Andrew Zornoza’s expansive, fragmentary Where I Stay is a piecemeal construction of text and image. An epigraph, penned in 1938 by Walker Evans, simultaneously urges the reader and the eye behind the camera to focus on “[t]hese anonymous people who come and go in the cities and who move on the land,” on “what is in their faces and in the windows and the streets beside and around them.” Fittingly, it is just those elements, particular to an individual’s specific moment, time and place, that capture the anonymous sense of the national spirit.
Much of the text evokes the anatomy of a moment, while each accompanying photograph tells its own story. The first, titled “Aug. 2, Cheyenne, Wyoming,” roots the reader firmly in the visual:
Perpendicular to the road and sagging between the outstretched arms of crossed wood crutches are several irrigation pipes leaking water. As far as the eye can see are gold, spent fields of grain, cut only by the pencil-thin shadows of the irrigators [. . . ] A car hurtles down the road, bringing bleached white Utah plates and a trio of kids gawking through the back window, their mouths tiny O’s pressed against the glass.
As this passage illustrates, people steer in and out of the frame throughout the book, leaving just as quickly as they arrived. The narrator is unnamed, but travels from place to place searching for something, for someone (often, his “lost” sister), and presumably for meaning. The photograph that accompanies “Aug. 2, Cheyenne, Wyoming” depicts a scene of vast Wyoming sky that seems oppressed by the rolling hills and variegated scrub beneath it. It is captioned, “I want you to know how it was with me.” In scenes like these, it is almost as though the narrator wants to convey that the land, that travel, has its own message and meaning; sometimes it is almost as if the land itself reveals a story.
Zornoza finds meaning not only in the land and in travel, but conveys what is derived via both ordinary moments and dysfunctional situations: A man is fired from a road crew; a bleary narrator wakes from a heroin dream next to a bleeding body and nods off again; male prostitutes tread carefully around a new recruit. What it all adds up to is a picture of a life, told in evocative fragments. The stories and, especially, the captions encourage poignant questions of self, placement and identity. The author begins many scenes in the middle of the action, bringing the reader into a moment that seems to always exist, anywhere and outside of time.
Along with questions of identity, which Zornoza brings to light in small moments posing as captions (“I have systematically and selectively removed myself from my past. The past does not fit in my present tense. I do not fit in myself.”), borders, liminal spaces, liminality, and uncertainty surface in the bleak, vast and mostly barren landscapes. One caption accompanies a photograph
(portrait?) of a road that skirts rolling hills dotted with farmhouses and reads, "There are cracks in the country – in its families and highways, houses and rivers, factories, cellar windows, truck stops, in the sounds of chattering televisions, in the plexiglass booths of pay phones by bus stations, in the crushed glass of parking lots."
Zornoza’s use of fragments of image and narration is expert. The movement of people and lives; chance meetings between strangers destined never to cross paths again; moments that can never be recreated; the uncertainty of people, place, relationships – all collide across culture and class, gender and race to form an anthem of displacement. The author deftly – and in spite of himself, seamlessly – weaves common threads that, by the end of the book, form a recognizable whole. Where I Stay is a story of a search for a home, for permanence, and ultimately for meaning. This becomes clear only gradually. Yet another caption reads, "I had removed everyone I knew or the people had removed themselves. I replaced them all with a vast plateau, then mountains, dry desert, broken pieces of landscape that didn’t quite fit together. I found people in the cracks."
The landscape Zornoza creates is one in which fragments and emptiness hold a meaning that simply requires a watchful observer. “Nov. 6, US Atomic Energy Commission Reservation, Arco, Idaho” is starkly poignant. The narrator hitches a ride with a Marine, who notes, “What’s out there, looks like nothing. Looks like a wasteland, right? I look out the window. But there is no nothing, he says.” Zornoza’s narrator is one that is so uncertain and searching that he is sometimes swallowed up in his surroundings and in circumstance. But the author provides just enough for the attentive reader to locate him in bits and pieces, and the narrator’s story becomes the reader’s journey.