My encounter with Bob, and his wife by John Koster

Bob was kicking around the same trading post I was in Bisbee, Arizona and he turned around and asked me what I thought about the hat. I told him I fully approved and he allowed me to take this shot. He asked me if I had the car with the Wisconsin plates outside, and when I answered yes, he told me that he and his wife used to visit his brother in Eagle River, but his brother had long since passed.

Then Bob shared with me that his wife had passed just six weeks ago after having a major stroke on the day after their 48th anniversary. I told him how sorry I was for his loss, and he said, "I don't know what to do. She didn't wake up one morning, and then two days later, we were burying her. Everyone was great, the kids, the family and the neighbors all took care of everything because I couldn't think. I couldn't talk. I couldn't even cry. It just wasn't real. So for a week, everyone was there and it was like a big reunion, like a big party for her, but she wasn't there."

He continued, "Then after a week, and all her clothes were packed away and the house cleaned up and everyone went back to their lives but I couldn't go back to mine. I just stood there in the middle of the living room and expected her to walk in any minute. I stood there for two days waiting for her. I know that sounds crazy, but we never spent a day without each other, for forty-eight years. Finally I lay on the floor and talked to her for a full day, crying and laughing and remembering all the good times and all the really shitty times, too. Then I packed up the car and hit the road and I'm going to take a good long trip with her by my side. I think she'd really like this hat. She always wanted me to get a black one but I thought it made me look like a bad guy, like in the movies."

Bob asked me if I'd have a beer with him across the street and I told him that was the best idea I'd heard all day. So we sat across the street and had a drink and he told me all about his wife Gloria. I had the distinct feeling as he told me story after story that she was sitting right next to us, admiring his beautiful black hat.

That which is closer to us than the air we breathe. by John Koster

In my travels across the American Southwest, I kept having encounters that made me feel as though a power greater than I was putting people in my path to guide my journey. That’s why I’d like to tell you about my time with Dennis.

I was walking around the Plaza in the center of downtown Santa Fe (wearing my kick-ass new boots, by the way) and it was a cold late afternoon, with no more than a half hour left of good light. I stopped by an older native American man I'd seen playing his flute out here a few times before. I dropped some money in the basket and stood back, waiting to figure out how I'd like to photograph him. His eyes were closed, oblivious to those around him, as he played a soft, haunting melody that gave me goosebumps.

It was just he and I on the plaza square, too cold except, perhaps, for him and someone from the north who considers it a pretty balmy day, all in all.

I started to take a few shots of him when the song came to an end and his eyes opened, and he looked at me. I reached out and introduced myself to him, and he smiled such a beautiful (albeit toothless) smile. "Hello, John", he said, "nice to meet you on your journey. Thank goodness you're here, I was waiting for you to wake me up!" At this point I had told him my name, nothing else. He shook my hand and said, "My name is Dennis."

I started to ask many of the same questions I normally asked, and he responded, so quietly I leaned into him to try and understand. He looked at me and said, 'You're interested in the thread that binds us all. That's why I'm here, and it's why you're here." I had been on that side of the street on the plaza before, a busy place full of working people and buskers and tourists slowly making their way from store to store. Today, it was just Dennis, and me.

Dennis told me he was born in Arizona and that he was a Maricopa Indian. He had been taken from his home early in his life because his mother had died and his father was an alcoholic and couldn't care for him and his brothers. "I'm state raised", he said. "I had no idea where to put my feet and I was afraid." He described this to me in almost a whisper, and his voice was almost as lyrical as the flute he played.

"From seventeen on, I was incarcerated. After I got out, I went to California, where I ended up in several prisons. I had a terrible addiction to alcohol, and I was very angry." I nodded my head, and kept listening. "After I got out of prison, I committed another crime and this time I was in big trouble. I had to get into the wind and get away." He smiled and continued, "I ran into the desert outside of Tucson and I hid in the bushes. I was desperate and I had run out of anger. I only had despair. I was laying in the bushes one night, and I asked the Great Spirit for a pillow. It was then that I turned and saw a rock and knew the Great Spirit had given me a pillow. At once, I had my eyes opened. I realized that I could make this world anything I wanted it to be, and that I didn't need anger or despair." He then smiled at me, with a serene look on his face. "The next morning, I turned myself into the Police and was glad to finally be done with anger, and despair, and running. I wanted a place to put my feet on the ground."

"When all of that was behind me, I found a flute and began to play. The music is a great gift I give people. It helps them find their feet on the ground." He smiled. "I had a flute but still did not have a place to grow as a human being, which I wanted to become. I drifted to Santa Fe, and when I got here, I could feel that this was the place where I could feel the ground under my feet." He has now been in Santa Fe over 40 years.

"John," he said, " What you are looking for, what we are looking for is right here in front of us. It is closer to you than the breath you breathe. When I play my flute, I see people's eyes open and I see that they are experiencing the Great Spirit, closer to them than the breath they breathe. It is all right here, inside of us. Politicians and the Powerful are far from it. A Garbage collector is much closer to it than those people. I can only feel so sorry for them. They have no place to put their feet on the ground."

He then began to play his flute, and I stood there with Dennis, feeling a little stunned. When he finished he said to me, "John, you have gotten off the treadmill, you are now awake. Keep looking for the thread that runs through us, it's the Great Spirit and it is our place to have our feet on the ground. Only things on the ground can grow and experience all that life is."

Dennis continued, "Let me tell you a story. There is a man here that I admire so much, I could never approach him. For years we would pass by and acknowledge each other, but I never spoke to him. I had no idea what to say. One day, I saw him come into Starbucks while I was sitting drinking coffee and reading the paper. When he sat down beside me I knew I finally had to speak to him. I asked him, what is the most important thing in life? He said "Shut Up!" and pointed his finger in my face. "There" he said, "right there. Right when you shut up, and listened, it was right there. Now go ahead and continue reading the paper, if you like." It was there when I understood why I admired him. He knew when to be quiet and see the thread that binds us all, that which is closer to us than the breath we breathe."

I had no idea what to say. I stood there, stunned. I had told him nothing about me, other than I was a photographer who took portraits of people on the street. I still am trying to figure out what transpired. Then Dennis said, "I am seventy-two years old. Most of me is gone. My fingers ache and its harder to make music and remind people of what is closer to them than their breath. Soon I will be in the wind and part of the Great Spirit."

I asked him if I could share his story, Dennis smiled and nodded. Then he said, "tell them that I am Dennis and I had my feet on the ground, and I was really lucky to have helped people see what is closer to them than the breath they breathe."

If you have time, and you're so inclined, come visit Dennis before he is done playing and is part of the Great Spirit. He will remind you what is closer to you than the breath you breathe.


Ghosts Among Us by John Koster

I call them Ghosts.


With the kind of work I do, I see them everywhere. Scurrying around in the shadows, making their way into places we do not go. They don’t make eye contact, they don’t respond to conversation, they are not present when I’m talking to them. The only people that they interact with are their own. And they share a common, silent language. The language of desperate, end-stage drug and alcohol addicts.


The first time I encountered a ghost was in year one of being a cop, with a night beat in one of the worst parts of town. It was January in Wisconsin and at that time of night no one, no one was outside in the sub zero temperatures. I was working the night shift, and by midnight, not a soul ventured out.


The streets were empty, lined with trash bins perched precariously on blackened snow banks,with abandoned cars buried under white sarcopaghi of hardened, crystal snow. I was slowly making my way through bombed out ruins, the streets a desolate, empty cathedral with just the bitter sky above. The only movement I could see were the tv screens blinking, shrouded by make-shift curtains in little apartment windows. The squad tires crunched under the frozen snow and ice, and the police radio was silent.


All of a sudden, I saw what seemed to be movement in the darkest of shadows next to a run-down fourplex adjacent to an alley. At first, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. It was -16 degrees. No one would be out here at 1 am. I continued to slowly drive along, keeping an eye on the walkways and alleys. Then, I saw someone scurrying like a rat from shadow to shadow, making their way from building to building. I drove down the street, and made my way up the dark alley with my lights off, and turned my squad off.


Then I saw a figure move between the bushes and the apartment building. It opened the side door, and slid inside. I thought maybe I was seeing a burglary taking place, but I was incredulous because of the time and the weather. I called in my location and went inside the building, where I could faintly hear someone in the basement below. Flashlight in one hand, collar mike in the other, I made my way down the basement steps, and turned the corner. In the darkest part of the basement I saw someone huddled in a corner, smoking a crack pipe. I ordered the person out into the light, and a woman came forward, pipe in hand.


The way she looked shocked me. She was clearly a young, attractive woman, but her drug addiction had ravaged her. Her hair was a knotted, matted mess, open sores on her face and her neck, her eyes hollowed out and lifeless. Her smell almost made me vomit. I asked her if anyone else was with her, and she told me no, not now anyhow. Come to find out, she had a husband and two young children in a suburb north of town. After her second child had been born, her addiction had taken over, and she had left a week ago. Hadn’t slept since she had left after her husband took the kids to school, making her way down into the ghetto and was now trading sexual favors for hits of crack cocaine. Day after day after day.


She had a college degree, a family she loved, a career as a teacher which she had lost. Her lips were burnt and blistered from the crack pipe, and she couldn’t even cry anymore. She felt nothing. She was a ghost, she told me. And then she begged me to arrest her and bring her to jail. It would be the only thing that would keep her alive, she told me. We had been told not to bring addicts like this to jail, just to cite them for trespassing, or possession of paraphernalia, and kick them off the property. I would cite her, give her a date to appear and court, and let her loose, into the sub-zero temps, unless a shelter would take her, and there weren’t any beds available.


She begged me over and over again to take her to jail. When my partner arrived, we decided to issue her a state charge for possession and take her to jail. The county jail wasn’t happy with us, but we knew she might otherwise die. We had her booked in, and left, and I felt relief knowing that in the morning she would be alive.


About six months letter, coming into briefing before my shift one night, one of the supervisors handed me a letter. It was from this woman. She thanked me for arresting her that cold night, it had been a turning point for her. She had gotten into treatment, and with treatment, she and her husband reunited and she was with him and her children again. She had put on twenty pounds, was working as a substitute teacher for the school system, and was getting her life together. I remembered the gratitude I felt reading the letter. It wasn’t often that we knew how our decisions out there played out in the long term. This was really gratifying, and I put that letter in my squad box and read it at least once a week.


Six months after that, she was found frozen to death in the basement of an abandoned building not far from where I had first arrested her. My heart sank like a rock when I heard about it, it shook me to my core. Another terrible reminder about what addiction to drugs and alcohol can do, and how powerless our best efforts were in the face of this torment. After that, I saw these ghosts wherever I went, night or day.


And so that memory came flooding into my mind when I encountered Mike and Katrina, as it always does whenever I come into contact with the ghosts. I was driving through the town of Alamogordo, NM, on my way back from Mexico, when I saw a few people slinking around in the shadows next to an abandoned building in a dilapidated section of town. I saw one man shielding a woman crouching in a corner from another man who was waving his arms maniacally.


I wanted to just keep driving. I don’t have an ounce of hero in me and I know those situations can be dangerous, and that’s what cops and social workers are for. But the photographer in me got the best of the situation, and I drove around the block, parked my car, grabbed my camera, and walked in on foot. I turned the corner and there they were. The bigger, dark haired guy with the menacing eyes had backed off into the deepest shadows, leaning against the building, while the other man was comforting the woman, who was laying on the pavement. Keeping a very close eye on the guy in the shadows who was staring holes into me, I approached the two of them, and immediately knew they were ghosts, at the very bottom of their addictions. Both were severely neurologically impaired, jerking and spasming in drug-induced pantomimes. Both were dangerously underweight, lacking teeth, wearing every stitch of clothes they owned, with bags full of food and clothing they had pulled out of dumpsters.


These are the people that we have no idea what to do with, that have drifted beyond the hand of human intervention. They will always be among us. Most if not all of them have suffered severe abuse or neglect growing up and sought the refuge of drugs and or alcohol to deal with a life they are completely unprepared for. They are usually schizophrenic or have some other serious form of mental illness compounded for their nonstop thirst for drugs. I always feel so helpless in their presence, as I know other than to sit with them, nothing seems to help. I have seen some of these come back from the brink of this hell, this madness, to live a happy and productive life. But the vast majority will die on the streets, forgotten, human refuse, who could not hold onto that life-line that offers hope and shelter from the pain.


Mike was softly consoling Katrina, who was clearly in pain. I asked Mike if there was anything I could do, and he shook his head. I was struck by how tenderly, lovingly he spoke to her, how he gently helped her as he glanced at the guy tucked away in the shadows. I told him that I wanted to take their picture, to remember them by. After I took their pictures, I asked him if I could help them in any way, if there was something I could do for them. He shook his head no, and kept attending to her. I stayed with them for awhile, until it was time for me to get back on the road.


I left without uttering another word. There was nothing to be said. I got in my car and drove away, putting the miles between them and I. It is at these times when the silence I so often enjoy is no longer a place of solace for me, but a haunted place, a reminder that but for the love of friends and family, and the grace of God, the difference between Mike, Katrina and I is almost imperceptible. Like a ghost moving between the shadows.


Abe is far from home. by John Koster

Some stories are easier to tell than others, but in my mind they all need to be told. Such is the story of Abe, a hard one that is not easy to tell. Often when I have an encounter I rush to get it down on paper because it is so easy and fun to tell. Abe’s story is not one of those. I considered this one for awhile. Listen with your heart, take it in, and let me know what you think.


I was looking for a place to rest my feet, get a drink and check my phone for messages when I came across a little bar in downtown Santa Fe. I sat down at the end of the bar, ordered a drink, and let me eyes adjust to the dimly lit indoors. I looked to my left, and sitting just two seats down, was Abe, nursing a beer. I said hello and asked if he would mind sitting with me. I started chatting with Abe, told him briefly what I was up to, and I asked him his story.


Abe is just a little older than me, born and raised in Roswell, New Mexico. He is of Mexican descent, his parents having come from Mexico. He grew up in an integrated school district, where whites, Mexicans and native americans all went to school.


When Abe was a little boy, he saw that the whites seem to have every advantage. They had more money, drove nicer trucks, and bigger homes. They were taller, and in his mind, the boys were more handsome and the girls blond and prettier. They must have a much better life than I did, he concluded.


He would look in the mirror and all he saw was a dirty Mexican. He came from a family that didn’t have a nice truck, or money, or a big house. They had nothing, other than each other. This made him feel ugly, and unwanted.


So Abe decided that he was going to fit in with the white kids. All he wanted to do was be white, and he was determined to not be a dirty mexican. So he tried and tried to hang out with the white kids, but the handsome, athletic white boys, and the blond girls wanted  nothing to do with him. They sneered at him and looked down on him. They told him to stay away, and he felt dirtier and uglier each day.


The only whites that would hang out with him and accept him were the poor, troubled white kids. They were the ones that did drugs and alcohol. They stole cars and spent time in jail. They had broken families and they didn’t bother to go to school. Even with this group, which allowed him in, he was the lowest of all of them. But at least they accepted him.

He would see the Mexican families in town and shake his head. Many of them were here undocumented, and very few of them spoke decent english. They dressed like squares, wore straw hats, and drove nasty, beat up trucks. They stuck to themselves, stayed with their families, and worked from dawn til dusk day after day after day. They didn’t mix with the white kids at school, didn’t do sports or other things because they were working all the time, and went to church in one big, brown, ugly horde. They were superstitious and had religious symbols all over their run down little homes. He despised them.


And after he made his way into the group of whites that stole, drank, smoked, dropped out of school and ended up in jail, the Mexicans wanted nothing to do with him either.


Even with the group that had accepted him, Abe felt different. He knew, on some level, that he did not belong, that he was an outcast among outcasts. Even when he had been marginally accepted by this group, he would look in the mirror and still not like himself.


And of course, shortly after he joined the group, he became dependent on drugs and booze. He stole, he robbed and he ended up in jail. Again and again and again. He did long stints in prison, and a few times when he was out in the world for brief periods, he had children.


Abe sat next to me at the bar and took a long pull from a beer. “Now look at me”, he said. “I’m old and skinny and ugly.”

I asked him if I could take his picture, and he was not excited about it but agreed. He then showed me a picture of himself from 15 years ago, a picture that hung in the corner of the bar. “Look at me back then”, he said, pointing to the picture. “Look. I was pretty handsome and I had some muscle on me. My hair was darker and shinier. Women thought I was something.”


He sighed and took another long pull off his beer. I asked him what his life is like now, what his children were up to.


Abe looked at me and a pained, sad expression overtook him. “My children are all criminals. They are either in prison or on their way. I’m dying of cancer, stage four. I’m not getting treatment, whats the point?”


I didn’t know what to say. I just sat with him, in silence. Finally, Abe said, “All my life I wanted to be white, like you. I wanted to have beautiful friends and pretty girls and have everything that you have. But I am Mexican, and that’s a fact. All those Mexican people that I hated back then? They have families, good jobs, people respect them, they drive nice trucks now. Their kids aren’t criminals. I spent all that time and all my power trying to be white, and hating myself for being who I am. And now all that hate is cancer and it’s killing me.”


Abe shook his head, finished his beer and got up from his seat. “Thanks for the talk, John.” he said. “Thank you, Abe.” I said to him. “For what it’s worth, you seem to be a pretty good guy to me”. He smiled faintly, and left the bar, into the afternoon, into the world where he couldn’t find a home.