Wednesday, December 14

"Camera Obscura"

His cellphone sang. “One love, one blood, one life. You got to do what you should.”

It was Kate, the photo editor. She didn't say hello.

“I can't use your pictures,” she said.

“What?” Toby's voice was higher pitched than he had intended. He took a breath. “I'm sorry, but I thought they were good. Why can't you use them?”

“The Saturday package is about homelessness and what the city government and everyday citizens are doing to fight it. Our job is to put a face to that enemy, a face that captures all the suffering and deprivation it causes. Your pictures don't do that. No one is even going to believe these men live on the streets. Washed faces? Collared shirts? Clean shaves? My stepson doesn't dress this nice, and they're supposed to be the bums.”

“They said they wanted to look good if they're going to be in the paper. I thought the homeless deserved that little dignity at least.” Toby stressed “the homeless” instead of “bums” and hoped Kate would notice.

“You don't understand. We want to touch people's hearts. We want them to demand change. No one will care if the face of homelessness is healthy, clean and well-fed. This is a daily newspaper, not some high school yearbook. You fought for this assignment. Now go out, and do it right,” Kate hung up.

Toby gave a full sigh that the others at the bar noticed.

“I need to go and take more pictures,” Toby explained when Jason turned. “Apparently the men at the YMCA aren't 'homeless' enough for the Herald.”

“That sucks,” Jason said. “Happy hour ends in twenty minutes.”

“I'll make it quick. I just wish they'd told me when I turned in my pictures. No one deserves a new assignment on Friday night. God, it's been such a long week, too” Toby sighed again even though he had their attention. “Do any of you have any idea where I can find the 'real homeless?'”

“Highman Park,” Anna said without hesitation. “If you drive by too slow, guys will rush your window asking for change. Be careful, though. I hear a lot of gangs and drug dealers hang out there, too.”

Toby had never been to Highman before, and Anna gave him directions. No wonder he didn't know the way. It was on the west side. He preferred to avoid that part of the city.

He finished the rest of his micro-brew in two long gulps before leaving the bar. What Kate had said was true. He had fought for the story. When Toby picked up the photography assignments that morning and read that Rachel Emans had the front-page homelessness package while he was left with the profile of the local driftwood artist, tentative headline “One man's garbage...,” he went straight to Kate's office. If she had been surprised when he walked in without knocking, she didn't show it. She glanced up only briefly from the pictures and papers on her desk before returning her full attention to them. Toby, however, was impressed by the audacity of his entrance. He understood it as evidence of his zeal for the assignment. While waiting for Kate, he considered his argument.

“This may be presumptuous of me,” he carefully began when the editor finally looked at him and held her gaze, “especially since I've only been here a couple of months, but I think I deserve the homelessness assignment. I don't think anyone else on staff cares more about the homeless or can show the same compassion for them in their photographs.”

Kate made no reply but to take a sip of coffee and lean back in her chair, but Toby felt himself getting into a rhythm and his voice gained strength.

“You know how some people take up environmental causes and plant trees or run across the country to raise cancer awareness? Well, my issue is homelessness. My senior year at State I was president of the Homelessness Action Front and led some of our biggest campus awareness campaigns. We chalked facts about homelessness on all the sidewalks and collected signatures to force the city council to increase funding for social services. I wrote editorials for the student paper about the incredible rates of mental illness among the homeless and their drastically shorter life expectancies. I wanted everyone to know that homelessness matters. This isn't just another assignment for me. This is my passion.”

Kate took another sip of coffee. Then she picked up her phone.

“I need you in my office now, Rachel,” she said. Waiting for the senior photographer, Toby could hardly stand to stay still. He knew the story was his. He just needed one final push.

Rachel knocked before walking in, and Kate told her, “The rookie wants your assignment today because he thinks he could do a better job than you.”

Turning back to Toby, Kate said, “Tell her why.”

Rachel gave a wry grin as Toby began, but he didn't notice. He was concentrating on everything he had learned in his Advanced Public Speaking class.

“With all due respect, Rachel,” he said, “do you know what it's like to be homeless and spend the nights outside and carry all your possessions with you everywhere? I do. I spent a week in solidarity with the homeless when my club slept in front of the school library last spring. We only had coffee and day-old doughnuts for breakfast every morning and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for every other meal. We couldn't go into our dorms because we were homeless, so we had to shower in the gym locker rooms. I understand the homeless at a personal level, and I think that's imperative to doing this assignment right. Don't you?”

“What do you think?” Kate asked Rachel after the briefest possible pause.

Rachel shrugged.

“If he wants it that badly, he can have it. I'm waiting on a call from Thomas to finish that story on illegal dumping by Agrochemical. If he calls, I need to be there immediately. The suits have been such a pain in the ass with scheduling an interview and tour of the plant that I won't get a second chance at them.”

Toby let a smile break across his face. His first front-page assignment. And for a major weekend package. That was something to celebrate. After giving them both the most gracious thanks possible, he had rushed from the office to get started. Toby checked first with Ericsson, writer of the package's lead story, and he sent Toby to the YMCA. Ericsson had met a few sources there and thought it would be an easy start and safe since it employed security. He told Toby that if he hurried, there still might be a few people at the free breakfast.

When Toby arrived, there were no more than ten men sitting at long tables in the poorly lit cafeteria. The guard sitting casually at the doors told him they were free to stay as long as they wanted so long as they didn't make any trouble for each other or the staff.

“Just give a shout if they start causing a commotion or you see them with any alcohol or drugs or weapons,” he told Toby with a smile and patted his billy club.

Toby assured the guard there would be no trouble and no need for the help but thanked him.

Toby walked over to a slight man, sitting silently against the wall and staring toward the distant windows, first.

“Hello. I'm Toby with the Herald,” he said as he put his hand out. “You mind if I sit with you for a little while? Ask some questions?”

The man didn't look up, and the guard shouted from across the room, “I wouldn't bother with him. George's pretty retarded. Hardly ever speaks, and when he does, it doesn't make any sense.”

Toby glared and made sure the guard was looking before he very deliberately sat down next to George. Toby tried to introduce himself again. George didn't even turn his head. Toby asked what the YMCA had served that morning and tried to joke about how stale the doughnuts were, but George only leaned forward to watch birds flying outside the windows. Frustrated after several more minutes of silence, Toby walked to the man sitting at the nearest table.

“Couldn't get anything out of George, could you?” the man said with a grin that made Toby's fists clench. “I wouldn't feel too bad about it. He doesn't talk to anyone.”

“That doesn't mean he's any less of a person,” Toby said without hesitation.

“Oh, I never said that. He may not be as interesting as some here, but he's a lot better than most. At least he's never been to prison.”

“Yeah? Have you?” Toby had never met a convict before and felt excited.

“I've made some mistakes, but the Lord knows that I've taken my punishment like a man. Now, I'm just trying to do right by Him and get back on my feet.”

“Like how?”

The man looked hard at Toby. “Who are you asking all these questions anyway?”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Toby. “I should have introduced myself. My name's Toby. I work for the Herald, and I'm on assignment.”

“Oh yeah?” the man said, the large smile returning and showing off missing teeth. “You here to write a story about me or something?

“Almost. I'm a photographer. You mind if I take your picture? The article's going to be on the front page tomorrow.”

“That sounds great.” He was positively gleaming now. “Of course you can take my picture. Come on, let's move over there by the window. I always look better in the sunlight. How do you want me? How about sitting? I look kind of funny when I'm standing. I got shot in the leg in 'Nam, and I've kind of leaned to the right since then. Maybe if I had my hand on a chair or something, like that portrait of Washington, no one would notice.”

“Hey, Dennis,” another man shouted as they passed. “What are you doing with him?”

“I'm getting my picture taken. I'm going to be in the Herald tomorrow. Front page,” Dennis shouted back.

“In that jacket? You'll be the city's most famous bum,” the other man laughed. Toby flinched.

“You're right!” Dennis said when he looked down. Grabbing Toby's arm, he said, “Give me a minute. I need to wash and put on something nice. Maybe that shirt I wear for job interviews. Do you think that would look good?”

Dennis came back fifteen minutes later. Every line of dirt on his face was gone, and his hair was combed neatly to the side. Toby felt as though he were at an advertising shoot instead of a homeless shelter. Dennis eagerly followed Toby's every suggestion to turn his head to better catch the light or to rest his chin in his hand, but he could never look serious for more than two seconds.

“I just can't,” Dennis laughed after failing for the fifth time. “This is too great. I'm having too much fun.”

Toby nodded with good humor and bit his frustration back. He was supposed to look somber and aged beyond his years but was acting like a child.

Soon enough the other men in the cafeteria drifted toward Toby and Dennis and started asking questions. Then they were all clambering for portraits of their own and hurrying to change and shave. Toby only barely left the YMCA before lunchtime and the newcomers started to ask what he was doing with the camera.

By the time Toby parked outside Highman Park, the sun was just above the horizon. A chill pierced Toby the moment he stepped out of the car. It was colder than he had expected for an early October evening. Colder even than the week of solidarity. Still, not enough to make him shiver. He had forgotten gloves, though. It hurt when he kept his hands out of his pockets too long, and his fingers were stiff and clumsy as he handled the camera, checking the body and lenses. To warm himself, Toby stomped his feet and breathed into his cupped hands. Jason had ordered a pound of french fries before Toby had left. He hoped he would be back before they finished them, even if the last few were lukewarm.

He could see how Highman might be nice for a walk or picnic in the afternoon for those who lived in the area, but it was ill tended. The grass hadn't been mown in weeks. There were tracks of bare dirt where people worn down their own paths between the designated gravel trails. He could see, too, how drug dealers would appreciate the thick bushes. There was plenty of privacy in Highman.

A quick look through the park and he would be done, Toby promised himself. He was losing daylight, and the temperature was dropping. It wouldn't matter if Toby found someone, and it was too dark to take his picture. Then Kate would just have to settle for one of those he had turned in earlier. And they were fine. They may live in shelters now, but those men had lived on the streets. They knew the suffering and indignity of being homeless. They deserved to be on the front page as much as anyone Toby might find tonight.

Toby started jogging to ward off the cold. The special had been Irish Coffee. He should have ordered it. With no certain destination he took turns indiscriminately. There were no fountains or statues or tennis courts or any landmarks whatsoever to mark Toby's way. Every few minutes he would pause to make a quick check of the area for homeless, but he always found that it looked entirely like the last part of the park he had stopped. He doubted he could easily retrace his steps and find his way back. Toby pushed on.

Coming around a turn much like the last, Toby skidded on the gravel, barely stopping. Standing in the middle of the trail, not more than ten feet ahead, were two African-American men. They were tall and wore dark, down-filled coats that disguised whether they were thin or fat or even carrying guns.

Don't think like that, Toby told himself. That's racist.

He opened his mouth to say good evening, but it caught in his throat as both men slid their hands into the breasts of their coats at the same time, their faces hard. Toby tried to smile, but it felt wrong.

The one with a scar running from the base of his jaw to the corner of his lips spit and took a step forward.

Toby turned and hurried back the way he came, faster than before. He thought he could hear a bitter laugh and the second man begin to walk. Toby ran.

Another turn. Another. Nothing looked familiar. Toby thought he passed that tree minutes ago.

Then the obnoxious odor of cheap alcohol and vomit. Toby remembered his assignment. He stopped and turned in every direction, looking for the source. Getting down on hands and knees, Toby found the drunk deep underneath one of the few shrubs whose leaves still clung to the branches. It was impossible to estimate an age. Toby would have guessed 45 but would not have been surprised if the answer were 30 or 60. A fraying wool cap covered the hair, but an unruly beard was streaked with white, gray and a pale brown. The coat had once been a rich brown but was sun-bleached from years of use and stained dark by drinks spilled that night. The soles of the shoes were only kept on with duct tape.

Even with the full force of his creativity, Toby could not have imagined a more appropriate scene. Here was Kate's “real homeless.” There could be no better demonstration of the urgency of their situation or the need for action now to save them.

There was a twitch. Toby jumped back, but that was the only movement. The sun was sinking. Toby had little time before it was completely dark. He set to work. He stepped back for a few wide-angle shots. He doubted Kate could use them. It was nearly impossible to distinguish anything, but they set the tone, how easy it is to miss the homeless among us. They're invisible to the rest of the community. Toby thought it would be funny if Kate saw the pictures and asked why he had taken them. He would relish the chance to point her blindness out to her. It would be politically incorrect, but if only they could print the pictures with the caption “Can you find the homeless person in this photograph?” to show the community its own blindness.

There was a sound. Faint, some distance away. Toby lowered the camera to his chest and listened. Two voices farther up the path? He switched lenses quickly and laid down for a better angle and close-up. He was relieved that the first shots were crisp. Despite the failing light, the details were clear. Long shadows cast by the low sun turned the broken nose into something of mythic proportions. Every scar, no matter the size, no matter the depth, was clear. The thick lines around the eyes and across the forehead had a gravity earned by years of rejection. It was a face that had known suffering intimately and endured.

The leaves of the shrub rustled when Toby got up after the final shot. The subject's eyelids drooped open.

“Hey,” he slurred. A line of drool of began to run from his mouth. “Could you give me a little help?”

“Sorry,” Toby said. “I don't have any change.”

“You don't have nothing for a cold vet?”

The voices were growing more distinct, and Toby's voice grew more rapid. “Sorry, I really don't have anything. Maybe the YMCA could help you out. They might have a bed or blanket or something for you.”

“I don't need their rules. I'm free here.” He grunted. “Didn't I see you there earlier? Weren't you the one with the camera?”

Toby was stuffing the camera back into its case and only glanced down briefly before looking up the trail again. There might have been something familiar in that profile, but he wasn't sure.

“You're wrong. I don't remember you.”

“Huh.” The man gave a wet belch and rolled to face the other way. Toby could make out individual words and took off at a sprint.

His breathing came in gasps, and the backs of Toby's legs burned. The camera bag was bouncing wildly, bruising his hip. He didn't dare look back.

Another turn but the gravel was loose. Toby's feet slid out from under him. His hand was just fast enough to cover his face before he hit the ground and rolled. No time to concentrate on the bright pain in his ankle or searing on his palms. Toby scrambled forward on hands and knees until he was running upright again.

The trees and bushes were thinning. Toby could see the parking lot, not more than a hundred meters ahead. A final surge and Toby was leaning, panting, against the hood of his car.

“Hey, boy.” The smooth bass voice came from behind Toby. “Why'd you run off like that? That was rude.”
Toby rolled onto his back like a defeated dog. It was them.

“We just wanted to make your acquaintance,” the one with the scar said. He bit out every syllable in “acquaintance” to prove there was nothing kind in the suggestion. “My name's Michael. This shit's Damon.” The smaller one smiled, and Toby saw gold teeth. “What's yours?”

“My what?” Toby's voice squeaked.

“Your name, dumb ass.”

“Toby.” It squeaked again.

“Toby, huh? Well, now that we know each other's names, that makes us friends, don't it?”

“I guess so.”

“And friends share. Right?” They were within arm's reach now.

“I guess so.”

“So why don't you share whatever that's in your bag with us?”

Toby tried to step back but only pressed himself flatter against his car.

“That's a fine car you have. What about sharing your keys with us, too?” The shorter one spoke for the first time. His voice was coarse, malicious, like it was used to telling jokes which ended with a kitten being flayed. Toby opened his mouth. To reply, to scream for help, he didn't know. No sound came from it. It just hung loose.

Another car pulled into the parking lot, and a uniformed officer sauntered out. The two stepped back.

“How you boys doing tonight? Have any trouble?” he asked, swinging his flashlight between Toby, still tight against his car, and the two blacks.

“No trouble,” the taller one sneered.

“And you, sir?” the officer asked holding the light steady on Toby. “Any trouble?”

“No.” Toby's voice still squeaked.

“Good.” There was a note of finality in his voice. “How about you all keep it that way and move along.”

The blacks slouched back into the park, and Toby's hands shook as he tried to key in the door code. He only managed it on the fourth try.

“Be careful,” the officer said just before Toby closed the door. “There are some bad people out here. It's no place for a man like you.”

Toby nodded quickly and sped away without looking back.

* * *

Kate called too early the next morning.

“Last night's pictures are brilliant. They were everything I hoped for.”

“Thanks,” he managed, still fuzzy from the night before. Anna had taken his keys just after ten, and he hadn't stopped drinking. She had driven him home around midnight.

“I think they could really make a difference. Good job.”

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