Let me ask you a question. What is the hungriest you’ve ever been? I’m not talking about being hangry. I mean, have you ever been so hungry that perhaps you thought of selling your gear? Or maybe going to a pawn shop? Perhaps you thought about shoplifting or stealing some money to get rid of that pain in your gut and that headache? Perhaps it was your kids who hadn’t eaten in a while.
Whenever someone tells me that they are hungry, especially someone I know who is having a time, I make it my mission to invite them to eat with me. I ask how much food they have and when was the last time they ate. I am direct almost to the point of rudeness.
I do this because I can tell you the time I was hungriest. I have had to sell my gear or pawn it, and I have stolen petty cash to eat. I have shoplifted too.
This was not my regular routine. Shit happens, and if you are an artist, it is pretty reasonable to assume that you will be minus the coin for the things you need on occasion.
I am concerned when someone tells me that they are hungry because I told people about it when I was. I wouldn’t say that I hadn’t eaten in two days or had no money to feed myself because it was so fucking embarrassing. So, my friends would hear me say I was hungry and would ask if I wanted to grab a hero or a slice, and yes, of course, that would be grand. But, I would be too embarrassed to say that I didn’t have any money. It is embarrassing to say that you are hungry and can’t feed yourself.
You leave wondering why your buddy there hadn’t picked up on the fact that you were desperate. So when I hear that someone is hungry, I take it seriously. I also tell my friends and family that when someone says they are hungry, don’t assume it’s because they are lazy and don’t want to cook. Perhaps they have no way of buying food that day.
Yeah, I’ve been there a few times. I’ve also been so close to homeless that it started to look like a reasonable lifestyle. Those guys who stand at the traffic light and approach the cars asking for money… well, whatever they spend their money on, I am reasonably sure that they didn’t wake up one day and say, “When I grow up, I am going to be a homeless person and alcoholic. You think giving them a buck is going to further their bad habits? What business is it of yours?
When someone says they are hungry, pay attention. Step out of yourself and if you see that perhaps your friend or acquaintance or family member is having a bad time of it, make sure they don’t go to sleep hungry that night. Because that’s where hopelessness lives.
I have had money in my life and lived securely in reasonable comfort. I can tell you that it is better than any of that previous crap. But, if you are an artist and your subject is your fellow man, and you want to do street photography in the big city, and you want to feel the flow of that street life… unless you are born into it, you have to suffer if you’re going to sing the blues.
Even if you don’t want to sing them, life has a way of tenderizing your brain, which can only be good for your pictures.
So what’s this about?
Well, it’s the setup for an interesting little story, of course.
Well, I think it’s interesting.
That is Kirsten. She was a multi-media producer in a place I worked for a while. It was called The Infinite Image. Which it wasn’t because it went out of business a few years later.
I was a Forox camera person there. A Forox camera is a 35mm almost motion picture camera mounted on a stand to allow for shooting slides and animations in register. It is used in the production of multi-image presentations. Nobody does those anymore. Good.
They were a pretty big deal in their time. I had a lot of experience with this stuff. I gotta say it was a significant pain in the ass, though. Do you see all those Ektagraphics down there? Every one of them had to be in register with every other one… which was damn near impossible. I once took one of these presentations with all the stuff you see in that picture to LA for some fashion nonsense. The local I had hired to help me flaked, and I was stuck doing everything, and I mean everything by myself. It was a lot of gear. God Damnit.
The owner Rob was a nonpareil pedantic. If he saw me turn to the left to hang up a roll of film to dry, he would first ask me why I did it that way and then explain (and show) how he does it to save wasted seconds and steps. Rob had inherited the business from his father, who passed away two years earlier. Of course.
One hectic day when he did this to me, I said, “Get the hell out of my darkroom and don’t come back today.” He didn’t. I give him credit for not making a thing out of it and doing what I asked. I think his wife must have mentioned it to him a few times.
I needed that job. I had gone through a rough patch and owed a lot of money. I was counting out pennies every morning, so I could take the subway. I was eating a lot of mac and cheese. I even thought I had an impacted bowel. Anyway…
I was doing everything right, and it irked me because I was so conscientious about my work. Yet, this nit thought it could be made better by acting the “efficiency expert” with me. I resented it because I was hangry those first 2 weeks there. When you’re really hungry it’s like waiting for Godot.
After shooting images on the Forox, I would take the Ektachrome into the darkroom and process it. Ektachrome was straightforward and didn’t take much time. It was done in total darkness, and I actually liked that.
One day I grabbed some images I had shot earlier and threw them on top of the lightbox in the camera room. Admiring my work and thinking there was nothing else to do that day, I couldn’t wait to get home.
I was so freaking hungry, and one of my roommates (2 girls from Columbia U) said she was going to make burgers that night, and I was invited to eat with her.
The lightbox was made out of wood. Oak, I think. Someone had made that. It wasn’t store-bought. The light was color corrected and above a diffusion layer and above that a piece of glass.
I had used it every day for the two weeks I had been employed so far and never really thought about it after the first day.
Right after I flipped the switch to turn it off, I had a strange thought. No, a bizarre thought. If I lifted the top of the lightbox and looked inside, I would find money in there. Where the hell that came from, I have no clue. *Magical thinking?
I dismissed the thought and gathered my personal stuff for the trip home. I headed out the door when the lightbox moved up in my consciousness like a layer in Photoshop. I stood there halfway out the door with the chime that announced visitors continuously chiming.
“In or out!” someone yelled. I walked back to the camera room.
Lifting the top of the lightbox, I looked inside, saw nothing, and began to close it. “I didn’t look on the sides.” I thought. Lifting the top of the box up higher, I looked around the inside walls of the box, and on the right-hand side taped to the side was a crisp $100 bill.
WTF? WTF? WTF? I didn’t utter a sound. In fact, I was dumb-struck. At the same time, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Hey, maybe I had Super Powers?*
I already knew where that money was going. I could buy groceries for the 10 days until I got my first check. Of course, there was that guy who sold weed through a hole in the back wall of a reggae music shop on 109th and Columbus Avenue. I was going to have to stop by there. That place had no records… just a hole in the wall. Yeah, I was definitely going to say hi to him on the way home.
I was doing such a fine job making it OK in my head. But I would feel like a shit. Nobody would ever know about it. But I would know about it. ARRG!
I have a packet of sugar (sans sugar) I carry in my wallet and have done so for years. On the back, it says: Integrity is what you do when you’re alone. It wasn’t my money, no matter how much I tried to massage it into being so.
I walked out of the camera room and found Rob. I handed him the bill and told him how I was seized by this thought about the lightbox, and I had to look inside. He started crying, and it was a few moments before he told me why. Being Jewish in Germany just before World War Two, Rob’s father had gotten into the habit of stashing away a little money in various places just in case. It was a habit he never broke.
Rob told me that his father had built the lightbox, and he put the bill inside “just in case.” He said he thought that he had found it all.
He thanked me, and he may have thought about rewarding me. Before he had the chance, though, I said goodnight and started for the door. Just as I opened the door, he said, “Good work today.” “Thanks,” I said.
I was still hungry on the way home, but it didn’t bother me so much.
Gerard Exupery has been a lifelong resident of New York City. Since 1975 he has used photography to document the subways, streets and people of New York. He studied at The School of Visual Arts and with Lisette Model at the New School. Though Mr. Exupery has been a photographer for more than 40 years, he only began to show his work in 2017. In his past lives, Mr. Exupery has been a: Custom Printer, Video Producer, NYC Taxi Cab Driver, and Mr. Mom.