“Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.”
– My Flight Instructor
I’ve got a lot of 35mm negatives, which have suffered quite a bit of damage over the years. My ex had a penchant for purchasing houses that were prone to basement flooding. So my pix got flooded out precisely the same way in two different locations two years apart. Seeing my negatives go floating by gave me a feeling, which was the exact polar opposite of seeing my sons being born. Twice.
The amount of damage was difficult for me to comprehend. The first time, trying to put the debacle into perspective, I thought this must be what it is like to fall out of an airplane without a parachute. The second time was like being drawn and quartered. It took months (both times) to salvage what I could and grieve for the lost images. Even today, if I dream about it, and I do, I wake to yell, “Son of a bitch. Mother F***er, C**k S**ker.” Or something just like it.
Thank God for Photoshop.
I mention my negative misfortune because it’s the long way around why that picture up there is in such lousy condition. I could have just said that “My negatives got damaged in a flood.”
But how interesting would that be?
That girl sitting opposite me in the picture above is Candia. Her boyish good looks and delicate features reminded me of the 1960s British model Twiggy. If you don’t know who Twiggy was, look it up. I found her quite fascinating.
I met Candia on her 18th birthday at a party given by her parents in their Fifth Avenue apartment. I crashed the party, inviting myself along with my friend Louis and his girlfriend Suzy. Candia and Suzy were classmates at the Brearly School. It was where rich people sent their girl children. My mother used to say to me, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as it is a poor one.” It was easy falling for Candia.
Suzy told me that Candia was into photography. When I was finally able to corner her, that’s all we talked about. Except when a girl with very long hair caught on fire. This was a girl who had totally ignored me when I tried to talk to her earlier. She had been standing too close to a candle. I remember it so clearly because of how fast she lost all composure. I remember thinking, “See? See what happens when you are mean to me?”
Hey, I didn’t say it to her.
After that excitement, I asked Candia if she would take pictures with me the following week. She said yes, and we did. I don’t remember where we went to, probably Central Park. She had a Pentax SLR, and I had my Nikon F2. I always liked that Pentax. It was small compared to the Nikon and less obtrusive for street photography.
Candia and I dated casually for about 10 years. Most of that time I thought she was just tolerating me as she was rarely what one would call warm and fuzzy.
Still, I would do just about anything she asked. That’s how we ended up seeing “Saturday Night Fever” 13 times. She didn’t like disco, nor John Travolta as far as I could tell, and she didn’t own the soundtrack. I asked her many times what the draw was, but she never explained. I thought it was “our thing,” but it really had nothing to do with me.
One summer evening, Candia became unusually affectionate and stayed the night at my place. It was her “first time.” During our awkward breakfast the following morning, she said I was acting weird. Followed by, “Look I’m 18 and I’m going to college at the end of August. I just didn’t want to be a virgin when I got there. I appreciate your helping me, but I did not suddenly fall madly in love with you or anything like that.” She was always full of surprises.
She didn’t give a crap what you thought of her, an attitude that comes from money, a sense of entitlement, and never having to worry. For her, “living in the moment” was going to see “Saturday Night Fever” whenever she happened to think of it. If I didn’t go, she would just go by herself.
As the years went by, she would show up for a week and be gone for 3 months. Then she would show up for a month and disappear for a year. She didn’t talk much about her adventures. “I was roaming around Europe with Gaby,” she would say. Or, “I took a few classes at Alaska State.” That sort of thing. Around the 10-year mark, she disappeared from my life for good. But, not before this happened…
On a Thursday morning in the spring, Candia called and asked if I would meet her for lunch at The Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden. I hadn’t seen her in almost a year and I was looking forward to hearing about what she had been up to.
She told me about going to Egypt and riding bicycles all over France with some guy named Aubrey. It took me 3 nanoseconds before I had that guy pictured. She had her Pentax slung over her shoulder. The same one she had when we met. It was a mess.
My cameras are a tool, not a jewel, so wear and tear does not bother me. Of course, you should take care of your gear, but if you don’t use it, what’s the point? I’ll take the occasional dent or ding along with some good images any day.
As long as we’re talking about this… that $7 filter in front of the $800.00 piece of glass? Really? Give me a break. On second thought, let’s not do this.
Candia and I talked for a bit, and then she asked me if I could help her with her filthy camera. I suspected this was the real reason she got in touch as she had been home for 3 weeks and was leaving for somewhere in 2 days.I take pride in my ability to figure out how to service my cameras over the years. I’ve read a few books, and I have all the tools. If you take your time and work slowly, you can do a lot. Now there are a ton of videos on YouTube about repairing old cameras that are quite good.
Her Pentax was a mess, and I was proud of her and it. She used the hell out of it, and she made good images as far as I could tell. The polarizer on the lens had a dent and a crack, and it wouldn’t come off. Taking the lens off, the mirror was filthy, and the viewfinder was like looking through an old garage window.
When she saw the look on my face she said, “Don’t ask…can you help me?” She knew I couldn’t refuse her. I said I could make it comfortable and maybe give it another year or two of life. Eventually and sooner than later, she was going to have to purchase a new one. It would cost more than a new body to overhaul this one. We had some lunch, and I told her I would call when it was done.
I put my Nikon in my bag and slung the Pentax over my shoulder. I didn’t want them banging together. We said goodbye and headed off in different directions.
I switched for the Astoria train at Queensboro plaza. It was near rush hour, but I was lucky enough to get a seat. After a few stops when the car had emptied out a bit, I noticed that I was sitting directly across from Nestor. Nestor was married to Heather.
Heather was a graphic artist in the Creative Services Group of the bank I had worked for. We were located on the 83rd floor of One World Trade Center. She was cute, both prim and proper, interesting and she had a mustache. It was blond and bushy, and difficult to not look at. It looked like a little toothbrush or baby caterpillar. Nestor was a new hire, a freelance graphic artist who apparently went for that type of thing, and they began dating.
Nestor and I frequently took a mid-morning smoke break together. We would ride the 83 floors down (don’t forget to change elevators on 78, “The Sky Lobby”) and exit the building onto West street. We usually ended up talking about what a sweet gig we had or our co-workers. A conversation you would have with an acquaintance.
When Nestor saw me sitting across from him he got up and sat down next to me. After the standard greeting, he said, “I got married to Heather.” “I thought I had heard something about that, congratulations” I replied. He then asked if I would like to come over for a drink. The hesitation I was feeling disappeared when he said: “I’ll make us some martinis.” I asked if Heather would be there, and Nestor told me that she was having drinks with friends. I was relieved. As interesting as I thought Heather once was, there was something about her that was dark and hinky.
Nestor’s one-bedroom apartment was in a pre-war building. Clean and decorated in a way that no guys apartment ever was. I put my bag down on the kitchen table and the Pentax right next to it. We walked into the living room where there was one of those mini-bar carts with the mirrored shelves. Nestor picked up the ice bucket and walked back into the kitchen. When he returned, he told me he had moved my camera, placing it on a chair as it seemed close to the edge of the table. Nestor rolled the cart to where we were sitting and proceeded to make 2 killer Martinis.
After the first few sips, Nestor opened a little silver case on the coffee table and took out a neatly rolled joint. He put it in his mouth and took a deep toke. Then he handed it to me.
At first, I hesitated, because I often got paranoid smoking weed. But what the hell? The drinks were relaxing, and Nestor was excellent company. As long as Heather wasn’t going to suddenly pop in, it would be cool.
A few minutes passed, and Nestor pulled a vial out of his pants pocket. He then proceeded to layout 4 lines of coke. At first, I hesitated because coke could make me incredibly anxious. It would give me an anxiety attack if I wasn’t in the right mood. I didn’t usually do it, but of course, I didn’t want to be rude.
After another round of martinis, Nestor asked me if I wanted to see his Goliath Pinkfoot Tarantula… I think that’s what he said, but he could have said anything.
Of course, he would have a pet Goliath Pinkfoot Tarantula. Without waiting for an answer, Nestor got up and walked over to the bookcase that had a terrarium on the middle shelf. Reaching in, he picked up a big brown furry leggy thing the size of my face. He put it on his shoulder and sat back down again.
I am pretty good at things that usually freak other people out. I’ve had several snakes at once, which nobody ever seemed to like. I’m good with blood and all sorts of accidents and mayhem. But spiders were another thing. I did not like spiders very much at all.
After relighting the joint, Nestor asked me if I wanted to hold Alphie. I started to say, “No, thanks.” but I was interrupted by Nestor taking Alphie off his shoulder and placing him on mine. “Raise your arm,” he said, and Alphie walked down to the palm of my hand. I could feel the little hairs that covered his legs. It tickled, and it wasn’t that bad at all. Yeah, this was OK. I was holding a tarantula named Alphie, who was the size of my face, and I was feeling only slightly terrified and mildly interested.
Then Nestor handed me the joint and at the same time exhaled a big cloud of smoke… the brunt of which hit Alphie in the nose… wherever that was. The tarantula raised 2 front legs in protest.
Up until the very next moment, I had no idea that tarantulas could jump. Alphie launched himself straight into the air and directly down onto my head. “Holy crap”! I yelled.
Of course, Alphie wasn’t just going to sit there like a good little spider. He headed down my neck, and I FREAKED THE F*** OUT. I screamed like a little girl and shook my head so hard that Alphie flew off in the direction of the bookcase.
My hands and arms were flailing at imaginary crawling things in my hair and Nestor was laughing his ass off. I looked over toward the bookcase but didn’t see Alphie. I turned back to Nestor and began to apologize for killing his bug. Nestor interrupted my apology, “Alphie is fine he’ll hide for a bit. Eventually, he’ll show himself… Don’t worry it’s OK.”
Then Heather came home.
When Nestor heard the door open, he grabbed the vial of coke off the coffee table and shoved it into his pants. In the most futile of gestures, because the place reeked of weed he started waving a copy of Vogue in the air. I knew right then who was in charge of this house.
As soon as Heather came through the door, I became even more paranoid and felt an anxiety attack coming on. I didn’t think I could talk because my tongue kept sticking to the inside of my mouth. I stood as she entered the room, worked up a smile, and said, “Hello.” The tenuous smile on Heather’s face completely disappeared when she recognized me. With a glance, she told me I had better not try the cheek kissing thing. I sat back down.
Once she got a good whiff and saw the martini glasses her face went crimson. I thought of a new stop sign. She joined Nestor on the couch and began saying something but I couldn’t pay attention. There was a caterpillar on her lip and I wanted to see what it would do next.
It was clear that it was time for me to leave.
I asked where the bathroom was and excused myself. I had trouble walking at first but I got it sorted out quickly. I flipped on the light and shut the door. Standing alone in the bathroom, I relaxed and chuckled to myself about how whipped Nestor must be. Yep, Heather was the one who cracked the whip in this house.
There were green and black tiles everywhere, and the bathtub had a sliding door made of green-tinted rippled glass. The toilet was very close to the tub, and I leaned on the sliding door as I took care of business.
After having consumed 3 martinis, smoking half a joint, and inhaling 2 lines of coke, of course, I imagined that Heather and Nestor were serial killers, or cannibals, or even Satanists. I laughed to myself. I thought that Heather was probably so displeased to see me she was going to lock Nestor in the closet. Perhaps she worried that I would find the body that she had Nestor stash in the bathtub last night. I giggled.
After I flushed the toilet, I turned and looked at the green rippled glass of the sliding door. It gave nothing away as to what was behind it. “Hey, maybe there is a body in there.” I thought, and I slid the rippled glass door over.
I’m sure you know about the fight or flight reaction… You see, the body will immediately want to shed any excess weight in the form of urine or feces to run faster. At that moment, I found myself fighting with at least 2 sphincter muscles.
THERE WAS A BODY IN THE GOD DAMN BATHTUB! “HOLY FREAKING SHIT”!
Nestor called out, “Are you OK in there”? Paranoia and fear were taking over. “I’ll be out in a moment,” I croaked back. These people were going to murder me and cut me up into pieces! My brain was moving a mile a minute, I glanced back at the bathtub.
When I realized what I was looking at, I thought I would plotz. It was a black rubber suit. Not exactly like a scuba diver would wear. The rubber hood and ball gag confirmed it was a Gimp suit. He looked as if he had been taking a bath, and someone came in and poked a hole in him. It was kind of sad too and, it smelled like a Port Authority restroom.
Suddenly fragments of conversations with Heather and something disturbing I had seen as a child came flooding into my consciousness. Things were a bit more apparent to me. At least about Nestor and Heather.
Then there was a knock on the door which startled me. I tried to say “Hold on a minute,” but what came out sounded more angry mallard than anything else. I felt like my head was going to explode. I started doing calculations as to the trajectory and speed needed to grab my jacket and bag, say thank you and goodbye, and keeping the speed up, lose no forward momentum hitting the door and freedom in less than 5 seconds.
I didn’t care what water sports or BDSM that Gimp suit was used for. But, they must have known that I saw it! It would be the only thing that would account for my “unusual behavior” and the apparent problem with leaving their bathroom.
All I could do was pretend I didn’t see it, and maybe we all could pretend that the situation wasn’t as bizarre as fuck and then… Adiós Amigos!
I took a step towards the bathroom door. As I put my foot down, I heard a “puffett” sound like stepping on a partially deflated balloon. Looking down I could see furry legs sticking out from under my shoe, a small puddle of something forming around them.
I had located Alphie.
I thought I was going to yack, and I was whimpering like a little girl. The panic kicked into overdrive. I could tell Nestor I had killed his spider by accident… After discovering the Gimp suit in the bathtub… No… I could flush it down the toilet… No… I’m not picking that thing up.
I looked around the bathroom and saw the little carpet that went around the base of the toilet. The one used to catch a guy’s bad aim. I slowly lifted my foot. Alphie was more of a pulpy wet spot than a tarantula. I shoved Alphie with my foot over to the rug, pushed him under it, and straightened it out. There was a little bump that I took care of with my heel. I then wiped up the trail of spider juice and flushed it.
I opened the door. Nestor and the boss were standing there staring at me silently. I jumped on that silence and I was off: “I’m really wasted, I guess I had an upset stomach, but I had a wonderful time, great to see you guys, we should do it again.” I didn’t give them the chance to say anything as I grabbed my jacket, and my bag, and was out the door home free in seconds.
I walked as fast as I could until I was confident they couldn’t see or catch me. God, the air was so sweet and… Shit!
Candia’s Pentax was sitting on a kitchen chair in Heather’s kitchen.
I turned around to go back but thought better of it and turned around again. I did that 2 more times before finally heading towards the subway.
Screw the camera.
The following morning, I went to B&H and I bought Candia a brand new Pentax body and 50mm lens. She thought my recounting of the previous evening’s activities was a lie and that I was planning to buy her a new camera all along.
“Nobody is going to ever believe that story,” she said.
My book ‘Subway New York City 1975-1985’ is available on Etsy.
Gerard Exupery has been a New York City Street Photographer for 40 years, He attended the School of Visual Arts and studied with Lisette Model at The New School. He has also worked as an oil rig roustabout, a photographer’s assistant, custom printer, motorcycle mechanic, audio engineer, video engineer, producer, and Mr. Mom. Exupery also drove a New York City taxi which he considers his post-graduate work.