Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category


The Old Bull

August 19, 2009

The Old Bull

a chapter selection from my recent book “Look Away”.

We’re sitting in the withering, street-shadowed window-light at the front table of Sitwell’s coffee shop in Clifton, a university area.  Outside, street musicians and beggars work the movie crowd for pocket change, as they ritually migrate from the darkened theater to the brightly lit ice-cream parlor across the street.  Hyde Park couples and university intellectuals flock next door to the Esquire Theater to see the latest in art-house and independent films, documentary and narrative thought not piped into the home-sweet-homes of this nation by establishment institutions. Inside Sitwell’s, the warm, dim light betrays a mish-mosh of unmatched chairs and tables and summer students asleep or working at their computer below a crown of painted banners of popular dissident thought.  In another time and place, I have been in this room.  Perhaps it was 1969.  It all looks too familiar–the posters, the art, the long hair; tastes too familiar– the vegan wheat-berry toast sandwich with cucumber slices, red peppers and alfalfa sprouts; and smells too familiar–that is, all but the now-banned heavy blanket of cigarette stink masking the faint smell of marijuana.   I wonder if anyone here understands.  I am reminded that ideas never die until our oppressors burn the libraries.  Though ideas might live on as oral history, they mutate with each passing generation, pollinating diverse small factions of disciples, each claiming the sole right to the wisdom and power of the mutated idea. Lacking property, it is equally dangerous to try to hold on to ideas.  Either one can get you killed, but the combination is the stuff wars are made of.

Walt has a new set of glasses and is still adjusting to the bifocals as he struggles with the menu.  His frames are of the oversized aviator-style popular in the seventies. With his rubber-banded, long grey ponytail, Hawaiian shirt and full white beard, the stylish, dainty spectacles popular today would be incongruent with his self-image and at odds with his rearview-mirrored worldview.

Walt Burton is that person for whom the word curmudgeon was devised.  He does not own a computer, doesn’t want one.  Like many his age, he cannot navigate the Internet or receive an e-mail.  He travels cross-country by train, has rabbit ears on his black and white TV, prefers the radio anyway, pays his bills with cash, drives the surface roads not the highway, and in spite of being a photographer, does not own a digital camera.  Until recently, he has been shooting with an inexpensive, embarrassment of a small plastic-lensed, consumer point-and-shoot.  But all that is about to change with Charlie.  Soon Walt will be visiting the local camera store to buy a used SLR—one that shoots film—his first since three years ago the gas and electric meter reader helped himself to Walt’s bag of Nikons, left absentmindedly by the unlocked basement door, the true nature of the cameras’ disappearance being a mystery.

Frustrated, he now reaches deep into his pocket retrieving his well worn Maglite, the same one he uses in the dark to make his way across my lawn to his car, without tripping on the stainless aircraft cable that secures my garden furniture against walking away in the middle of the night, like my trashcan, potted plants and doormat did before them. Modern urban living has its price.  As he applies the flashlight to the menu, we are interrupted by our waitress, an angelic young lady of about nineteen.  Walt lifts his gaze from the menu to assess our visitor.


…a confused reaction…

“Excuse me.”

“I’d say you’re about one-twenty-five and five four.”

Apparently unbothered by the personal direction of this line of conversation she responds,

“Actually I’m one-fifteen”

“It’s the shoulders.  You have broad shoulders.”

He shamelessly takes another look.

“Thirty-six C.”


“Well, you’re very lovely.  You could be in Playboy.  You know, I used to shoot for Playboy.  That was years ago. I’m Walt Burton and this is my friend Michael.  We’re photographers. I’m the old fart and he’s the techno wizard.”

“Hi, I’m Charlie.  I used to be a boy.”

Modern times require a modern defense.  For years it has been a popular strategy for young women to ward off unwanted approaches by claiming to be Lesbian, but this, the transgender defense, well that’s new.

“Well, you did good.  They look very real.  They have a nice perky bounce to them.  You should be proud.”

“So, what will you guys be having?”

The Playboy gambit is no false approach.  Walt was a photographer for Playboy back in the sixties.  Now that he has passed his 73rd birthday, those memories are just a small part of a long and varied career devoted to photography.  In any other situation with any other person, I would be asking myself what is being sought with this line of conversation, but with Walt, I’m not sure even he knows.  I suppose it’s a form of flirting that just says, “I may be over seventy, but I’m still in the game.  I still got it.”  Whatever “it” is.  I have known many friends, male and female who flirt with no intention of follow through, just to flirt.  The flirt is the reward itself.  The trick is to keep it friendly, not appear menacing and to want nothing in return except the exchange itself.  The risk is that it can arouse long forgotten feelings or invite unwanted attention.  In this case Charlie carries the latter risk, Walt the former.

I have been with Walt in many environments and watched helplessly as he interjects himself into the activities of unsuspecting strangers, sometimes creating fear and confusion. It’s a lot like being in the front seat of the roller coaster as it crosses the first hilltop, just before the big drop.  Logic tells you that it will be all right, that the coaster will stay on the track, that you will live to walk away from the ride…  but then again, there is that one-in-a-million chance that today will not be the same as yesterday.

Early evening a youthful Middle Eastern family is about to cross the street with their young child who runs ahead.  The woman is startlingly attractive. Her lithe boyish figure revealed by the wind in her plain cotton dress, her hair wrapping her face in soft tendrils, she follows her husband, a tall handsome man who is now becoming increasingly aware of Walt’s unwanted attention from his slowly passing car.  He looks to his child, but Walt looks to the woman.  The man’s eyes lock with Walt’s with all the intensity of a tracking device on a fighter plane about to destroy an enemy.  But with a few complimentary words about his family, a smile and a laugh, Walt diffuses an otherwise ugly situation and drives on.

Later that night, two very attractive young girls are about to exit Starbucks with their evening coffee, when Walt rises abruptly from his table and blocks their path.  As he approaches them, they each take a step or two backwards.  He is in their space.  They have learned well, their auto response is good.  He begins by talking about their most unusual shoes.  In short order they are at ease and their fearful faces turn to laughter.

And so it is with “Charlie”.   A week later, Walt is conversing with her on her cell phone, planning a variety of nude photography shoots together.  On another day they meet to review wardrobe and to shop for naughty clothes for the shoot and for the first time in many years, Walt is shopping for a real, if yet woefully outdated, camera.

Walt takes in the world and relishes each moment but like most of us he lives in a future that is governed by his past. Perhaps that is the nature of art, the shaping of raw elements of the real world to conform to our understanding of the past and a desire to carry something of that forward into the future.  Art is not life, but it parallels life, imitating it to the extent that our limited experience is filtered through our consciousness taking form as a concept, that according to our ability to shape solid matter into an illusion provokes others to share in that consciousness.  It has been said that success is based not on talent or ability or luck so much as on persistence.  On the other hand, it has been said that the definition of insanity is making the same mistake over and over again, expecting different results. Certainly there must be a direct correlation between success and insanity.  If that holds true, Walt is long overdue for a winter storm of success.

Blissfully careening down narrow streets at the wheel of his luxury sedan, lost in thought and high on conversation he bumper-rubs the tail of a parked car, ignores a stop sign and hops the corner curb flattening a group of purple pansies.  An occasional burst of speed thrusts the car jerkily forward as his excited mind issues commands to his vehicle through his stiff control.   Sitting too far forward, elbows low and at his side, forearms extended, locked in place, pedal to the floor; he doesn’t have the physical space or posture to properly negotiate the steering.  Unaware of the many non-fatalities of the evening he rockets on.  Once on land he is equally off balance.  Consumed in his thoughts he fails to see the concrete parking bumper and falls into an extended modern dance interpretation, remaining airborne for at least five seconds, lighting occasionally as a cart-wheeling butterfly an elbow here, a knee there, skidding across the blacktop and up the sidewalk into a cluster of evergreens and flowers, where he regains his breath to continue the conversation.  The world is Walt’s China shop.  And the dance continues as the old bull thrusts himself upon an unsuspecting public.

Now loose, there is not a hint of the kind of stiffness apparent in his techno wrangling of the car.  No, he effortlessly slips into the conversations of others, wedging himself tightly in the narrow spaces of dialogue and erupting with enthusiasm to startled onlookers.  The China falls. He disarms their scared and confused reactions to what would otherwise be regarded as menacing behavior, with compliments and laughter.  More China falls. In one moment he engages the family of a severely deformed Alzheimer’s patient and in the next he advises a young child about safety. Then he moves on to a group of women out on the town, coming full circle to a young couple enjoying their ice cream. No one is off limits. Referring to him as  “Dad” I smile and usher him on, explaining that he just got out of the hospital this very evening.  Looking backwards over my shoulder, we retreat to the relative safety of the car.  They seem to understand.

Occasionally, Walt is flush with cash and when he is, he spreads it around like salve on the weary wounded he meets on the street.  A wallet full of C-notes doesn’t last long and he gives sympathetically to stranger and friend alike, his only criteria being that he can recognize a real need that he can ameliorate.  Walt and I have shared many dinners together and it is a rare event when he allows me to pick up the tab. His relationship with his money is as paradoxical as his relationship to his art.

At moments like this, it’s hard to believe that Walt is possibly the most reviled person in all of professional photography. Without exception, whenever I meet someone new in the professional photographic community, they know “Crazy Walt”, said acknowledgment usually followed by a spew of necessarily censored comments.  Nor is Walt unaware of his past or his affect on people.  He once relished in telling me a story about jumping over an office desk to assault a prominent millionaire client who had made him uncontrollably angry, ending the evening’s altercation by bending his finger backward until it broke. More China.