Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Poser

He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk for no reason, peering up a building down the street. It was as though he'd remembered something but that thing was nothing. He rested his left arm over his abdomen and placed his other elbow on the back of his wrist so that he could perch his chin on his knuckles in the manner of The Thinker. He stood this way for several minutes, abstracted, perceiving the stream of pedestrians eddy around him and thoughts empty from his mind.

A young Japanese woman, giggling, stopped and furtively took his picture. He didn't protest, nor turn to her and smile back. In fact, he felt bound to remain still; the conical beam of her lens's field seemed to have a paralyzing power. Other people took interest in this odd scene: A chubby, middle-aged man took a picture of his own. Seeing this, another man took a picture. Then another. And then another woman did, with her cell phone camera. Through it all, he stood resolutely immobile. He would only permit himself darting, peripheral glances at his photographers; he thought they might be smiling, but it was hard to tell. Was this a joke?

A small crowd had gathered now, some taking pictures, others peering over shoulders with prurient curiosity. He stood at the center of it all. The indisputable object. No one had ever seen him like he was now seen. He liked it. Yet it alarmed him to realize that if he didn't move, this might never end. Finally, he raised both arms and faced the semicircle, a gesture signifying the completion of a performance and acknowledging the spectators' role. Someone began to clap. And then a few more. Soon the entire group was applauding with such enthusiasm that he felt he had to give a little bow. He strode deliberately forward, mind and heart pulsing, and the people parted for him, creating two neat rows through which he might regally proceed, and finally he was born back to the callous crowd, anonymous, coming to a crosswalk just like anybody else.

The experience left him aglow, like he'd taken a drug. He walked home ten feet off the ground. The following morning, he went back downtown and found a bench in a plaza between some office buildings. He experimented tentatively with several postures, positioning his limbs at certain angles, unaccustomed to being so conscious of his body. He finally arrived at a simple pose, cross-legged, hands gripping the bench seat on either side and eyes pointed directly forward. An unruly troop of schoolchildren passed by, led by their weary teacher. A homeless man fiddled with the contents of a trash can. Men and women strode by in business clothes, heads down, purposeful, unhappy.

Then he saw a couple stop at two o'clock. The man pointed his way and spoke to the woman, who ducked her head to listen as she peered toward the bench. Then the man took a picture. Passersby traced his camera's gaze to its target. Some kept walking. Others stopped. And as they stopped, more did. Soon there formed a gallery, astir with exclamations and gestures.

"That's him!"

"That's the posing guy!"

"That's him from yesterday!"

"That's the poser!"

Everyone who had a camera or a camera on their phone took pictures. Someone even ran behind the bench to pose with the poser. And again he remained still. People took pictures from either side and from behind him, too. Some came close and, kneeling on the cement, took theirs from two or three feet away. New arrivals, merely curious at first, were quickly indoctrinated as spectators to the picture-taking and then as picture-takers too. The crowd grew bigger than it had the day before, and he waited for perhaps an hour before getting up to face the crowd and again indicate the end with raised arms and a bow.

Every day he found somewhere new to pose: the train station, the shopping mall, the courthouse steps, beside a sculpture in the park. He'd vary his posture, too, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes lying down. Resting his hands on his hips. Gazing skyward. Burying his face in his hands. The crowds that gathered to photograph him grew larger, and the sessions longer. He became a phenomenon, a legend, all the more sensational for his singularity. He was the Poser. He was the one. No one else was him.

He was intoxicated by the attention at first, and now felt nourished by it, sustained. He'd never really known who he was, but now there could be no doubt. There was perhaps less doubt about who he was than about anyone else in the world. Major newspapers and magazines ran articles about the "Poser craze." Television crews appeared at his sessions. Academics and pundits speculated about his significance, viewing him variously as a symptom of dehumanizing modern life, a response to the bankruptcy of new media culture, a cipher upon which we seek to project our hopes and fears, a scapegoat, a Messiah. Reporters hounded him for interviews but he refused, believing that he only truly existed when he was still and quiet and the cameras were watching; everything else was nothing.

Every morning a crowd waited at his door and accompanied him everywhere, enthralled, awaiting the moment when he'd stop, stretch and shake his limbs, then configure his body into the position of the day. Tourists came from all around the world. He recognized devotees among the throng, sad-eyed men and women who took his picture every single day. He received every imaginable kind of fan mail: extravagantly erotic invitations from women; death threats; the desperate, semi-articulate pleas of the lost. There were copycats in operation throughout the city and elsewhere. But everybody knew there was only one of him.

Gradually, the fulfillment he drew from posing began to ebb. He felt trapped, put upon. Whereas at first he was in focus, now he was a target. So many people felt so many different things about him that he knew himself less and less. There came a point when he could hardly recognize this so-called self. When he posed, the burden of identity mounted with each click. Who was he now? And now? How about now? He'd crossed the sacred line between trying and pretending and now he was the worst kind of fraud: an impersonator of himself.

Eventually he realized, much as he had on that very first day, that this all had to come to an end somehow. So one day, he stayed home. An hour or so after he customarily left, the pounding and the shouts began.

"Come out!"

"Come out, Poser!"

"Pose for us!"

The crowd began a chant, tinged in equal measure with longing and reproach: Po-ser! Po-ser! Po-ser! Po-ser!

After two days and two nights, there was silence outside his door. He stepped out. The landing was littered with trash and debris but there was no one in sight. He walked down his street in peace. He entered the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes, some milk. A woman stood in the aisle. When she saw him she gasped and dropped a bottle of iced tea onto the floor, shattering it in shards and amber splatter. She did not look down.

"You're... you're the Poser," she stammered.

"I, well... I was," he said.

She tilted her head and looked for a moment like she was about to cry.

"Pose for me," she pleaded.

"I don't do that anymore," he said.

A man came around the corner behind her.

"Pose for us, Poser!" he demanded, waving a camera.

"I will not," he said.

The man, too, seemed on the verge of tears.

"How dare you give us something and take it away?" he howled.

Soon everyone in the store had gathered around him and he had to force his way to the door. The crowd followed him out the store. More joined on the street, swarming around him, barking at him, cameras at the ready, awaiting the slightest moment of immobility. He forced his way forward, waving his arms and shaking his head, trying to ignore the clamor. No one touched him – it had always been taboo to touch the Poser – but they circled as close as they could, backing up when he stepped toward them, moving in just as he stepped away.

"Stop moving! Stop moving!" they commanded. But he continued, blinded on all sides, knowing not where we was going. What mattered was to move.

As the curious procession traced its devious path through town, disagreements flared. Some took pity on him and began to advocate leaving him be. A debate began over the nature of his new and steadfast motion: Some said he'd transcended stillness. He'd never pose again because he'd reached the end of posing and come out, flailing, on the other side. This contingent began to refer to him as The Man Who Keeps On Moving. It became as important to these people that he remain in motion as it was to the others that he stop. The orthodox insisted that he was and always would be the Poser and that a poser must pose; not only is it in his nature, it's his moral duty. A fight broke out. Flying fists, staccato shouts. Twilight came and the diamonds of broken glass beneath his feet indicated that they were somewhere on the dilapidated edge of town.

All he wanted to do was get back home.