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The more advanced shoots require about five or six hours of preparation. First, Levin will drive around at night, looking for things that strike his fancy. He'll crack the window open to feel the cold air prickling his neck, and to hear the low peal of a foghorn or a manufacturing plant. Once he sees something, he'll note the exact location and check it out on Google Maps. He might scout it twice more — once in broad daylight, once at night. The whole process becomes an elaborate recon mission.
"I didn't go back into photography, so much as I went back into my military experience," Levin said. "I wanted to climb buildings and go places I wasn't supposed to go. The camera became an excuse for when I get caught. Otherwise, 'What are you doing on this roof?' becomes a much harder question."
But Levin would prefer not to use photography as an alibi, even if a cop tried to arrest him. "If you can run, run." he said. "It's probably better not to face any questions."
Levin decided to reconnoiter the Fruitvale Bridge shoot on the night of Thanksgiving, sans camera. He left his Emeryville home at 12:30 a.m., and fifteen minutes later was speeding down 880 at 90 miles per hour, wielding his car as though it were a fighter jet. He lurched across lanes and took the curves at sharp angles. From a passenger's perspective, it was terrifying: tight turns, face-flattening velocity, g-force akin to that experienced on a roller coaster. Levin trained his eye on the windshield.
"Too many cars," Levin mumbled, weaving between the other vehicles. "I have to watch carefully and make sure none of them are cops." He simpered. "Of course, I could just drive slowly — but that wouldn't be any fun."
Levin got off at the Alameda Avenue exit, made a right turn, and entered a large strip-mall parking lot. He noted that the gas station was open, and a few cars were parked outside the Home Depot. Otherwise, the place looked dead. Cones of light beamed from a vacant cheese-steak restaurant and the Pet Food Express. Levin rounded a corner and parked by a warehouse, right outside of Jingletown. He got out. The night air felt dry and prickly. It was quiet enough to hear the squeak of a giant recycling plant on High Street, which droned on, repetitively, like a programmed drum pattern. Levin moved swiftly. He snuck through an alley, following a set of train tracks no longer in use — the gravel was blanketed with broken glass. The tracks led up to a small draw bridge that separates East Oakland from Alameda.
Levin has had his eye on this bridge for quite some time. Its two towers stand about ten stories high, and the upper deck affords a panoramic view of the whole waterfront area. Levin had heard that a larger boat sunk in the estuary a couple months ago, after Tiki Tom's restaurant burned down at Pier 29. He hoped to photograph it from a bird's-eye perspective. Climbing the ten-story tower would be a cakewalk, he assured.
Even so, Levin over-studied the mission. He first scouted the bridge on Tuesday afternoon, noting all the security cameras and which direction they pointed, figuring out where the guard typically parks his car, taking stock of different escape routes. The fastest would be to run back the way he came — along the train tracks, through the alley, back down the street to his car. But there was also an alternate path along the water, if he could brave a small, rocky embankment.
Fruitvale Bridge doesn't get heavy traffic, but a steady stream of cars glides by throughout the day. Small vessels crawl underneath, the sailors standing on deck in yellow rain slickers. At night, the scene is much quieter. Right away, Levin noticed a different car in the guard's parking spot — a large, dark-brown Bronco. "The day guard drove a beige '57 Chevy station wagon," he said. "And it looked like he took care of his car." He paused a beat, thinking. "He was the type of guy who would come out if he saw strangers loitering by his car."
Levin sauntered over to the east tower, which stands right behind a small building where the guard supposedly keeps watch all night. But for a glimmering security monitor near the ceiling, it was dark. Levin peered in the window. The guard was sound asleep, lying fully clothed on a cot.
The original plan was just to stake things out for the real mission that Saturday. But Levin can never resist a chance to sneak past a sleeping guard. "It's very hard to stay awake in those conditions," he murmured, "when the room is all dark." He peered in the window again. "I don't even see a light from the TV — you know, that flickering color that you see. He'd have to be psycho to be awake." Grinning, Levin slithered past a "No Trespassing" sign at the foot of the tower, and carefully began his ascent. He climbed all ten stories, then straddled a three-foot gap to reach the upper deck, only to look down.
One way to irritate Levin is to ask about his family, a subject about which he remains smartly reticent. He has a wife and two kids who seem to know very little about his adrenaline-junkie lifestyle. Either that, or they deny it. The photographer gets cagey at any mention of them, and insists that he's trying to keep those worlds separated. "I don't talk about art at work, and I don't talk about family at work," he said. Still, there's always that back-of-the-mind possibility that he might leave the house at 1 a.m., get apprehended at 2 a.m., and call home from jail at 4 a.m. It's almost happened.