As a newspaper photographer from the 1960's through 2002, I met many a character who fit the Runyon mold. Most of them were my associates at Newsday (Long Island, NY).
Over the next few months, I will introduce you to them. In many instances, I have changed names in the fervent hope that I not be thrashed for having exposed their idiosyncracies to the world. It is not my intent to ridicule or criticize anyone. The antics and the events about which I write did truly take place. Time may have dimmed the exact dialogs but I write these journals depicting these people as accurately as humanly possible. I hope that you will find them as interesting and as zany as did I.
He was seated behind his desk in the Photo Department, which was just a nook and a cranny in the rear of the Newsroom. He was of average height and build and was wearing a shirt in need of ironing, his tie was loosened around his neck and he sported a well worn pair of rumpled slacks. His jacket was thrown over the back of his chair and his loafer-shod feet were bereft of any socks. I learned, years later, that this was a trade mark of his. He was definitely not a person who gave much thought to the dictates of fashion and he never wore socks, no matter what the season.
I introduced myself and he reached up from his seated position to shake my hand. I had come prepared for this appointment and showed him my portfolio. I explained that I was fresh out of the Navy where I had been a Photographer's Mate for most of my four year enlistment. Before that, I had gone to a commercial photo school in NY City. And before that, I was a high school student. He thumbed through the pages without comment and when he was done he muttered, "We're not hiring any photographers, now. And, if we were, you don't have enough experience for our needs."
That was the sum total of that entire interview and his words were muttered gruffly from under his walrus mustache.
Smiley? I never saw any sign of a smile.
Four years later, I was working for a local free-lance photo service which, among other things, did some news work. Because of this, I had become friendly with some of the Newsday staff photographers. One day, one of them called me at work to inform me that Smiley had been fired as Photo Editor. I knew by then, that he had a reputation as a hard drinking newsman. There were a lot of stories being aired about some of his antics while under the influence. I guess he finally had to pay the piper. Anyway, he had been fired but was given the choice of collecting his severance and leaving or going back on the staff as a shooter. To his credit, he chose the latter. I think it took a large amount of fortitude to go from the "big man in charge" to one of the common, every day newspukes.
My friend also suggested that I come over to the paper and talk to "Web." That would be Harvey Weber, one of the staff photographers who was promoted to take Smiley's old job. I didn't waste any time making an appointment and was soon showing my portfolio to the new man. This time, however, I had been doing a lot of news work for this free-lance agency and I even had a number of photos in my book that had run in Newsday, including some Page One's.
Web showed considerably more enthusiasm than his predecessor, but also had the same sad news to impart to me. The paper wasn't hiring any new photographers at the time, but he told me that he would keep me in mind for the time when they might be.
The time came about a year later. Being the new hire, I was given the worst shift; from 3 PM to 11:30 PM with days off being Tuesday and Wednesday. The only one who had a worse shift, as far as I was concerned, was Smiley. But, he liked the late 6 PM to 1:30 AM tour. It didn't interfere with his life-style.
He and some of his cronies liked to hit the bars after work. There were laws in effect, back then, which dictated when the bars would close. It differed from county to county. In Nassau County, where the paper was located, Smiley had about a half an hour to get the "buzz" started before the Nassau gin mills closed. Then it was a quick ride into Queens County for another fast paced hour of boozing until 3 AM. The last stop was in Manhattan, where the group could drink until 4 AM. Sometimes they made it home. Sometimes they slept in the car in front of the last lower east side tavern on their tour..
And these session were always good for some "Smiley Stories." It was said that the huge, granite 7th Regiment Armory on Park Ave. used to be a few feet closer to the curb. But having been rammed so many time by Smiley's old junker of a car, it was now a few feet further west. OK, I can't vouch for the veracity of the massive armory having been moved, but I do know that Smiley left several hulks of cars embedded in the masonry.
One night, he and the Managing Editor had been working their way west to obtain their ration of grog. It was getting on into the wee hours and it was snowing heavily. The ME had to pee, so Smiley pulled off to the side of the parkway to let his buddy out to relieve himself. He dozed off for a moment and when he awoke, he wondered why he was sitting on the side of the road, as the snow came down. Not having a clue and wishing to get to the next bar before closing, he drove off, leaving his besotted friend peeing against a lamp post, watching his transportation disappear into the gloom.
Then there was the time when John Cornell, one of our youngest staffers, threw a party for the department at his parent's home. We were a very sociable bunch and everyone who wasn't working came with their wife or girl friend. And, that included Smiley and his girlfriend, Margie. Oh, Smiley was married and had some kids. Most of us had never met the wife and kids. But, we all knew Margie. She was one of the paper's Art Directors and she was responsible for putting out the centerfold, which was supposed to be a photo spread. Anyway, we all had a great time and consumed a goodly amount of potables. As the hour grew late, most of us stopped drinking potables and tried to get our act together with coffee in order to drive home. Well, everyone that is but Smiley and his lady. They had more partying to do so they made their farewells, and left, long before the rest of us. Some time later, as a group of us walked out to our cars, we heard the sound of a car motor revving up across the street. We walked over to find Smiley sitting behind the wheel of his car, staring glassily out of the windshield with his foot planted heavily on the gas pedal while the transmission was in neutural. Next to him, Margie was slumped over, fast asleep. In his stupor, Smiley thought he was speeding down the Long island Expressway. We quietly discussed some ideas about how to bring this farce to an end. We were afraid that if we startled him, Smiley might wake up and throw the car into gear while the engine was racing, wiping out several of the cars that were parked in front of him. Finally, one of us managed to silently open the passenger door and reach over and shut off the ignition. Smiley turned and stared at us in astonishment, wondering how we could be gathered around his car as it sped down the road. We sat with him long enough for him to get reasonable sober before he continued on his merry way.
Web told about a time when Smiley was still the Photo Editor and they both worked Sundays. Newsday had no Sunday paper back then so on Sundays, there were negatives from Saturday's assignments to be printed, as well as those from Sunday. The darkroom man had Sunday off so Smiley and Web used to print up the accumulated photos. Web was already working at the enlargers when Smiley came in to work.
"You look terrible," Web told Smiley. "What the Hell happened to you? Your face looks like someone hit you with a cement block"
"Oh, I was out drinking with some friends, yesterday," answered Smiley. "We were hitting a couple of bars along Woodcleft Canal in Freeport and I guess things got outta hand. That's nothing. Ya wanna see something?"
Before Web could answer, Smiley dropped his trousers and even in the dim yellow-green light of the darkroom's safelights, Web could see that his legs were gashed from ankle to thigh and were now covered in crusted, bloody scabs.
"Good God," gasped Web. How in the Hell did you do that?"
Smiley told him. He and his cronies were sitting in an outdoor porch of a bar which overlooked a wharf on the waterfront. It was a hot summer day and one of the drunks bet Smiley that he couldn't dive from the porch into the water below. Never the man to turn down a challange, Smiley stripped to his undershorts, climbed the porch rail and dove gracefully in the direction of the water. However, being a bit muddled by large quantities of liquor, his direction was none too accurate and he landed, face first, on the floating dock below.
"Haw, haw," his friend said. "I knew ya couldn't do it."
"I ain't finished," said Smiley as blood poured from his smashed nose.
Instead of walking down the length of the floating dock to a ladder back to the bar's porch, Smiley proceeded to shinny up one of the pilings to which the dock was anchored. This piece of timber was often submerged at high tide (it was now dead low tide) and was coated with razor sharp barnacles. Smiley, having numbed his entire body with booze, felt nothing as the barnacles sliced his legs to shreds as he climbed. He got to the top and pulled himself up on the narrow top of the piling. He teetered precariously as he shouted to his cronies, "Now watch this!"
He took another dive and as chance would have it...he landed smack on the same dock from whence he had just climbed. Bloody, but unbeaten, he scaled the piling one more time and this time he found the water and collected his bet.
To say that Smiley was indestructible would be an understatement. Years later, I was made Night Photo Editor, and by his own choice, Smiley was still working the same late shift and I was his editor. I felt a little uneasy seeing as this was the man to whom I had come, years back, looking for a job. To his everlasting credit, he never gave any indication that this mattered one whit to him. He did his job admirably and drunk or sober, he could always be counted on to come in with excellent photos. This in itself was an amazing accomplishment considering the way he treated his camera equipment. While most of us returned our cameras to our equipment bag and placed everything carefully in our car trunk after each assignment, Smiley disdained the use of a bag and stuffed whatever film and lenses that he might need into his baggy pants and jacket pockets. When he returned to his junker of a car, he popped open the trunk and taking his camera by the strap, he would swing the equipment like a pendulum and let everything fly into the overstuffed trunk.
One night, while I was on the desk, I got a phone call from Smiley just before he was supposed to report to work.
"I'm gonna be a little late. I had a problem, but I'll get there as soon as I can," he said.
He showed up about an hour later. The middle finger of his right hand sported a bloody bandage the size of an orange. I asked him what had happened.
"Oh, I just got outta the emergency room," was his answer.
"Yeah, but what's that?" I asked, pointing to the obvious.
"Ah, shit, man. I was cutting my lawn and the mower got jammed with grass. So, I picked up the f---ing thing to shake the grass out and the f---er cut off my f---ing finger at the last joint."
He refused to go home, when I suggested it and he worked his shift and produced fine photos.
There are hundreds of Smiley stories, but I'll make this the last one before turning out the lights and going to bed.
Because of his shift, Smiley usually ended up with a lot of night sports assignments. He was good at all of them but where he really stood out was his boxing coverage. He had an impeccable sense of timing and always knew exactly when to push the shutter button. One of the best sport shots that I ever had the privilege of seeing was the one that he made at one of the Clay vs Frazier bouts. Clay wasn't yet renamed Muhammad Ali then and he dropped Frazier with a wicked right to the jaw. Smiley could not have picked a better moment to fire his camera. And mind you, he never used a motor drive. Everything he did was shoot and wind. He only got one crack at every shot but that's all he ever needed. His photo showed the exact moment that Clay's gloved fist contacted Frazier's jaw. The impact distorted Frazier's face as his jaw moved under the ferocious impact and his eyes went glassy. The sweat flew off of the victim's face and each drop was caught in the frame.
But, everythime I gave Smiley a boxing assignment at the old Madison Square Garden, he would bitch about the seat that Newsday Photographers always got.
"The sumbitchin' seat is right in the corner and I always gotta lean around the corner post to shoot. Worst of all is between rounds when the fighter goes back to his corner. The goddam trainer always swipes at him with a wet sponge to cool him, and I get more water on me than the f---ing fighter. You're the f---ing photo editor. Can'tcha get a better goddam seat"
Yeah, he was right. He certainly deserved a better break. So, I went upstairs to confront the Sports Editor, who was the man responsible for getting the ringside seat for our photographer. This guy was even more cantankerous than Smiley. Wen I told him what Smiley had described, he scowled at me and said, "Why the Hell should I go to all that trouble? The son of a bitch always comes back with great art,"
One day we got word that Smiley wouldn't be coming to work. He and the girlfriend were at the beach and he dropped dead of a heart attack.
So, Smiley wasn't indestructible after all. But his stories still endure. And, he left a legacy of wonderful photographs. What a guy.
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