I learned photography from the streetcar man. “Windows to life,” Mr. Stilson had professed. “Humanity on paper.” Maybe so. But a camera gave me permission to be nosy when no one could see my eyes. I was out of step with the world; my left eye dozed inward despite wasted efforts to will it straight. My feet tangled in jump ropes, I wobbled on bicycles, and no one but my brother Mort knew I saw two images when most saw one. Not even Mama or Mr. Stilson.
Our grocery was in the valley of Church Hill, a Jewish ghetto of schmata stores, delis and bakeries. All of Richmond’s debris settled in our neighborhood, whether delivered by rains, old-country boats or southbound trains. It was the city to which Papa had fled the pogrom of his shtetl, the city Mama had visited for a weekend then stayed 13 years. It was a city of seven hills, like Rome, though no one agreed on which seven. We lived beneath them all.
On Richmond’s West Clay Line, Mr. Stilson stepped off in Jackson Ward or Carver or Shockoe Bottom, camera swinging from a strap around his neck, and snapped dime portraits of those who asked. Passersby would wave him down with a “yoo-hoo” or a “hey there,” and he’d pose them and snap, log their names in his pocket journal, then send them away with a “meet me here tomorrow.” In exchange for picture-taking lessons, I’d round up customers for him. Not that he needed much help. He once offered me a Brownie, “for the right price,” saying I was a good learner, but I had no money and Papa shied from cameras. “No sense leaving a trace,” he’d said.
On a Thursday in October, the newspaper headline read, WALL STREET IN PANIC AS STOCKS CRASH. We learned in the streets what Papa wouldn’t say. Cars screeching, men banging on locked bank doors,
five-and-dimes out of candles and thread, rumors of jumpers from buildings. The morning after Black Tuesday, a man stabbed Uncle Morris right in front of my eyes and left him for dead in our bathtub. My uncle was face down, arm draped over the red-speckled porcelain as though he were trying to climb out. A few hours later, Papa handed Mama a wad of bills from his stash under the floorboards, then shooed us off the porch.
Mama and I rode a train north to the city where President Hoover lived in the big white house. We lodged in a row house with Lena Sher, the most resourceful woman Mama knew. Miss Sher had poufs of red hair, eyes the blue-grey of a murky sea and a sunny smile that turned out to be an illusion. Her row home smelled of laundry starch, cabbage, powdery perfume and curiously, men’s cologne, though no man lived there. Up a long staircase in a tiny room, we unpacked dresses, socks and underwear, but not the lacy coverlet Mama carried across the ocean from Odessa, Aunt Oodle’s castoff periwinkle reading chair—or Mort. On the first floor, Miss Sher’s furniture waved for attention: a puffy floral print sofa,
floor-to-ceiling coral curtains with thin cream stripes, two spring-leaf colored wingbacks and a cream chair, wide enough to seat Mort and me together, if he’d been there.
We’d left Richmond with only half our family, but I had tucked into my pocket Uncle Morris’s miniature brass lamp. Inside was an unreachable little matchstick, an elusive magic wand to call forth a genie, our uncle had said. Remove it, and so would the genie’s power be gone. When Mort and I had sat with him on the sofa, Uncle Morris would rub the lamp like a witch stirring brew, then pluck nickels and peppermint sticks from his pockets in mock surprise. Papa would shake his head with a mix of frustration and amusement. “Why don’t you pull a job out of that lamp? Something respectable that won’t send you to the big house. Or the cemetery.”
Now, no matter how hard I rubbed the brass lamp, the genie did not deliver a camera or Mort to Washington. I missed my protector. Slight for 12, Mort once punched a boy in the chest for calling me Cyclops. He got dragged to the principal’s office but didn’t rat on the kid. My brother: quiet, loyal and near-invisible if you didn’t pay attention.
Now in Washington without Mort or Papa, we walked in circles two hours a day. What would Papa think about Miss Sher banishing us from her house every day between noon and two? That if we hadn’t left by 11:55, she would scarf our necks, button our coats and hold open the door. Those afternoons Mama and I strolled the neighborhood or sometimes farther, where Mama inquired about work in stores, office buildings and restaurants, even churches. “Are you hiring?” she asked, so often the words became a song in my head. Once we turned the corner for home five minutes too early, and a man was slinking down the front steps and straightening his tie. So lately we stopped at a park bench to rest, or a department store to browse not buy. Papa’s money wouldn’t last forever, Mama said. And it didn’t, because one day Miss Sher’s afternoon customer snuck into Mama’s room and filched the last of her stash.
Five months after Black Tuesday, we were eating kasha varnishkes when the genie delivered my brother to the front steps. Winded and sweaty, he held a small cardboard suitcase. “Hey, little kid,” he said, his bowed body mimicking his nickname: Comma.
When I was younger, I begged Mama to stop him, but now I welcomed those words as though they were the sweetest lemon drops. He was really here, right here, with his hunched shoulders and protective watch.
The next morning before dawn, I tiptoed down to the bottom step to hear my brother’s rhythmic breaths, to prove to myself I hadn’t imagined him here. After Mama had gone upstairs last night, he’d seemed jittery and more tight-lipped than usual. It made me jittery, too. But now he lay curled beneath a thin blanket on the puffy sofa, tangible and calm. Finally convinced he wouldn’t disappear, I slippered to the kitchen window. The sky glowed pink and orange, and a robin redbreast flitted chirpily on the clothesline. Mort was here and everything would be fine. I made a silent pact: No matter where we were, my brother and I wouldn’t be separated again.
In his first weeks in Washington, Mort and I were a team again. I dragged him through my new city: McKinley High School, the movie house, Woodward & Lothrop, and once, all the way to Lincoln’s Cottage and the Soldiers’ Home. At the train station, we scraped used tickets from the marble floor and studied the cross-country routes on the framed wall map. We searched the grass and sidewalk cracks for loose coins but found none, and often stopped at the pawnshop to ogle the display of keepsakes: cap guns, crystal decanters, cigarette holders, watches and picture frames. Each week the collection multiplied, an odd turnabout where our neighbors’ possessions went from home to shop, instead of the other way around. There was even a Brownie camera, but if I’d had a dollar, it would have gone for groceries.
One day at the end of May, we found a Boys’ Life magazine someone had left at the basketball court. For all Boys—Published by Boy Scouts of America. It cost 20 cents. The moniker had me curious—a whole magazine devoted to boys!
When we got home, Mort was more interested in penciling the United States map on a faded newspaper, so I settled on the puffy sofa to take a gander. The cover featured three boys on a canoe, facing a ship with tall masts. One boy, almost naked in just a loincloth, stood on the canoe’s bow with five parrots on his outstretched arm. The boys looked to be on a grand adventure, like the family in The Swiss Family Robinson.
The magazine included stories, such as “The Lost Balloonist,” by Edward J. Morrow, about a man who’d leapt from a hot-air balloon in a parachute and was now missing, and at least three features about baseball, including an interview with a baseball manager named Connie Mack who’d won more World Series than any other manager.
The advertisements targeted boys: ‘Keds, the shoe of champions,’ with names such as ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Conquest.’Pictures of Gillette razors, Remington rifles, Winchester roller skates and baseball gloves designed by Babe Ruth. I was a little put off that girls were left out—the Gladiator Keds might have been welcomed armor for a girl like me—but there wasn’t a pair of roller skates in the world that would tempt me. Not much tempted me, really, until I turned one more page.
‘Boys! Is your 12th birthday in 1930? Then accept this Special Anniversary camera and roll of Kodak Film AS A GIFT. Get both without cost or obligation. Distribution starts May 1—at Kodak Dealers.’
I’d turn 12 this year. It hardly seemed fair only boys could have a free camera. And Mort was too old. But reading further, I came to a miraculous conclusion, jumping up and waving the magazine in front of Mama, who was basting a skirt hem. “It’s for girls, too!”
“What’s for girls?”
“Listen to this: ‘A gift of 500,000 cameras to the Boys and Girls of America, in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Kodak with compliments of George Eastman, Chairman of the Board of the Eastman Kodak Company. If your twelfth birthday falls in any day in 1930 go to an authorized Kodak dealer and accept the camera illustrated on this page—complete with one roll of Kodak Film.’ It’s free!” I held the magazine a bit too close to her face.
“Read the fine print,” Mort said, marking the long state of California onto his newspaper.
“Nothing is free. You ought to know that by now.”
I read the advertisement three times. “‘Pay nothing. Buy nothing. It is a gift.’”
“No!” Mama said. She clenched her teeth, pulling taut her double chin.
“Please? I won’t ask for anything else.”
“Greer, enough. No need asking for disappointment.”
To avoid disappointment, get one of these cameras early, the fine print read. The word seemed to reappear with each morning sun. “A disappointment,” Miss Sher had said yesterday after she’d asked Mama, yet again, why she couldn’t call Papa for money. It was a condescending word, bland and overused, not at all capturing my frustration.
Days later, I was still despondent that Mama had said no to the camera and began to feel selfish for wanting anything when we all had so little. I carried the Boys’ Life magazine everywhere and read the Eastman Kodak advertisement every night before lights out, imagining myself with the camera around my neck; in my mind, it was the streetcar man’s camera.
Mort asked Mama to reconsider my plea. “What harm would it do? Let me take her.” “I saw the advertisement in Good Housekeeping,” Miss Sher said. “It looks legit, Zina.” Mama relented. I could go for the camera as long as Mort came with me. But one part of the advertisement worried me: ‘Simply go with your mother, father, or guardian to an authorized Kodak dealer on or after May first.’ I’d have to chance Mort as an acceptable guardian because Mama wouldn’t go. Finally, it was May first. I woke before the dawn light, ready to leave the house at 8:30, though the closest authorized Kodak dealer opened at 10 o’clock. Mort gave me an amused, indulgent smile. “Come on, then.”
We raced up the street. It seemed I’d waited years, not days for May first to come. “What if too many other kids with 1930 12th birthdays show up?” Mort just shook his head. After a 20-minute walk, 12 short blocks up Sixth Street, left on Florida Avenue, then two short blocks and one long block, we turned the corner to New York Avenue and ran smack into the line, snaking halfway down the street. A circus of girls and boys bounced up and down on their heels. “We’re too late,” I said flatly. “They’ll give them all away before my turn.”
“Nah, it’ll be fine, kid. It’s not as bad as it looks.” We filed in behind a boy in tan overalls and a striped shirt, fidgeting on his tiptoes and trying to see over the people in front of him. He looked older than 12, but maybe he was just big for his age. Next to him was a man in a brown overcoat, even though it was only May. “Settle down, tiger,” the man said. “I told you, those cameras will be long gone by the time we get there so don’t go getting your hopes up.” He must have heard me gasp because he turned and said, “How many cameras you think they give each store across the country? There’s a good 50, 60 people ahead of us.”
“Stay here.” Mort jogged toward the front of the line, counting
12-year-olds. When he returned, I almost didn’t want to know the number. “Sixty-two.” When he saw my face, he quickly added, “I’ll bet half forgot their birth certificates.” It was meant to soothe me, but my mouth hung open. He stared incredulously. “You’re kidding.” “I meant to get it from Mama, but I was so excited I forgot.”
“Don’t move,” he said, and tore off in the direction of Miss Sher’s house.
By this time, it was 9:15. It would take him 20 minutes to get to the house and 20 back. How long would it take for Mama to dig around in her papers to find it? In all our haste, maybe she hadn’t even taken it to Washington? While he was gone, I bit my fingernails. People were getting antsy and irritable, whining or pacing the pavement near
closed-up banks and five-and-dime stores. The woman behind me was crunching an apple, juice dripping over her knuckles, and my mouth watered, distracting me from my worry for about three seconds. Nearby her daughter fidgeted, her fingers clasped into a tangle.
After what seemed like hours, people inched toward the camera store. The first lucky recipient walked by with his prize stowed inside his jacket. His mother rushed him along, darting glances behind her, as if a stranger might fling open his jacket and nab it. A girl stomped by, fists to her thighs, lower lip jutting out. Mort was right. Some didn’t have their birth certificates. But right now, neither did I.
I inched forward, periodically dipping my head out of the line to check for Mort. Finally, he appeared around the corner. By the time he reached me he was out of breath. He clawed into his pocket and pulled out my birth certificate.
“You did it!” I clutched it, trying not to focus on the names in the “Mother” and “Father” boxes, now going for a divorce. When I was sixth in line, a clerk came out and shouted, “Four more left.”
My jaw clenched. If two people had forgotten their birth certificates, I’d own a camera. It was a mean wish, and quite impossible, but I wished hard. Behind me, the line now crossed the street and trailed up the next block. There would be many disappointed 12-year-olds today.
A frowning girl came out in a frilly yellow dress, her mother in a tailored expensive coat.
“They can afford to buy 50 cameras,” the man in front of us said. “Serves ’em right.” He smugly grabbed his son’s overall strap and led him inside.
So that was that. I should have turned around and left, but I was dumbstruck. After noodging Mama for weeks, she’d been right. I’d asked for disappointment and that’s what I got. But then the boy in overalls plowed outside, fists at his sides. “Told you it wouldn’t work!” he said over his shoulder to his father, who muttered a stream of insults about Mr. Kodak. After they’d stormed off, the sales clerk waved me inside and locked the door to a chorus of groans. Mort by my side, I rushed to the counter, hand slapped to my mouth to cover a squeal. I thrust out my birth certificate first thing to the camera shop owner. As he gave my birth certificate the once over, I did the same to him. He was a man tower of shapes, reminding me of kindergarten blocks: rectangular body, square head and round spectacles atop a triangle nose. On a glass shelf behind him, box cameras were set neatly in a row, black and silver and brown. Shelves lined the remaining three walls, a blur of cameras, lenses, flashes and film.
“You’re a lucky girl,” the shop owner said. “That boy thought I wouldn’t notice a six made into an eight.” But then he looked at Mort. “Where is your mother or father?” “Mort is my guardian,” I said proudly. Mort had been looking at me sideways, and now he gave a sad shake of his head. “Is he eighteen?” the shop owner asked. When he saw my face, he said, “Listen, I’ve had about enough of this gimmick. I haven’t made a sale all day and I want this crowd gone. You promise to bring your mother in later and buy all your film here, we’ll make a deal.”
“I promise!” I said, with no idea how I’d get money for film or coax Mama there. “Very well. John,” the shop owner said to the clerk. “Send the rest away.” From a multi-colored box, he lifted the Fiftieth Anniversary Eastman Kodak Brownie Camera and set it on the glass in front of me. “Hawk-Eye number two.”
“They’ll give them all away before my turn.”
More beautiful up close than it had appeared in the advertisement, the camera was a small tannish-brown leatherette square with gold-plated trim and closures, and a gold foil sticker on its side reading FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF KODAK 1880-1930. I couldn’t believe it would be mine. He showed me how to unfasten the camera and pull out the roll holder, wrap the film around an extra spool and hook it around the other side to load. How to close the camera, turn the winding reel until it clicked and fit the key into the spool to lock it in place. How to hold the camera waist level, look down into the viewfinder, hold my breath, move the lever from right to left for the first picture and then left to right for the next.
“Load it in a place not too bright.” He handed me an envelope to mail off the film for developing. “Six pictures to start. First set is on Kodak, no charge. After that, well, you’ll come here, am I right? Fifteen cents a roll. You know anything about picture-taking young lady?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, to the man’s surprised look. Mr. Stilson had instructed me as he posed his customers. “It’s all in the details,” he’d said. “You have to look behind the clothes and smiles, see what’s truly happening in someone’s life.” He should know; he’d recorded Richmond’s population in thousands of grainy pictures over the last 25 years. Now with shaking hands, I picked up my very own camera. It would go with me everywhere. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, thank Mr. George Eastman.” But when I held the camera at my waist and peered down into the viewfinder, the image was a white blur. “What am I supposed to see?” I asked.
“From your angle, I guess my shirt buttons. Stand back a bit.” I did as I was told. And closed my crossed left eye.
My fifth-grade teacher once asked us to describe our family members in one word. Is your mother lively or solemn? Is your father happy or angry? “Think,” she said. “One word.”
But there were too many words. Papa was cynical and elusive, yet kind and generous. He would give you his shirt, coat and hat from his head, as long as you weren’t greedy. Mort was humble and quiet, fiercely loyal and shrugged off taunts of his Comma nickname. He saw things in black and white, and if you wronged him, you might not have realized, but he’d never forget your misstep. Mama was prideful beyond reason, private and mostly patient. Miss Sher was wary and, conversely, too trusting. Uncle Morris? Uncle Morris had liked to joke and noodge. He liked to eat his cake and your cake, too. If you asked Papa why Uncle Morris had been the way he was, he’d say, “Cake eater. Too many damn cakes.”
No one would ask such questions nowadays. People were one thing: Hungry. My pictures were hungry, too. Barefoot children with begging hands, the five-cents-an-apple salesman with a tray hanging from his neck, a stray dog licking a water spigot. Behind the box camera, I could see the world straight.
You have a powerful gift. You see in duplicate.
Kodak swinging around my neck, I went all summer long rationing my film, up and out before anyone woke to catch the dawn light. In the back yard, I practiced framing shots of nature, with no intention of wasting my precious exposures. Nothing looked worthy. The grass was patchy, the clouds unpredictable, the rosebushes had dropped their petals. The truth was, the viewfinder was confusing for me. I couldn’t find the picture of my imagination in the little box. Sometimes I saw double, sometimes darkness. Over time I learned to angle the camera to capture an image true. To adjust the way I looked at life.
At September’s end, one exposure remained, but every time I settled on the perfect shot, even readied my finger on the lever, I couldn’t go through with it. With no money for film, it might have been the last I’d ever take. Finally, I snapped my final picture of a little boy no more than three next to a knocked-over trash can. For all our hardships, we didn’t scrounge in alleys. I was set to run home for a crust of bread or a carrot, if I could scare one up, when his mother appeared, slapped his droopy bottom, swung him onto her hip, and retreated down the street.
I sent the film to Kodak for development. Processing time six to eight weeks. I carried the filmless camera with me anyway, peering down into the viewfinder, sliding the lever to take shots I’d never transfer to paper. Sometimes I imagined us back in Richmond, me with film aplenty, taking pictures of Papa hunched over the radio during a boxing match and Uncle Morris snapping his snazzy fingers like he did, though it was a picture I’d never take.
I was so absorbed with my camera, I’d hardly noticed Mama becoming more despairing. On good days Miss Sher’s kind manner appeared. “If I had anything extra,” she might say, “I’d give it to you.” On bad days, such as today, she eyed tchotchkes to pawn, Uncle Morris’ genie lamp and even my camera. I started hiding them in my closet under a blanket.
It wasn’t only the pantry that had emptied out. Over the last few weeks, items had disappeared from the living room: gold-leaf picture frame, hand-painted table lamp, bronze candelabra, ruby-red glass decanter and matching shot glasses—Miss Sher didn’t go in for illegal liquor, but it had made a lovely decoration. A lonely bud vase remained on the end table and I wondered why she hadn’t yet pawned it.
Miss Sher eyed Mama’s happy-from-all-sides wedding ring. As the weeks went on, sewing jobs dwindled, barely enough to keep Miss Sher busy, let alone Mama. A whole year had passed since we’d moved to Washington, a year of phrases such as: “we’ll make do” and “at least we’re not …” and “poor dears.”
I couldn’t believe we could have no money so soon, but it wasn’t as though we lived behind a grocery store anymore. Food didn’t appear magically as it had in our Jewish ghetto, either from our grocery or neighborhood shops. In Sisisky’s kosher deli, Mama had bought kishka and tongue; from the butcher, whole chickens and brisket for Friday night dinners, and soup bones for pea soup; from Stein’s bakery, rye bread and challah and rugelach. She’d made her own strudel, dribbling on honey, cinnamon and almonds. One spoonful of her borscht, pink from sour-creamed beets, had been one too many for my liking, but I would’ve gulped a bowl here and now if I could. I’d never met a green vegetable I liked, but I would have killed for a green bean or even one measly pea.
Now Mama made fried challah dipped in watered-down egg, barely covering the thin bread slices, the loaf rationed to last a week. I’d eat slowly, sipping hot water in between bites of challah, and sometimes I’d chew a strand of thread to dupe my mouth into believing it was food.
At the pawnshop, my camera might have been worth a few dollars, maybe more, because the gold anniversary sticker made it special, and someone with money would surely buy it for another lucky child. But I wrapped it away in my closet as I had done for months. Some days I left it there because I couldn’t stand the guilt.
One day Mama went out and when she returned, she hung up her coat, but didn’t remove her gloves. “I’m going to lie down for a bit,” she said, and pressed a ten-dollar bill into Miss Sher’s palm before climbing the stairs. Miss Sher followed her upstairs and in moments, Mama let out a long sob. I crouched at the top of the stairs. Around Mama’s bedroom wall came hurried whispers.
“There’s another way,” Miss Sher said. “After a while, you won’t even mind.” Mind what? But Mama was silent. Maybe she was confused, too. “Then you don’t have much choice, do you?” Miss Sher said. “Pick your evil.” “If I do this, I will die,” Mama said. “It’s only temporary.” “How can I tell them?” Did she mean us? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be worse than leaving Mort in Richmond. But it was worse.
“Only for a bit, while I can put a little by. You’ll have food on the table, more than you’ve eaten in a long time, and a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner next month. The rabbi says the woman who runs the home is a very kind person.” Mort ran out of the room. I waited for her to call him back, to demand an apology, but she stood and very calmly pulled my suitcase from under the bed. “You don’t have to take all your things. Leave your nice shoes and your green-sashed dress, anything fussy or fancy. Leave your camera.” She kissed my forehead with chapped lips. It hardly mattered. I had no film.
When Mama retrieved me six weeks later from the Jewish Home for Children like a pawned tchotchke, Mort had not returned. We’d run away before dawn that morning, thinking we could outrun life and orphanages and Mama’s will. We couldn’t of course, but as the police had been driving us home, Mort ran. They’d scoured the neighborhood, me in the back seat, scanning yards and bushes. But Mort was skilled at being invisible.
At Miss Sher’s house, there were oranges and crisp sugar cookies for Hanukkah. Mama had knitted us scarves and gloves. “Next year we’ll have more.” There was no talk of getting an apartment of our own. Even with the promise of work, we all knew it was a Hoover fantasy.
Miss Sher held out a square box, small enough to fit a baseball. “For you, Greer.” Two rolls of film, eight exposures each, instead of six. My camera had been swinging around my neck since I’d arrived home, despite its empty film chamber. After a few moments with the spool in one hand and the compartment wide open, I remembered the shop owner’s lesson and hooked the film over the spool, locked it in place, then wound the handle until the number 1 appeared in the circle. “Pose for me?” When they looked between each other, I said, “Both of you.” Mama smiled, still clutching the orange, and Miss Sher peeked around her shoulder. I focused and shoved the lever from right to left. “Oh, I almost forgot!” Miss Sher handed me an envelope. “My developed photos!”
A minute later, I was arranging six black and white rectangles the size of playing cards across the coffee table like train cars. I’d taken the first shot—a blurry streetcar—after leaving the camera shop, my grip wobbly from nerves. The rest of the images were crisp, but somehow different than in my memory. Separately, I’d focused, recorded and cataloged each as lone specimens. Collectively, the details Mr. Stilson had encouraged me to find showed despair: barefoot urchins, the apple peddler, a mutt licking a dry water spigot, a hobo sprawled on a park bench, a little boy rifling through a trash can. Back came Mr. Stilson’s words about windows to life and humanity on paper, and all of the photos blurred.
Once when Mr. Stilson was photographing a family, he saw me noticing a woman staring longingly from near a tree. He said, “You see more than most with those eyes, don’t you?” “Strabismus,” I’d said when they’d all walked away. I never talked about my eyes, but surprised myself by reciting a memorized passage from The Book of Knowledge: “‘With misaligned eyes, the brain receives two different images, causing double vision.’” “You have a powerful gift,” he’d said. “You see in duplicate. Imagine that.”
Joan Mora attended Oxford University’s summer program in creative writing, Iowa Summer Writing Festival’s intensive novel writing workshop, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference fiction workshop. Cofounder of the memorialized What Women Write, a blog dedicated to writing craft, book reviews and author interviews, she has also contributed to the Ploughshares blog. Her most recent work is the novel that inspired this short story, a Depression-era coming-of-age tale, featuring a Jewish bootlegger’s cross-eyed daughter and her unlikely friendship with a 90-year-old Civil War veteran. Originally from Maryland, Joan currently lives in Dallas, Texas.