Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"The Guy Who Came in From the Cold"

There's a line of cars outside at the curb, even this early in the day; near the holidays, the parking meters are free. Inside Loser's Blend the day is picking up, with a few of the regulars straggling in for their first cup of the day, and perhaps a bite to eat.

The winter sun, just peaking above the low buildings across the street, casts long streaks of warmth through the dingy windows and onto the worn wooden floor, stained from countless decades of foot traffic, spilled food and sloshed coffee, a patina of archeological proportion. Next to the door, in a corner of the room segregated by a well-worn counter, is Dub, manning the coffee roaster.

Dub hails from nowhere, and everywhere; just ask him and he'll tell you. As he works his magic at the coffee roaster, there is a constant banter between him and some of the regulars, seated at the counter with their cups of coffee and plates of food and computers and notepads, as if he were some piano bar entertainer, working the cocktail crowd, holding court. This is Dub's element, his stage from which he works his art. Behind him, as he expounds on the recent Occupy Movement that had brought in lots of new business to the shop, hot roasted beans pop and sputter in a smokey haze. The shop espresso roast, legendary for miles around, is being cooked up.

The door creaks open and, along with a waft of frigid cold air, enters a portly figure attired in nondescript street clothes, a dark blue, stained backpack hanging from his shoulder. The regulars have this way of sizing up a person without appearing to be paying any attention at all to them, as if they sport some sort of periscopic vision, able to see around corners and behind their backs. A couple, seated at a table near the middle of the room, cloister in secretive conversation, whispering and pointing at the figure by the door.

Dub is multitasking now, in mid-conversation with a young fellow at the counter while simultaneously scooping out hot beans into a large plastic tub, when he abruptly pauses in mid-sentence, frozen in position, the hot beans beginning to burn his gloved hands. "Well, hell..." his voice trailing off, "...look who the dog drug in. I'll be damned if it isn't old Barney. Barney the Cigarette Guy. Man, how you been?"

Barney stands there by the door, silent but with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, scanning the room for familiar faces, then finally locks eyes with Dub. "Busy. Yea, been real busy. I've been fine, thanks. Say, you haven't seen that Bill fella anywhere around here, have you?" Barney teeters on his worn shoes, then leans against the window sill in an air of uncertainty and doubt.

"Man, you okay? Here, let's get you a cup of joe." Dub leaves the half-filled tub of beans to cool, carefully placing his gloves on the counter, and heads over to the serving line to pour a cup.

Hesitant at first, Barney finally sits himself down at an empty stool by the bar, backpack at his feet, head down, his elbows heavy upon the counter like the weight of his soul and all of its baggage have finally somewhere to rest.

Dub places the hot cup of coffee at the counter with a friendly "here you go" and resumes his roasting, stirring the still warm beans in the roaster with a large perforated metal paddle, beans smoldering with hisses and pops, eying Barney every so often with an air of fatherly concern concealed behind his long braided beard and rainbow-colored spectacles.

Barney, hands around cup like a moth to flame, sips his coffee silently in grateful solitude, slowly melting, slowly unfolding like a flower ripening from its bud. "Bill. Have you seen him?"

Dub pauses, staring into the dark, oily shine on the beans like gazing into the heart of a raven's eye, haunting and bewitching. "No, man, ain't seen him lately. Why, what's up?"

"Aw, nothing really. I've been away, is all. Far away." His voice, thin and reedy, trails off into some thousand yard stare of foreboding silence.

Dub stirs his beans, checking the temperature gauge on the roaster, then suddenly remembers. "Hey, man, there's a package up front, with your name on it. Here, I'll get it." He returns a moment later, placing a coffee-stained manilla envelop on the counter next to Barney's cup. "You need a refill? Yea, you're going to need a refill, I can tell. It's on the house, today."

Dub walks back to the serving line, Barney's cup in tow, while Barney sits staring at and fondling with the corners of the envelop like it were some ancient papyrus scroll, foreign and mysterious. Finally, he picks it up, flipping it over and over in his hands as if weighing some evidence, and finally builds up the strength to unwrap the string binding that secures the flap. The envelop is unmarked, aside from "Barney the Cigarette Guy," lettered in flowing fountain pen script on the front side, and a small, printed product code on the reverse side along the bottom edge.

"Here you are. Hot and black, right?" Dub places the cup down at Barney's elbow, eying the envelop and its contents, now spread on the counter before him, with curiosity. Before Barney is arrayed an unruly stack of silver gelatin, black-and-white prints, images that he instantly recognizes as those he had made off and on during the last few months, when the window had opened and he had made his escape.

Escape. A funny word, that. In retrospect, it seemed easy, giving up one's livelihood, abandoning one's dream to pursue another, exchanging the toil and drudgery of utter certainty for the thrill and excitement of the unknown, a vision-quest of sorts, on the road for months in search of something so intangible yet solid enough to be felt now in his well-worn fingers as silvery shades of emotion on feathery paper, like one's soul poured out in full upon a fine printer's paper, fixed and solidified for all to behold, tangibly real yet pure dream-stuff, as real as memories can ever get, wondering if the memories imbued within these subtle silvery hues could be implanted within whomever else would behold them, like little 5 by 7 time machines, each one, able to bring a person back to another time and another place.

"These are wonderful. Whose are they? I mean, did you take these?" Dub is now totally engrossed in the images, ignoring the tub of beans and the sideways glance from his mates behind the serving line, who simultaneously wipe the counter, wait on customers and wearily watch Dub and Barney over in the corner, wondering what it is that could be so important.

"No. I mean, yes. I mean, I took the pictures, mailed the rolls of film back to Bill as I took them, and he must have developed and printed them." Barney's voice trails off into a whisper as he picks up one particular print that brings back a peculiarly strong memory, not so much staring at the print as into it and through it.

"Where did you take all of these, if I may ask?" Dub has now walked around the counter and is seated next to Barney.

"Oh, various places. Streets, bus stations, towns, cities, that sort of thing. Here, take a look at this one." Barney hands Dub a print of a lone figure, half in and half out of the stark light near an alley's entrance, hunched down in a near-crippled walk, knapsack slung over hunched shoulders, head turned toward the lens, eyes like penetrating fire.

Dub just sits there, staring into the print as if there were present some depth of understanding out of proportion to the mere angstrom-thick emulsion's metallic tones, as if it were some portal to somewhere else entirely unseen. Hands slightly trembling, he finally sets the print down gingerly upon the pile of other prints equally as enticing and stares off into space, through the dingy windows, past the foot traffic and parked cars and low horizon of shops across the street, past the sky with winter clouds beyond, past the troposphere and stratosphere and ionosphere, past the sun's coronal delight, into the heart of the matter.

There is a lone, haunting singer's voice penetrating the quiet chatter of customers and clatter from the kitchen, and the sun is rising higher in the cold air above the shops across the street as a flock of black crows fly north against an arctic breeze, and streaks of early morning light now shorten and brighten along the patina-stained floor, as Dub and Barney sit at the counter and silently contemplate a pile of photographs, when a cold breeze suddenly interrupts the room's warmth as the door slowly opens and in walks Bill, camera in hand, just wanting a cup of hot coffee.

It's going to be a good day.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Plastic Inflatable Christmas Blessings


Tacky is as tacky does. Or something like that. No? Okay, how about this: judge not lest ye be judged. A bit better, perhaps? Okay, I’ve been guilty of harboring some rather shallow thoughts on such a pleasant Christmas day as today was, I must admit, and which I now find necessary to share with you. I’d like to think that I can just blame it all on old age, or the cold, dry weather that’s seeping into my bones.

You see, we didn’t put up lights or yard ornaments this year, as we’ve done in years past, and also had the day to ourselves, the kids and grand kids going off to the in-law’s for Christmas get-together. It was the nicest, quietest Christmas we’ve had together in many a year, and we both enjoyed it immensely. But in my long, slow decline into maturity I’ve noticed little things changing, like the superficial things seem to hold less sway, and I seem to be less patient with those pitiful distractions that seemed to have captivated me in my younger days.

For instance, I’m less inclined to zip and zoom around town well above the speed limit just because I’ve got an appointment. Now, I seem to just enjoy the ride more, let the traffic pass me by, watch the fuel economy gauge slowly inch upward as I creep up on that line of traffic stopped at the red light just ahead, cars that had, moments earlier, zoomed past with some utter sense of urgency. It’s the journey, not the destination - that sort of thing. I do notice, in my new-found self-righteous patience, that those behind me in traffic are less inclined to share in my comfortable exuberance, which in itself provides more opportunity for mature patience-building on my part. The maturing process, you see, is so filled with wonder.

A person gets a bit more narrow-minded with increased maturity I’ve found, having observed the phenomenon in myself as well as others. While I’m less enthused about spending hours tending to the minutiae of the yard, I seem to be in equal measure more critical of those neighboring yards that might, shall we say, be in less than well-tended condition. “Renters,” I’ll probably mutter under my breath. “Don’t have no vested interest in the neighborhood.”

And so it is with these thoughts in mind that we were driving through the neighborhood toward home and passed the house that we’ve come to call The Red Neck House. I do realize that the term has come to harbor suspicions of in-breeding, cluttered yards and primer-gray trucks up on blocks (and source material for an entire comedy industry), but in this case the house in question seems to fit the description with surprising accuracy.

First, the so-called red-necks moved in a few years ago and proceeded to quit watering the lawn and mature tree out front (water being, in the dry southwest, of life-giving importance to one’s landscaping), which we then sadly watched die in the ensuing months of observant (but not necessarily nosey) neighborhood walks. Then, months later, and after having cut the old, dead tree down to the trunk, they began to dig out its root ball, but only succeeded in leaving this half-unearthed carcass of roots and rot to fallow in the midst of their front yard like some War-of-the-Worlds Martian canister that had crash-landed with a thud, blast and spew of dirt and rottenness. The crater sat in that condition for months or longer; the Martians, it would seem, were in no mood to alight from their root-ship and set foot on this primer-gray, motor-oil-stained terra firma. Where the lovely, verdant lawn once rested were now parked various behemoths of the off-road ilk, jacked-up and monster-tired and gray-primed to the hilt.

In the ensuing years since, we’ve relinquished all desire to see vengeance wracked upon such heathens; rather, we’ve retreated into a resigned sense of the inevitable, helplessly watching the decline of our own neighborhood, like maturing towns and cities alike that seem to age in much the same way as do their inhabitants, like the running down of the universe via the Second Law of Thermodynamics, like the decline of Western Civilization (of which I’m reminded by an Irish friend is an oxymoron), and all of that. We’d just walk or drive by on our errands and mutter under our breath about The Red Neck House and how they seemed to have magically collected another primer-gray vehicle, and a jet-ski, along with a smattering of newly-rusted barbecue grills and coolers and plastic lawn chairs scattered about the property, another miracle to behold at Christmastime. The dirt front yard, whose Martian crater has by now been filled in, sports some permanent, oddly discolored hue reminiscent of those old oil fields back home.

I don’t think I’m being too unfair toward those neighbors who’ve chosen to live near us by necessity rather than by choice, because some of our closest friends are or were neighbors who rented their houses rather than paid a mortgage. But there are more data points to consider, if one is to be entirely factual.

For instance, a couple next door to us, who had owned their home for decades, moved away and decided to rent out their old house. The day that the new tenants moved in was one of those more memorable moments in our lives, because the most immediate indication that our new neighbors had arrived was announced by the portable toilet sitting square in the middle of their front yard. It would seem that they were in the Porta-Potty business. We were overjoyed, as you can well imagine, by the prospect of such lawn ornaments being periodically on display for all the world (and our friends and family) to behold. Sanitation, it would seem, is next to godliness.

And then there was Dorothy. She had maintained, we were told by neighbors more veteran than us to the neighborhood, the most beautiful and immaculate yard on the block, directly across the street from our house. But, that was years ago, before her husband died and something switched off in her mind, and she slowly abandoned all prospect of upkeep and maintenance to her property. We knew something was the matter when, after all the trees and shrubs were but dried sticks, and weeds were waist-high, the old rusted swamp cooler on her roof fell off, leaving a gaping hole, and my brother, looking to help, discovered the entire house filled to waist-high with papers and clutter. She had assumed the life of the cloistered hoarder. A grown son, an ex-convict, would sporadically come around to help, but not often enough. Dorothy finally passed away, and the house was remodeled from inside to out, and finally resold.

Seemingly inevitable, the house’s present occupants also maintain a dirt and weed-strewn front yard, of which we are now also resigned into acceptance. I will spare you the details of their modest attempts at xeriscaping except to mention The Pile (of weeds and gravel) that sat along the side of their driveway for several years, the aftermath of a failed attempt at landscaping. I suppose, in retrospect, that this too is alright; those folks who settled old Albuquerque from back east in the 1880s, after the railroad arrived, transforming a sleepy Hispanic village into a teeming metropolis, didn’t realize that their lush lawns and manicured shrubbery were of a more verdant climate, and that within this high desert of the American southwest one shouldn’t expect anything to thrive without extraordinary effort besides red clay dirt, rocks, gravel and weeds.

You see, I told you that I was in a less than charitable mood this Christmas. I suppose that my depressive outlook upon the state of decline in our neighborhood in some ways mirrors my pessimism over the state of decline of our nation and culture. Yet, in all fairness, my home is nothing but a humble little cottage also; and our landscaping designed more out of convenience than overt moral certitude of the superiority of civilization over wilderness; and my educated sophistication nothing much to brag about, either.

And so, as we returned home this Christmas afternoon from a leisurely stroll along the forested banks of the Rio Grande, north of town, we passed The Red Neck House and noted with delight the assortment of Christmas decorations now cluttering their yard. My dear wife, normally the more cautious and graceful, was overjoyed at the prospect of us hurrying back with camera in hand to document this amazing sight, this mathematically-precise cross-section of American consumer culture known as the Plastic Inflatable Yard Decoration, whose documentation we faithfully attended to like the concerned neighbors that we are, and which we are now more excited than ever at the thought of sharing with our broader readership. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

(Posted via iPad2)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Double Parked

Parking Meter

I’m sitting at the desk in my office, and it’s snowing outside. Monday morning, a normal day off for me (I have a strange work schedule), and there’s jazz playing on the radio from the local public radio station (KUNM). I’m writing with a new gizmo (for me), that being iWriter on the iPad2.

Oh, one more thing: the parking meter is counting down, even as I write these words. No, the meter is not out on the street; that would be silly to have to pay for parking at your own residence, wouldn’t it, ha-ha. No, the parking meter I speak of is at my side, on the desk adjacent to the pens and pencils and Corona 4 under its colorful dust-cover.

Not everyone has a functional parking meter on their desk, you see. It’s a long story, best to start somewhere closer to the beginning. Funny thing is, the beginning is kind of hard to define, sort of like deciding where the fog starts.

I suppose I could go back to the mid-1970s, when I was a young lad newly enlisted in the U.S. Navy (a.k.a. “Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club”), where I received some training as an Interior Communications Technician, a rating that’s not around anymore, but which encompassed all shipboard interior comms like telephones, intercomms, sound-powered battle phone circuits, signals and indicators, closed-circuit T.V., etc.

As it turns out, my training in closed-circuit video did me well later in civilian life, while my experience with old rotary-dial telephones stood me well when, a few months ago, my brother-in-law brought me an old, bakelite rotary-dial phone that was in need of some repair. He promised to recompense me in the form of some cool gadget that he had recently acquired. Overcome by curiosity, naturally I bit at the offer, and so a while later he dropped the phone off to me, indicating that it didn’t work.

As it turns out, the phone just needed a replacement earpiece element, the old one having an open coil. I found an exact replacement from an online site in Canada that specializes in old phone parts, and in a matter of a few weeks the old phone was sounding like new, with the additional inclusion of rewiring the phone cord to a modular-style plug.

The next time we met, at a family gathering, my brother-in-law exchanges the now working phone for my payment in kind: a classic, old-fashioned parking meter. Minus its support pole, of course. 

I was partly impressed and partly thinking “now, what the heck am I going to do with that?” I was also thinking that my dear wife would soon be wondering where, in our cluttered little cottage, would I find room for Just One More Piece of Junk. 

My brother-in-law, he had acquired the meter at an antique store somewhere in Arizona, and it takes pennies, nickels and dimes. It even rattled with a few coins in the coinbox, the evidence of the meter having been tested out for functionality. Yes, Virginia, it did work. Only problem was, I couldn’t open the coin box to retrieve my test coins, and therefore sought the services of a local locksmith.

They were anxious to work on it, the folks at the locksmith shop were, and so I happily left it for them to either pick the lock and rekey, or drill it out and replace it with a working lock. I only had to wait a day when they called that it was ready to be picked up.

When I payed, I thought it funny that the guy asked me if I was just going to use it for decor, but thought nothing of it. Once home, I tested out the new lock and key, noting with satisfaction that the coin box could now be easily accessed. But, what was this? The needle on the dial was stuck at the 12-minute mark, nor did I hear the mechanism ticking away.

I took it out to the shop and investigated further. It turns out that when the locksmith drilled out the lock, he drove too far with the drill-bit and succeeded in damaging the clockwork mechanism. I could clealy see, once I had dismantled my way into the guts of the device, that the little brass cog that drove the escapement was bent and its shaft was off its bushings, along with the fine spring being deformed. There was also, I noted, a plethora of metal shavings jamming the remainder of the gear-train, evidence of the difficulty they had in drilling their way through what was obviously a high-security lock.

I fiddled with the thing for awhile, cleaning out the metal shavings and straightening the bent brass cog, then degreasing the brass parts, but couldn’t get it to reliably work because the brass cog now slipped freely on its steel shaft, as did the tiny actuator pin mounted to the cog.

Then today, because I was homebound by the arrival of a snow storm, I took the clockwork in from the cold shop and began working on it from the comfort of my warm office. I succeeded in making the hole in the center of the brass cog, and that for the tiny pin, a bit tighter by the application of some concentrated force with a steel tool, and was able to get it properly reassembled and the escapement’s timing adjusted so that, wonder of wonders, the dang thing began to oscillate back and forth, making its wonderful little ticking sound once again. What had once been a modest boat anchor was soon restored to its former glory, that of the humble parking meter, normally an object of our scorn and derision when out in public, but now the object of my pride and joy, almost like a proud Pappy and his newly arrived bambino. Almost.

I have a few ideas about what to do with a functional, full-sized parking meter. For one, it’s sitting at my desk right now, counting down the minutes as I write. So, there’s one possible application: as a handy writing timer, a method of disciplining oneself (or one’s grandkid) into so many minutes of uninterrupted study.

Then there’s the idea of a time-out meter. When the little ones get a bit too rambunctious, just slip a penny or nickel into the slot, twist the knob and announce with satisfaction “Okay, mister, you’re in time-out until the red flag pops up.”

I did present to my wife the idea of using it as a kitchen timer, but it just doesn’t go with our decor (which is surprising, given that our kitchen badly needs a remodel, the 50-year-old, original insert-oven sporting an analog temperature dial which once inspired a guest to comment that “it looks like an old car radio...”). No; however impressed Mrs. Van Cleave was with the prospect of owning a functional parking meter, using it within the confines of the kitchen was not anywhere near the top of her priority list. I’d have to find another use for it.

Really, it doesn’t look all that bad sitting here in the office, next to the old manual typewriter. But, it’s not in its original element. Birds were meant to fly, fish were meant to swim, and parking meters were built to reside out-of-doors. So, I figure that I’ll just wait until the weather warms up a bit and mount the old meter out in the front yard, like yard art, on a well-secured metal pole. The kids and visitors alike can have fun putting their spare change into the thing, and who knows, perhaps I’ll be able to save up enough cash to go on vacation (though I’m not holding my breath). 

But, I probably won’t mount the meter at the curbside. Governments, even modest city governments like ours, don’t find much humour in direct competition.

Oops, the meter’s expired, time to get moving on outta here. See you soon, and don’t take any wooden nickels.

(Posted via iPad)

Post-Script: this is my first blog post with my recently-acquired iPad2. I wrote the piece on iWriter, my first purchased app, and shot the photo on the iPad's camera which is, as you can tell, rather point-and-shoot-ish. I also don't yet have a photo editing app (there being, like, 10,000 or more from which to choose from), and so all I did to the picture after capture was to crop it to square format, then upload to Flickr. Which was another interesting challenge. I ended up emailing it to my Flickr account, a rather round-about method because the regular uploader isn't iPad friendly, but it works. Then, grabbing the BB code to link the photo to my blog was also a challenge, the iPad lacking anything that could be construed as a right-mouse button click. And, highlighting individual letters in each paragraph to be bolded is also a bit klunkier, hence the lack of spit-and-polish to this post.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Winter Crows"

Bill sits at the rickety metal table whose legs wobble on the brick sidewalk just enough to slosh his coffee onto the already stain-encrusted metal extruded surface. It is a cold, December day, a low overcast threatening snow for later. What had been a balmy autumn had suddenly turned cold like the return to some harsh reality.

Winter for him has always been like waking from a long slumber, casting off the dreamy comfort of the warmer months for the cold season that functions like a brace of cold water to one's face, just the opposite of what a winter's hibernation might insinuate. The pigeons are now gone, roosting who-knows-where, replaced by intermittent flocks of black winter crows that soar overhead in some mysterious reconnaissance known only to them, then alight into the trees of someone's property, cawing and eyeing the surroundings like some bored avian gang, dark-hearted and subtly menacing. Bill, he doesn't like the winter crows but remains equally fascinated by them.

It had been a few weeks since he'd met Barney the cigarette guy and loaned him his old Soviet-era rangefinder camera, preloaded with film, and hadn't thought much about it until he walked into Loser's Blend -- what, a week ago? -- and found waiting for him a small package behind the counter, a roll of exposed black-and-white film rolled up in an old, wrinkled brown paper lunch bag, secured by a piece of twine, that instantly brought to Bill's mind a memory from long ago, when he was but a small boy, and his grandpa would bring Christmas gifts wrapped in brown butcher's paper, secured in twine, that hairy kind of twine that required a sharp pocket knife to sever.

Bill had sat there that day, drinking his coffee and wondering what, if any, images might lurk unseen on the film, then had purposefully set the thought aside to make room for the day's work; only later that night, back in his flat, had he been overcome with an intense curiosity and broke out the beakers, tank, reel and chemicals and processed the film in his tiny bathroom, then collapsed into a deep sleep soon thereafter without even examining the results hanging from the curtain rod, drying in the bathroom's warm air, other than an initial impression that the exposures seemed, for the most part, pretty good, considering Barney hadn't the benefit of a light meter, only Bill's sketchy suggestions about "sunny side up," as Barney had called it.

Now, seated on a cold, metal chair, a smattering of students and bohemians chatting and smoking at the adjoining tables, he isn't at all certain that Barney will show up, only that the new guy behind the counter had recognized Barney from Bill's description and suggested that, yes, he usually shows up on Mondays.

Earlier the previous week, the day after having processed Barney's film, he returned home in the afternoon and decided to take a closer look at the negatives. Hands gloved in clean, lint-free cotton liners, he carefully snipped the film strip into sections and sleeved them into plastic, then dug out the old light box and sat down at the kitchen table to take a closer look.

His earlier impression about the exposures had been correct, the daylight frames were pretty evenly exposed, with a few indoor images noticeably thinner in density but still printable.

Printable. Yes, that's what he would have to do. He could tell, even from a cursory examination of the negatives, that there were some good images here, worth the trouble of printing, but that he could not rely on any local lab to do a good job of wet-printing black-and-white negatives these days, that he'd have to do the job himself. He had spent the rest of that afternoon unpacking junk from the recesses of the hall closet until he found all the requisite components and set about the task of reassembling his old enlarger.

Bill had cleared off the top of his dresser and moved in the old T.V. cart that now served merely as storage for old magazines, and applied blackout cloth to the window above the headboard, then set about aligning the enlarger's condensor head to its baseboard. Finally the makeshift darkroom was ready, trays of chemical waiting alongside, which he had carefully walked, one by one, in from the bathroom sink with but a few sloshes.

He spent the rest of that evening and late into the night printing Barney's images uncropped onto 5 by 8 inch rectangles of old, outdated fiber paper, cut down from their original 8 by 10 size. They were, for the most part, straight prints with little or no dodging or burning, devoid of his own personal interpretation. Finally, near midnight, they were done, left to soak in a slow drizzle of bathtub water overnight while Bill, breathless and overcome, collapsed on the couch, the mess in his bedroom left to cleanup for later.

The next morning, Bill awoke with the dim, gray light of dawn already sifting in through the grungy kitchen window, and wondered what day it was, then arose to make morning tea and ready his day. Still sleepy, he wandered into the bathroom to relieve himself when he stopped, standing there by the tub, staring down into the still wet prints floating in their tray, the early morning light providing some magical illumination that seemed to make them glow. He immediately set about the task of drying each one with a squeegee against a plastic cutting board placed over the lavatory sink, only reminded of his tea pot when its whistle had begun loudly blaring.

Bill couldn't concentrate all the rest of that day, his thoughts instead drawn back to those prints, now sandwiched to dry between a stack of metal screens to prevent their curling. That evening, as the radio played, he sat at the kitchen table and silently sorted through the stack, pausing to study each image in silent contemplation, minutes merging into hours.

Bill could recall a photography course he'd taken at the local community college, years earlier, and could easily remember the primitive attempts at composition and focus by most of the students involved, his own included. But sitting here, lit by the bare bulb over the kitchen sink, these images didn't appear to be the aimless, random snapshots of the fledgling. Despite the imperfections in his printing technique (which had come back to him soon after he'd begun the marathon printing session of the previous night) there was a sophistication of intent evident in these images that startled him.

There were images of street people stark and direct, staring straight back into the lens as if into one's soul; juxtapositions of pedestrians and traffic every bit as enticing as any of the best street photography he'd seen; and a lonely emptiness, a hidden language of mystery revealed through the empty spaces framed by eroding facades and dirt-strewn, worn sidewalks and littered streets equally devoid of life, as if these hidden moments of utter abandon could somehow simultaneously coexist in the brief moments between the cacophony and hum of city life, a parallel dimension of sorts, captured as brief, one-hundred-twenty-fifths-of-a-second intervals of truth revealed.

It became evident that Barney could see these hidden moments of despair, had in fact lived them, and was so able to capture them on film, like the shimmer of some apparition out the corner of one's eye, that Barney was a true visionary with a camera, had a real gift, that needed to be nurtured and encouraged.

Now it is but Monday morning and the minutes pass and people come and go, cigarette smoke wafting on the cold air outside Loser's Blend, and Bill grows uneasy. Finally deciding to act, he leaves his cold cup abandoned at its table, arises from his seat and heads down the street and around the corner, heading to Barney's Smoke Shop, to give him the good news. A cup of coffee together will have to wait for another day.

Ten minutes later, Bill is standing alone on a dingy sidewalk, traffic passing unnoticed behind him, staring at the "Out of Business" sign now displayed haphazardly over the boarded up windows of the storefront. There are no pigeons nearby to peck at the crumbs and specks at his feet, only winter crows, black and ominous, cawing and perched atop the building's parapet overhead, as it silently begins to snow.

Past stories in The Bill Series, in chronological order:
Barney the Cigarette Guy
Healthy Respect

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Mr. Bob

My grandson is pretty torn up about Bob's death. You see, Bob was more than a neighbor, he was almost like a father to him. The little dude always respectfully called him "Mr. Bob", out of respect, and Bob & Rose both opened their hearts and home to him, permitting him to come over whenever he wished. Bob would take him under his wing, would listen to him, would play with him, would show him his shop and his tools. Bob was a real person. If I were a young one like my Grandson, I'd wish for a father figure like Mr. Bob in my life, too.

We had a dog Cocoa, whom we loved, and Bob would take care of her when we went on vacation, rather than board her at a kennel. Cocoa took to Bob like he was her master, and Bob would always reward her with steak bones, which he'd save up for her. There were many a day when we'd find a baggie of dog bones hanging from the front gate, a gift from Bob to Cocoa.

Bob and I drew close; we'd share our hearts, our problems, our troubles, our drink and our food. He was closer than a neighbor, more like a brother but minus the strings that come attached to family. Bob did work for us, and his skill and artistry were always in evidence. Bob would grow vegetables and herbs in his small garden, and would freely share the harvest with us. That's the way Bob was, a free spirit, big of heart, larger than life.

We are grieved and saddened at his loss, yet also feel blessed and privileged to have known him. He was one of a kind, a genuine person in the sense of lacking affectation and facade.

Here's to you, my friend.