“I’m not good enough for you. But no one is. And most men, good or bad, have limits to what they would do, even for someone they love. I have none. No God, no moral code, no faith in anything. Except you. You’re my religion. I would do anything you asked. I would fight, steal, kill for you.”
-Lisa Kleypas, Seduce Me at Sunrise
Recently on a Monday, shortly after 11:00am, I arrived at the intersection of 12th Street and Lehigh Avenue. I quickly found a parking space and made my way inside the huge North Philadelphia structure, exchanging a few friendly ‘good mornings’ to several elderly people conversing outside. I was told that due to a packed house, I was welcome to find room on the 2nd floor. Making my way towards the stairwell, my eyes surveyed poster sized prints displayed along the walls. On each image was a professional model-face arranged with edgy makeup, each bore a fierce facial expression, accessorized with a high fashion garment. These were the moments where I’d gesture to images like these and say to a friend standing next to me: “Do you see why I love photography so much?”
But the task at hand was to find the stairs and find myself a seat.
Unfortunately for me, the 2nd floor seemed just as crowded as the 1st. I found a portion of a wall to stand at before being asked to clear the walkway by an older woman working there. Spotting a vacant wall to stand on, I maneuvered across an aisle of fashion-forward people, trying my best not to step on their shoes. Leaned against a nude colored wall, just a few feet from a balcony, my eyes searched the area below me…attempting to catch a glimpse of her. “Do you see her? Can you see her?” someone next to me asked. The question wasn’t directed towards me, however all of us were attempting to catch a glimpse of the same person. Amid an adornment of colorful floral arrangements below was Vanessa Watson. I knew Vanessa since 2010, shortly after I began shooting out of my first photography studio. I knew her because she served as one of my models on 3 different occasions. But I had no camera and this wasn’t one of my photo shoots. I was here to pay my respects to the woman known by thousands throughout Philadelphia as Vanessa Banks-murdered by her boyfriend, who then took his own life. A familiar song began to play throughout the building. I remembered it from my childhood being played in the home, and was a song that I remembered church choirs singing before packed congregations on Sunday Mornings. I never noticed the poignancy of the lyrics…until today…
If you want to know/Where I’m going?/Where I’m going, soon/
If anybody ask you/ Where I’m going/ Where I’m going, soon/
I’m goin’ up yonder/ I’m goin’ up yonder/ I’m goin’ up yonder/
To be with my Lord…
Seemed like yesterday I was out with a few friends grabbing a drink and doing the usual. A text message came across my blackberry from a friend and fellow photographer. Still in the midst of conversation, I read the message, informing me that another resident of my hometown had their life ended in violence-this time someone I knew. In this industry, you deal with a lot of bullshit, particularly the inflated egos of artists and models. Vanessa was different, possessing a characteristic rarely seen in this field…HUMILITY. She had a huge following in Philadelphia…and was still humble, often greeting you with her trademark ear-to-ear smile and tiny voice. Vanessa possessed an ambition rarely seen in this blue-collar city. Whatever Vanessa lacked in ability, whatever she lacked in her 5’6 frame (the industry standard is 5’7 and taller), whatever she lacked in resources she made up with the grit and determination that most didn’t have and quite honestly never will-the kind of determination that you need in an industry where you’re told no a thousand times before you get a yes. When you’re a single parent of three children and you need money now…it takes a special person to chase that dream-even when it seems that everything else is imploring you to quit. I remember Vanessa competing in one of her many online contests for the potential to be a cover model for a magazine and reaching out to everyone for votes. I’d log into my facebook account and see her requests for votes in my inbox and plastered all on my wall. “Dammit,Vanessa!” I’d say, moments before laughing it off and then smiling at her persistence. I’d acknowledge to her that she had my vote and kindly removed the spam from my wall-only to have it reappear again the following day. As annoying as it was, that’s how persistent Vanessa was to get where she needed to be. That personified who she was. Vanessa served as a model for three of my fashion shoots. Many I’ve worked with had the egos and the false sense of entitlement, but not Vanessa. A photographer could approach her with a ridiculous idea; he could have called her and asked her to dress up in a Hot dog suit and shoot atop a canoe in alligator infested water…balancing a flower pot on her head. Vanessa would simply say “where and what time” and give you 100% every time. People like that make it. Unfortunately in this world we live in…bad things can quickly happen to good people.
Vanessa had a boyfriend. Luis “Nook” McCrae. I never knew much about him. I had never even met him in person. Because I knew Vanessa, I’d see images of him online…the very first photo I saw was that of a clean cut young man, dressed in shirt and tie. There were no visible tattoos. There were no goons or strange looking characters in the photo. His hands were to his side and fingers weren’t twisted up in gang signs or explicit gesture. It was a normal photo of a man. But something just wasn’t sitting right with me. That part of our brain that leaps to conclusions about someone is called the adaptive unconscious. The adaptive unconscious is a set of mental processes influencing judgment and decision-making, as stated in cognitive psychology. It’s a reflection of our mind’s power. It controls automatic thinking-nonconscious, fast, uncontrollable and effortless. It allows us to make judgments based on little information. Have you ever been in a situation, and gotten an unexplainable vibe about someone? That person can be completely non-threatening and you’ve felt something? There’s a type of intuitive repulsion about that person. You ignore it, and then later, you find out that person was a pedophile or some sort of weirdo and you go I knew it! That is the part of our brain called the adaptive unconscious that leaps to those conclusions-even with little information.
There was nothing physically troubling about him. He didn’t appear menacing. He looked like a regular guy from Philly. But there was an intuitive repulsion when seeing those photos that operated below the surface of consciousness.
On that fateful Tuesday, Vanessa drove Luis to the Wayne Junction Train Station, presumably to drop him off for work. At they sat in her SUV, he shot her in the head…and then turned the gun on himself. Vanessa was 26, and what seemed to be a story of success unfolding…had ended. Vanessa had walked in New York’s fashion week and appeared on BET’s Rip The Runway. Things seemed to be finally working out…but in the end...a fool can change all of that. As I stood at her vigil days later at her family’s North Philadelphia row home, her Father spoke of her smile and upbeat attitude and the entire crowd smiled because we all could relate. He then went on to say that he always had a feeling about her boyfriend…a feeling that something wasn’t quite right with him…but he accepted him because his daughter loved him and he supported her. I immediately thought of the adaptive unconscious. The reason I assumed her boyfriend was behind her killing, even though I didn’t know him personally. Vanessa’s best friend briefly spoke about her boyfriend at the vigil. She dispelled the rumors circulating of Vanessa being in an abusive relationship with Luis, which ultimately let to him killing her in a jealous rage. She instead said that he wasn’t abusive, but was ultimately just a nut that decided to do the unthinkable. When police arrived at the scene and checked his bag that he took daily to work, there was no lunch in it. He only had a gun in hand and a holster for it in his bag, leading everyone to speculate that he planned to do that all along and had no intention on doing anything else that day…or ever again. It really makes you wonder about the psyche of people. Could it be that he wished to end his own life, and simply decided to take Vanessa with him? Who knows, and that is why murder suicides do so much damage; you’re coping with the painful loss of a loved one-a mother of three-with no explanation.
A time will come when the whole world will go mad. And to anyone who is not mad they will say: “You are mad, for you are not like us.” -Sir Anthony The Great
So many women out there are constantly pressured to be with us men. Society dictates that women who are successful, yet are without companion somehow must have something wrong with them. I implore women not to rush into relationships just for the sake of being in relationships…specifically if there are warning signs and they themselves or even friends and family members feel an intuitive repulsion. Someone that I know who meant a lot to many people here ended up paying the ultimate price of selecting the wrong person. If you are a single woman and happy in your present situation, never let someone else make you feel as though something is wrong with you. When we arrogantly tell God our plans…he laughs. It’s impossible to believe that we can save everyone out there, and make them see they’re with the wrong person. But perhaps you may have met someone and wondered why everyone has a feeling about him, even though they cannot explain it to you. If you take one thing from this random thought, understand this… they’re not hating. They’re not crazy. What they feel may be very much real. Please keep an open mind to what your loved ones say and feel. Do not ignore the signs, ladies. Please be safe out there.
“This isn’t a crush, it’s obsession. You are never not in my thoughts. Your scent carries across a room and paralyzes me with longing. I don’t want to hold your hand. Part of me wants to set you on fire and hold you while the flame consumes us both, to eat your heart so I know that only I possess it entirely.”
-Gwen Hayes, Falling Under
…These Are The Random Thoughts of Ronald Gray…