I can quit anytime I want.
I’m pretty sure The Woman had no concept of the beast she would unleash when she bought that Canon AE-1.
Zimmerman was looking to unload an enlarger with assorted trays and extraneous paraphernalia, all for an inconsequential sum of a few hundred bucks.
I was already spending that every month for film and color prints from the camera store where I had won the competition and for darkroom time in a lab out on Franklin Ave for my black-and-white work. Hourly rate plus paper.
That’s right. I had a $200 a month photography habit. But I had it under control. I could quit any time. The problem was I [fill in income data here]. Plus I had no intention of quitting, no matter what time it was.
We were living in a 3,000 sq ft two-story frame house with 12-foot ceilings built in 1917. Sounds great, right? Wrong. It was one block on the wrong side of the boundary between ghetto and gentrification.
A third of it was entryway and screened in porch. Three bedroom, two bath, and forget the open floor plan. Just a bunch of tall boxes connected by halls and doorways. This was a good 30 years before Chip and Joanna showed up and flipped half of the houses in Waco.
We paid $35,000 for it, and it was way more than we could afford. But it had an attic fan. Boo yah!
Wait a minute. Here’s the catch. I had a plan.
Through the camera store competition I had discovered Ilford high-speed black-and-white film. Had learned how to shoot in available light under adverse conditions. And my perverse brain pulled all this together into a grand scheme.
I would shoot live shows of bands and stand-up comics on spec and clear a profit on the prints the artists would buy for promotional purposes. Pure genius.
My venue of choice was The Water Works at the corner Waco Drive and Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. Upscale, white tablecloth dining with an attached pub. I had seen tons of great acts there. Texas blues bands such as Mike Morgan and the Crawl, Anson Funderburg and the Rockets, Rusty Wier, Bugs Henderson, singer-songwriter duo Trout Fishing in America, 2007 Texas poet laureate Steve Fromholz, the Bird Sisters from Canada, the Chieftains from Ireland.
Also, I had been playing open mikes there for years and knew the owners, a couple of Irish guys. Guinness on tap. It had all the vibes.
In fact, it was at the Chieftains gig that I discovered Guinness. When I started doing the open mike at The Water Works in the early 90s, I was at a loss for what to order when I was listening to the other acts as I awaited my slot in the list. As a certified preacher’s kid with a limited exposure to drinking, I was at a disadvantage. One thing I knew for certain, I didn’t like beer.
Then I remembered that somewhere back in the day I had sampled a Long Island Iced Tea. Very consumable. Friendly, you might say. So I ordered that. I soon discovered that when I took the stage, somebody had jumbled all the lyrics in my head and my fingers refused to remember their job.
The next time around I consulted my musician buddies, and they recommended Shiner Bock. It was light years beyond the Budweiser and Lone Star I had sampled back in college. Better yet, I could drink one and still perform. It became my drink of choice.
At the Chieftains show, I was nursing my Shiner when Wade Meyer, the musical chameleon from the open mike, sat down at the table with a pint of some inky black liquid with an inch of frothy tan head.
“What is that?”
“You’ve never had a Guinness?”
I shook my head.
“Go up to the bar and tell Sean you need a Guinness.”
I stood and approached the bar, catching Sean’s eye. “I’ve been told I need a Guinness.”
Sean nodded and pulled a Guinness on tap. It took a while. I waited, confident in the received wisdom from my mentor. Eventually Sean slid the pint over. I nodded and took it back to the table.
Once I was settled, I took a tentative sip, and the heavens opened. Smooth, creamy, slightly bitter, but thick and full of nutrients. It was like drinking a loaf of bread. Really good bread. The kind that makes you look forward to a bulging sandwich.
It was what every beer wished it could be when it grew up.
But I digress. We were talking about high-speed black-and-white film and grand schemes.
Somehow The Water Works had managed to get in on the feeder level of Laff Off, a national stand-up comedy competition that would crown a winner in Vegas toward the end of the year. Dozens of wannabe comics would be thronging to Waco for their chance at greatness.
Comedians who would need live promo shots. And I would shoot them. And then sell them prints.
My rambling, superannuated house had a funky closet that hung off the pantry, more like a shack that had been attached to the south side by a drunken carpenter. It became my darkroom.
I blacked out the windows, screwed in a red light bulb, set up some tables and got to work printing contact sheets and sample 4×6 proofs.
I burned through a lot of film, handed out a lot of business cards. And sold two 8×10 prints for $20 each. One to a comedian called Walt and the other to Bugs Henderson because his son was playing drums and it was his birthday.
The last time I saw Bugs was 1999 when I was living in Scottsdale. He played the Rhythm Room in Phoenix. He was 55 and played a three-hour set without taking a break. Longer than I could go without a pee break, although I cursed every second of missed guitar work.
Three or four years later, when we were living in Honolulu, The Woman and I went to the dollar theater to see Leap of Faith, a movie about a shyster faith healer staring Steve Martin. (Worth seeing, and even more worth getting the soundtrack.) [get spotify link]
The movie opened with a reggae tune and a shot of a tour bus on the highway. The vocals started and I recognized Don Henley’s voice. When he hit the chorus, I said, probably with too much force, “Hey, that’s ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’ from Guys and Dolls!”
The Woman shushed me. She has to do that sometimes. Then, about halfway through the movie, a guy on the screen jumps up and yelled, “Hey, I just found $20 in my pocket!” I flinched, startled, pointed at the screen,and yelled, “That’s Walt!” Yes, that Walt. The aspiring comedian who bought one $20 print and probably made copies in violation of the terms of my contract. So if you see Walt, tell him he owes me some royalties.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? -Jeremiah 17:9
Life progressed, during which I burned a lot more film doing things. Then a thing happened.
Twenty years before the 2008 national collapse of the housing market, the savings and loan associations staged a dress rehearsal. One third of the 3,000 S&Ls in the US went bust. I typically didn’t pay attention to such things, but the house next to my 1917 mansion got caught in the crossfire. One day a sign showed up in the lawn indicating it was being auctioned off by the Resolution Trust Corporation, which was set up by the Feds to liquidate the collateral damage.
I was convinced that the local slum lord would snatch up the property, a 1500 sq ft two-story house that had been divided into three apartments, rent it out to junkies, and drive down the price of my investment. So I called the number on the sign, scheduled an appointment and motored down to Lake Air Boulevard to cut a deal.
I was escorted into a dingy office sporting 1970s-era paneling. The man behind the desk looked like the love child of Mr. Toad and Mr. Potter from The Wind in the Willows and It’s a Wonderful Life, respectively. He informed me that the auction would be conducted via sealed bid, with a minimum bid of $5,000.
I was down with it. “Fine. Let’s do it.”
Mr. Toad Potter regarded me across his cluttered desk. “What are going to bid?”
“I thought it was sealed.”
“Five thousand.” I didn’t have a lot of spare cash. In fact, thinking back on it now, I have no idea where I expected to come up with the cash. Probably by cashing in my meager retirement account.
He frowned. “You will lose to a bid of $5,001.”
I nodded. Two could play this game.
“Good point. I bid $5,151.”
I wish I had a photo of the look of disgust that played across his face. I stared back silently. I had learned that the first one to talk loses. Eventually he slid a form across the desk. I filled it out, sealed it in the enveloped and slid it back to him.
The closing date for bids was a month out. One night, not long after I submitted my bid, I was up at 2 a.m. working on a story about a kid who wanted to be Sherlock Holmes and turned everyone around him into a character from the Homes stories. Maybe one day I’ll finish it. Or not.
As I slaved away, deep in the throes of my hero and his friend, Watson, erupting into an argument and taking the story an unexpected direction, I heard the sound of breaking glass from the house next door. I ran up to the screened-in back porch on the second floor and peered out.
A very large man was waddling toward the alley carrying away an antique window air conditioner that had to weigh in excess of 200 pounds. I watched him stagger away, making no move to intervene. I figured if a man can carry a 200-pound A/C unit by himself, who was I to tell him no.
The next day I called Mr. Toad Potter. “I would like to install a chain-link fence on the alley.”
“You can’t make any improvements until you own it.”
That caught me by surprise, but I had a ready answer. “I’ll do it on my own nickel, and if someone else wins the bid, they can have the fence as a house-warming gift.”
“If you do anything to the property, you will disqualify your bid.”
In the following weeks, all the loose items in the house were conveniently removed by the local denizens at no charge to me. Just one of the many perks of living on the wrong side of the gentrification line.
Then one day I got a call. I had won the bid. I directed a smile in the general direction of Mr. Toad Potter and went over to inspect the premises. No damage. In fact, the local looters had done me the service of hauling off junk that would have cost me money to be rid of.
The house sat vacant for a long time, the utilities turned off. I had blown my wad on the bid and had no available cash to renovate it and rent it out. Then one day I experienced a revelation. I could run an extension cord and a garden hose from my house to the kitchen and move my darkroom to the vacant house.
I had a new darkroom. It only cost me $5,151, a garden hose and an extension cord.
But I could quit at any time.
Time progressed, and The Number One Son was nearing graduation from middle school. We were concerned about the gang activity at the high school he would attend and started pricing private schools. It didn’t take long to realize that we could take that money and apply it to a house in a better school district.
And that is how it came about that we sold our 1917 mansion, used the money to make the darkroom habitable by opening a door between two of the apartments, and move into it. We rented out the other apartment.
And I sold the darkroom equipment.
I told you I could quit at any time.