On a lark I recently clicked a bit searching for a high school friend I’ve lost touch with, thinking about how I screwed up her chance to shoot the objects of her desire.
Celeste was a journalism comrade who spent every afternoon in our schools’ darkroom. I helped her sometimes, shaking developer over rolls of black and white film in cold, stainless steel canisters, plucking prints out of shallow baths and clipping them to drying wires. She was wiry herself, moving like a bird making a nest, but I didn’t have the patience for the intricate dodging and burning she liked to do with her self-fashioned tools. I was happier pounding out copy on one of the banks of Selectrics, or giving cropping instructions to the layout people, or driving to 7-11 in my yellow Dodge Arrow to get a bucket seat full of cheese popcorn and Slurpies to serve as dinner while we worked on yearbook and newspaper deadlines.
These millions of things that each of us does now, in Photoshop or WordPress? Four kids had as specialties. Early ’80s, so long ago in publishing years.
Celeste did a great job documenting the Chess Club and Girls’ Softball, but what she really liked to shoot were statues decorated with hats, scarves, bandannas and capes. The subject she really, really wanted to pose with her chemically-darkened fingertips: the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales wearing Easter bonnets.
I wanted her to have that, to have access to those subject. I didn’t deeply understand their import, but I liked the irony inherent in her idea. Hell, I liked it that she simply had an idea.
It became a mission of mine to make sure Celeste could get her shot. The Clydesdales were a fixture in St.Louis, a personal indulgence that the wealthy Busch family shared with the city during parades and events, but for some reason that March (during the peak of double-page spread deadlines due to Jostens) we couldn’t find a single appearance to attend.
Finally, though, I made a connection. James. A private school kid who knew the Busch kids and who could get access to the Clydesdales — jackpot — in their home stable at Grant’s Farm. Grant’s Farm is part of the Bush family’s estate that had been turned into a quirky wildlife preserve and entertainment destination. Tourists could ride a tram through the Busch property, see animals they had collected running wild across the land and contained in a petty zoo, and then have free beer and pretzels in a pseudo German Bahnhof area near the blue ribbon-filled stables.
Public school and private school kids only mixed under certain circumstances. Despite our socio-economic differences, James approached me at an old New Wave ages show one night with a need that set a plan in motion. Eventually, I struck a deal relying on one of the few shared points in the Venn Diagram of the rich and the poor: drugs. I would hook him up with my brother’s guy for pot and ludes, he would get us time with the famous ponies.
So one spring Saturday we met James in the southeast corner of a mall parking lot and transferred Goodwill hats plus Celeste’s camera bag and Polaroid Handle from my Arrow to his Cherokee. I sat in the passenger seat. He handed me cash, inexplicably crammed in a Marlboro box; I put a few baggies in his glovebox.
Usually a happy exchange, this jerk was annoyed. I could tell as much from the way he pulled on his cigarette and jetted the butt out the open window.
He finally said he didn’t like the hats. The white and tan, straw and fabric bonnets beflowered with silk and plastic.
“This is so, so….tacky. Are these YOUR hats? Did you like, WEAR them? We’re just going to carry them in? I don’t get it.” Actually, he was more than annoyed. His voice was full of contempt. Judgement.
“It’s just this idea. It’ll be cool.” Celeste said. I turned around to see her in the backseat. She held one of her hats, looking nervous. She sort of shrugged her thin shoulders at me.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” he said. James was bent. He went on and on, suggesting that we were extortionists, that somehow he was being victimized by this plan. We talked back and forth a bit, a power struggle emerged, and he asserted that he was in control of access, and that we were beneath him in every way. At least that’s how I heard it. I heard it like pots and pans against my ears.
“I made a simple buy, you got paid, I don’t know why I’m doing this, with you. I must have been high. This is so stupid. And I need to tell you I am not staying long. If you want a ride back to your shit car. I’m telling you now.”
My shit car? I can’t tell you how that cut through me. My car was indeed a piece of shit, with electrical problems that made it only operable on sunny days and exuberant pin-striping that made it look somewhat like a bumblebee. But I had earned every penny of that piece of shit, and it was my freedom, and it was the key to my salvation in every way, and I loved it with all of my fierce little heart.
It has taken me a long time to learn to pick my battles, to placate, to be strategic when managing assholes, to let things ride. I had not learned those skills by 17. Celeste had. She thanked him, she assured him we would be No Problem, that she would set up and shoot to be done before he knew it.
I, however, had more thoughts on the matter. And those thoughts were on fire and shooting poison sparkling daggers and so close to blowing up his car tires from inside the vehicle that to this day I tend to believe that rubber on the highway means that a woman was scorned.
“Well, I don’t care what you think, and you probably were high because aren’t you always, but you said you would take us to the Clydesdales, and SO SORRY it’s an inconvenience to do what you SAID YOU WOULD DO and listen to me when I say I don’t want you hurrying her. Don’t hurry her. She’s a fucking artist, idiot, which you clearly know nothing about, and if she wants to take photos of every damn horse and goat and monkey and elk in that rich man’s freak show backyard, we can manage to wait. Patiently!” I snapped, a model of a new kind of patience, the kind that holds a cocked gun and glares.
“Hey wait a minute, I only said Clydesdales. Goats?”
“You know what, James, I really don’t care what you said. At this point we are doing whatever, you don’t have to understand, and if she wants to Set Free the Bears like John Fucking Irving, then we are just going to sit back and wait patiently!” I guess I really was certain about the “patient” part.
“Setting free the animals? What?? And who is John Irving? What is going on?” he said.
“Who is John Irving?” I asked archly. I looked to Celeste. “He doesn’t know who John Irving is.” She shook her head and closed her eyes.
And then he unknowingly lit the fuse, the John Irving fuse of all that was wrong with the world I had to live in. James said, “John Irving? Does he go to your school or mine?”
So I was looking for an email address or Facebook account so that I could say to Celeste: I’m so sorry I lost it when John Irving’s name was invoked in vain in James’ car. That my raw 17-year-old self correlated James’ access to a trust fund with evil and ignorance, with the world’s failure to recognize Truth, Beauty and Art, with all that was hard for girls like us, for all that was hard for me. I’m sorry that I called James a lying prick who would be slaughtered by his own employees someday in a massive, bloody mutiny that would put the freeing of zoo animals to shame, I’m sorry I mocked his erratic driving all the way back to the mall parking lot, and I’m sorry we failed to get one of your bonnets from his Jeep before I slammed the door shut with my foot. I’m sorry I didn’t give you a chance to make all of your points to James, because you had some good ones, and it turned out you has some dirt on his girlfriend, that was awesome, but I just kept interupting you with more details about the bloody mutiny/size of his penis, and I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry I didn’t even think to give you any of the cash or half of the lude I kept for myself. Frankly, I forgot I had it until I got home.
And I’m sorry you didn’t even get one photo of a Clydesdale wearing a bonnet.
So, someday I hope to catch up with Celeste, to tell her I’ve worked on my anger since then, quite a bit, probably never enough. To see if she still loves photography. Wouldn’t it be amazing if it turns out she has a blog, or a Flickr account, and I stumble across a series of posted photos of Easter bonnets on horses, statues and other Celestial subjects? I can’t tell you how much I would love that. Keep your eyes open for me.