The guy in the picture came back into my life like Marley’s ghost. Of course I knew that face. It was the lead picture in my exhibition in that winter of ’95. When I walked into the gallery, there he was, sitting by the window, an older guy in a trench coat looking like the wind would blow him into the Hudson. He stared, then motioned me to come over. I was surprised he knew who I was.
He answered my question without my asking: “I saw you back then. I got a good memory,” he said. Thirty years ago I was a kid.
The day I took that picture—Wednesday, November 20th, 1963—was my first good money. I was on my first real assignment, working for Mike, one of my college roommates. He told me he was working freelance for somebody, but never told me a name. Back then Mike said he worked for CARE, doing something that took him all over the world—“package control.” I was sure it was a good cover story, not a real job.
“I mean, what does that really mean, Mike? Package control.” I asked him. “What do you really do?”
Mike said, “Just stand around some dock in some godforsaken country and count cans of Spam. It’s really boring.”
“So what’s with the picture?” I asked.
“It’s just a favor for a friend. But he’s paying. He thinks his wife is cheating on him. Wants a picture of the guy.”
He showed me a picture, a guy getting out of a car in front of a restaurant: Charco Broiler Steak House; you could see the street sign: West Jefferson.
“Where’s this?” I asked.
“Dallas,” said Mike.
The guy had short hair, but soft looking, not like an army guy. His face was straightforward, thin lips, but a strong chin.
“But why doesn’t he want a picture of the guy and the wife?” I asked.
“You philosophy majors,” Mike said. “I should have known. For once, stop with the analysis. Just get out to Idlewild and get the fucking picture without him knowing you’re getting the fucking picture. You’re always bragging about your new Minox. How about for once you show me what it can do; you want the money, or what?”
Back then Minox mini-cams were new, film was small. Put the camera in a cigarette pack, reach it out of your pocket, point and shoot, put it back. I’d practiced the moves so it would look as if I wanted a smoke then changed my mind. I smoked back then, loved all the moves—tap the Marlboro box on the bar before you opened it to tamp down the tobacco; then tap the filter end of the cigarette on your thumbnail to tamp it down some more, get the tobacco tight, open the match book with one hand, get the left-hand match hanging out, close the cover, move the match along the striker on the flap, hear the “szzz,” inhale that first smoke really deep.
This was Tuesday. “Can you give me money for cab fare?” I asked. “November’s cold. I don’t want to wait for the bus.”
“It’s tomorrow,” he said. “Wednesday’s are always warmer. Take an early bus, and make sure to get the ticket counter in the picture.”
I remember feeling really cool. Got there early, wore my button-down Oxford blue shirt with a bow tie and my chinos with the buckle in the back. I had my story ready in case someone asked: My uncle Pete was leaving for Paris and my mom had given me a letter for him. I even had the letter in my book bag; wrote it with my left hand in a curly script so it would look like a Mom. I didn’t have to wait very long. I saw him, and had to stop myself from calling out “Uncle Pete!” I just breathed in, took out the fake cigarette pack, and snapped the whole roll while he was walking up to the international ticket window. Then I left, got the bus back to the curtained-off darkroom in my Alphabet City studio, developed the pictures, and gave them to Mike the next day.
Of course, Friday, November 22, 1963 was right around the corner. It was so sudden, the world turning to shit. The shooting, the President suddenly gone, the blood on Jacqui’s pink suit, a new president, and then Monday, the funeral. I pretty much spent all that time down at the Silver Lantern along with a lot of other people who kept saying the same things over and over. Our world was torn apart. Made all of us fearful and sad and worried at the same time. What kind of a country were we turning into?
I kept the money Mike gave me pretty tight in my pocket, wrapped in a rubber band. Didn’t want to let it go. Thought I’d use it to go visit Kennedy’s grave someday. Never did, but the thought was there, even after I’d spent all the dough on some high res film and a new camera.
Mike never asked, so I never told him that I kept a copy of the negative. When he died over in Afghanistan, the class obit never made it clear which side of the poppy field he was on.
I used to take out that negative from time to time. Something about the way the guy almost looked over his shoulder. Once or twice I made a print, just to check, blow it up, see how deep I could bore into it. I tore the prints up, every time. But then, mid-90s, in what passes for the Art Scene in photography, “Faces” staged a comeback. And I had a ton: starting with this guy with the chin and the look.
I’d done a lot of others on that Minox, enjoyed the “catching the real” on real film. I had lots of faces, lots of people. New York, Paris, Budapest, London. Da Capo Gallery had just opened, and they liked the texture of the big blow-ups. It was a good show, and it opened with the guy I called Mr. Chin. Featured him on the front page of the catalog and on the web site.
So there I am, back at the show two days after the opening, wanting to see it with real people. There were about 15 gawkers around the gallery, and then I saw the guy—older, frail, almost decrepit—sitting in the chair by the window.
“I knew you’d show up one of these days,” he said. He kept looking at me, and I kept waiting for his next words. “You took the picture, right?”
“And you are?” I asked.
“Call me Kenneth,” he said. His gray eyes, easy for a minute, began to harden. “I got a great memory for faces. Saw you that once, just before I got on the plane. Like I said, your picture, right? ”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s mine.”
“I knew they had a picture,” he said. The words rasped out, one at a time.
“Yeah, well…” I said.
We stared at each other for another minute.
Finally he said, “They’re really after me now. How about we just take this particular piece of crap down, like it never happened.“
I liked that crap: the chin, the unconscious look over the shoulder, the background detail.
“Why?” I asked.
“You … don’t … wanna … know,” he said, grinding out each word like it hurt. Maybe it did. “Thirty years, and there are still people following the money. I’m part of the money. You’re part of the money.”
“Money for what?” I asked.
He looked at me again, grey eyes across a grey space. I started to move away. “Nice to see you after all these years,” I said. “Enjoy the show.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” he said. I turned and stopped.
“What?“ I said.
“You think you know about that day in Dallas? There’s too many strings, too much money. Nobody knows it all; nobody really knows anything. All I know is things that were done, had to be paid for.” He stopped and took a breath. “I knew they had a picture. Their insurance. But the deal was, I kept out of the way, they kept me out of it. Now there’s this here proof. What say we get rid of the proof?”
“At least you could tell me what it’s about.”
“What do you think it’s about,” he said.
“Something about Jack Ruby?” I asked. I still don’t know why my brain leapt to that name. He took a breath and blinked.
“Close, maybe,” he said. “That lowlife putz was always in debt. Those clubs of his were crap.”
“Listen,” I said. “I can’t change the show. Besides, it’s already on the internet.”
“People change things all the time,” he said. “You’ll do it. Because you have to. Then I’ll come over to your place and we can both make sure we burn whatever’s there. Some old pictures, old negatives, nothing—what’s that word?—digitized, right?” I nodded. “Fuck do you care? You’re a famous guy. Big deal exhibition and all.” His grey eyes bored into me. There was no way to say no. “I’ll come over to your place tomorrow morning,” he said. “I know where you have the stuff. Don’t make me have to make two trips. These knees are killing me, makes me irritable.”
He unfolded himself from the chair, slowly, then limped to the gallery door and out onto the street. I decided not to follow him. His look took away any argument I might have had with myself. I told the gallery to take down the picture. They bitched a little, but I let them use “Girl with Pigeons” instead, and they were happy, said they’d fix it all right away, including scrubbing what passed for the internet back then.
I went to my studio, got the stuff, took it all home and put everything in an envelope, put the envelope in the camera case. I’ll admit it, I was really scared. Then I went out to the gym, and things went from bad to worse.
It was me being stupid: one too many front squats while trying to make significant eye contact with the blue spandex babe every guy had tried for, and an abrupt eruption of groin muscle spasm and I’m seeing white-hot stars, while giving a full-throated scream, followed by a total collapse on the floor.
I limped home. Only thing for it was bed rest. I could see my camera case hanging like a limp dick over the back of my desk chair. But moving the stuff was out of the question. Getting out of bed and upright, even on the drugs, required that same scream: starting in my gut and coming out my eyeballs. That evening, before she left to teach, I told my girlfriend Elisa the whole story. She listened, then looked at me and shook her head.
“You’re pathetic,” she said with a smile. “One of the reasons I put up with you.” She pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down. “How do you even know the Kenneth guy was telling the truth? Some guy you had a picture of at some restaurant down in Dallas who was cheating on someone’s wife and now he tells you he was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination? You got too much time on your hands.” She stood up. “I gotta go teach. You got everything you need, Mr. I-Magination?”
Truth? Imagination for me is in really short supply. Photographers, we’re only interested in The Real. But I started to think. I never owned a gun, and couldn’t think how to get one on short notice. I thought about having a knife handy. Then I thought about every photographer’s favorite Hitchcock movie: “Rear Window”—organize a lot of flashes and hope it blinds the guy enough, whoever the guy is, or the two guys or the three guys, blind them enough to give me time to call 911. Or, I thought, I could just get myself to the computer, send the story off to my contact at Mother Jonesbefore anything else happens.
But before I could move, I heard scratching at the front door and watched it open. I was terrified but not surprised to see the Kenneth guy. This time he held a gun in a very steady hand. He limped across the studio toward me while I gave a groan and sat up in bed.
“Get up,” he said. “And give me the fucking pictures and the negatives.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I couldn’t get to my studio.” I thought I had pulled it off until he looked at me and shook his head.
“Don’t give me that crap,” he said. “Move, or …” He pointed the gun at my chest while he backed toward the camera case hanging on the chair.
My groin muscle was throbbing; I could feel a new spasm coming on. At the same time, the thought of getting shot in my own bed, blood on my pillows, pissed me off. All I could think was, “I need to get up.”
I fought through the drugs, pushed myself off the pillows, willed my almost-paralyzed legs to move to the floor, and, stood up, screaming, because I had to, loud enough to be heard downstairs and across the street.
The Kenneth guy was so startled he took two sudden steps back, his hand with the gun went up, and the gun went off. It was the recoil from the odd angle that sent him back another step, onto the rug that slipped, sending him crashing to the floor. His head hit the corner of the table as he fell. And then he lay there on the floor, blood slowly pumping out onto the rug.
By the time Elisa came home, the cops were in processing mode. An intruder, I’d told them. Never saw him before.
Hours later, I was back at the computer. I was sure I had the truth: Picture of the bag man who paid off Jack Ruby, a money trail ready to be followed. A couple of facts maybe missing; nothing that important. Mother Jones sent me a check, which I cashed right away. But they never ran the story, and never told me why.