The Story Behind the Stories (Part Three)
1972 found me back in Syracuse a year after graduation. I started travelling west earlier in the year but only made it as far as Pittsburgh before I jackknifed up to Erie, Pa. and then east back to the university. I was so in love with Phyllis I could not bear to be without her.
Through friends still at the university I secured my first commercial photo contract, a men’s clothing store in the downtown area. The owner was a delightful fellow, albeit a bit vain. He was the only person permitted to model his clothing and accessories, and his hawk like aquiline nose made it impossible to shoot him from any angle other than head on. I augmented my income by teaching photography at the Everson Museum and was fortunate to be employed there when Yoko Ono and John Lennon were in town for her first one-woman art show (an ignominious failure).
I was living on Genesee St. in a condemned house with four other people in a three-bedroom apartment. My ‘room’ was a cot in the hallway with a wooden dowel suspended by rope from a protruding pipe for a closet. At $75 per month, it was just what the doctor ordered, regardless of the lack of privacy. I photographed our landlord’s children playing in the courtyard below, as close to ragamuffins in their dirty and unkempt fashion as I had ever seen.
Genesee St. was a ghetto in waiting. The downward spiral from lower middle class to upper lower class was proceeding on whatever schedule these events take. You could sense the disintegration of the environs in the air. It was sad bordering on pathetic to watch its collapse. Still, as long as you were off the streets by dark you were fairly safe.
I was driving a 1970 VW bug my mother had purchased for me after my ’63 Dodge Polara was stolen, stripped and junked near the university. She bought it from an unscrupulous dealer who wound the speedometer back by around 60,000 miles. It left me stranded regularly, without even the courtesy of reasonable notice. Phyllis truly believed she was the source of my bad luck with the car. As an Italian token of good luck, she put a large red ribbon on it when I drove back from Pennsylvania the first time. The day after the ribbon was draped, one of the constant velocity joints on the rear end promptly fell out of the car, hanging down defiantly on the road. She was mortified.
I assured her that she had not summoned bad luck down from heaven upon me, but that was a tough sell for Phyllis. After rather expensive repairs I was driving along Genesee St. with my Hasselblad on the seat beside me. I always carried a camera regardless of where I went. Over 90 percent of my portfolio was created by events that unfolded in front of me those years, and a photographer without a camera was just a voyeur.
My blood sugar was dropping so I sashayed up to a small convenience store, parked and hopped in for a Snickers. As I Ieft the store, I spied a stranger following me. My peripheral vision calculated the angle of attack and I sped up my feet, unlocked the door, plunked myself down and tucked myself in. He had a seemingly friendly smile, but there was darkness in his eyes, and I perceived a threat. I cracked the passenger side window down an inch or two and picked up my Hasselblad. I gauged the lighting conditions and adjusted the aperture and shutter speed accordingly. The lack of a viewfinder was actually advantageous. Not raising the camera to eye level seemed less intrusive. I glanced down, adjusted the composition and looked back up at him, engaging in conversation as best as I could with my finger poised on the shutter release. At this point the photo was composed and focused -- I need only have waited for the moment, which didn’t take long to materialize.
He was trying to convince me to unlock the door so he could climb inside to avoid the chill of the evening. Having already survived being assaulted by three men in Pittsburgh; a drunk German shoving a gun into my stomach in Munich; and dealing with an armed guy in Tully (about 20 miles down the road from SU) the year before, I sort of had an inkling of where this was going. I made three exposures, fired up the VW and peeled out.
I got the shot, I got away intact and unhurt, and I put another notch on my steering wheel for this close encounter of the wrong kind.