We met outside Uricchio’s Trattoria, one of Bakersfield’s fine restaurants.
“I saved us a table.”
“You look really nice,” she said. I mumbled some words, too mesmerized with the skin on my friend’s neck and the bounce of her black hair. We sat. The soft lighting made her otherwise caramel complexion soften.
“What is it, Kev?”
“You look like you want to tell me something. Is there something on my neck?” She motioned for her neck with her hand.
“Oh, nothing. How are you?”
“I’m good,” she said, catching her breath. “Sorry I’m late.”
When we sat down, my black camera, which I used to save our table, looked classic against the white tablecloth. With my friend finally here, I allowed myself to enjoy the romantic dining room lights and candle flickering in a jar. The din of forks and dinner plates competed with our quiet ways. Something told me this was more than a birthday dinner. Mary wanted to treat me. So here we were.
Although this wasn’t supposed to be a writing meeting, I couldn’t resist showing off pictures that she had, on an earlier occasion, called “true art”.
Because the first edition of our new magazine would focus on homelessness, I had tried to take pictures of homeless people but had failed to capture what I considered to be the symbolic centerpiece for a story.
But all that seemed to fade when the charm and warmth of the evening took over. “Happy Birthday. It’s so good to see you. It’s kinda loud in here. I hope you don’t mind I sit next to you,” she said, leaning in as she scooted her chair to the corner next to mine. “There, that’s better.” We shared bread and then her house salad.
When our waitress took away our empty plates, my resistance wore off.
“I took some new pictures,” I said, reaching for my camera.
When she smiled, her dimples became dark emeralds.
There were, of course, all the pictures she’d suggested. But I had edited each one so they looked distressed and antique, kind of like Levi’s jeans. Here was Horace Mann Elementary, looking like a painting. Here was the Padre Hotel, cast in pop tones, sepia, black and white, and cyan – like fine china.
“Wow, Kev,” she said, in an amazed whisper, “all of your pictures tell a story. I told you this before, I think. They’re true art.”
The word was bittersweet because the picture I wanted was supposed to complete a connection between two homeless people living at the entrance of the El Granada Theatre and a movie I had recently seen with my younger brother. The Artist , came out in 2011. This black-and-white silent film tells the story of a dance artist who makes his silent world colorful and musical. Two pivotal scenes, one at the height of his fame and one at the depths of his loss, are both shot at the entrance of the theater where he danced. One day he bumps into a young lady in the crowd and takes a picture with her. In time, with the emergence of sound in film, she becomes the new dance star while he gambles on the silent film industry and loses his fortune. In a bittersweet reversal, he takes his place in the crowd – a virtual nobody, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
I felt that the two homeless people were a real manifestation of The Artist. I imagined they had had their day to shine prior to living in the entrance of this now abandoned theater. The marquis facing west read, “RIP ”. This added poignancy to what might become a poetic essay that we could share with our city.
Mary was one of those friends who felt what others felt. She could sense things. And I wanted her to feel these people. I knew she would also sense how to allow our readers to do the same.
“Thank you,” Mary said, when our waitress brought a basket of bread.
“You bet.” Our waitress was a grandmother-aged woman with trendy short hair, a man’s shirt, and a man’s tie. The lines on her face suggested a lifetime of smiling.
“I really like our waitress,” I said.
“I was about to say! So, what happened, Kev?”
“Well, I just got all these great pictures of the theater. I mean look at this.” The marquis facing east read, “There’s a Wurlitzer Here.” A year earlier, when driving by, I thought that that was the name of a movie. I later learned that a Wurlitzer is a special piano made for live theaters. And the El Granada had one of the few Wurlitzers on the west coast. Months after my birthday dinner with Mary, I read that the theater’s owner lived upstairs until the day he had committed suicide in the theater. Hence the intended meaning of the “RIP” on the marquis.
Once our waitress took our order, we were back to the camera and our conversation.
“And guess what I saw when I came to the entrance of the theater.”
“What’d ya see?” she said with feeling.
I lowered my camera. “A man and a woman.” I said it as though I had found the man and woman living at the bottom of a dried out well or a tool shed. A theater entrance seemed to me an unlikely place for two people to be living. But, in this early stage of helping to create an alternative news magazine, we were already toying with the idea of telling the truth in a beautiful – or artistic – way. So, their life on the street to me was tragic art.
“It made me sad, and I don’t know why. They looked Nouveau Homeless, like they had been displaced by some disaster”. They appeared to be in their forties. “I guess I could identify in some small way.” What I was referring to was the time in my late teens in which my parents got into a heated argument during a family vacation to Oregon. As a result, my father and I were left stranded for several days, two hundred plus miles from home. We wandered the streets of Yreka and slept in a movie theater prior to catching a bus back home to San Francisco.
The man I described for her was Hispanic with mostly brown hair. “While he sat on his mattress, I noticed the lady sleeping. Well, sort of. She looked uncomfortable. Anyway, a third lady crossed the street right around the time I would’ve started taking pictures.” I combed bread crumbs with my spoon, not knowing what this all meant, but confident Mary would find truth in it. This is one of the reasons we were such strong friends. “It seems like the two were old friends.” At the time, she seemed a confidante. At any rate, their bond seemed stronger than my odd presence, as I stood there with my large camera around my neck.
“What were they talking about? Did you listen?”
“Well, I just noticed how relaxed the man seemed, sitting on the edge of his bed, Indian style. I took a picture of the theater entrance. But, just as I was about to snap a picture of the man and woman –”
Our dinner arrived. It was time to lift our forks and dive into the evening.
After dinner, Mary lifted up a glass of wine. “Happy Birthday, Kev.”
“Ah, thanks, Mary!”
As I lowered my glass, I thought to the neighborhood surrounding Uricchio’s, where the homeless seemed to float up and down the street like ghosts and recalled the scene at the Granada that day.
“What are you thinking about?” Mary asked, tilting her head slightly.
“Oh. I just wanted to say…I appreciate you spending my birthday with me.”
“I appreciate you spending it with me.”
I pushed my plates away slowly, and she followed suit, as if we were waiting for the magic of our evening to materialize into another dish. We sat in silence.
“So, Kev? I feel like you wanted to tell me more about the homeless man.”
“Yes.” I did want to tell her more. But the silence was delicious. “So, I really wanted to get a picture. It just didn’t seem right. So, I asked him, ‘Sir, do you mind if I take your picture?’” He turned his head in my direction and said, ‘Actually, I do mind.’”
“Okay.” Her remark neither justified the man nor judged him.
“I mean, it was hard to blame him. He had his dignity.”
“Yeah. I get that. And so, what happened next?”
“Well, I got these.” There was no point in describing the picture you didn’t get. We huddled together for another look. Here was Baker Street, then all the pictures I could possibly take on the walk down Kentucky Street as I walked towards the Theater. The heavily vined wall, a shopping cart, the “There’s a Wurlitzer Here” and “RIP” messages on the marquis. Then the theater entrance. At this point in my walk, the pictures stopped, except for the last one taken after I learned that I would not be taking a picture of my two theater stars.
“That’s it. Here’s the last shot.” She was silent and put a hand on my arm. “Oh, that’s just the entrance doors.”
Her face was like that of a doctor studying an x-ray.
The picture showed nothing more than a pair of red doors and walls that were partly tiled and partly exposed. The doors had brass plates at the handles. I studied the picture with fresh eyes. I noticed a Styrofoam cup that sat on top of a milk crate as well as a black backpack.
“The backpack you see is the man’s,” I whispered.
“Oh, Kev!” she whispered, as though my voice had given her permission to talk. “That’s it. That’s him. I mean that backpack is so personal. It’s like you’ve captured him.”
“Oh, Mary, you should have seen them.”
“I am seeing them already.” Her imagination filled in the missing details.
“So, I have one question, Mary. Do you think our readers will see it?”