The crumbled bones of a building rose up, tower some six stories, broken glass and exposed beams, cement like dead flesh. Covered in faded graffiti scribbles, a little bombed-out passage gave a dim glimpse: rubbish piles, sleeping stray cats, green growing from the tumble of rubble, left there as though bombed not some 20 years ago, but just a few months ago.
And laundry lines. Satellite dishes. People were living there.
Kotor was kind of a let-down. The guidebook gushed, but the city was boring to me. Sure, it was beautiful, but it was a manicured beautiful, a theme-park quaint—ancient wall uplit, facades restored, stones scrubbed clean—all in an effort, it appeared, to lure Western tourists an hour south. A new Dubrovnik.
And it appeared to be working. October, and the streets of Kotor’s Old Town were filled with busloads of snapshot takers. It was beautiful, beautiful, but there was nothing for me to hold on to, dig in to, grab ahold of. It felt slippery, like swimming.
Poking my head in didn’t suffice. I needed to see more.
I went around the building’s backside, a dirt road, squat brick structure covered in green foliage and gray tarps, huddling up alongside the tower of crumble. Run-down cars and makeshift workshops, the buzz of machinery and the yap of roped dogs, the slowness of people living their everyday lives.
Two people stood in a doorway, staring out at me. Not hostile, but observing, in that way we observe outsiders that are observing us—suddenly aware, self-conscious of our own reality. This is my life, the arms crossed over the woman’s apron seemed to say.
I smiled and shrugged sort of, pointed to the tower rising up behind their roof, a shadow or a ghost or a dingy kind of demon, a relic. The man, seemingly more amused, walked up to me.
He pointed to the tower, then around him, then right down to the ground he stood on, we stood on. “Bosnia, Serbia, no Montenegro.” He made the shape of an explosion with his hands, big, calloused, oil-stained hands, fingers arched wide, as if trying to contain a growing cloud. “NATO,” he explained, then pointed back to the blown-out tower.
He looked at me, and nodded slowly. We stood there like that, in the silence, having gone as far as our linguistic capabilities would allow.
I pointed to my camera. “Okay?” I asked.
The man nodded. The woman in the doorway laughed, shook her head, turned and went back inside.
I wandered further. I passed a man chopping wood. He stood between two massive piles, one cut, the other uncut. He paused to observe me, nodded slightly, went back to work.
I didn’t want to photograph them. I didn’t want to photograph these people I saw, living beside and inside this huge crumbled building, a relic of destruction, going about their tasks, looking out from their doorways at me. I didn’t want them to feel like they were on exhibit, like they were amusing or exotic to me. I just wanted to see them, to see what was really there, how people really lived in this town, what their lives really looked like.
I poked up a small ladder, peered in through the broken window—a makeshift carpenter’s studio, desk and a pile of wood, two stories. I gazed up through the gaping wound in the center of the building. Dim light came through ceiling, so many stories up.
I climbed back down the ladder. The little eyes were still watching me; I smiled and turned to walk away.
He came out behind the pillar. He glanced over at me, as if to say “watch me,” and I did. He ran up to the ladder. His small feet scampered up; he crouched down to crawl the fangs of glass.
He stopped, paused, only for a moment, to look back over at me. His eyes seemed to say, “Look. See. This is my life. This is my world. See me.”
I did. Or I tried to. I really just stood there and watched.
The boy ducked down through the window and was gone—him into his world, and me into mine.