Portraits

In 1998, I took a physics-for-liberal-arts-majors course to fulfill the science requirement for my sociology degree, and I took a job at a photo store as manager, cashier, and portrait photographer. I’d never managed anything or worked retail before, but I’d been taking photos for years and the store was failing anyways, so they got me to shoot a roll of film of a tired-looking manager from another store and then hired me. My first portrait session was with a Danish man in his early 70s who reminded me of my grandfather. The second was with a toddler who, when I was four shots into the session, started to fill his diaper: his eyes bulged, his body tensed up, and his mom had to whisk him away for a diaper change.
In the first two months, I had dozens of portrait sittings, including a diaperless pug named Noodles that piddled all over the carpet in the portrait room, a family of more than 20 I had to shoehorn into my tiny studio, and a priest with a long black pony tail.
One afternoon, the whole sales team from a nearby car dealership, whose earlier sitting had turned out poorly, came back for retakes: A bunch of pissed-off middle-aged men with sports coats and moustaches; smelling of coffee, cigarettes, peppermints, and various colognes; all dudes, who seemed to take their masculinity very, very seriously; and all of them scowling at me. I led them into the back portrait room, and as they passed by, one of them muttered, “You’d better not muck this up again.”
I wanted to say, “I wasn’t the one who mucked it up the first time; and honestly, buddy, there’s really guarantee, what with a face like yours,” but I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all because 1) the truth is, I couldn’t promise him I wouldn’t muck it up again, and 2) I was thoroughly intimidated, which is exactly what the mustachioed bully wanted.
In November after daylight savings time was over and I was two minutes from closing up for the afternoon, a man with a huge face came in, asking if I had a couple dollars I could spare so he could buy a cup of coffee. It looked like he had been spilling dribbles of coffee down the front of his beige winter coat for years, the stubble around his mouth was crusty with what looked like old soup, and he had drips hanging off the tip of his nose and a Winnipeg Jets toque pulled down over his ears. I gave him a dollar and he scowled. “That all you got?” he said.
“That’s it,” I said.
“Okay, thanks.”
Three days later, 10 minutes before closing, he came in and joined the line of four other people waiting to pick up their photos. When it was his turn, he said, “Could you spare a couple of dollars for a coffee?” I gave him another dollar. When he came back again the next day and asked for another couple dollars, I said, “I don’t have any change on me today, but if you come back tomorrow you can sit on that chair by my desk and I’ll make you a cup of coffee. How does that sound?”
“Okay, sure,” he said. I closed the store and bought a kettle and two mugs at the thrift store on the way home. I bought a big jar of no-name instant coffee – the cheapest and least interesting source of caffeine money can buy – a tin of coffee whitener, and a box of sugar cubes. I didn’t see him again until Tuesday of the following week when he stopped in just after lunch, the quietest time of day on the slowest day of the week. “Have you got a couple dollars so I can get a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“No, but I can make a cup for you right here,” I said. “Take a seat over by the desk.” He sat on the edge of the chair and unzipped his coat and I filled up the kettle and plugged it in. “I still don’t know your name,” I said. “I’m Kurt.”
“I’m Larry.”
There were two saving graces in this boring-as-hell job. 1) Almost nobody ever came in. The store sold out-of-date photofinishing – three days to get your prints instead of one hour – and junky retail items like key chains and flimsy plastic photo books with yellowing transparent pages. Digital photography was showing early signs of ascendancy. But long, slow stretches in my day gave me countless hours to read without ever actually shirking on my work. And 2) there was an old wooden stereo cabinet in the corner that played records.
When the kettle boiled, I mixed a coffee for each of us and asked Larry if he’d like to listen to a record.
“Whatcha got?” he asked.
I pulled out a small stack of some of my favourites, some brand new albums, and some treasures I found amongst the thousands of used records in the “vinyl dungeon” at the record store. Eye In The Sky by Alan Parsons Project? “Nope.” Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk? “Nope.” Terraform by Shellac? “Nope.” 1965 by Afghan Whigs? He shook his head. “Oh no. No, no, no. No, not that. Have you got any Jan and Dean?”
“Sorry, Larry, I don’t even know who that is.”
“How about Nestor Pistor?”
“I don’t even know what you’re saying. Is that a band?”
“No Nestor Pistor then. How about Beach Boys?”
“I know who the Beach Boys are, but I don’t have any of their records.”
“How about Engelbert Humperdinck?”
“I wish I did because I can tell by his name that he would be amazing.” I flipped through my small stack. “What about this?” I held up a Hank Williams compilation, The Lonesome Legend. He squinted at the cover and scowled.
“Lemme see,” he said. I handed it across the desk and he scowled at the sleeve a bit more, flipped it back and forth a few times, and said, “Okay.” He sat back in his chair, pulled off his coat, and took a big noisy slurp of coffee. “Ow,” he said, wincing. “That’s hot.”
I put the record on the turntable, found “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and turned it up loud enough for the music to fill the store. Larry put his coffee cup back on the desk and started to rock in his chair, stomping his foot, and slapping his thigh in a heartfelt approximation of rhythm.
“That’s a good song,” he said.
“So you like Hank Williams then?” I asked.
“Of course.”
When the song was over I turned down the volume. Larry took a couple more noisy, wincing slurps of coffee, and, when half of it was gone, he stood up and put on his coat and said, “Okay, I’m gonna go now. Could you spare a couple dollars?”
“No, I can’t, Larry, but if you want you can come back tomorrow and I can make you a coffee again.”
“Okay then,” he said.
Larry never bought a single thing from the store. I’m not certain he even knew it was a photography store. But he was my most regular and favourite customer. In the New Year, he would come by once or twice a week, and if other customers were there, I’d invite him to go sit at the chair by my desk. If the line up kept growing and I couldn’t get to him in time, he’d get impatient and leave, but he always came back a day or two later. When I had time to sit and make coffee, we would talk about music and records, and he’d scowl at nearly everything I offered to play for him.
Six months after I quit, a bridal shop took over the space, and three years later there was a fire in the building and now there’s a snowboard shop in the space.
But, before I left, I got Larry to sit for a portrait session, big coat and toque and all. He winced and blinked dramatically every time the big flashes fired, but I got a few decent shots before he had to go. I told him “Smile, Larry,” and he tried to and it actually looked pretty natural. I saved a handful of the portraits from my time working there, and the few that I took of him are my favourites.
 
Kurt Armstrong is a lay minister at St. Margaret’s Anglican, and part-time handyman. This essay is from his book-in-progress, Work And Love Will Make A Man Out Of You.

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