First, a picture of yours truly the serious professional-type actor doing serious professional-type acting with serious professional-type acting stuff:
I have a reputation for excelling in off-beat roles, but you might have guessed that already. I have multiple roles in my next acting job, a stage reading of an excellent new play by Mary Spletter entitled The White Pelican. The play portrays a life-long struggle of one woman against breast cancer, and one of my characters is the good-guy/bad-guy Killer Chemo (“I hafta almost kill ya to save ya!”). Mary envisioned K. C. as a “luchador.” Luchadores are Mexican professional wrestlers, many of whom wear wildly colorful masks. From what little I know, “Lucha Libre” south of the border is not even remotely like professional wrestling anywhere else (Bolivian women’s professional wrestling is allegedly even more different).
Naturally, San Francisco has many stores that specialize in lucha libre mascaras, so finding a suitable one for K. C. on a Saturday morning posed no problem. But then it occurred to me: I needed to get used to wearing the mask, rehearsal would begin in only two hours, why not wear the mask in public on the streets of San Francisco and Oakland and see how people would react? Of course it seemed like an eccentric idea; then again, I am a little eccentric, and when I said to myself, “Either do this–or don’t do this and wish you had,” the choice became obvious. Well, obvious to someone like me.
Serendipity is a life skill, and I have almost mastered it.
I first donned la mascara (and now seems like a good time to apologize for any/all current/past/future mistakes in the Spanish language) as I disembarked from the 21st Street BART station in Oakland. I walked straight up Broadway to Grand Avenue in my suit and tie and my mask. Aside from wearing the mask, I did nothing to attract attention to myself. I walked in straight lines, briefcase at my side, no excess motions, never looking around to see if anyone was looking at me. My concept: this was just another ordinary everyday day for my luchador. Just going to work and the usual 9-5.
The ethics of photographing private citizens going about their private business still bothers me a little. Honestly, I don’t feel completely comfortable exposing people who do not seek attention to the exposures of “the big eye” (sometimes called “the male gaze” when men photograph or film women). I do not wonder that Cartier-Bresson wrapped his shiny Leicas in black matte tape to make them inconspicous. I do see a clash between the right of the photographer to create art versus the right of the individual to privacy, even in public spaces.
All photographers should put themselves in a situations where they become the subject of the people’s attention, where they become the subject of the people’s cameras. We should experience how it feels when a total stranger points a camera at us and starts taking pictures. Of course, at events such as movie premieres and gallery openings, one wants strangers to take pictures. If you walk down a city street in America on a Saturday afternoon wearing a business suit and a luchador’s mask, you should expect strangers to take pictures. Fine. No problem. If you want to photograph the world around you, you should at least understand how the world feels when you photograph it.
Incidentally, Cartier-Bresson did not like being photographed. Eh, bien; I can tolerate a little mild hypocrisy from one of my favorite artists.
Enough bloviating of my blowhard (and probably wrong) opinions. On to the results of my experiment.
The first person to see me was a very tall, overweight gentleman about my age who looked like he was coming down from a bad acid trip. His eyes bulged and he shreiked, “What the f— is happening?!” The next guy was some white-collar type relaxing in cargo shorts and polo shirt who grinned and immediately whipped out his cell phone to take my picture. Walking past a block of coffeehouses on Grand Avenue elicited a collection of double-takes, stares and more photography. At the next intersection, a pair of custodians, both Hispanic, turned the corner of the sidewalk pushing their blue plastic work carts in front of themselves. One look at me and their carts collided (they were unhurt). They looked at each other and I think one said something like “Gringo loco!” to the other, but I do know they laughed.
At the edge of Lake Merritt, a college-age African-American man with wire-rimmed eyeglasses whipped out his point-and-shoot camera and proceeded to photograph–everything except me. However, he casually wandered off about ten feet to my right, still pretending he hadn’t seen me. When I stopped at a red light I heard a flurry of whirring and clicking sounds, and held still so he could take as many photographs as possible before the light changed. It seemed the polite thing to do. As I wrote above, I wanted to know what it’s like to be a private citizen photographed during private activities; I felt a moral obligation to cooperate.
(All right, all you photographers, confess: you just said to yourself, “Darn it! I wish all of my subjects were that polite!” You did, didn’t you?)
I continued on my merry way, and noticed a common behavior. From 100-50 feet away, people without cameras or cell phones stared at me non-stop. From 50-0 feet away, these same people pretended to ignore me, as if men in business suits and luchador masks were such a common occurrence on Oakland’s Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt on a Saturday that they simply could not bother themselves to look. At Lake Merritt, the only exception consisted of a small wedding party. A photographer was taking pictures of the happy couple when the bride saw me and said something in another language that must have been, “Hey, take a picture of him!” because the cameraman did just that. As before, I walked on, pretending to notice nothing, pretending all was normal.
After the afternoon rehearsal, I returned to San Francisco (mask in briefcase), did a little grocery shopping, put on my mask at the bus stop, and boarded the 22-Fillmore to go home. The reaction did not resemble the Oaklanders’ reactions at all.
The San Franciscans completely ignored me.
I have often wondered how inured San Franciscans have become to the oddities that have become so much a part of San Francisco. It would appear that we have become completely inured. Every single person on that bus seemed oblivious to the presence of a luchador in a business suit. This does not surprise me at all: I have seen among other things one woman with a green Mohawk haircut leading a second woman with a black Mohawk haircut on a leash. Yes, a leash, complete with studded dog collar.
A luchador in a business suit would not surprise me, either. The other passengers probably thought I was coming home from a party the night before. Coming home from a party the night before at 5:00 in the afternoon? Well, yes. Perfectly normal in San Francisco, where only the perfectly normal is not perfectly normal.
I did get a few reactions after disembarking for the final walk home. First, an old man sitting on the front steps of his apartment building roared with laughter, said “Is it Hallowe’en already?!” and roared with laughter some more. I also walked past one couple who stared. The woman leaned to the man and whispered. He replied, “Honey, it’s San Francisco.”
I walked through the Duboce Square dog park, where all the canines and their pet humans had gathered for their usual post-5:00 p.m. socializing like Homer Simpson and his buddies at Mo’s bar. No one seemed to notice. Arrived home; nothing unusual happened, no unusual reactions from anyone else.
Evidently, all of the photography took place in Oakland, unless the citizens of San Francisco are geniuses of clandestine picture-taking. This curious little experiment yielded interesting results. I feel tempted to repeat the experiment down different streets in Oakland, San Francisco, and possibly elsewhere–next time, teaming up with a photographer who will photograph the photographers photographing the photographer.
As we say in San Francisco, “Like, totally cosmic, dude.”
Vonn Scott Bair