As this project developed and I began to actively shoot unpaired photos, one object that I wondered if I would find was an earplug. Since that wondering began, I’ve photographed two. Here’s the first one’s story.
At 9:34 AM on Monday, 29 January, two men stood next to a white 2006 GMC pickup truck at the corner of Stadium Drive and Sixth Street. One man, older, shorter, grayer, balder pointed west down the sidewalk on which they stood. “Blow that walk,” he said. “Straight and then down ’round the corner if ya have time. Just blow ’til yer shift ends.”
A close observer would have seen the young man, press his lips together and tighten his chest muscles before both loosened as he took a breath. He then said, “right.”
“And use yer earplugs. Ya got earplugs, right?” The young man pulled a clear plastic rectangular packet from the pocket of his worn and dirty jeans and held it out in front of himself at shoulder height. There was a flash of purple in the middle of the packet sitting in his palm. “Good,” the older man said. “we gotta lecture earlier about makin’ sure you kids use ear protection with the high D.B. equipment.”
Neither man said anything for a moment. The older man’s expression was flat, eyes focused on the younger man’s face. The younger man took a breath in and as he exhaled, his eyes shifted down to the clear plastic packet in his hand. Each man took in a breath and exhaled. For the next seventeen seconds their breathing was synchronized as they stood facing each other.
They said, “well,” simultaneously. The younger man said it with a downward inflection with a flattening of the eyebrows and a turn of the head to the bed of the pickup. The older man said it with an upward inflection, a shift of his gaze to the packet in the younger man’s hand and an upward pointing gesture of his right hand.
The younger man turned his head from the pickup back to the older man’s face and raised his eyebrows. The older man gestured again with his right hand, pointing at the packet in the young man’s hand and then sweeping his hand up to point to the side of the young man’s head. The young man pulled his eyebrows together and squinted slightly. The older man grunted and said, “put the damn things in.”
The young man looked at the older man’s face. After a moment his lips flattened and his eyelids half-closed. Then he opened the packet, pulled out the first purple earplug, rolled it between his right thumb and index finger and inserted it in his right ear. He then rolled the second one for a moment and inserted it in his left ear. He stuffed the plastic envelope in the front right pocket of his jeans and then turned and reached into the bed of the pickup.
“Didja gas it up?” the old man said. The younger man continued to lean over into the bed of the pickup. He reached down and a moment later straightened with a gas-powered backpack blower in his hands. As he began to turn away from the truck toward the sidewalk, his back still toward the older man, the older man tapped him on the shoulder. The young man’s shoulders stiffened and his back suddenly straightened. He turned and the older man said again, “didja gas it up?”
The young man carefully set the blower on the ground, reached up to his right ear with his left hand and pinched the purple earplug out of his ear. “Excuse me?” the young man said.
“Didja gas it up?”
“You watched me gas it up, York,” the young man said slowly with no inflection.
The older man, York, nodded and said, “Blow that walk.” He pointed west and continued, “Straight and then down ’round the corner if ya have time. Just blow ’til yer shift ends.”
“Yep. Like you said.”
“And use yer earplugs,” York said, still nodding. “We gotta lecture about makin’ sure you kids use yer earplugs.”
“With the high D.B. equipment,” the young man said as he leaned down and pushed a small dirty red rubber button on the engine of the blower three times. He put his left hand – pinky and ring finger wrapped around the earplug -on the side of the machine and wrapped his right hand around a red t-shaped handle. His legs contracted slightly and the muscles of his back tensed.
“Kid!” York said.
The young man’s back spasmed and levered up and he stepped back quickly with his right foot. He took a breath – in and out – before he turned to the older man. As his eyes met York’s the young man’s mouth was almost flat, corners upturned just a few millimeters. “York?” he said with significant up inflection.
York gestured with a pointing index finger from the young man’s left hand up and across to point at his right ear.
The young man’s facial muscles tensed, but the expression changed not at all. He took an breath in, over-filling his lungs and as he let it out, he hastily shoved the earplug in his right ear.
York nodded and gestured down to the machine on the sidewalk. The young man closed his eyes, held them closed while he took in and released a breath and turned to the machine. He opened his eyes and returned to the t-shaped handle and bracing posture.
“Didja prime it?” York said. The young man simultaneously pulled up and back with his right hand. The engine started and York watched as the young man lifted the machine and slung it on his back. York nodded at the young man’s back.
As York walked around the back of the truck and up to the driver’s door, the young man adjusted the straps and took the blower nozzle handle in his right hand. His hand twisted slightly and the engine RPM rose 25 percent as he turned to face west on the sidewalk.
The young man began sweeping the nozzle left and right ahead of him, stepping slowly down the sidewalk. The truck made a u-turn behind him.
A cloud of dust and an arcing ridge of gravel formed ahead of the young man as he made his way west. After seven minutes, 21 feet from his starting spot, a flash of purple could be seen tumbling from the young man’s right ear. The earplug bounced twice on his neck and was caught between the collar of his t-shirt just above his right collarbone.
Moments after the earplug stopped moving, the young man’s left hand shot up and around and swatted violently at the path the earplug had followed down his neck. As the hand swept from neck to collarbone, it connected with the earplug and propelled the purple foam object into the grass six feet behind and to the right of the young man.
As he scratched his neck with his left hand, his eyebrows pulled together. The young man’s left hand reached up to his right ear. His index finger probed the ear canal for a moment before the hand dropped to his side and his head and eyes fell and began to scan the ground around his feet. Sixteen seconds later, he shook his head and resumed the sweeping motion with the nozzle and the slow movement to the west.
. . .
Just over three hours later, the young man was at a long, high table facing east in the window of the coffee shop on Sixth and Main Streets, sitting to the left of a young woman. He smelled of engine exhaust. Both of them were smiling as he finished the story he was telling, with a low, growling, drawling, “makin’ sure you kids use yer earplugs with the high D.B. equipment.”
“I still don’t understand what you were doing,” the young woman said.
He turned his head toward her and said, “Huh?”
“What were you blowing off the sidewalk?” The volume of her voice increased 20 percent.
“Oh. Traction gravel and sand. We sand the sidewalks. And the gravel gets thrown up from the street.”
She said, “So you put it on and clear it off depending on -”
He turned his head again and interrupted, “what’s that?”
“Never mind,” she said.
“Lost an earplug today,” he let out a breath and took a sip from the white bowl-shaped coffee cup he held in both hands.
She smiled and as he looked out the window in front of him she turned slightly and said quietly, “so you can’t hear out of this ear?”
“This latte is good,” he said.
She smiled and said at the volume level of her question about the sidewalk, “They know their bidness here.”
“Yep,” he nodded and sipped again, looking out the window.
She turned again, leaned toward him and said at a volume ten percent lower than her earlier question about his hearing, “you really should ask me out, you silly boy.”
He pointed out the window and said, “what breed do you think that puppy is?”
She smiled, let out a breathy chuckle and then said at the loudest volume yet, “This is fun. It’s a labradoodle.”
He turned toward with his eyebrows drawn together slightly. When his eyes met hers, the crease at the top of his nose flattened and he matched her smile. “It is,” he said. She laughed he smiled.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?'” she said.
Nine-tenths of a mile west on Sixth Street a lanky man walking eastbound on the sidewalk on the north side of the street stopped in his tracks. He looked down into the grass to his left. His face broke into a smile and he laughed loudly. He unslung the pack from his back, unzip a large side pocket and pulled out a camera.