I have often said that my early career as a staff photographer took place in
a context that could only be described
as Runyonesque. I am, of course, referring to the renowned newsman, author
and screenplay writer, Damon Runyon. He was born in 1884 and died
in 1946. His stories were peopled with odd-ball characters, the most well known
of whom were the gamblers and minor hoods in the stage play, which later became
the movie, "Guys
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).
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.
A LENS DIMLY
by Dick Kraus
A dear old friend was buried some years ago. He was known fondly
as “The Chinaman.” He picked up that title many years
ago, probably because he came from China, is Chinese and after
almost 72 years in this country, still spoke with an outrageous
accent. He acquired the nickname before we all became politically
correct and there was never any hint of disrespect inherent in
it. He was simply Arthur Lem, The Chinaman.
He was not a newspaper photographer. In fact, he was not any
kind of journalist. He was a restaurateur. He owned the Chunking
in Hempstead which was just down the block from the auto showroom
which was the birthplace of Newsday in 1941. It was a convenient
watering spot for thirsty journalists and the food was excellent
if anyone cared to partake. So, newsmen gathered there for long
lunches/dinners and The Chinaman greeted each of them as they
came through the door and made them feel welcome. He got to
them and soon was a friend and confidant to many of them.
The managing editor who
ran the fledgling paper in those days was right out of a Damon Runyan
novel, and was a prodigious drinker. While in his cups, he would frequently
fire key editorial personnel who were seated at the long bar of the
restaurant. The Chinaman had become a close personal friend of the
ME and could often be seen running down Main Street after a newly
fired editor or reporter yelling, “It’s okay. It’s
okay. He good man. He just drunk. You come to work tomorrow. He no
remember fire you.” And it was true. The sacked employee would
return to work as though nothing had ever happened.
The Chinaman became the popular favorite of the photographers. Even
after the paper built a real newspaper plant in neighboring Garden
City, you could find most of the photo night crew at the long bar
during our dinner hour. While we sipped our drinks, The Chinaman would
run in and out of the kitchen with samples of some fabulous recipe
he was working on. “You try this, you try this,” he would
chatter. Every ten minutes he was out with something else for us to
try. It would get late and our dinner hour would have long since expired.
We would have to start out on our evening assignments and we still
wanted to eat so that we could pay the establishment something for
our food. But, we were stuffed from all the free samples that were
placed before us. So we’d order the Egg Foo Yung, which was
the cheapest thing on the menu, take a few bites, leave a tip for
the waiter and pay our bill and be on our way.
Every summer, the Managing Editor threw a party for the editorial
department over on Fire Island, and the Chinaman would cater it. Our
wives were invited and there was plenty to drink and eat, including
lobsters baking in a bed of coals or a whole roasted pig turning on
a spit down at the beach. The Chinaman became part of our social structure
and was invited to our children’s baptisms, communions and bar
mitzvahs. He came to my first son’s bar mitzvah, wore a yarmulke
and went around introducing himself as Rabbi Schwartz.
He taught his friends in the photo department a few words of Chinese.
He assured us that they meant “hello, how are you?” But,
when he suggested that we never use that phrase around his tolerant
and long suffering wife, Rose, we suspected that “hello, how
are you?” was not the approved translation. So one day, I offered
to teach him a few words of Yiddish greeting. He was very active in
community affairs and was often in the company of rabbis and other
religious leaders. I said to him that the proper way to greet a rabbi
was to say, “Rabbi, kish mir en tochus.”
I saw The Chinaman a week later and he came running up to me, seething,
with his face all red. “Ooohh, you bad man. You no teach me
“hello how are you.” You teach me to say, “Rabbi,
you kiss my ass.” You velly bad man.”
But, The Chinaman was every bit a practical joker as the worst of
us at the paper, and we were pretty bad. One day, Cliff DeBear, one
of our photographers, happened to come into possession of a huge stuffed
snake. He mentioned this fact to our Managing Editor at the long bar
at the Chungking Royal, one night. The ME chuckled and enlisted DeBear
as his accomplice.
They took the snake skin and attached the head with a wire to the
inside door handle on the Chinaman’s car and coiled the huge
body on the front seat. They then proceeded to tell everyone at the
bar what they had done. They all snuck out to the street when The
Chinaman had to go off on some errand. It was now dark, and when the
Chinaman opened his front door, the car’s interior lights came
on and all the poor man saw was this huge snake coming off the seat,
straight at him. He shrieked and ran down Main Street while the audience
howled with laughter.
The Chinaman knew who was responsible for this act and he was, if
nothing else, a very patient man. A few weeks later, while the Managing
Editor was tanking up at the long bar, the Chinaman got his cooks
together, filled every garbage can they could find with fish entrails
and discarded, soft, squishy vegetables and together they carried
the reeking mess out to the ME’s car. They filled the front
and back seats of the car and snuck back into the restaurant. The
Chinaman came out to the bar and sat down next to the ME. He was beaming
from ear to ear.
“Allan, you go take your car and go back to work now, yes?”
And the grin stretched even further across his round face.
Allen was wise to Arthur's ways and suspected that something was
afoot that involved his car.
bring my car here, you silly little Chinaman,”
said the ME with a straight face. “My wife dropped me off.”
The Chinaman gave a little shriek and ran into the kitchen to round
up his cooks and start pots of water to boiling. He chattered
to his bartender to keep feeding the ME free drinks, while he and
his cooks scoured “somebody’s” car clean of the
Arthur Lem, The Chinaman, was a fine, honorable human being.
Although he never worked with a camera, the Photo Department
at Newsday lost
one of its own and we shall truly miss him.