JULY 2008


Star-Spangled Enterprise
By Adam Moorad, Apr 16, 2008

This job I have, it’s hard enough not falling over. I stand on a stack of cinderblocks as my knees lock and hamstrings cramp. My ankles ache and a heavy pulse tweaks in my toes as my feet begin to swell. My pelvis dips and head begins to bob. No day is different, there’s always the standing and the minute the sun peaks through the clouds or up over the horizon, someone is going to ask me for a picture.

This is every day of my life.

Today, I’m at the park down by the bay and it’s crowded. A family approaches from behind me. They look bashful and I can tell they’re first-timers. The father speaks up at me and the only sounds I can make out are “owo” and “uch.” It’s hard to tell behind my rubber ears.

I don’t say anything, just point down at a strip of cardboard that reads: “Pictures: $3.” The letters are crooked and painted in alternating colors of red, white, and blue. I know because I painted them.

The man looks down and nods.

I can’t imagine why people pay three bucks for a picture of this, but they do.

The father turns and says something to his family, his wife and two children. The four of them look way too enthusiastic about this, each of them blushing and grinning dumbly, like the expression a dog makes when you throw it a ball. The father looks up again and asks me where to stand, so I make rowing motions with my arms that tell him anywhere.

I don’t speak. I try to stay in character.

My partner Garcia is fumbling with the camera. It’s an old, black plastic Polaroid.

Old? No. Vintage, I think.

I watch Garcia preparing the film. His face is greasy and zitted, covered in small purple welts glowing toneless and deep beneath his wet peach fuzz. His hair is gelled up and back, each black strand spanning flat and curled, like small Arabian blades.

The family snuggles together tightly below my knees, leaning into one another trying, in their minds, to stay in frame. This isn’t necessary, but they do it. Everyone does it. Once in position, they smile for the camera. Like The Bradys, I think.

The blood is running out of my raised arm. It feels prickly and numb and is falling asleep but I don’t move on the account of the picture taking. I squeeze the plastic torch in my hand a few times and try to pump some blood up to my wrist. It’s useless.

Then the family asks for second picture. I think: another?

I’m chewing on the inside of my mouth and feel a few sweat beads roll down my cheeks behind my mask. I try to stand upright and look authentic. Historic, I think.

It’s what the people want. An imitation in keeping with the original form—because it is the best anyone can hope for. A picture for proof. A quick flash that burns me into every single family’s photo album for eternity. Three dollars for this gem.

People like me because I’m accessible. Anyone can have me and I’m not an inconvenience. You can step right up to me, flash, and take me home like the real thing, not a fleeting memory, but a cozy little narrative.

Most of the people who come down here think that they’re going to go see the original version of me, by boat, across the water. The encrusted, green, corroded version that stands alone over the choppy, brown water. But all experiences grow generic and when they see the line, what a hassle it is, they seem to recall how truly painful it is to wait for anything and I look more attractive.

Some want to pose with me. Others will just sneak a snapshot with a zoom lens from a distance without paying. There are always a few cheapskates. Some people don’t have any small bills so they let Garcia and I keep the difference. “Perdón, sir. No change,” Garcia says, his native and foreign tongues unconsciously meshed. Three dollars is a calculated rate. More often than not three dollars really means five. “Thanks you, sir. Gracias. Gracias.” The customers don’t seem to mind and rarely haggle knowing, after all, I am Lady Liberty and no one is going to ask me for a refund.

Now there is a delay. Something is wrong with the camera and the kids are beginning to lose interest. Garcia looks like he’s out of film again. He’s knocking the butt of the camera gently with the flat of his palm. He does this more in confusion and without any real intent. It’s what he always does.

Garcia snuck into America on a cruise ship docked at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. He had a job as a cabin boy on a small cruise line before he flew the coupe.

One night, I caught him digging through my trash and when he noticed me watching, he asked for money, holding out an open palm. That is how we met. I told him to wait and brought down some stiff, old spaghetti. I like being charitable, compassionate. Godly, I think.

After that, Garcia returned the next evening, then the next. And on each night, I fed the poor sucker. Green bean casserole. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His favorite is cold, leftover coffee grounds eaten with a spoon. “Delicioso,” he says. I think I feed him more for my own amusement than anything else. I once watched him bite into a raw potato like an apple. He didn’t chew, just swallowed each pasty mouthful. He needed money and that is harder to come by. This is how we became partners. He’s not documented so working as my photographer suits him well.

I hear the wife begin to mumble but I can’t make it out.

“I unt oowo,” it sound likes.

“OK,” I hear Garcia say, “Smi-ell!”

We’re not professionals. We are aware of this, but we know our strength lies in our accessibility and our mission to serve anyone, everyone. Our lack of exclusivity is what makes us approachable. Egalitarian, I think. But if there’s a line people won’t stop, so it’s important to keep things moving.

Press the button. Rip the Polaroid off. Shake it out. Give it to the customer as it develops but before it begins to fade. We get it done because we don’t have all day. This is not a racket. This is an enterprise, I think.

Garcia hands over the pictures and I hear the father asks him about a place to eat.

He says, “Cómo?”

“Lunch,” the man says.

Garcia says, “KFC. Up-street. Up-street.”

The man attempts another question but Garcia spins to wave another family over in my direction. That’s it Garcia. The man turns and leaves.

That’s the trick. Quick thinking. Flank them in. Improvisation. It’s like herding cattle. We make a great team.

Get them in place, click it, and get the money. This isn’t art. We’re not making masterpieces. If people want a cheap replica, a dirty little imitation of some holy American relic—and it just so happens they do—we give it to them. A glimpse of our great imagined past. A peep into the point of origin. The Dream. People hunger for this. If they feel starved enough to pay us for it, we make them feel OK. Patriotic, I think.

Between takes I drop my arm and feel my cold fingertips flare as the blood reinvades the veins inside them.

Sometimes this gig is a lot of fun. A dance team or a group of sorority sisters will descend on me, smiling and smelling sweet like watermelons or bubblegum spritz, giggling and squinting, white teeth, sunglasses, looking tan and lean in all their tight, bright clothes. I’ll stand propped up and alone on the stack of cinderblocks, draped in a mud-green burlap sheet in nothing but my boxers underneath. The girls will rub and bump their hind-ends into my legs as they pose. “Smi-ell!” I feel the coarse jute fibers of my cloak scratch against my skin and I try not to get a wood. I’ll watch Garcia put on a broad Hispanic grin as I blush behind the star-pronged head of Lady Liberty.

Often a couple will wander up. It is inevitable and unfortunate. This always happens right when I want to take a break. The couple will be holding hands, pecking one another back and forth. This pair will amble over, arm in arm, smiling blindly, ready for their portrait of love to be taken with me in the background. I stand as if to pose as some sort of spiritual manifestation of their romance, floating ethereally over them: still, expressionless, and assuring. Prophetic, I think.

They won’t even look at the camera. Usually, the boy will have his hand dug into one of the girl’s ass pockets and will be saying something into her ear that I can’t make it out, but it sounds like, “lick” and she smiles.

Click goes the flash.

They start laughing and act as if they had no idea their picture was about to be taken. Giggling, they smooch, pay Garcia, and go away.

Other people like to watch for a while on the periphery as they muster up the courage to step forward. They will stand and chew their nails. You can tell they really want a picture, but they can’t seem to work up the nerve. Their indecision nags me like a sore gum. Garcia is too relaxed to be bothered by this. Too stupid, I think. These are the customers which require effort. They require me to be cordial. They’re the worst.

When things are slow, I will try to wave bystanders over with my fake torch. Experience has shown this to be an effective tactic. People will look back in disbelief, almost embarrassed, and cannot believe it is they who I am calling forth. Eventually, they will walk up blushing, looking like the lucky members of some studio audience, and have their picture.

“Hurry up, ladies and gentleman,” Garcia will say. “Date prisa, señoras y señores! Before someone else does. Hurry up—before the film runs out. We’re running low ladies and gentleman. Lady Liberty—Estatua de la Libertad—IN THE FLESH.” Click. Flash. “Por favor.”

The trick is to appear extra-animated, to wave my arms around like a happy cartoon. This tends to draw enough people’s attention, most of who will want a picture, who will pay three dollars, maybe five. But after ten to fifteen minutes of camera flashing, Garcia will need to reload, the crowd will disperse, and I will get to rest my torch-arm for a second before it’s time to run through the charade again.

We provide a different kind of service. A product, I think. But it’s not a consumer good that brings people in. It’s The Dream and I’m its symbol. The false cult of celebrity is at work here. It’s an essential dynamic. The active ingredient. It’s empowering.

No one is different. Baptists from Georgia, Jews from Illinois, or Mormons from Oregon, we all have the same Mecca and I’m the mosque. Once a family of five from Kentucky appeared in front of me with their heads practically bowed in reverence—as if I was the Pope himself—almost kneeling in homage at the very sight of me, not knowing how to approach or whether or not to speak.

I will overhear things, statements of common knowledge, the provincial trivia that is shared among most people and binds us together. It comprises the processed, spoon-fed testimonies of the theology preached in our public school textbooks. “She was a gift from France,” they will say. “A symbol of freedom.” They managed to inject a grand sense of nostalgia, a star-spangled association, into an otherwise simple business transaction.

This is their mistake.

Please don’t think I’m here to sing “America the Beautiful.” Please be aware that I will not recite lines: Ask not what your country can do. Don’t think I’m about address people this way. Tourists. Day-trippers. Chubby vacationers touting a disposable income, wanting nothing but to grab their cloudy snapshot and run it home gleefully like a Labrador retriever.

Patriotism? That is the job of presidents or governors, of school principals or mayors. Not deadbeat-beggar impersonating the cold vogue of Lady Liberty with a dime store mask, posing repeatedly in the same position for an illegal alien with a Polaroid camera.

We’re here to make a few bucks and draw just enough traffic to look halfway legitimate.

Call me a bum, call me a fraud, a parasite even, but when I think of a parasite I think of one of the smartest organisms on this planet. The tick, the tapeworm, the leech, animals that figured out how to hitch a free ride on the animals dumb enough to give them. But it isn’t so much a parasite versus host relationship. It’s much more important than that. This is a rare understanding, an interdependent equilibrium. Homeostasis.

We both want something and we’re both giving it to one another. We establish a relationship. Harmony, I think.

What people want most is to get up as close as they can to my image, to some simulated experience, overgrown into something so bloated that the tiniest crumb, the smallest nibble, will leave them full with their gut stretching and stinging at the prospect of anything more. This hunger renders the original vista—the encrusted, green, corroded one—meaningless and all that’s left is me.

I feed people the little morsel they crave. A scrap. A flash. I provide the product they have come to claim, take in, and inhale.

Come get your crumbs and give me mine.

“Hurry on up,” Garcia says, “before someone else does.”

You pose, brush the hair off your forehead, squat down, lean in, and try to stay in frame. “Date prisa! Date prisa, por favor!”

Click. Flash. That will be three dollars.

Adam is 25. He works in publishing. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, both in print and online. He lives in Brooklyn but dreams of Appalachia.