“The decrepit underpinnings.” Bill put his pen down upon the centerfold of his composition book and looked away in thoughtful silence, across the dingy and littered street, to a group of students huddled together for warmth, the vapor of their exhaled breath and smoke diluted into the winter atmosphere like the remnants of some passing storm. He took a sip of tepid coffee, full-flavored and sweet, and took up pen once again.
He had been trying, ever since being reunited with Barney the Cigarette Guy (who was no longer in the smoke-selling business, though nicknames have a way of sticking tighter than glue), to formulate in proper terms his own personal interpretation of Barney’s photographic work. This was a point he found crucial to understanding the deeper meanings present, that however his opinion of the work might resemble Barney’s, each person comes away from an encounter with art possessing a unique, personal viewpoint, the result reflecting each one’s unique experience. To be certain, the frame lines that serve to define each of these images possess an editorial stance unique to Barney’s perspective, but the deeper, hidden implications of such imagery are implicit and therefore susceptible to a variety of interpretations, with as many variations as there are individuals.
It therefore seemed important to Bill, this cold, wet morning, as if taking on the spirit of a mission, to define the parameters of his own reflections upon the body of Barney’s work that constituted a stack of silver gelatin prints, galvanized from a series of marathon printing sessions that seem now to have been the aftermath of some mad frenzy of psychic proportion, as if someone else had labored in that tiny, cluttered darkroom, forgoing sleep and food, energized by nicotine, caffeine and an inexplicable internal drive.
And yet, something had been missing, which he couldn’t put his finger on until now.
The creation of a photograph had always been, in the “classic period” of film photography, a collaboration between photographer and darkroom printer, both requiring the skill of the craftsman melded to the vision of the artist, either skill taken individually of sufficient difficulty to do well so as to require the application of all of one’s talents to master. Only a few of the great photographers were both masters behind the lens and also in the darkroom. More often than not, the photographer took most of the credit for the art of the photograph, leaving his darkroom collaborator with the moniker of lab technician.
In this case, Bill was more than happy to remain the anonymous printer of Barney’s images; honored, in fact, and could now understand more clearly how such a craftsman could remain satisfied in the shadow of the camera-wielding artist. Bill was humbled by Barney’s results, but also left inexplicably perplexed as to how Barney could have possibly made this body of work that he, in fact, did make. One doesn’t merely order undeveloped rolls of the finest documentary and street imagery from who-knows-where; they have to be personally exposed in-camera, on-location, of which Bill had the raw film negatives to prove it.
The mystery was really about the speed with which Barney seemed to have mastered the technical aspects of handling what was an entirely manual camera, devoid of any automation, lacking even a light meter, with no prior experience. Not only did the technical aspects of Barney’s work remain an endless source of fascination to Bill, but also the subtle and sophisticated manner in which he pointed the lens that served to define those frame lines, able to separate out of real life those fleeting glimpses into the hidden mystery, the decrepit underpinnings, that make this life, and the human condition in general, so much of a perplexing riddle.
That’s it, he thought. “Decrepit Underpinnings” was a good enough title for Barney’s work, now he just needed to finish the introductory piece. Being in the position of Curator was a new experience for him, a role that he unexpectedly found himself in, after spouting off with this great idea he had, and now he felt the burden of the entire project upon his shoulders. That’s the way life is, you take the good with the bad.
It seemed just like yesterday when he had walked into Loser’s Blend, for a morning round of coffee and perhaps some writing, and had stood there by the door transfixed by the vision of Barney, sitting at the counter by the coffee roaster, as if he had never left, that cynical smirk on his face along with a deeper look of knowing, as if he had actually been gone and had come back, somewhat different yet essentially unchanged.
It was a spirited reunion, fueled by endless cups of coffee - so many that they had to pay for extra refills - and a change of venue out to the sidewalk tables for a smoke and a cold brace of winter air to clear one’s head for more discussion.
“I had some people to visit, some unfinished business,” Barney had explained. “People from my past, whom I had kind of forgotten about, abandoned when I was finally able to scrape a bit together and work my way up to opening the smoke shop, then thinking that I was better than them, had moved up in life.”
“Where did you go?” Bill had asked.
“At first I hung out at some of the usual sites around town where the down-and-out congregate, providing the cops haven’t driven them away. Which they do, from time to time. Met a few of the old-timers, heard some sad news about a few of the others. Then spent a few nights at the Mission. In between all of this, I was taking photos, of course, but trying to conserve my film and make each shot count. Which I think I did.”
“You sure did. You did great.”
“And then I hit the road. Hitch-hiked out west to Fresno, to finish some old business.” Barney had sat his cup down on the metal table and looked off into the distance, a clouded countenance surrounding him.
“None of my business, really. Unless you feel like sharing.” Bill knew how to pull things out of Barney, just patiently keep talking, keep him at ease, one small step at a time.
“Long story, would bore you to tears to hear it. Besides, it’s old history by now. Done and gone.”
Bill paused a spell, silently enjoying the banter but also people-watching the nearby tables. Finally he broke the silence. “Did I ever mention that my great-grandfather was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders?”
“You’re shittin’ me, right?”
“No, it’s true. He rode with old Teddy.”
“What was he, some kind of gunslinger? Soldier? Walk tall and carry that big stick?” Barney had that look in his eye, that fiery look that showed he still had some life left in him.
“No, not a big stick. A big tripod.”
“He was a surveyor, for old Teddy, not a gunslinger. Just a surveyor. I had you going, didn’t I?”
Barney just sat there, across the table from Bill, coffee cup up to his lip, one eye full of the devil’s fire, just eyeing Bill with intensity. And then he couldn’t contain it any longer, and spewed tepid coffee across the table and upon Bill as they both had the biggest laugh that each could remember, tears flowing, those at the nearby tables looking on with curiosity.
“A surveyor...!” Barney would exclaim, which would set them both to laughing all over again.
Finally, they both settled down, spent from their mutual spontaneous outbursts, and Barney got that serious look again, the look that said he was ready to talk.
He spun a tale of a mother that had died, leaving a work-weary father and two young boys, and how the father had struggled to make ends meet but couldn’t, in the end, keep the family together, sending the younger boy - Barney’s little brother - back east to live with an Aunt, while Barney left school early and learned quickly the meaning of hard work, until the Old Man’s health failed, the result of a hard life and constant drinking, which slowly wore away at his sanity until he was a mere shadow of the strong and vital father he had once been, and events took their course and the last feeble threads holding the family together had finally parted. It was a tragic story every bit unique yet all too common, repeated endlessly across the land. Nothing is ever as neat and tidy as it’s made out to be in fiction, real life being messy and unpredictable. When he was done Barney just sat there fumbling with his cold and empty cup, staring down into nothingness.
“Damn,” Bill finally uttered after an appropriately long pause. “So, that shot of the headstone in the graveyard...”
“...was my mother’s,” Barney answered him. “And the one of the tattered suitcase was my Papa’s, all that was left of his worldly possessions after he’d been put away into the State Home. I got there too late, you know.”
“Too late? You mean, he was still alive all this time?”
“Alive physically is all. His mind had gone completely, he never would've known if I’d gotten there in time. Was a blessing, really.”
“The funeral shots, that simple pine coffin, those world-weary pall-bearers, that was your Papa’s funeral, then?”
“Yea. I just found folks off the street, regular folks, you know, my kind of people - the down-and-out - and invited as many as I could to the funeral, promising them a free meal afterwards. A lady friend I met, who worked down at the Mt. Calvary Mission, promised me she’d have a whole spread ready to go after the funeral, which she did, and it was great. It was the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
Bill wiped away a tear with the tattered sleeve of his jacket, and then looked back at Barney, directly at him, deep into his eyes.
“What?” Barney met Bill’s gaze.
“Decrepit underpinnings. That’s who those folks were, the ones who did your Papa’s funeral.”
“The salt of the earth.”
“The keepers of the flame.”
“Of which this world was not worthy of them ... Or so The Good Book says.”
“I have an idea, about how to finish this whole photo project, the right way. Are you with me?”
“I’m listening. But we’re gonna need a refill on coffee, first.”
And that was how the idea for The Project came to be.
Previous stories in the Bill Series:
Barney the Cigarette Guy
The Guy Who Came in From the Cold
(Posted via iPad2)