Monday, November 14, 2011

"Barney the Cigarette Guy"

"It's a rangefinder, not an SLR and not a point-and-shoot" exclaimed Bill. They were sitting at an outdoor table on the sidewalk outside of Loser's Blend, him and Barney the Cigarette Guy. They had eaten breakfast, were on their fourth cup of coffee, and the ashtray -- an Illy coffee cannister half-filled with sand -- was overflowing with butts from the pack of European smokes Barney had brought over from his shop. Manufacturer's samples, he'd said.

"So let me get this straight," mumbled Barney, cigarette at lip, the metallic snick of his Zippo signaling a cloud of fresh smoke encircling his head like an aura. "I'm not looking through the lens, like on a real camera, right?"

Bill looked away in frustration, taking another drag, then a sip of the now luke-warm coffee. "You're looking through a window," says Bill, turning back to face Barney straight away, "a window on the world, framed by those faint, gray lines. It's not the view of the lens; it's your view upon the world. Your private view. A window, like I said."

Barney carefully picks up the Soviet-era Zorki IV once again, after having placed it back upon the table earlier like some strange and foreign thing that he wasn't, at the moment, prepared to confront. He draws it up to his face, hesitates a moment, then places the rangefinder window to his eye and pans the camera up and down the street, as if viewing for the first time a new world set before him. "Okay, I think I can see what you're saying. As I focus the lens, there's this little double-image in the middle of the frame that comes and goes, right?"

"Exactly. And like I said, whatever's in focus on the film you'll see in the window as the two double images lined up exactly, one upon the other."

"Kind of like the way I already see, isn't it? What with all the brain trauma from the attack." His voice trails off in a cloud of European cigarette smoke.

Bill is secretly amused about how Barney always seems to present his statements in the form of a question, as if life were a game of Jeopardy. Which he probably watched a lot of, at rehab, after the attack.

The moments pass while they silently sit at their table contemplating the pigeons pecking at who-knows-what on the sidewalk at their feet, and students saunter by on foot or bicycle toward campus and their morning class, and the lady across the street slowly pushes the bent shopping cart up the sidewalk, half pushing and half dragging, her legs wrapped indeterminably thick in gauze-like wrappings, cigarette smoke wafting on the cold, morning breeze at their table while Barney fumbles and fiddles with the camera.

"Careful with that shutter speed knob," Bill breaks the spell of silence. "Like I said earlier, you have to cock the shutter before you can change speeds. Here, with that round knob on the right side."

"Yea, you said a lot of things earlier. I'm just trying to remember them all." Barney turns the round, knurled film advance knob until it stops, then fiddles some more with the shutter speed control, noticing how he has to pull up on it before he can change the settings. He decides on 1/250 as a good starting point, based on what he remembers Bill saying.

"Sunny side up, right?"

"That's the Sunny 16 rule, and it only applies in bright sun. Set your shutter speed to the inverse of your film speed when your aperture is F/16. Remember, we're shooting Tri-X, nominally rated at ISO400 but I like to shoot it at 320, brings out the shadow detail better, remember?"

"Yea, yea, I remember. And you're gonna develop the stuff yourself, like you said, right?" Barney was pointing the camera at Bill, practicing focusing the lens and watching the double image come and go on Bill's face, watching the two sets of eyes merge, then separate, then merge again.

"We are both going to develop the stuff ourselves. Right. And I'll teach you how, it's easy. If you can scald water and burn toast, you can develop film. Okay, question time. Ready?"

"Yea, shoot. Get it?" Barney chuckles to himself, taking another drag.

"Okay. Cloudy skies. What's your aperture setting?"


"Correct. How about indoors with daylight coming in through a window?"

"F/8 and be there." Barney smirks to himself, secretly enjoying playing the fool, knowing the advantage he'd always enjoyed being smarter than he looked.

"Very good. Now, tell me about depth of focus, Barney."

"That's that complicated stuff, right?" Barney fumbles with the cold coffee cup.

"Go on."

"I know it has to do with your aperture. Change your aperture and your depth of field changes."

"Good. And what's the little saying I taught you?"

"Oh, something like..." -- he pauses for a second, looking at nothing in particular, as if he could turn his eyes around and peer inside his head -- "...the smaller the number, the smaller the depth of focus, right?" Barney was beaming, knowing for the first time in a long while that he could do this, that he could master this one simple thing, taking pictures, in a life of having mastered little or nothing at all, just struggling to run his smoke shop and keep his head above water, but wanting more, something deep inside him struggling to get out, fighting to be heard.

Bill grinned, his yellow teeth illuminated in the early morning light that now peered from behind the night's storm clouds. "Now, I want you to go out and shoot that roll of film that I already loaded for you. Just think about the mechanics at first, like what exposure you need to use, and carefully focusing on the most important thing in the picture, and then once you're comfortable with the camera, you can start thinking about subject matter and composition and stuff. You're not going to be doing fine art at first, just learning to drive. Got it?"

"Right, chief, got it. But don't get jealous when I come back with pictures better than yours, okay? Sometimes a guy's gotta gift, you know? A gift from God. I know I do, is all. A fellow can't help it when he's got it. Just gotta stay humble's all I say."

"Right." Bill smirks. "And don't forget, you just cocked the shutter, the camera's ready to fire, okay?"

Barney picks himself up from the table, zips up his jacket, and throws the used pack of smokes back down. "Here, the rest is for you. And thanks. I'll get the camera back to you next week, okay?"

"Okay, Barney. Just leave the film inside, we can unload and develop it ourselves. And good luck, hope you get some good shots."

"Right, see you later."

Barney ambles down the sidewalk with the gait of a gimp leg, then turns the corner and suddenly stops, bringing the camera up to his eye, and snaps a picture of Bill, seated at the table, coffee cup in hand, looking off into nowhere.

Pigeons peck and strut at Bill's feet, as smoke bellows on the cold, morning air.


(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)


Blogger Cameron said...

Great story. I like those with a ray of hope.

I recognize where that picture was taken! (I've spent a bit of time in ALBQ over the years.)

Is this vignette part of a larger literary entity? I hope so, as it has a lot of potential!

9:21 AM  
Blogger Joe V said...

Thanks, Cameron. This story is the 3rd in the "Bill" series; the other two are "Pigeons" and "Interface," previously posted on the blog.

I hadn't intended of starting a series about the same character, but sometimes such characters sort of end up having a life of their own.

About the photo, yea, it's along the side of Saggio's restaurant (formerly Nunzio's), down Cornell from the Frontier, across from UNM. But the "Loser's Blend" coffee shop in the story, though imaginary, is loosely based on Winning Coffee, one block over in the Bricklight District on Harvard, which I've written about in previous blog entries.

Thanks for reading.


11:06 AM  
Blogger Rob Bowker said...

Superb! Without intending invidious comparison, that's pure Proulx. Researched, atmospheric, non-judgmental and essentially human. You left me wanting to know what happens next...

6:06 PM  
Blogger Duffy Moon said...

Fantastic. Thanks for sharing this.

7:30 AM  

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