Author Archives

Eryn Loeb
Eryn Loeb is a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her writing about nostalgia, books, and feminism (or some combination of those things) has appeared in Poets & Writers, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Times, The Awl, and Vela, among other publications.

When Friendship Fades But the Images Linger

Photos by Cody Doherty & Barron Roth, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Eryn Loeb | Longreads | August 2019 | 14 minutes (3,579 words)

It started with pictures of Alice. She didn’t mind being put in awkward situations or uncomfortable positions for the sake of a photo. That made her a good friend. I put a tangled Rapunzel wig on her head, a plastic gun in her hands. I had her stand in the middle of the road, wearing a plaid bathrobe. Straddle a highway median in a tulle skirt and sneakers. Swan around the woods in a feather boa. She had a classically pretty face that could suggest everyone or no one. I blazed through rolls of black and white film, which I developed in my high school darkroom with clumsy chemistry and a pounding heart.

On the strength of those pictures, I was accepted to a summer photography workshop in Rockport, Maine. A small group of us — mostly but not entirely college students and recent grads — paid reduced tuition in exchange for doing odd jobs: hosing down vans, painting picnic tables, moving furniture. When we were lucky, we got to pay our dues in the darkroom, turning around contact sheets and prints for students who attended the pricey weeklong workshops, many of them taught by famous photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, and Joyce Tennyson. For those more typical students, relationships and revelations were fast-tracked. We watched their tentative arrival and swift blossoming, the compressed intensity between introductions and teary-eyed goodbyes. Our own seven week stretch wasn’t all that long, really, but measured in units of other people’s personal growth, it felt almost permanent.

It was summer and I was 19, living with a bunch of other young people who had stepped away from their fledgling lives to devote time to some version of art. Maine was dreamy, with quiet stretches of woods full of swimming holes and rope swings, lobster traps stacked in pleasing geometries. There was a glass-blowing studio in the ground floor of the house where we lived, and an old cemetery just down the road. I liked to walk around and take pictures of elaborately carved headstones memorializing wives and mothers, running my fingers over their names and honorifics. I was never without my camera. I spent hours in the darkroom but still found time to get sunburned.

When I wasn’t out shooting or cooped up printing, one of my favorite places was the library. It was a hot, lofted area in the small campus’ main building. A sign posted at the base of the stairs gave me solemn shivers. “Enter with respect for the knowledge that resides herein and with honor for those who are about to share with you their secrets and wisdom,” it read. “Maintain a serene presence.” I sat on the floor and pored over monographs: Francesca Woodman’s pictures of herself crouching in corners, hanging from window frames, a wild blur in an abandoned house. Nan Goldin’s pictures of herself and her friends all tangled up in each other, the color shots suffused with adulation and danger. Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, feral despite their polish. Judy Dater organized her images by gender; portfolios of men, of women.
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With a Rent-Stabilized Lease, Finding the Line Between Luck and a Life Sentence

East 13th Street in New York (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)

Eryn Loeb | Longreads | March 2018 | 16 minutes (3,988 words)

 

The whole reason I had the rent-stabilized apartment on East 13th Street was because my aunt lived in it before me. Leslie first rented the place in 1981, when she was 23, for $345 a month. In the early ’90s she left and moved to Seattle, but kept the lease in her name. When I was looking for a place to land after college, she was quick to kick out a random subletter and turn the place over to me. The subletter, a tiny Japanese woman who was running an illicit hair salon out of the kitchen, had staple-gunned bed sheets up throughout the place as makeshift room dividers. The effect, when I first came to check out the place and negotiate her exit, was a kind of diaphanous claustrophobia.

The apartment was a dingy, naturally repellent kind of place that set me on edge even as it sucked me in. But it didn’t even occur to me not to seize on it: Here was a place in New York that could be mine, alone. All of a sudden I was one of those lucky people who inherit something that’s otherwise impossible to get, and have an easier life because of it. (That last part, though, didn’t strike me at the time.) I was 22 when I lugged my boxes in on a stormy-sticky July day in 2004. The rent by then was $775.

It was a railroad apartment, somewhere around 300 square feet — a long, awkward space, cave-like and crooked, in a deep funk of cracking and peeling and generally breaking down. Horizontal surfaces sloped dramatically; all the furniture on the west wall had to be propped on blocks to keep it from toppling over. The light fixture in the tiny, sink-less bathroom was half-detached from the ceiling in a way that might have seemed dangerous if I thought about it seriously. Early on I chipped some paint off the bathroom door, exposing cross-sections of something like a dozen layers of paint beneath the most recent coat: turquoises and taupes alternating with the layers of white that signaled periodic fresh starts.

The kitchen floor — cloudy, black, sticky linoleum tiles Leslie told me she had laid over plywood some 20 years ago — was coming up in patches, ragged chunks of it breaking off and clinging to my bare feet. The only sink was in the kitchen, and so it was the site not only of always overdue dishwashing but also of twice daily toothbrushing. I paced as I brushed, returning to the wobbly sink cabinet to spit mouthfuls of spent paste without regard for any plates and utensils blocking the way of the drain. A heel-sized hole formed in a spot right in front of the sink, exposing an archaeology of the floor: layers of wood and particle board and laminate laid down and covered over and then covered over again.

The whole building was like that, a place of pilings on, of covering up, of semi-smoothing over, of barely acceptable surfaces coming undone. Five stories that were safe in the ways that mattered, and sketchy enough to confer some cred. Along the narrow stairways the walls were covered with proof of comings and goings, arced scuffs and deep abrasions from thousands of oversized objects being dragged up and down, in and out.

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