemed so unbearably clear in his eyes. It must be tiring to be him.

“Nelson, why do you click on this stuff?!” I swear the Internet may be the worst thing to happen to Nelson, in the hours of free time he has now that he can’t hold down a job--his anxiety is so high he can’t even pick up the phone to call the fancy magazine and say, “Yes, of course I’ll take the job. I’m glad you liked my photos.” The link my uncle was showing us was about a mass serial killer somewhere near my hometown, one of his favorite subjects. “I guess it just fascinates me” was his reply, and he turned the computer away from us.

If you’d asked me two years ago, I would say Nelson was the most lonely person I had ever met. He only saw his nieces (myself and my sister), his sister (my mom) and his dad twice a year. He had a friend, Gretchen, who he talked about but always in a way that seemed as if he was petrified of intruding into her perfect life and family even by just telling a story about her. I wonder how he must have felt in face-to-face interactions. Nelson has never married, has no kids, and lives in a one room apartment given to him by the government after years of red tape and hoops to jump through.

Nelson is chronically depressed, anxiety ridden, neurotic, paranoid, has a tumor on his hand and a permanent ringing in his ears. Genetics have not been kind. He is also the most empathetic person on the face of the earth, and sees the good in humanity where it is always overlooked. For every mass murderer article he emails to me in between visits, he sends one such as, “Man saves woman’s dog from drowning” with a paragraph about how this one feat convinced him to get out of bed this morning. For every moment of despair he has about humanity, invoking days of deep depression (often for something as simple as a commuter on his bus talking too loudly on their cellphone), he has a revelation about the inherent good in people’s hearts.

On one visit, Nelson was describing an event he’d witnessed after a session of therapy, apparently a particularly grueling one. He was sitting in a shopping mall, watching people buy $500 purses while he remembered the time a homeless man on the subway told him to “Start packing up your shit, brother, and dress warm, it’s gonna be cold tonight!” Nelson wondered if it was the duct-taped Chucks that made him appear homeless. Or was it the garbage bag full of clothes he was taking to the laundromat, the way he was clutching his quarters in one hand, not the one with the tumor, but the one with two permanently bent fingers.

On his brooding bench in the mall, Nelson noticed a couple walk by. They were only a few feet in front of him, sitting on the side of the fountain, discussing the usual chit chat like the weather and gossip. The thing that stuck out in Nelson’s mind was that both the man and the woman had Down’s Syndrome. Nelson said he’d never seen two adult people with Down’s in any kind of romantic relationship before, much less out and about without a “chaperone”, and I realized I’d never seen this either. Needless to say, Nelson was enthralled by this scene and glad to escape his brooding bench.

The man left the woman at the fountain for a few minutes, and came back with one of those fancy coffee drinks from Starbucks with a twenty syllable name. If it had been anyone else, the drink would have again reminded Nelson of his one room apartment, Chucks and duct tape, his rice and beans for dinner for weeks on end. He didn’t feel negatively towards this frivolous expense this time, though, which surprised him, simply because of how happy the drink made the girl. Nelson’s eyes lit up as he told this part of the story, describing how the girl broke into the widest smile he’d ever seen, clapped and yelled for joy, regardless of other people looking at her. She thanked her boyfriend for the drink and placed it on the rim of the fountain. They continued talking as she took a sip of the coffee, put it down, and then tragedy struck. She accidentally turned and knocked the drink into the fountain. The girl started to cry as the water turned brown with syrup and coffee, and the boyfriend stood up and hugged her. She said, “I’m so sorry!” and he replied, “It’s OK, I’ll buy you another one later, but I’m out of cash right now.”

Then Nelson saw a hulking man covered in tattoos approach the two people by the water fountain. Immediately, Nelson tensed up, waiting to take up the offensive against this perceived intruder. Nelson said at the time he was so certain this man was going to give the couple a hard time, to tease them or tell them not to cry over a stupid drink, to call them retards. This was one of those times when Nelson’s faith in humanity had hit rock bottom, he expected nothing but evil from this man, a man who in Nelson’s mind could never understand the importance of that lost cup of coffee. The joy it represented to the girl, the pride it represented to the man to have bought it with money he earned. If anyone understood the true expense and meaning of a indulgence like a fancy coffee, it was Nelson.

Nelson, however, was dead-on wrong about this tattooed giant. The man reached the couple, placed his hand on the girl’s back, smiled and said “Come on. Let me buy you guys two more.” He took them both into Starbucks, bought three fancy coffee drinks, and they sat down together at a table and were still talking when my uncle left to catch the bus to his apartment.

At this point in the story my uncle was crying. I’d never seen a man cry before. I will never forget the shiny amazement and awe in his eyes. I noticed my cheeks getting wet, and wondered if my eyes showed as much of my soul as his.

While the story itself was incredible, what was the most astonishing was the effect it had on Nelson. How this man, so filled with tragedy who seemed eternally broken and alone, could so quickly become the happiest man on earth simply by seeing another person’s happiness, another person’s sainthood, another person’s soul. Nelson said he had never felt more connected to those around him, never felt more of a sense of community in this desperate world, than in that moment when he saw the reason to belong. The first time he saw the point in forming connections with others, even if they are strangers.

So Nelson may not have the closest knit family in the world, or the most friends, or the loving wife and children so many long for, or co-workers or an everyday sense of purpose. So he knows he’ll go back to eating alone and sleeping in his one room apartment. So he has his doubts about the point of living, the days where he hates strangers for talking too loudly or not tipping their waitresses enough, when he wants to separate himself completely. Regardless of all this, I would never say Nelson is lonely because he is never alone.

People like Nelson, with such an expansive and fragile soul, live through the stories of others, the triumphs of people and good over evil. It does not matter if he doesn’t know them, or that maybe he never will, what matters is he is connected to them. Nelson is not unique in this either. People are inexplicably linked to one another, our stories overlapping each other’s to form the fabric that is humankind. With so many interweaving stories and aspirations, so many lives coming into contact with one another, with so much to learn and to celebrate about other humans’ grace, kindness, and success, how could anyone ever be truly alone? We are all here together, for whatever reason. I have felt more inspired sometimes by perfect strangers than my own mother, and that’s OK. Nelson has felt more connected to people through his laptop, watching videos about people saving dogs, than his neighbors and that’s OK too. We are all thrown onto this Earth at the same time, we are together in the same spaces, feeling the same things and thinking them too. If you are human, you will never be alone, you just need to be able to notice the camaraderie that is all around you.

Also, maybe buy a stranger a fancy coffee drink, you never know who needs a reminder of the friendship of humankind.

*Name has been changed.