This started in a very different place than it ended up.
I moved in the hot summer and there are still a some boxes at the margins of the house. A few days ago I found the one with all the film cameras. Dianas, Holgas, my first 35, a Canon, my boyfriend’s Nikon, lenses and flashes, an angled mirror spy attachment I bought when I first saw Sophie Calle’s book Please Follow Me. I was 19. In the way that we sometimes repress our influences so that we can work freely, it was only today that I noticed the resonance of my own novel’s title, Follow Me Down, with hers, my story with her book’s story, how long I have been obsessed with strangers and followings. That all has something to do with what happened.
I set out to go and work on work that needs to get done. As I was walking out the door, for the first time in years I picked up my Olympus Pen. It was a Valentine’s day gift, and it’s a very special camera. A rangefinder, which means you aren’t seeing quite what the lens sees. And it’s half-frame, so that you’re taking two photos on every frame on the roll. Anything beautiful that comes cannot be planned. Unless you are meticulous to the point of absurdity, you don’t know which shots will join together until you get the film back. Along the way I was composing a little essay about the freedom of working with constraints. I wanted to describe this in terms of the known but entirely uncontrollable constraints of the particular camera I was using.
And then I got to the café.
I sat down next to two old men deep in conversation. I set the camera on the table. One of the men asked me if it was a half-frame and not waiting for an answer started talking about the one he’d had in the 60s. “It was bigger than yours. It was a wonderful camera. Then after the war, in Japan I bought my first Nikon. They had a big fold-out poster that showed every camera they made. I bought them all.”
He pulled out the camera he uses now, a thin digital thing. “I keep a diary,” is how he explains it. He takes picture every day and writes on the back what happened. I asked what he does with them. “Oh, I keep them and when I’m dead someone will find them and I’ll be famous.”
My coffee got cold. He told me his name without asking mine. We shook hands as if the conversation was over. His friend spoke for the first time. “We should let you get to your drink.” My camera man nodded, and then kept talking. His Leicas. The war.
“What did you do in the war?” It’s dicey to ask a thing like that, especially of a man who did time in Vietnam. But it was ok after all. “I was a dentist,” he said. “I took care of teeth.”
“I got back in what, 1971? I was the East Village dentist. I hung out at the Filmore East. I knew them all. Dylan, the Velvets, the poets.” He shrugged. “It’s funny, I was conservative. But you had to dress like a hippie to get a date.”
He pulled out a 40-year old ID, his hair long and shaggy, the laminated plastic peeling up. I am not the first person who has heard this story. “I knew everybody,” he said. “I knew Ginsberg. I took care of his teeth.”