Gayle Brandeis


He was driving up the coast looking for flotsam.

She was zigzagging across the country in search of spills.
He studied the currents, kept track of ships that had dumped containers of t-shirts or toys or candies into the ocean.

She took photographs of big-rig mishaps—produce, phosphates, poultry (shrink wrapped or live) flung across the asphalt, flattened under tires, blowing down the shoulder of the road.

He liked to predict where the things would wash up, liked to find their resting spots. He liked knowing there was a deeper pattern to all of it—the moon, the storm fronts, the migration of whales, all affecting the route of rubber ducks or nursing bras as they bobbed their way toward shore.

She liked the sheer randomness of it, the fact that these truck drivers never imagined their back door would fall off, never imagined their truck would flip and let loose its load, never imagined the freeway would be hopping with wind-up monsters or flowing with table syrup, never imagined they wouldn't deliver their goods on time. It reminded her that anything could happen at any given moment. The world was full of random danger, random beauty. Anything was possible.

His favorite find: the thousands of basketball shoes, sodden and swollen, that washed onto a rocky beach in Oregon. Dozens of people scooped them up, brought them home in huge garbage bags and milk crates and wrapped up in their shirts. Ads began to appear in the paper—Will trade a size 9 for a size 5 ½. Am looking for 11. Do you need a 4? The townspeople brought all their leftover shoes to the community center and dumped them onto long folding tables. People foraged for pairs. Some wanted to outfit their families. Some wanted to capitalize; many of the hightops showed up in swap meet booths over the next few months. He found a pair—red and black--that fit perfectly, right off the bat. They became his favorite shoes, even though they remained stiff with salt, no matter how many times he rinsed them out.

Her favorite find: the highway full of pizza dough in Indiana. Great huge blobs of it, long bloated snakes of it, engulfed the road. It was the dead of summer; a refrigerated truck had overheated and the dough in the back had risen so dramatically, so forcefully, it had pushed its way out the door. In one of her photographs, a pale pile is nearly as big as her VW Bug.

The next day, in Illinois, she happened upon a load of spilled tomatoes. The air was pungent with their saucy tang. In her pictures, seeds glisten like sequins in the sun.

The following day, in Wisconsin, she found the aftermath of a string cheese spill. Some of the mozzarella had broken through the plastic wrappers and was smeared onto the street. In the photos, it looks like a layer of white stucco, glossy against the black tar.

Her triptych of these spills—The Midwest Pizza Chronicles—continues to be her bestselling work.

He wasn't interested in driftwood or shells or stones. Only things made by people, meant for people, things that had strayed from their intended path.

She wasn't interested in road kill, in animals that had wandered out from the grass and found their way under a tire. If an animal, a whole herd, had tumbled from a truck, that was another story. Her dead animal shots proved to be her slowest sellers, although they had a few die-hard fans (she received emails asking if she had any sheep shots yet, any pigs). Her pictures of the wild chickens of LA, however, descendents of a live spill who now lived in the foliage by an off ramp, were quite popular.

His GPS system told him to pull off the road, wait at this particular beach. He extracted his binoculars from the glove compartment, grabbed the rainbow-webbed beach chair from the trunk, and settled in right at the line between the wet sand and the dry. He had never seen lost objects float in to shore before, had only seen them after they'd been beached. Excitement rose and fell inside him like a buoy.

She was tired, her eyes hot and raw after hours of driving. The ocean, she thought, might be a balm. She eased into a small parking lot, took her plaid blanket from the backseat, shook off the crumbs of popcorn, and spread it on the sand by some creosote bushes. The sun, bouncing off the tips of the little waves, was so bright, she could barely see. Her eyes seemed to be playing tricks on her. The light was breaking into primary colors—swaths of red and yellow and blue on the water, a bluer blue than the water, a blue that seemed to mock the grayness of the water. She blinked several times but they didn't go away.

He jumped up. They were coming. A whole flotilla of Lego building bricks, making their way toward him. He dropped his binoculars to the sand and swooped his arm like a traffic cop to tell them here! here! He was elated. It was as if his children, all the children he never had, were coming home at last. He ran into the water with his Oregon shoes on, his long pants. He scooped the little bricks into his arms, packed them into his pockets, stuffed them inside his waist band. They poked at his skin, they were slippery in his hands, but he was determined to hold on to as many as possible.

She lifted her camera. She recognized the shapes immediately as soon as she used the zoom. She wondered if a truck had crashed into the sea and dumped out its load. She wished that guy would get out of the way. She didn't like people in her lens, although the joy on his face was pretty remarkable. She walked closer to the shore.
All these things fit together, he marveled.

You could make a whole world with these things, she surmised.

He reached into the water with his one free hand and let a blue two-pronged brick float into his palm. She lifted a red two-pronged one—the first to beach--from the sand.