Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Greek stranger

This man – I never did ask his name – asked me if it was a Leica I was photographing with. It was. We got talking – more accurately he got talking, an unstoppable torrent of Greek/American accented English.

He left Greece in the 1970s to study photography in Boston. He mixed with other students, got involved in radical politics, lived on free coffee and donuts from a shop a cousin ran, dreamt of breaking into photography, of owning some decent equipment.

One morning in Boston, he said, "I saw a bum – a homeless guy. My God, he was filthy – you know, he had dirt in the lines on his face, his clothes were stiff with dirt – but he looked dignified. His face had character. I asked politely if I could take his picture. I took two frames. I thought the one was good and for a couple of weeks I carried this picture round with me to give to the guy when next I saw him. One morning I saw him. I said, Sir, you remember me, the kid that photographed you – I have something for you."

Some while later, the Greek was eating more free donnuts in his cousin's coffee shop when the tramp turned up again and called him outside. "I thought, oh my God, what does he want – he has his picture, alright, enough now." The tramp explained that he wanted to return the Greek kid's generosity and courtesy. He had something he wanted the Greek to have – something he would use.

"He gave me a dirty paper sack," the Greek said. "I'll be honest – I wanted to throw it straight in the trash, I wanted to wash my hands. This heavy, greasy bag! And I would have but for my cousin – it was him who made me open it. I tell you what was in it?"

In the bag was a Leica M2 and a 50mm Summicron lens.

The Greek leant forward and cupped his hands in front of my face – a gesture almost of prayer or supplication. "It's true," he said. "A bum gave me a Leica. Thirty-four years ago, but I can still feel the weight of the bag in my hands."

Throughout the 1970s, 80s and into the 90s the Greek built up a photography business. He shot 150 to 160 weddings a year and ran six or seven processing shops across Massachusetts. "It was a great time to be in the photography business. I would have queues outside my stores – running right down the street! I spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on equipment and I made a lot of money – the money rolled in, you couldn't stop it, my God. But that's the truth – I became a professional photographer because of a bum on the street."

A life shaped by a chance encounter with a homeless man? It sounded too good to be true. But like a vignette from a Saul Bellow novel or a Bashevis Singer story, I chose to believe and on this pleasant autumn Saturday afternoon a vanished world took shape in front of me.

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