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Mrs Everywhere

Brilliant Corners

Gabrielle Taylor

it was easy, the first crosswalk. The Byward Market in Ottawa is so full of people on foot that most of the lights are long. Since this crossing is from the eastbound bus stops on Rideau to the William Street Mall, it is particularly suited to me.

Once on William I was relaxed, relaxed enough to notice the weekend's sidewalk art -- a Caravaggio reproduction and an impression of Stonehenge -- had both been partly swept away. I like to photograph the artists but there was no one working today. Maybe it was too hot.

I walked on toward George Street. It is one of two crosswalks that give me trouble. By trouble, I mean I get panicky and try to walk into traffic. This first happened about six weeks ago. I was two weeks in to treatment for a broad spectrum of hitherto unsuspected food, chemical and atmospheric allergies. Allergic withdrawl is medically comparable to drug withdrawl. I was abruptly excluding several dozen -- perhaps even a hundred -- allergens. I document the experience elsewhere, but suffice now to say it continues to be disorienting and physically demanding.

Until about a week ago I went nowhere unescorted unless I could take a bus to its door. This often made long, circuitous trips. Two weeks ago I started a new combination of prescription drugs that dramatically improved my concentration and eliminated the worst physical symptoms. Today was the first day in over six weeks that I had attempted to walk home alone.

As I approached George I could feel myself phasing in and out. I tried hard to clamp into the moment. I made it across, mentally snapping "be here, be here!" The road hardly felt straight. I was oscillating between awareness of physical danger and abstract, disinterested observation of -- a pile of fruit at a street vendor, an attractive bare leg, a reflection in a shop window. I kept thinking, "be here, be here!"

Useless! The harder I tried to be here the less interested I got. My camera bag thumped at my hip; I could not turn off. I could not stop watching for ephemera: graffiti, people absorbed in what they're doing, plants, things in strange contexts. I could not stop watching for this phenomena to save my life -- literally. As I approached the Fish Market at York I was thinking, maybe I shouldn't be out here. Maybe I should turn back and take the bus five stops to get home.

Still, I was walking forward, and looking around, absorbent as a sponge, when I saw in a dead-end alleyway a young blonde man in jeans and a t-shirt spraying the pavement. I love this. I love people who are intent on what they're doing. He's looking down the alley to the wall, so I go past and pull out the camera. I turn back and stand in the alley mouth and shoot[1]. I feel so much better. I feel so much more relaxed. I feel absolutely here. Absolutely.

I decide I will try to get home another way. I decide I will take ten photographs exactly, along the way. When I get home I'll crop and remix them until all ten are interesting enough to post in my gallery.

I turn and shoot again, down the sidewalk[2], and, yes, I feel so much more available.

I go across to the Continental Bagel and spend a few minutes fooling around to get the third shot[3], which still ends up a bit washed, as do many of them. Nobody pays much attention. Ottawa is full of photographers since 1894. Malak and Yousuf Karsh lived here for decades. The light in Ottawa is fabulous. It may not even be the same sun they have in Pittsburgh.

I stand on York making sure there's no other good shot close by, and think about why photography is so important here. Maybe it has to do with how powerless Ottawa is as a city. In any other province it would have enough population to matter to the provincial government. Here it's choked by quadruple-sized Toronto so it doesn't get enough provincial money. Also, even though Quebec keeps threatening to separate, it still keeps getting key federal outposts like the National Archives, the Museum of Civilization, and the fattest government department of all, Human Resources Development Canada. Even the taxmen are gone to Shawinigan, a village of twenty thousand people exceptional only for having produced the stupefyingly patronage-riddled Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Shawinigan has a four lane highway from the Trans Canada, by the way -- but Ottawa does not.

On the other hand, the light here is fabulous.

I shoot again[4] and cross two narrow streets into the shade. There are three shots I would like to take, but don't: two of men standing possessively outside shopfronts, and an interesting lineup of customers and lamps at the Blue Cactus. However, I don't like being bothered while I'm shooting and the shot changes if the constituents care that they're being photographed. It's like the two-slit experiment.

I turn the corner at Blue Cactus, but can't get a good angle on the lamp shot from this side. So I walk toward the charmless boot of the American embassy and stop at the Studio 34 windows[5]. Then I jaywalk into Tin House Court. I've shot the House before but I love it, so I do two pictures from this side[6,7], then cross and focus very exactly on a woman [8] so involved with her book that I think I could have screwed her oblivious flip-flops. I jaywalk into another court and shoot another reading woman, who is holding a can of Sprite oddly in front of her. Reviewing the photo shortly after, she's looking straight at me[9].

That leaves one shot left. I go up through the shade, past the Gabriel statue, and wait at the St. Patrick corner. I am considering the Notre Dame Basilica. I'm not religious -- I've been agnostic since I was about five years old -- but I love churches. I love them the same way I love a good Super Bowl commercial. Whatever I think of the product, I admire the branding.

I have shot the Notre Dame Basilica many times, so I explicitly decide not to today. I cross the street and walk past a gang of five year olds on a yellow rope. A little blonde girl holds up her hand. I high-five the girl and grin at her keeper, who is a woman with dreadful orange lipstick and a carcinogenic tan.

I walk a little past the church, still on the same block, and stop at the statue of Archbishop Joseph Thomas Duhamel. I love this statue. It is natural, its placement is symmetric, it is shaded but not cluttered by trees... but I've photographed it before, a few times, so I decide, not today. I pass the National Gallery.

As I approach the Kuwaiti embassy construction site, I realize that I am drafting this essay in my head as I walk. Like the photography it gives more than it takes and this is not new for me. Often when doing undemanding work I need extra input to keep me focused: sometimes the television on with music and conversation on the internet and email. The television is the most expendable, then email. If I try to put more energy into something than it can hold, I stall like a flooded engine. It's the same as last night, when I was retraining piano scales. Once I relearned how to do scales with both hands it was easy -- as long as I didn't think too much about the parts where the middle finger flips over or the thumb flips under. Too much thought and it fell apart. When it was instinctive -- when I felt like I played it in a dream -- then it was smooth and easy.

I like to shoot construction sites but I see nothing in this one today. I walk down Sussex between the Bruyere hospital -- which has an achingly green tree with long seeds that I nearly shoot, but then hold in reserve -- and the Royal Canadian Mint. The Mint is a gorgeous building, as elegantly and carefully carved as a soap pistol, but it requires a wide-angle lens, so I go on.

At the corner of Cathcart and Sussex is a red painted brick house with bright marigolds and two green-yellow sunflowers. It is almost enough. As I walk in the shade by the back of the hospital I start worrying that I won't find a good tenth shot. I don't want to just waste it. Then I see red gardenia petals over an outdoor stone wall. I wander into a loading area and parking lot looking for what I hope is a garden. I find giant propane tanks, a small parking area, and two nurses at a picnic table on pavement. I decide not to bother them, if a picnic in a loading dock is their idea of a break, and go back to the street.

I check out a smokestack I've shot in the sun before, and an alignment of deep-sunk round windows, and some big greened bronze valve wheels. Standing in a tree bed full of peat moss, trying to figure out a shot involving the corners of a glassed-in staircase, I realize that I'm starting to get tired. I realize the cure has totally overcome the disease -- the point of taking ten photos was to get me home, not to take ten perfect photos! Not only that, but I crossed St. Patrick -- the other crosswalk that I'd reliably panicked on weeks ago -- crossed it without any trouble at all. It would be really stupid to wear out now, when I can actually see my front door.

There's a park with huge trees between here and there. I walk that way. I stop half a block later under a big seeding maple and take my time shooting straight up in the dense shade. There, ten [10].

I jaywalk carefully in front of a slowly approaching silver Mercedes. I am, yes, a little tired, and far too hot. There is only one crosswalk between me and my hypoallergenic, air-conditioned flat. It is easy, as easy as the first. I get upstairs where it is cold as silk. I put on the kettle for tea, put on some music. Download the photos. Strip off my hot clothes. Lounge in my leather chair, bare-assed and tired. Waiting for the water to boil. Waiting to recover to start writing the afternoon. Down.

Gabrielle Taylor is a writer, photographer and internet consultant in Ottawa. She operates Moon Farmer, with Shad Muegge, My Toxic Life, and the Hypercube Photo Gallery of Canada. She has an intellectual online game at She is pro love.

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