Ever since we read <i>And Every Day Was Overcast,</i> Paul Kwiatkowski's recent photo novel about messed-up adolescence in South Florida, he's become one of our favorite new photographers. Paul recently drove across the country for a solo book tour...
[Editor's note: I met Paul a few months ago at a storytelling event, but he's done some stuff for VICE in the past. He's one of those smiley, overly posi Florida punks who's covered in tattoos and is really nice to everybody, so I initially assumed he'd never been in "the shit." Then he told me a story about being held up at gunpoint by Brazilian thugs in a botched bus robbery, and that shut me up pretty quickly. He just sent us this dispatch from a recent book tour for And Every Day Was Overcast, his terrific new photo novel about growing up among fishing tackle and drugs in Loxahatchee, Florida. If you've ever been on a book tour, you'll know it's more about wine and cheese and bad drugs, so kudos to Paul for pushing himself to the limit for this mind-numbingly boring responsibility. Enjoy!]
Rainelle, West Virginia
Kelly tries to Instagram a butterfly caught in the wipers. As she’s about to click, I spray the windshield with fluid. It’ll buy me another hour of silence. I’m driving from New York to Minneapolis for the start of my book tour, but the first stop is in West Virginia, to leave Kelly at her aunt’s.
I like people who know when to lower their standards. Kelly is the type of girl who helps pay for gas with rolled-up $20s flattened against her ass. Back in New York, we had sex one time and never again. She said my hands were too cold, that it was gross that I sleep with my socks on.
Today, we’re mutually parasitic. On occasion, when all our friends are estranged, we relapse on one another. There’s no common circle of friends between us, so whatever we do together has no repercussions.
Road trips are the ultimate test of any friendship. I’m relieved to drop her off.
Tonight, I’m staying at a nicotine-themed hotel room in Rainelle. The smell matches the shag. All night I watch the only working channel, ID: Investigation Discovery. An entire network of true-crime entertainment exclusively made up of lurid reenactments, courtroom footage, 911 calls, pan-and-scan video technology, crime-scene photography, ghoulish hosts, news clips, dubious interviews, home video, and family albums full of mementos. Back in the 90s, the prototype for these shows was America’s Most Wanted. It was my childhood filter for the social topography of Florida—as a series of grainy amateur porn stills and mug shots.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Driving down the reasonably lavish suburbs of Saint Paul, I can’t help picturing an episode of 20/20 called “Merlot in the Morning”:
Their secret is out: Mothers who get through the day with a little bit of help from a bottle.
Elizabeth Vargas recognizes the courage it takes for these women to open their homes and allow themselves to be filmed drunk and vulnerable. There’s pause when she mentions they may have shown up to the interviews hammered.
Early morning, the audience sees a series of cross-fade dissolves, a white picket fence, pink azaleas, and suburban homes. As one naughty mommy is pulling out of the driveway, Elizabeth lands a jab about this time of day, its being happy hour. We see another montage of personal snapshots of mommy as a once functional politician and wife. The photos distort and waver as if they’re inside a crystal ball.
Life for a stay-at-home mom goes from pinot in the park to merlot in the morning.
Mommy number one asks: “Why do I fight this urge to drink wine in the morning?”
Again Elizabeth chimes in. The real question is: Why wine over liquor? The bottles are less shameful.
Elizabeth reminds us that it's not just this one naughty mommy—it's a pride. A conspiracy unfolds.
I’m at the Ramada for the first time, in a part of the country I’ve never been to. The outskirts of every American city are the same: neither city nor suburb, a point of departure, an industrial broom closet where things are never found. My window overlooks an industrial road called Industrial Road. Semis filter through a loading station then merge back onto the highway. The only other buildings are a gas station and Burger King. I feel like I’ve been here before.
On the ground floor is a swimming pool and an adjunct office space refurbished as a gym. I peek in through the pane of glass above the doorknob. Sitting on the edge of the bench press is a guy who reminds me of thuggier version of Billy Bob Thornton circa 2003, but post-Angelina. He has an effeminately manicured skin fade, pencil-thin chinstrap, soul patch, and diamond earring. I can’t stop myself from imagining him as a quivering pink muscle wearing an expressionless euro thrash mask. We sustain eye contact as I back away and turn toward the elevator.
Today is the first time I’ve spoken to an audience, and I'm nervous. I chase Xanax with whiskey shots at the Vietnamese bar next-door to the bookstore. I warp the crowd’s apathetic faces by not wearing my glasses. All I see is a bespectacled, Silly Putty–hued blur stretching from the front row to the door. After being introduced, I black out. I know it’s supposed to be a list of musings: fact, fiction, reality, memoir, and childhood insecurities. Instead I mutter non sequiturs about taking acid at Epcot center as a kid. I silently hope that the audience is high enough to ride this shredded wavelength.
San Francisco, California
This hotel room smells sulfuric and mossy. The wall directly outside my window belongs to an AIDS clinic. I love that the fun, seedy parts of San Francisco feel art-directed. I imagine the entire city was created by an angry twink with a megaphone trumpeting stage directions to a cast of crust punks, burnouts, hippy residuals, drifters, homeless types, and party boys who barely survived the fun. “We’re gonna need, like, four more guys smoking crack over there by the Burger King. Where’s the blonde dreadlocks guy?! Yes, Aaron—where the fuck is Aaron?! One my cue, I need everyone to act 50 percent more free-spirited!”
I’m doing a presentation alongside author and photographer Scot Sothern about explicit content in literature and photography, followed by a Q&A—generally a cue for uncomfortable silence. Afterwards, the packed room clears out so quickly I have no idea if it had gone well. Next door, where I’m supposed to sign books, a semi-pretty girl from the audience wants to know if she can ask a “personal question.” Am I circumcised, and, if so, does it make sex more pleasurable? Her brothers were born in Mexico and weren’t. I tell her not to spend so much time thinking about her brothers’ cocks.
It’s hard not to get high in San Francisco. After two weeks, I totally get it when people talk about bad energy and not feeling grounded. Someday, San Francisco will un-anchor itself and break loose from its foundations. Sections will peel off, fluttering away from the coast, ascending to catastrophic altitudes.
Los Angeles, California
I'm at a YMCA in the Palisades trying to run off the effects of a pot brownie someone handed me at a house party in Venice last night. Not having the attention span required to run outdoors, I have to run fastened to a treadmill, in front of a mirror, staring into my own eyes. Do people really enjoy watching themselves run? The only direction to which I can avert my eyes is up toward a row of televisions. They’re all playing another Investigation Discovery show called I Disappeared. The episode is about young black girl named Mitrice Richards who was arrested in Malibu after a manic episode that ended with her trying to skip out on her restaurant bill. That night she was released from an isolated and remote police station, aptly named the Lost Hills Sheriff Department. She vanishes.
Reports of possible sightings trickle in. Some say they spotted her sleeping on a patio in Malibu Canyon, and as many as 70 claim to have seen her in Vegas. There is no definitive proof of her whereabouts until her partially mummified remains are discovered a year later, scattered throughout a ravine eight miles from where she was released. Her case becomes a nationally recognized police debacle and subsequent media feast. There are so many dots to connect that they form arrows pointing in opposite directions. Some blame it on the police; others say it was a mental-health accident waiting to happen. Her case remains unsolved.
When I’m done running, I smoke a joint in my rental car in the parking lot and watch a video of Mitrice on my phone. She’s on stage, speaking to the host of a beauty pageant. The host asks her what technological advancement does she wish had never been invented.
“Cell phones,” Mitrice says, “although when you’re stranded, they help you contact your family. I wish they could be limited to emergencies only.” When she was released at 1 AM in an unfamiliar neighborhood in Western San Fernando Valley, she had neither her wallet nor her cell phone.
The next scene is of her walking the stage wearing a sparkly white gown that shimmers cubistically on my pixilated screen.
It’s a matter of physics. The desert air funnels in through the brush-covered canyons, heating the air through compression. Out here, I’m insulated by the Santa Monica Mountains. Cities are a parallel dimension I’m having trouble reentering.
My book tour ended in Los Angeles after my gallery show was canceled. I’m in Malibu for the month, living off some money I made selling my prints to an art collector. Aside from the book advance, it’s the first money I’ve ever made off art. I feel like I got away with something. The guilt is short lived.
The idea of staving off seasonal depression by renting a small one-bedroom in Malibu sounds like a fine idea. I can sublet my apartment in Brooklyn to vacationing Europeans for twice what I pay. Can I actually make money being here, doing nothing?
Acclimating to LA is tougher than expected. I rarely leave my apartment. The winding roads of Malibu give me motion sickness. My mind is never clear. To counterbalance the nausea, I drink too much. Hello, merlot in the morning! On nights I can’t sleep, I take drunken walks down winding Piuma Road through the valley. From inside the canyon, the Pacific sounds like heavy breathing. Nature’s lack of constraint here is paralyzing.
To compose myself, I smoke out beneath the lagoon bridges. They remind me of the overpass in Florida that I used to hang out under. The graffiti looks like it was inspired by Mitrice. The authorities tried to whitewash it, but you can still see the images: identical versions of a black female with an afro—similar to the photo of Mitrice on the night of her arrest. I can’t tell if it’s one artist or several. The images are sexualized, crude like pop-art cave paintings deifying a black goddess.
In some of them, she’s emerging from her own vagina. In another, the female bodies are twisted into the letters: JOIF. Look up JOIF on Urban Dictionary; it means “to be violently hit” or “jump on it fast.”
In my mind, Disappeared-style reenactments blend with murals and beauty pageant footage. Sections of her pull together, converging into a whole.
I look at her distorted figure, hoping that if I stare long enough, the image will rearrange into a message.