The tunnel vision I have because of my caffeine high is beginning to fade. I’ve never been so into looking at such ordinary family pictures.

I raise my head and look around the lounge area of Starbucks on Geary and 19th, and notice everyone is looking at me and my roommate, Josh (not Lorenzo, whom you hear me talking to in Episode 1. Different roommate.) We’ve been so consumed and hyper-focused, we’ve used three round tables to sprawl out the contents of the dusty suitcase we’ve just found in a dumpster on our block. We have piled old black and white pictures next to our cappuccinos and pastries.

It feels like we’re doing something illegal, like jumping a fence to explore an abandoned building. The kind where you need to be sure you bring a flashlight and wear good shoes, because there’s broken glass everywhere. That’s how haunting and intimate this feels.

But here we are, virtual voyeurs, trespassing into a stranger’s life in pictures.

A family, clearly Japanese-American, occupies our speeding thoughts. Most of the time, people force you to look at family pictures and I’m almost always uninterested. There’s something about albums that constrict pictures into mundane household décor. The posed ones are selected and organized chronologically and the bad ones (usually candid) are bunched up in a jumble in the back. This suitcase contains it all. Prim and clean to out of focus and accidental, it even has rolls of film and negatives. I want to inspect every single one. Here are some of them:

This young girl keeps showing up. There are several pictures of her in this mustard colored dress. It looks to me like a high school graduation. Perfect event for a photographer in the family. She’s seen in cap and gown. Then a dinner party. This seems to be too precious to trash. The owner of this suitcase must be related to this girl. Her father? Mother? Uncle?

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Here’s an incredible picture of a mom and her child on a backyard swing. One with the mom and one with just the kid. The second one has the mom’s worried hand in the shot.

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And there’s this series of camping pictures. Tall redwoods, sprawling blankets, and reluctant children playing in a river. Beautifully done against the backdrop of the American West. This tells me this family is so assimilated into quintessentially American past times like camping, they must be first or second generation.

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This one is one of my favorites. A cropped shot of a ship from the point of view of the dock. Notice the reflection of the busy, rippling water on the bottom of the ship. These waters must’ve been pretty clear. Where the hell is this? Is this a San Francisco dock? The ship looks anchored. Was this taken when it was leaving or just arriving?

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This picture was clearly taken in Japan. Those imperial buildings erupting with pointed rooftops. Is our photographer visiting his or her homeland? Or were these pictures taken earlier? Perhaps, its his or her parents.

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Look at this woman! Her outfit, her glasses, and her hair. Check out this mod/mid-century modern background. And she’s holding this awesome old-school mic so daintily with two fingers.

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Is this the little girl that graduates later?

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Who was cut-out of this picture?! The cut seems very neat and straight.

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I love this candid picture of this jolly man. It looks like a joke has just been told or maybe a reaction to a hit and run snapshot.

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Finally, this has got to be a picture taken on a dock. Everyone seems to be looking up at something and waving (greetings or goodbye?) The guy in the wool coat looks worried or a little troubled when everyone else looks excited. Was this taken the same day as the ship picture? Or this family is just well-traveled?

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The best part about these photos is that they’re taken so incredibly well. It’s obvious that our mystery photographer did this professionally or as a serious hobby. The different sizes and formats show that he or she is versatile. There are multiple takes of the same subject, showing an effort to get a perfect shot. But what’s killing me:  WHY DID I FIND THIS IN A DUMPSTER?? Such good quality family pictures should be kept forever, right? Do photographers ever throw away pictures? Especially ones of their family?

What is the story here?

My brother is a well-known fashion designer in the Philippines, and when his name became a brand he found he needed an office and a workshop. My grandparents were looking to sell their house so they suggested selling it to my brother.

But this house wasn’t your typical Quezon City house with its flat roofs and dull, flat-brown paint. In fact, it also used to be my grandmother’s leather goods shop.

My brother has often told me stories of walking arou

nd my grandma’s backstock, smelling the strong musk of leather hide, and seeing my grandma immersed in her creative flow as she designed wood carvings to be pressed on leather, experiences he says inspired him to experiment with making clothes today. He instantly grabbed at the chance to establish his flagship store in the same space as her old leather goods company, knowing a lineage of craftmanship is in these walls!

Fourteen years has passed since I left my motherland, and two weeks ago I returned, at almost the exact mark on the calendar in the month of July. July is the storm season of the Philippines. I was expecting hot tropical sun but I got something deceivingly similar to San Francisco (or at least where I live in the Outer Richmond). You know, that skyless grayness? But that’s just the sky. Once you walk outside, it is humid and hot. And guess what? All parts of my outer body can produce sweat, even my elbows.

The trip was riddled with revisting the part of my brain that contained my Tagalog vocabulary, reopening the pocket in my stomach where rice usually goes, and, of course, heavy…heavy nostalgia.

One of the things I was excited to see was my brother’s shop, to explore the mingling of old and new.

I expected to see at least one piece of vintage mechanical equipment that churned out leather bags or wallets. I wanted to turn an old rickety iron leather straightener (that’s an actual machine right? Probably. You know those machines you imagine when you don’t really know anything about machinery). I wanted to blow dust off metal templates that had my grandma’s name on it and I wanted my brother to show me framed ephemera that he’d salvaged, holding on to memories of our trailblazing family artisan.

But rather than a monument to the past, I found a space alive with creativity, and a craftmanship solidly of the present: rooms filled with fabric and cloth from China and India, shelves lined with jars of buttons and “motifs”. There were racks upon racks of outgoing gowns and suits ready for praise at their designated wedding or soiree.

In the office of the creative staff, up to date magazine cut-outs colonized a cork board, whether for inspiration or perhaps milling out competition. Next to them, paper cut-outs of new designs that would eventually be translated into fabric.

And then, my brother, working in his office drawing up his newest design for his 11 o’clock client. I was enamored by the intense pace of activity.

For the last several years I’ve been coming across my brother’s name, buzzed around in Hollywood-esque gossip media shown on Filipino channels, and even seeing him featured on America’s Next Top Model, when he designed couture dresses using Hello Kitty products.

During my high school prom I wore my Francis Libiran penguin-suit with pride as I showed my classmates the tag that bore my last name.

Finally seeing his workshop was fulfilling in a way that I can’t explain. It was inspiring! I felt like his younger-self must’ve felt walking around my grandma’s leather shop, wide-eyed and unconsciously brewing an inclination for artistry. Thus realizing the possibility to turn creating into a profession. It was intense for me to see the magnitude of his fame, but even more so how comfortable and confident he was practicing his craft. I love that he loves what he does and is so good at it.

During a long car ride to one of our island hopping escapades, he showed me a magazine that featured the “25 Most Influential Fashion Designers in the Philippines.” He’s in it of course and he also pointed out the older designers he originally looked up to. “I used to clip magazine cut-outs of their gowns and pieces when I was your age and now… I am one of them,” he said.

A few months ago, I was stumbling through the streets of Cole Valley on my way to a party when I spotted not one, not two, but three pairs of skis in a dumpster. I don’t usually participate in winter sports; I’ve gone snowboarding twice and I was terrible at it. But when I saw these specimens in my slightly inebriated state, they were the most beautiful things in the world. Needless to say, I claimed them, and when I arrived at my friend’s house with my newly acquired limbo poles, the party officially started.

I like stories that live in something. Discarded objects, old photos—they all have a story to tell, and the streets (and dumpsters) of San Francisco are ripe with material. Just as long as the moist ocean air doesn’t ruin it.

I used to send my ex-girlfriend letters with pictures from garage sales or thrift stores included. We traded off. I sent her a black-and-white of a matador in action, and she sent me a grainy cowboy in return. We then added a rule: we must make up stories for each of them. On the back of each photo we’d include a short biography or a description of the scene. Suddenly, the characters captured in time were brought to life.

So it should come as no surprise that when I saw a dusty old suitcase heaped on top of a dumpster on 16th Avenue in the Inner Richmond, I was ecstatic and knee-deep in junk in no time. Much to my delight, the discarded luggage contained old pictures. They might as well have been gold coins. I bolted out of the trash and speed-walked to the nearest cafe, clasping the suitcase tight. The pictures were of a Japanese American family and ranged from 1918 to the 1980s. They’re high quality with great composition and clarity. The content is even better, chronicling the life of a Japanese family immersed in quintessential American culture, complete with family excursions, dinner parties, cat-eye glasses, and fishing.

And amongst the photos, two letters. One opened and another unopened. My adventure was just beginning…

*Originally written in January, 2013.