still airborne
veteran panhanding with prayer bowl
san francisco
march, 2009

he's frailer now with the years. the athlete remains in the neck and face, but the rest of him is withered. a man of 6'5" at 20, he lost a few before he hit 21. says he’s about 6’3” now. as the bird flies.

name's phil. sits with a golden prayer bowl held together with silver duct tape. it was gifted him by an old friend; before the break. says “all the best things are gifts. right?”

tells about being in the 101st airborne. high altitude extraction in two man teams. did 17 live; in combat. for the run, you’re in the dark, blind, wearing an oxygen tank. you hear three beeps. altitude. area. jump. as the bay opens the sight of the horizon is breathtaking.

says he has two purple hearts. injuries sustained.

tells me about shannon his high school sweetheart; and the stuff they did together. how they used to dress up – wigs, makeup, costumes, colored contacts, ... to see rocky horror at the local theatre. after, everyone would meet up at the nearby denny’s. the whole lot a sight to see. all thinking "aren't we so goth." shannon got him into that. "i was a different person. you know how you go through phases?"

"yes," i say, "i know."

they went to high school in indiana. she ran the 1500; he ran the (slightly longer) mile. he'd always run back to talk to her on the warm down. they were also in band together. he played trombone; she played sax. trombone sat behind sax, so they would talk there too. they became best friends. his was always the shoulder for her latest heartbreak. finally he told her she should spare herself the grief and just be with him.

he joined the army out of high school and they were engaged by the time he was twenty. says he’s always had a thing for short girls. shannon was 5'2". his mom was short too. says shannon just felt like she fit. he could hold her all the way ‘round in his arms; and somehow that made him feel like he could protect her.

but they spent a lot of time apart these days. newly engaged, he visited her on leave that fall. her parents were arguing and she didn't like being at home at those times. so they went out to see rocky horror to get out of the house. then they’d go for the meet up at denny's after. all goth. but they never made it to denny’s.

walking past the wrong ally they were riddled with bullets. a random gang shooting. the worst had happened in combat was a shot in the arm and some shrapnel grazing his side. a purple heart each. somalia, bosnia, serbia... and this happens at home.

he was in a coma for his 21st birthday. october, 1995. shannon died at 20 on the street. he would eventually revive; but would never walk again.

he practices zen buddhism. tells me a story when i ask about it: zen buddhist and buddhist live next door to each other. each prizes his garden above all else. and each spends long hours in its service. one day the zen buddhist is visiting the buddhist and a single leaf falls on an otherwise leafless ground. the buddhist dashes off and ushers away the offending leaf. the zen buddhist is puzzled. he asks why the buddhist removed the leaf. he is told “so as to make it perfect.” still puzzled he asks "but is it not perfect as it is?"

phil seeks rigor in his practice of zen buddhism. he sees people who take bits and pieces and says it doesn’t work that way. says it’s like life; you need to take it all. life is all or nothing. you can’t pick and choose.

tells me he doesn’t meditate to withdraw but to take everything in. he closes his eyes and visits everything that is around him. appreciates everything; investigates everything; is one with everything.

of course, for physical disciplines, he’s a bit restricted in his practice... as a paraplegic in a wheelchair. “i’m not about to do downward dog,” he smiles. instead he says he does it in his head. says the brain’s what interprets the world anyway. so doing it there is as real as anywhere.

he visualizes himself executing his poses free from the ground, form by form, to a final full lotus perfectly hovering in the air. suspended. at peace.


DaríoMartínez says: perfect !! -- 07:35PM, March 23, 2009.
.btezra says: the commentary you attach to your portraits really seals the deal for me...overall the portraiture always packs a punch but it's the uniqueness of the story attached that makes the experience worthwhile and memorable -- 07:36PM, March 23, 2009.
Caren Hauser says: what a tragic story, one moment and life changed -- 07:40PM, March 23, 2009.
::big daddy k:: says: great portrait. i also very much love that you take the time to get a glimpse of the person's story. amazing work. when are you going to do a book? -- 07:42PM, March 23, 2009.
Akbar Simonse says: !!!!! Impressive!! Seen in some comments. (?²ˣ) -- 07:44PM, March 23, 2009.
lymang says: absolutely fantastic, as usual. -- 07:44PM, March 23, 2009.
xpjt06 says: I love your portraits!!! -- 07:46PM, March 23, 2009.
AntonioArcos aka fotonstudio says: amazing story and portrait, powerful work, very touching!! -- Discovered using FlickrFox. (?) -- 07:46PM, March 23, 2009.
gordy1 says: brilliant , great picture and awesome story . -- 07:50PM, March 23, 2009.
[.V.] says: I'm glad you're back with these wonderful portraits and their stories -- 07:59PM, March 23, 2009.
AdamBaronPhoto says: Wonderful and touching. Thank you. -- 08:02PM, March 23, 2009.
Krustyp says: man, what a story. epic! -- 08:02PM, March 23, 2009.
OneEyedCube says: now I'm puzzled. Great story, excellent photo as always. Thanks for sharing with us... -- 08:19PM, March 23, 2009.
NikonWitch says: Awesome, touching, and extreme. -- 08:27PM, March 23, 2009.
Ben Oh says: Lovely light, great black and white tones. -- Seen in the group"1-2-3" (?) -- 08:29PM, March 23, 2009.
garylr says: thank you -- 08:43PM, March 23, 2009.
Maggid Jim says: A tribute to phil; the words and picture add immeasurably to each other. Thank you. -- 09:06PM, March 23, 2009.
nathalie booth says: moving story, love your pictures and texts, happy you are back online more often ;-) -- 09:11PM, March 23, 2009.
somnium! says: Really nice photo, and a touching story to boot. I think the stray leaf is a good thing, as it applies to our lives. -- 09:18PM, March 23, 2009.
alvazora says: you love what you do. i am into it. thank you.. -- 09:23PM, March 23, 2009.
Therapystudio says: this brings tears to my eyes -- 09:50PM, March 23, 2009.
*rae* says: another beautiful portrait. the story is amazing, thanks for sharing these intimate experiences as always. -- 10:58PM, March 23, 2009.
optimaver says: Thank you for sharing his story. -- 11:02PM, March 23, 2009.
gurjeet kaur says: waheguru. -- 11:33PM, March 23, 2009.
sydandsaskia says: You have a way with words that is as moving as your way with pixels. I'll have to remember the positive contributions stray leaves make. -- 11:41PM, March 23, 2009.
Janarhead says: just amazing, and the story makes it perfect. -- 12:06AM, March 24, 2009.
basilly says: you rattle my emotions to the very core. -- 12:08AM, March 24, 2009.
Anitza V says: I am so glad that you took the time to write out a lengthier background. This man breaks my heart. -- Seen on my Flickr home page. (?) -- 12:26AM, March 24, 2009.
Black&Color says: The stories you tell, the picture you take, they stay with you. Thank you for doing what you do. -- 12:52AM, March 24, 2009.
YnR says: *Sigh* -- 02:03AM, March 24, 2009.
StormyinGA says: Heartwrenching. You are amazing and so is Phil. I wish you could bring him a hug from me. -- 11:43AM, March 24, 2009.
DrkLght713 says: very nice. -- 01:39PM, March 24, 2009.
WomanChild says: That face. Those eyes. You rip my heart out over and over... -- 01:50PM, March 24, 2009.
Paul Presnail says: This is why you're the first person I look for everyday among my Contacts. Beyond words. Thanks. -- 02:03PM, March 24, 2009.
AllanThinks says: Wow. -- Seen on your photo stream. (?) -- 05:11PM, March 24, 2009.
jerobins says: indeed, wow. -- 09:03PM, March 24, 2009.
Miguel A. D. says: Buena foto. Seleccionada como GRAN FOTO! Gran Grupo -- 10:07PM, March 24, 2009.
commentaries4free says: His story really breaks my heart and sobers me to be more grateful for my own life. His portrait draws me in as if I were sitting there beside him. Awesome work! -- 11:35PM, March 24, 2009.
peggy. says: wow... thanks for sharing... all of it. -- 12:54AM, March 25, 2009.
Kim The Star Princess says: This is some of your most amazing work. -- 05:12AM, March 25, 2009.
beegee74 says: taking my breath away, all over again - stunning work! -- 12:18PM, March 25, 2009.
jbrobeson says: amazing, thank you -- 05:37PM, March 25, 2009.
squirrelygirl says: Wow. Thank you. -- 11:19PM, March 25, 2009.
dreamer101 says: Great creativity and humanity. Thank you -- 02:33AM, March 26, 2009.
Spirit of Boz says: Tragic story and sensible portrait ! -- 11:25AM, March 26, 2009.
lipsanchez says: Wow, truly moving and inspiring. -- 05:44PM, March 27, 2009.
Joy is a Joy says: i love the way you wrote this. so full and complete. excellent shot as well. -- 06:20AM, March 28, 2009.
Thompson Photography says: Outstanding job, as usual. His story (and those of others you have told) is a reminder that we are all vulnerable and subject to the whims of fate. -- 04:06PM, March 31, 2009.
GrandmaSondra says: I think he is a wonderful person. Glad you did this story. -- 03:03PM, April 05, 2009.
ahsup says: so good to see you back. -- 04:16PM, April 06, 2009.
coastal creature says: incredible..thank you -- 08:32PM, April 13, 2009.
AH in Pgh says: what nonac said above. you are a fine writer and student of humanity -- 01:55AM, April 14, 2009.
OliverMavrak says: he looks like a Nicolas cage in someway! great portrait -- 05:03AM, April 14, 2009.
snorrrlax says: beautiful and painful. -- 02:49AM, April 21, 2009.
nothingisuniqueanymore says: Hi, I'm an admin for a group called The empire of the soul, and we'd love to have this added to the group! -- 01:32PM, May 05, 2009.
thebulletwithin says: What was not captured perfectly in his eyes, was amazingly portrayed in the description. -- 01:47AM, June 12, 2009.
keri ivy is seeing things for the first time says: thank you, both of you. -- 12:02PM, June 21, 2009.
Kezzaroo says: really really enjoyed this lengthier story of his life -- 01:15PM, July 08, 2009.
moggierocket says: What a heartbreaking story. Unbelievable he has to panhandle. Just so unfair. -- 10:10AM, August 04, 2009.
alex.kruchinin says: !!! -- 08:12AM, August 21, 2009.
brents pix says: the story behind the picture makes it all the more powerful. -- 01:18PM, August 21, 2009.
darrianamaker says: You have such insight into different worlds. What's your world like? -- 04:06PM, August 21, 2009.
.¸.·•●✿ ℓυ∂υєη ✿●•·.¸. says: Hi, I'm an admin for a group called Más Que Mil Palabras... (1 Post 2 Comentarios), and we'd love to have this added to the group! Esta foto tiene alma!!!! This photo has spirit Tu foto esta invitada a: / Your photo is invited to: Mas que Mil Palabras (♥Postea 1 Comenta 2♥) Por favor sumala al grupo / please add it to the group! Por Favor etiqueta tu foto con / Please tag the photo with "Mas que Mil Palabras" -- 01:38PM, October 28, 2009.
S.ylvie says: just wish i would be better with words, tom...but instead i am just sitting here, staring at that image, reading those words, for...half an hour now? this is a mind bomb for me, leaving me speachless and incapable of action. soso powerful. i will never ever forget that expression in that face. i'll be back. sylvie -- 08:11AM, December 05, 2009.
NewFeenix says: Great portrait - he seems so sensitive, yet has a majesty about his aura also. -- 12:17AM, January 14, 2010.
names across the sea says: oh my gosh.... his story brought tears to my eyes... -- 02:36AM, August 10, 2010.
mamafeenix says: Just, wow! -- 03:20AM, September 22, 2010.
JerryD says: Heartbraking story... -- 11:58PM, April 12, 2012.
decembre says: ★ Thank you too for your post in Portrait★Faces Continue... -- 11:09PM, January 07, 2014.