THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
BEFORE DIGITAL (ONE LAST TIME)
It had been snowing steadily all day. At some point, the snow had changed to rain and then back to snow. Typical for a Long island winter. The snow on the roads got slushy and as night fell, the slush froze and driving became even more unpleasant.
I had been out covering the weather since the start of my shift at 3 PM. It was going to be a long night. But, it was the early '60's and I had only been with the paper for a couple of years and I was still full of piss and vinegar. At around 6 PM, I found a phone booth that worked and checked in with the Photo Desk. The Editor told me to head back with what I had so they could get it developed and printed up for the Newsdesk. Bad weather was always a favorite with the News Editors. If I had anything at all decent, it would end up on Page One.
I carried my rolls of 35mm Tri X into the film darkroom and loaded them onto the stainless steel Nikkor reels. It was good to be out of the raw, damp cold. When my film came out of the dryer, Sully, the Night Photo Editor, went over my take with his optical loupe and picked a couple of shots. Just as I finished typing the captions, he called me over to his desk. He told me that some Suffolk County Cops had rescued a couple of young kids who had fallen through the ice on Lake Ronkonkoma. They had been playing on the frozen lake which was right behind their home. A reporter had already been there and had phoned the Newsdesk with the information that the kids and the two cops who rescued them were at the house waiting for a photographer to make some photos. Sully told me to move my ass.
got assignments in Suffolk County. Most of my work was in Nassau
County, but there were no staffers availible out east. So, there
I was, back in the teeth of the storm, heading out to unfamiliar
territory with the address scribbled on a piece of paper.
Those maps were a lifeline in the jungle of streets, avenues, drives, parkways, highways and expressways that criss-cross Long Island. We photographers had tried for years to get the reporters to put down the closest cross street when they wrote up their assignments. It wouldn't have been much of an effort for them to ask the people they were interviewing and then pass that information to us. We pleaded and cajoled but it just never happened. It would have made our lives so much simpler. Like, when you have to find 8201 Sunrise Highway in Bay Shore and you know the cross street is Oak Street. You just have to look up those roads in the street index in the back of the Hagstroms and in seconds you have found your target. And, when you get to Sunrise Highway, you know whether you have to turn right or left instead of wandering off in the wrong direction only to hang a "U-ey" to get back.
"Yeah, yeah. Bitch, bitch, bitch. That's all you whiney photographers know how to do."
Reporters and editors don't waste a lot of energy being sympathetic. But, if they had four or five assignments a day with scant address information like we have, it might make the difference.
before moving off into the stormy night, I spent some time scanning
my map in the dim light offered by the overhead light. Lake Ronkonkoma
in the sixties was sparsely populated. The lake area had been
surrounded by cottages and bungalows in the '30's. They were
used as summer retreats by people living in the city. Now, they
had been improved so that they were usable and occupied year
round. But, the roads weren't paved and the cottages were tucked
away in the stands of scrub oak and pine that had once forested
most of Long Island. Most of those dirt roads didn't appear on
the Hagstrom Maps until years later when developers built housing
developments and had the roads paved. So, I wasted about twenty
minutes looking through the entire page of streets. At least
I made a mental note of what roads I needed to take to get into
the area and then I could begin my search for the address.
The snow had let up by the time I drove out of the Newsday parking lot. The Long Island Expressway hadn't been extended too far into Suffolk County at that point, so I had to take secondary roads which hadn't yet been touched by snow plows. It was a slow, rough ride, bouncing through the frozen ruts made by previous traffic. It took me over an hour instead of the normal thirty minutes to get to Lake Ronkonkoma. When I turned off the county road, onto the unpaved, unmarked and unlit roads that I hoped would take me to the address I was seeking, my old Rambler station wagon was slipping and sliding and fishtailing all over the place. It was dark as the Devil's heart and all that I could see in the gloom that appeared in my headlight beams was a clear strip that was the road, hemmed in on two sides by thick stands of scrub oak. All I had to do was keep out of the trees and I could assume that I was on the road. Or was I? I wasn't even sure if I really was on a road. There were no street signs or street lamps.
At one point, I saw a point of light through the woods. The only good thing about it being winter was that there were no leaves on the trees so I could keep the light in view. I had a feeling that this was where my assignment was to be found. But, the light was on my left and if I kept going, I was going to pass it. I had to find a road that intersected the one I was on. I drove on and on and finally, there was an opening that would take me to the left. It wasn't so much a road as it was a trail, but I was getting desperate. I didn't know how long the cops would stay at the house. So, I eased onto the trail and even as slow as I was going, I lurched and skidded on the slippery surface. The trail curved and it looked like it would take me closer to my target. The path sloped downward and as I rounded a curve, my headlights glistened on something different. I stood on the brakes, but the car didn't stop. It kept sliding down the slope until it finally stopped with the front tires right at the edge of the ice covered lake. Another few feet and I would have been on the ice and probably through it. Damn! I knew that I was in for it even before I tried to back out of there. It took a good forty minutes of slipping and skidding and backing and filling before I finally managed to get back to more solid ground.
By now, I had lost sight of that light and had given up any hope of ever getting to it even if I did spot it again. It was over three hours past the time I was supposed to photograph the cops and the kids. I made my way back to the village and found a phone.
"Where the Hell have you been?" shouted a very irate Night Photo Editor. "The family called two hours ago. The cops got tired of waiting and left and the parents sent the kids to bed. What the f--- have you been doing? I was off an hour ago but I couldn't leave until I heard from you."
Sully and I never agreed on anything and this episode certainly didn't endear me to him. I tried to explain the problems I had, but he just told me to go home and do physically impossible things to myself.
One of my last assignments before I retired in 2002 was a Business Page story. I needed to go to an office building in Hicksville to photograph some businessmen. There was the usual, no frills address marked on the assignment sheet. 323 Broadway, Hicksville. (I'm not sure of the exact number) No cross street, of course, but I was familiar with Broadway in Hicksville. It was a large commercial area with shopping malls, stores and offices on both sides of the wide street.
I took the Long Island Expressway to the Broadway, Hicksville exit. Now I didn't know whether I should head north or south. Ahh, if only the reporter had given me a cross street. But, noooo.
The Expressway had brought me to the northern part of Broadway. A bit further north, it split into Cedar Swamp Road going northwest and East Norwich Road going northeast. And both those roads took you into residential areas that were dotted with large estates. So, I turned south. I soon found out two things; one, that the odd numbered addresses were on the west side of Broadway and two; the numbers were going down and I would have to turn around to get to 323. Which I did and now the odd numbers were on my left. I saw 291, 311, 319 and then I was at the point where the road forked. I took the left fork and was soon out of the commercial district and the numbers were in the 11's and 15's. I turned around and took the right fork with the same results. I guessed that I must have missed 323 on the first pass. Now I headed south and the odd numbers were on my right. 319 was the first number I saw when I hit the commercial district. What the hell happened to 323?
Fortunately, at that point we had two way radios in our car so I called up Stan, who was the Photo Editor who had given me the assignment. I asked him to check to make sure that I had been given the right address. He checked and said that it was the same one that the reporter had written on the assignment sheet. I suggested that he check with the reporter because this wouldn't be the first time that a reporter had hit the wrong keys on the computer. Stan checked and said the reporter told him that those were indeed, the correct numbers. I told Stan that I had been up and down Broadway and 323 was missing. Stan asked me to try further south because this was Long Island and on Long Island, address numbers don't always conform to logic. So, I drove south for several miles and still no 323.
Oh, my god! If ever a GPS would rescue me, this would have been the time.
I called Stan again. He got the phone number of the business and they assured him that the number was correct. And, they added, the office building that they were in was a six story building which rose above all the other buildings. Now, how hard could that be to find? I drove up and down Broadway four more times and I would get to 319 and then I would be in the estates once more. I called Stan, again. He called the business. They told him and he told me that the building was just south of the Long Island Expressway. I told Stan to keep them on the line while I made yet another pass. I even looked over at the even numbered east side of Broadway, just in case. Sure, enough, there was a six story office building, tucked in behind some other commercial buildings on the even numbered side of the road. I drove around to where I could see the numbers over the main entrance. 323!! Sure as shit.
I parked and grabbed my cameras and took the elevator to the correct floor. When I finally got face to face with the CEO of the business I asked him about the address.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "That confuses everybody. This is the only odd numbered address in Nassau County that's on the even numbered side of the street."
"Well, duh," I said. "Doncha think it would have been a good idea to let the reporter know about this anomaly?"
He said, "I did. Didn't he pass it on to you?"
Please, please,please...if any Photo Editors are reading this tale of woe, go out and buy your staff GPS's for their cars. They will bless your name forever more.
And that, my children, was what life was like before digital.
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