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by KJ Hannah Greenberg



It was odd to be followed by a stretch limousine, on a Sunday morning, in the middle of the business district. While it was normal for pigeons to be decorating benches, homeless folks to be picking through trash cans, leaves to be falling, and discarded newspapers to be tumbling, Wall Streeters, themselves, however, ought not to have been visible.

Granted, the new high rises, those expensive buildings that allowed the young and moneyed to live literally over their work places, sheltered parents with small fry and other family configurations, but most of those persons were yet tucked in, toasty under their sumptuous down comforters. Given that the season’s weak sunrise had occurred only an hour earlier, I wondered why a luxury car seemed to be tailing me.

New York might be the stuff out of which dreams are made, but so far, the City of Promises had cost me, an Iowa son, my entire savings and my best parka. Subletting a tiny room had eaten up my fiduciary reserves. As for that favorite coat, it had left my life unbidden, on the shoulders of a former roommate.

In balance, I could have stayed in Coralville and been satisfied with living off of wedding photography and end-of-year elementary school pictures. Given new technologies, I could have even photo shopped exotic locales into my compositions. All things being equal, though, I felt drawn to the Naked Cowboy, the Lights of Broadway, and the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center.

Truth was, I couldn’t afford the hot pretzels, the steamed, sweet bean buns, or any of the antojitos snatched up by the city’s temporary visitors. Not quite local and not quite from overseas, I subsisted on food pantry peanut butter and on bodega ramen noodles, their cultural irony notwithstanding.

That morning, my plan had been to walk from The Bowery to Wall Street and then to sell the images that I took to stock photo companies. The diffused light of cold Gotham mornings is as wonderful for shadow play as is the kind of illumination that follows storms. The difference is that with dawn’s light I stay dry, but with post-storm light I often get soaked when the rains start again.

Anyway, this member of the Frozen Chosen planned to snap “popular” stills of Chinatown’s red and gold facades and of Canal Street’s vendors. I was happy to not have to rent the fancy lighting equipment that most shoots required. My on-camera flash and light modifier had been stolen, earlier, when I had fallen asleep riding the subway. As per my flash bracket and monopod, I had pawned them when I had had nothing left with which to pay the rent. Fortunately, I could sell low light pictures.

The chauffer driven car tooted twice at me. I turned around, but could see nothing through its tinted windows. I shrugged and kept on walking. The car continued its pursuit.

At the intersection of Wall Street and Pearl, near Pearl Paint, a supply house and unintentional meetup spot for artistically inclined individuals, I stopped when the pedestrian light turned red. The car tracking me stopped, too, despite it facing a green signal. A window slowly lowered. Just as quickly, the window rolled back up. My signal changed to green, so I crossed the street.

Sal Haley, a manager at Pearl, was a roommate. I knocked on the store’s locked front door. Sal opened it and ushered me in. After a cup of bad coffee from the employees’ break room and a friendly exchange, I was back on the street. I had to hurry before the sun rose too high.

The limo waited at the curb, in front of Pearl Paint. One of its back windows was completely open. A hand extended itself from the car’s rarefied depths and beckoned to me. I shot that limb, thinking maybe I could make a paparazzi sale to a rag that might know to whom the car belonged. Alternatively, some scandal sheet editor might buy my image and make up a story to go with it; back then, inventing cutlines was a new “journalistic” rage.

The window shut immediately. It was a pity that I had no telescopic lens since I had been mentally tallying the pizza slices I could buy with a single gossip sheet sale. Instead, the door that contained the window opened. A burly sort of fellow jumped out. He grabbed my camera. “Never shoot until Mademoiselles instructs you. Get in the car.”

Having been robbed of my source of livelihood as well as quickly losing the early light, I obliged. I sat in the spacious back with Burly. Someone was in the front with the driver, but again tinted glass blocked the view.

We drove up FDR Drive to Harlem River Drive and then we merged onto the Palisades Parkway. We got off at Exit 2, Alpine. I began to wonder if I would ever get back to the Midwest.

The car pulled up in front of a large house. The entire neighborhood was large houses on wooded lots, as best as I could see. I asked Burly for my camera back, but that brawny shook his head. Then the passenger doors unexpectedly locked. The driver and the other rider, nonetheless, exited. Long minutes passed.

I looked out my window. The glass was one way. I saw an estate that was attractive in an over-the-top style. Burly lit a cigarette and offered me one. I declined. The sun was rising higher and higher, making shooting, without accessories, problematic.

The driver re-entered the car and unlocked the doors. Burly got out, came around to my side and then motioned for me to get out and to follow. He handed me ten one thousand dollar bills and asked if I would prefer a check.

I nodded. He grabbed the cash and then handed me my camera. “Realize, it stays here after you leave.”

“You bethca!” I exclaimed as I accepted the check, endorsed by a name unknown to me. I could replace that camera for a few hundred. “Ride back to the city later?”

“And this thousand dollars gift certificate for Kalustyan's.”

“They carry ramen?”

Burly laughed. He then guided me into the house, but stayed very close to me while we walked.

The shoot itself was unremarkable. A rich woman’s daughter had gotten engaged. I shot portraits as I had in Iowa, location, unexpectedness, and loss of equipment, excepted. Afterwards, the matron downloaded my images onto her computer, told me that she liked what she saw, and then told her cook to fill me up with anything I fancied from their secondary refrigerator. She also gave me an extra five hundred as a tip and made me sign a nondisclosure note.

That night, I bought a new parka a Macy’s. I saved money on that purchase as the coat was reduced as seasonal merchandise. I slept on top of my check and cash. In the morning, I rushed to the bank.

There, when I handed over my deposit, the teller called over the assistant bank manager, who looked me up and down, shrugged and gave me a receipt for my deposit. He also handed me pens, key chains, and samples of all of the other freebies that the bank was using to entice men and women to open new accounts. Further, that man shook my hand and gave me his card, telling me to contact him directly if I ever needed a loan.

Twelve years later, when Martha and I were ready to buy a one bedroom, given that she was expecting and that my portrait business was making a steady profit (my Alpine benefactor continued to patronize me by sending her New York City friends my way), the assistant bank manager, who had since been promoted to full manager, made good on his word. We received the low mortgage rate ordinarily reserved for millionaires.

I still eat Ramen. I still use early light to shoot photos. I’ve never seen my benefactor’s face again or that of Burly’s.

Two weeks ago, that changed. I received a curious email from my benefactor’s employee. Burly has a name; Sammy Plasson. His family has worked for those rich people, from Alpine, for three generations.

Sammy emailed me because the daughter of the girl, whom I had long ago photographed, was having a tenth birthday party. The family wanted me to shoot the affair. Of course, whatever equipment I brought along would have to be confiscated. If I agreed, Sammy and a Lincoln Town Car would come by to collect me.

Given inflation, the family would pay me fifteen thousand for my efforts, plus a large savings bond for my future child. Additionally, I’d be given a two thousand dollar store card to Bergendorf Goodman’s for my wife. There remained, as well, the possibility of a significant tip.

I smiled, not caring that my patrons knew a lot about my dear ones or that Martha might be able, at most, to buy some socks and tea towels at the gift card’s expensive address. What’s more, I planned to bring along a tabletop florescent unit and a multi-disc light reflector. I couldn’t continue to rely on kismet for successful pictures.




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