"Don't be crazy. I have a place way downtown but I thought it would be simpler to meet somewhere central. It's very nice to have this opportunity. But you talked about conditions without really specifying. I mean how much time do I get to spend with him? And how long can I expect to be gone because I have a schedule that's really quite firm and I haven't, you know, brought days and days of underwear."
"Wait. Are we moving?"
"It's a revolving bar," she said.
"Jesus. Where am I?"
"Isn't it strange? New York has fallen."
He watched Broadway float into the curved window and felt as if blocks of time and space had come loose and drifted. The misplaced heartland hotel. The signs for Mita, Midori, Kirin, Magno, Suntory-words that were part of some synthetic mass language, the esperanto of jet lag. And the tower under construction across the street, webbed and draped against the weather, figures moving fleetly past gaps in the orange sheeting. He saw them clearly now, three or four kids playing on the girders, making the building seem a ruin, an abandonment.
"I also have to tell you I don't understand the drill. I would prefer to get there on my own."
"Get where? You wouldn't know where you were going."
"You could tell me, couldn't you?" she said.
"Bill insists we do it this way."
"A little melodramatic maybe?"
"Bill insists. Besides, we're very hard to find."
"All right. But for the man's own peace of mind, why not choose a neutral site? That way there's no problem over disclosure. His whereabouts remain secret."
"I don't think you'll have very much to disclose. And Bill knows you won't talk anyway."
"How does he know?"
"We saw the piece about you in Aperture. That's how we decided you were the one. And he couldn't meet you somewhere else because he doesn't go anywhere else, except to hide from the book he's doing."
"I do love his books. They really mattered to me. And he hasn't been photographed in what? We must be speaking in the multi decades. So why don't I just relax?"
"Why don't you just relax?" Scott said.
Above the bar area there was a clock rotating in an openwork tower. From the table he could see through the bare trellis and clock framework to the elevators. He thought he could easily sit all afternoon watching the elevators rise and drop, clear pods ringed with pinpoint lighting. They moved soundlessly, clinging to the surface of a vast central cylinder. Everything was moving, everything was slowly turning, there was music coming from somewhere. He watched the people inside the elevators, deftly falling. High up, on the walkways, an occasional figure looking down, head and upper body. He wondered if the thing the woman tried to give him in the street might be a newborn child. The same musical phrase over and over, coming from somewhere.
"You photograph only writers now."
"Only writers. I frankly have a disease called writers. It took me a long time to find out what I wanted to photograph. I came to this country it's fifteen years. To this city actually. And I roamed the streets first day, taking pictures of city faces, eyes of city people, slashed men, prostitutes, emergency rooms, forget it. I did this for years. Many times I used a wide-angle lens and pressed the shutter release with the camera hanging at my chest from a neck strap so I wouldn't attract the wrong kind of attention, thank you very much. I followed derelicts practically to their graves. And I used to go to night court just to look at faces. I mean New York, please, this is my official state religion. But after years of this I began to think it was somehow, strangely-not valid. No matter what I shot, how much horror, reality, misery, ruined bodies, bloody faces, it was all so fucking pretty in the end. Do you know? And so I had to work out for myself certain complicated things that are probably very simple. You reach a certain age, isn't that the way it works? Then you know what you want to do at last."
She was eating roasted nuts from her loosely clenched fist, popping one at a time and drinking peppered vodka.
"But isn't it restful here?" he said. "I'm mesmerized by the elevators. It might be a new addiction."
"Give me a break," she said, and her slight accent and the worn-out catch phrase and the formal way she offered it, without crunching the first two words together, made him very happy.
"Only writers," she said.
"And you're making a record, a kind of census in still pictures."
"I will just keep on photographing writers, every one I can reach, novelists, poets, playwrights. I am on the prowl, so to speak. I never stop traveling and taking pictures. This is what I do now. Writers."
"Every man and woman who is out there and who is reachable. If someone's not well known, so much the better. Given a choice, I prefer to search out writers who remain obscure. I get tips all the time, I get names and books from editors and other writers who understand what I'm doing or at least they say they do to make me feel better. A planetary record. For me, it's a form of knowledge and memory. I'm furnishing my own kind of witness. I try to do it systematically, country by country, but there are always problems. Finding some writers is a problem. And there are many writers in prison. This is always a problem. In some cases I've received permission to photograph writers under house arrest. People are starting to know me and this helps sometimes."
"Yes, and writers. They're willing to see me because they know I'm simply doing a record. A species count, one writer said. I eliminate technique and personal style to the degree that this is possible. Secretly I know I'm doing certain things to get certain effects. But we ignore this, you and I. I'm four years on this project, which by its nature of course there is no end."
"The question is, what happens to Bill's pictures?"
"This is completely up to you. I make some pictures available to publishers or the media but only if the writer gives consent. This is how I support the project, along with several grants. I have a travel grant I absolutely depend on. Magazines would do anything to run a photo essay on Bill Gray. But I don't want to do pictures that make a revelation, that say here he is after all these years. A simple study piece is better. I want to do pictures that are unobtrusive, shy actually. Like a work-in-progress. Not so permanent and finished. Then you look at the contacts and decide what you want me to do with them."
"These are the answers we were hoping to get."
"Good. So life goes on."
"And what happens ultimately to your pictures of writers as a collection?"
"Ultimately I don't know. People say some kind of gallery installation. Conceptual art. Thousands of passport-size photos. But I don't see the point myself. I think this is a basic reference work. It's just for storing. Put the pictures in the basement of some library. If people want to look, they come and ask. I mean what's the importance of a photograph if you know the writer's work? I don't know. But people still want the image, don't they? The writer's face is the surface of the work. It's a clue to the mystery inside. Or is the mystery in the face? Sometimes I think about faces. We all try to read faces. Some faces are better than some books. Or put the pictures in a space capsule, that would be fantastic. Send them into space. Greetings. We are writers of Earth."
The elevators climb and fall, the clock rotates, the bar slowly turns, the signs appear once more, the traffic lights change, the yellow taxis come and go. Magno, Minolta, Kirin, Sony, Sun-tory. What does Bill say? The city is a device for measuring time.
"There are kids up there. See them? Around the twentieth floor. Can you believe it?"