Miriam confused me. She wasn’t slender, and she wasn’t large… I would describe her as being voluptuous. Her clothes were always new. Her hair and makeup were always perfect. She smelled perfect too. I was attracted to her but in a fakakta* way. I lusted after her, but she annoyed the crap out of me.
She was from Brooklyn, and she spoke like it… with a kind of nasal whine. When I first heard her voice, I thought she was putting me on. It was a parody of a parody of a Brooklyn accent. It was OK for a little while but after maybe 10 minutes of her talking; it felt like an ice pick in the ear.
I’d rather live in Brooklyn than Queens. It has Coney Island, Prospect Park, The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and the Brooklyn Museum. Queens is like a stale fart. How do I know this? Because I’ve lived in Brooklyn and Queens and, for that matter, Manhattan.
I’d marry Manhattan, screw Brooklyn and kill Queens.
But I digress.
We met at SVA (art school) in the student lounge. She was sitting with some friends, and we were introduced. I sat opposite her, and after a few minutes, I decided that I wasn’t sure I liked this new acquaintance. She had an attitude. It was annoying. It was OK in small doses, but that was it.
Going forward, If we ran into each other, we would exchange pleasantries and go about our business. She was, for me, the definition of an acquaintance.
At art school, painters had to take a photography class, and photographers had to take a painting class. One day running into Miriam, she asked for my help. She was having problems in her photography class developing film. She couldn’t load the 35mm film onto the reel without creasing it and had destroyed most of her pictures in the process.
One of the few things my mother drilled into me was good manners. “With good manners, you can go anywhere,” she told me. I have found that to be true. I hold the door open for women, let them go ahead of me through a doorway first, and open car doors for them. It’s how I was raised, and it’s how I raised my sons. I’ve met some women who, for various reasons, told me not to be like that. I couldn’t help it. Interesting side note: If you use sugar or sweetener in a small packet it is considered rude to shake (to get the contents in place before opening) in front of the other people you are seated with. You should shake the packet under the table and then put it in whatever it is you want to. That’s what mom used to say.
In any case, I am a real sucker for the whole “damsel in distress” thing. I just am. I agreed to help her after hours in the school darkroom. She asked me if instead, we could do it at her apartment because she didn’t like the smell of the large multi-user darkroom at school.
That place was laid out with 25 stations, and if it was half capacity the stink of fixer would burn your nostrils. This, to me, was a better alternative than being trapped out in Brooklyn with Miss. Nasal Tone.
“My mother will make you dinner.” Followed by “Pleaseeeeee.” she whined at me. I knew that now there was no way of getting out of helping her without being a total dick. Do you have everything we’re going to need?” I asked. To which she replied in the affirmative. “Do you have a changing bag?” I asked. She said no. I told her I would bring one.
Two days later, I met Miriam after my last class, and we took an IND train to Brooklyn. Flatbush, to be precise. After the better part of an hour, we got off the train and walked a few blocks to an apartment building that looked like every other apartment building in Brooklyn.
It was a pre-war building. That means that they were built with real room sizes in mind for a typical family. Not like today, wherein Manhattan, you pay 3000.00 a month for a closet. Some of those pre-war apartments have the square footage of a house. And they always had a maids room.
When we got off the elevator, Miriam’s mother was waiting for us at the door. “Hello Gerard! I have heard so much about you!” she said in an overly happy tone.
“Only good things I hope.”
“Of course, of course.” she said.
“You’re helping my daughter… you must be a nice guy. And, I’m making for you a good meal, put some meat on those…. “Miriam interrupted “We’ve got to get started Mom.” She grabbed my hand and led me away down a long hallway. At the end of the hallway, she swung open a door and said: “This is my room.” It was the master bedroom. The room was huge, with a walk in closet/dressing room and a full bath on the other side.
Why would her parents let her have the master bedroom, I wondered?
Oh yeah, she was a princess.
“Where’s your father?” I asked. After a slight pause, she told me that she doesn’t really see her father very often. So divorced, I guess. The room was definitely a girlie room with a lot of pinks.
“Where’s your darkroom?” I asked.
“It’s in the dressing room.” She said. “I’ll show you.”
She got up and walked into the dressing room. One wall was covered in a huge mirror. Opposite that were an Omega D2XL enlarger, shelves of printing paper, and several enlarger lenses. That Omega was el-primo gear, and I wondered why she would have such a top of the line enlarger. She said, “I told my mother I needed an enlarger for school and she bought me this one. I’ve never used it.” It was wrapped in plastic, with the tags still attached. I would kill for an enlarger like that, and she didn’t even know how to use it. Wow. “Oh yeah. A princess.” I reminded myself again.
The changing/darkroom room was a full bath or what functioned as the darkroom’s wet side. In the bathtub, a wooden table had been placed, and there were developing trays on top. The shelves had never been used Kindermann reels and single, double, and 4 roll tanks.
Miriam said, “I’m going to change into some jeans. I’ll be right back.”
I took two reels and a tank off the shelf and walked out into her bedroom. I took the changing bag from my shoulder bag and sat down on the bed again, laying everything out.
Miriam came back into her bedroom wearing very form-fitting jeans and a tee shirt. I had never seen her dressed so casually, and her clothes looked brand new. She had done something with her hair, and of course, she smelled perfect. She was beautiful. She asked me what we were going to do first and realized that her voice didn’t bother me nearly so much as it usually did.
I told her she was going to load film in a changing bag. “What am I changing?” She asked.
Then I had the thought that she and her mother were going to dismember me and hide my corpse in the basement. It passed.
“I’m going to show you how to load your film onto the reels,” I said.
I took one reel and a roll of junk film, put them in the changing bag, and told her to put her hands in the armholes while I zippered and velcroed the opposite end.
“Let’s just see how you do without me helping you,” I said. Adding for comic effect that using the changing bag was like “Playing pocket pool.”
To which she added, “Only it’s an away game. Right?”
I almost plotzed.**
Having spent so many years in darkrooms, I have a way of “seeing” with my fingers and mind’s eye in total darkness. I could tell by the sounds the film made going onto the reel precisely what was happening. I said “Stop,” opened up my side of the changing bag and pulled out the reel.
She had started out doing very well with it. Still, as she was getting to the end, the film contacted the film wound on the previous layer, making it impossible to continue putting the film on the reel. If she had managed to force the rest of the film on where the film contacted, there would be an undeveloped splotch.
“You did this very well,” I said. “Just at the end there you got off track.” I then showed her the technique that I used. I unwound the film from the reel and then re-attached the end of it. Rather than just rotating the reel, I would wind the film one revolution, push it in the opposite direction, and then wind the next layer. The little pushing motion meets resistance if the film is on the reel correctly. As soon as that is felt, you can roll the next winding and repeat.
I gave the reel back to Miriam and told her to try again to watch what was happening and correct her as we went. I showed her one wind of my technique and then had her continue. She got it on the first try. I asked her if she was ready to try for real, and she shook her head.
Into the changing/darkroom room again, we went. I placed 2 rolls of film on top of the enlarger base along with the reels and the tank.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Are you going to stand nearby in case I need you to take over? She asked.
I’m going to stand right here by the door. If you get into trouble I’ll just feel my way over.” I smiled and added, “But in the most sensitive and unthreatening way.”
The lights were turned out, and it wasn’t long before I could hear the film being creased. “I can hear you’re having a little problem,” I said.
“Please help me” she replied.
I moved closer until I could feel the reel and film in her hand. She said:
“Maybe if you stand behind me and load the film, I can put my hands on yours and feel what you are doing.”
“Hmmm, we would be standing with my front right up against your back and my arms would be around you,” I said to her.
“I don’t care.” She said. “You’re not going to rape me, are you? To which I responded with my best evil laugh. “This was going to get interesting.” I thought.
And I noticed at that very same moment that her Brooklyn Princess whining voice didn’t bother me at all anymore.
So we stood very close to each other in the dark. My front bits were against her rear bits. You can picture it; I don’t have to describe it. My face was right up against the back of her neck. The smell of her skin there in the dark was the best Goddamn thing I had ever smelled in my life.
I tried not to breathe on her neck, but it was impossible not to. With every breath on her neck, she made a little sound while at the same time pushing her butt into me. Again, you can picture it; I don’t have to describe it.
The reason we were standing in the dark passed from my consciousness and I was definitely “in the moment.”
That is until Miriam suddenly flipped around to face me and knocked the reels and tank onto the floor. I stepped back away from her. Clearing my throat I said, “I’ll get those.”
Before things got even more… you know, more, I said she should let me load the film, and we could practice loading the reels another time. I rolled the film onto the reel, put it in the tank, put the lid on it, and asked Miriam to turn on the light.
In retrospect, I should have asked her to wait a moment while I thought of my grandmother naked. But I didn’t. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see that Miriam’s face was red, and I am sure she noticed that my dangerous noodle was al dente.
Well, that was exciting.
“Let me go see when dinner is going to be.” She said and exited.
I walked into the wet side, started the timer, and poured the developer into the tank. Within 20 minutes, the film was developed and hanging up to dry. Miriam finally came back.
“Should be dry in an hour. I’ll help you do the contact sheet tomorrow in school,” I said.
Miriam replied, “Or you could just come home with me again tomorrow.” Adding, “My mother will be working tomorrow night.” And “Dinner in 20 minutes “Hmmm, that’s a distinct possibility.” I thought.
Miriam’s told me her mother had a thing about boys and she sitting on her bed. So we sat on the floor. I leaned back and laid there with my hands under my head.
My hands were bothering me because I had developed arthritis in my fingers from them, they were always wet from the darkroom. When Miriam saw me rubbing my hands and I explained why I was doing it, she offered to massage them. “Hell yes,” I said.
She put baby oil on my right hand and started massaging it and my wrist, beginning with the fingers. It felt very, very good. Then she moved to the other side of me and started in on the other wrist and hand. Being on that side also made it easier for her to kiss me, which she began doing with alacrity.
Some people believe there was another shooter on the Grassy Knoll. Some believe there is a face on Mars. Others claim to have seen ghosts.
Hey, why is it with the billions of cell phone cameras out there that nobody ever seems to take a picture of a ghost that is in focus, sharp, and easily discernible?
My point is that sometimes people see things that aren’t really there because their eyes play tricks on them. Much like Miriam’s mother would experience in approximately 6 minutes.
If you remember, 5 paragraphs back, we decided to sit on the floor, so we weren’t on the bed, and I had lain down. We were on the far side of the bed, which partially blocked us from the bedroom door. Got it?
6 minutes later, her mother opened the door without knocking. At first, she didn’t see us until she looked down. Well, not really see us because the bed blocked most of the view. She was able to see my legs sticking out from the other side of the bed and her daughters’ head seemingly bobbing up and down. Got it?
With that, Miriam’s mother let loose with a loud shrill “OH my God.”, “OH, my god.” Then a slight pause and just as loudly, “What are you doing, what are you doing?”
Miriam yelled, “Ma you’re supposed to knock, now get out!”
“What is wrong with you?” her mother yelled right back over and over.
And then, like magic, there appeared next to Miriam’s mother a small balding man wearing dark Sansabelt pants and a tee-shirt more commonly known in certain circles as a “wife-beater”. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I sat up and said, “Hello.”
“Miriam’s mother whined loudly at the man: “Arnold, they are doing oral sex on the floor…Sex on the floor!” Up to that point, I had assumed that the father lived somewhere else. Apparently, he liked to stay in his bedroom.
“Daddy, we weren’t doing anything like that, I was massaging his hands,” said Miriam.
“Arnold,” her mother said,” I saw it with my own eyes! She was giving him oral sex.”
This made me move to the other side of the bed. I thought I could explain it to the parent’s satisfaction and, with the manners, I was trained to use, extended my hand to shake Arnold’s.
Arnold looked at his daughter, then looked at me. He stared right at my rapidly diminishing noodle, which was not diminishing fast enough as far as I was concerned.
Then Arnold moved toward me. He was going to take my extended hand I thought.
He did not.
When Arnold completed the short trip from where he was to where I was, he telegraphed his intention to strike me. Because of his height, I assumed he would go for my stomach or the family jewels. He did not.
He aimed for my face but struck me in the throat.
Miriam screamed, and so did her mother. I fell back onto the bed, grabbing my neck, coughing and choking, and was confident that Arnold was about to land one right on my nether’s.
Instead, he turned around, left the room; with his wife in trail, he went back to his bedroom and gently shut the door. He hadn’t uttered a single word.
“I am so sorry,” Miriam kept saying over and over. I was finding it difficult to talk. I couldn’t even swallow. I grabbed my jacket, my camera and headed for the door.
That, as they say, was that.
As I was walking toward the subway I wondered if all the excitement was going to queer my visiting Miriam the following evening.
Not Pam but a reasonable alternative 1984
I was sitting at home in Brooklyn Heights one rainy Saturday morning listening to music and reading when the phone rang. I don’t like the phone. I have never appreciated the phone; it makes me nervous, and as much as I can, I avoid ever answering it.
That is why I always had an answering machine. It’s sort of like voice mail, but you can destroy the evidence. The answering machine used 2 audio cassettes. One was an endless loop cassette for the outgoing message. The other was for the recorded incoming message to go on. I’ve still got a few of those old message tapes, primarily because they are funny as hell. I also have one with a message telling me I was being dumped. I must have thought it would be good material for writing one day.
So, where was I? Oh yeah, Saturday, rain, phone call. I let the answering machine pick it up and listened to see who was disturbing my solitude.
As soon as I heard the caller’s voice, my stomach spazzed out. It was Pam D., a freelance graphic artist, working for the place I worked for a few weeks. She was the freelancer of desire. And way out of my league.
We flirted, or maybe just I was flirting, telling her about my photography and how we should go out taking pictures together. I told her I would teach her how to process film and make prints in my darkroom… but she wasn’t buying any of it. Every time I asked her out for a drink after work, she demurred, saying that she already had plans or some such. I took the hint, but on the last day she was working, I gave her my phone number and told her to call me sometime.
A month had passed, and I had just about forgotten her. But, for some reason, this Saturday morning she was calling me. I bolted off the couch and grabbed the phone.
She said she would be in my neighborhood late morning and asked if I felt like meeting her after her appointment. “Hell yes,” I said. We agreed to meet at the Montague Street Saloon, a 5-minute walk from my apartment, and one of my favorite places to have a drink and relax. Before she hung up, she said, “Maybe we can go back to your place afterward and you can show me some of your photography?” “Hell yes.” Again.
I figured I had an hour to shit, shower, shave, and clean up my very messy apartment. Hey, how come it takes some people a half hour to shower? I mean, what the hell is going on in there? Me, I can get it done in 5 minutes without skipping anything.
Once I got out of the shower, I started throwing my dirty laundry into garbage bags. I took the overflowing garbage bag out of the can and put in a new one. I then started on one end of the kitchen counter and, with my arm, pushed everything off into the garbage bag—dishes, knives, forks, cat food, cereal box, coffee cup, everything. I would worry about sorting everything out later.
Before I left, I threw the laundry bag in my closet and carried out the garbage bags.
I met Pam, we got drunk. She told me that she missed my constant harassment. And then we went back to my place.
We canoodled around for a while, and a good time was had by all.
A few days later, I noticed a horrible smell. That coincided with me wondering where the hell my clothes were. You see where I’m going with this, yes?
In my rush to experience all things possible that previous Saturday, I mistakenly put the garbage in the closet and threw out my laundry.
That was an expensive mistake.
Then there was the time when I had a custom black and white lab on West 31st near Madison Square Garden. This was right after my video production company went tits up. The opportunity presented itself and I felt that I had to take it because the only skill I had was custom darkroom work. I hated it. It was to be another 8 years before I finally stopped avoiding the thing I wanted to do most. That wasn’t darkroom work or running a video production company for that matter.
My lab was in a building that was almost filled with photographers. This was great because there was built-in business.
I spent a month campaigning for the business of one guy who did a lot of headshots for actors etc. I was always telling him about all the important clients I printed for at Modernage and Berkey K&L. One day he finally decided to give me a chance. 4 rolls of 35mm Plus-X, needed to get processed and make some contact sheets. EZPZ. I would run the film myself, and the kid who worked for me in the afternoons would do the contacts.
As I always did, before I went dark, I measured out each beaker of chemistry. Developer, stop bath, and fixer. I then turned the lights off; rolled the 4 rolls onto Kindermann reels, put them in the tank, and put the lid on. Lights back on, I set the timer and rechecked the temperature of my chemistry. Everything was ready to go.
In retrospect, I don’t think that I was ready to go.
For some reason, which took me a very long time to understand, I poured the first beaker into the tank, started the timer, and then wondered why I would have poured the fixer first instead of the developer.
I think I said, “Oh shit.” and not even loudly.
I realized there was nothing I could do to salvage the film. I dumped out the fixer, and had a deep cry about just how much I hated doing darkroom work.
I ran out to the camera store around the corner and purchased 2 rolls of Plus-X.
I processed them both adding the chemistry in the right order. Once they were hung up to dry I phoned the photographer.
“I’m not sure why.” I said “But there isn’t a single frame on the film. The edge numbers are there but nothing else.”
He might have bought it, I don’t know. I didn’t care.
He came and got his film and when he left I locked the door.
Hmmm, self-sabotage I think. I then went into the darkroom switched off the lights and cried for almost an hour.
I closed up 3 months later. 2 business’s down the crapper in 1 year.
So dear reader, what did I learn from each of these 3 mistakes?
From mistake #1. Not a damn thing. All in all, I’d do it again. It was nice to have her hot for me even if I did get punched in the throat for something I didn’t get. I mean what a great story. Right!?
From mistake #2. Not a bloody thing. I’d throw my clothes in the garbage again for another exciting afternoon with Pam D.
From mistake #3.“Kid when you fuck up, play dumb.” Be true to your vision. There are things worse than having no money.
*fakakta – a word used to describe something that is not working well or is really crap. Derived from a multitude of Yiddish words.
**plotzed – a verb (used without object) Slang.to collapse or faint, as from surprise, excitement, or exhaustion.
Help Me Print “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” my Second Book.
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.