THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
AND THE WIDOW BROWN
Back in the 60's, Newsday didn't publish a paper on Sunday, so Saturday was a pretty slow day in the Photo Department. By 3 PM, the few photographers who worked that day had completed their few assignments and we were all back at the paper. Some of us were just waiting for our film to dry; others were finishing up our captions. There wasn't much else to do but wait until our shifts were over so we could go home. If I recall, there was Al, John, Cliffy, Kenny and me. Ike was the weekend Photo Editor. The rest of his week, he worked the streets like the rest of us.
The phone rang on the Photo Editor's desk. Ike picked it up.
"Cliff! It's for you on extension 4.".
Cliff ambled over to one of the phones on the long table we used to sort and caption our prints after they came out of the darkroom. He leaned over the table and punched the "4" button.
"Hello. Cliff DeBear here," he said.
A thin, reedy voice on the other end said, "Mr. DeBear? This is Mrs. Brown. My dear husband recently passed away. He was an avid photographer most of his life and he accumulated a great deal of very expensive camera equipment over the years. Now that he is gone, I have no use for them and to tell you the truth, I can use the money from their sale to supplement my meager pension. An old friend who knows you, said that you are a professional photographer and might be interested in purchasing the cameras from me at a fair price."
Now, here's something you need to know. Back then, Newsday Photographers had to own their own cameras and equipment. Newsday only supplied film and flashbulbs and insured our stuff. We had recently switched over from the old 4 X 5 Speed Graphics and were now using 35mm cameras. This created a huge out of pocket expense for us. So we looked for bargains whenever they arose.
Sensing this, Cliffy's ears perked up.
"Ah, first of all, let me offer my condolences on the passing of your husband," he said.
He went on. "As far as purchasing your late husband's cameras, it would depend on what cameras he owned. Not all cameras are suitable for the kind of complex sort of work that I do. What kind of cameras did your husband have?"
The widow's cracked voice responded, "Oh, he had...umm, I don't know if I can pronounce it correctly. He had, ummm, Leekas."
"LEICAS?" Cliffy shouted. He cupped his hand over the phone and said to the group of us seated nearby, "I've hit the Mother Lode."
We all laughed. Not so much because of what Cliffy said, but because we were aware of what was really going on. Unbeknownst to Cliff, out of sight around the corner of the long photo finishing table was a hallway that led to the darkrooms. Cliff couldn't see what was going on from where he stood, but we could. Kenny had another phone and with his hand cupped close to his mouth, was the instigator of this phone call. Pitching his voice high and crackly, he was the Widow Brown.
"Yes, Leicas," said the Widow Brown. "I have no idea what they are worth, but, I'm sure that you wouldn't cheat a lonely old widow."
By now, we were doubled over with laughter.
But, Cliff was unaware of us as his agile brain worked the angles.
"Well, Mrs. Brown, it would depend on the age and condition of the cameras, but, I'm sure that I would be able to offer you a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty dollars for the lot if they were in reasonably good shape and not too old. That's a lot more than you could get on the open market."
A couple of hundred dollars? Even back then, a single Leica body without a lens was worth more than that.
"Oh, if you say so. I'm sure that you know the value better than I. But, I must tell you that there is another young man interested in those cameras. He is on his way over to look at them. If his offer is less than yours, then I will invite you to take a look and I'll sell them to whomever offers the best price. I'll phone you back, shortly. Goodby for now." And with that, the phone went dead.
Cliffy looked absolutely defeated. "I hope the son of a bitch runs his car up a tree," he said into the dead phone while the rest of us tried to smother our laughter.
Cliffy paced back and forth, while the rest of us waited for this farce to play itself out. Kenny stayed out of sight. The minutes passed and for a few of us, our shifts came to an end. But, no one was leaving. This was too good to miss.
Twenty minutes passed and Cliff was really getting anxious. He looked over at us. "Jeez, Leicas," he said. "Maybe I should have offered a bit more. I'd hate to lose out on that deal."
Ten minutes later, the office phone rang. Cliffy pounced on it.
"Hello," he shouted.
The thin reedy voice spoke. "Mr, DeBear?"
Kenny stepped around the corner with his phone up to his face.
Cliffy could see him now, but not really. His head was filled with visions of a camera coup.
"Yes," he said.
"Mr. DeBear?" again in the thin, cracked voice.
"Yes," said Cliff.
"UP YOURS!" said the Widow Brown, aka Ken Spencer, looking right into Cliffy's eyes from down the length of the table.
Cliffy was stunned. He was looking right at Ken when he said "up yours" and Ken and the rest of us were howling with laughter. Some of us had fallen out of our chairs and were rolling on the floor.
Cliff was filled with disbelief. He still couldn't comprehend that he had been spoofed. One part of him couldn't believe that the nice Widow Brown could say something like that to him. And, another part of him was piecing together all the evidence shown by Ken's sudden appearance with the phone up to his mouth while we spectators were pissing in our pants with laughter. It took awhile for Cliff to accept the fact that he had been scammed.
Eventually, he took it with good grace. At least I think he did. I spoke to him after writing this epic, almost fifty years after the incident. He said, "I'll get even with Kenny yet; don't you worry."
God. That was almost 50 years ago. I hope that I have my facts straight. It's not for nothing that I label these recollections "Through A Lens Dimly." I've checked with a few people who were witness to the event, including the two protagonists. The story varies a bit, depending on who is recounting it. But, it went down pretty much like I wrote it.
And, the fact that I was able to write it and publish it here, in The Digital Journalist, came as a great surprise to me.
You see, I had been wanting to do this story for years. It stood out in my memory as a classic example of how tight a group we were (and still are.) We were always pulling pranks on one another. If you weren't the recipient of a gag, you were plotting one to pull on someone else. That's kind of the way we unwound from some of the tensions we faced every day on the job. I've spoken about some of these crazy stunts in past journals. Like the time Bill Senft put a live eel in Jimmy, the darkroom tech's, hypo tank. .
But, I held off on doing Cliffy And The Widow Brown out of deference to my friend of over 50 years. I was afraid that it might be construed as holding my friend up to ridicule. We all have our foibles. Yes, even I. And occasionally I have even laid them open on these pages for all to see. But, Cliffy is a special case. You see, it was he who had tipped me off to an opening in the Newsday Photo Department in 1958 which led to the 42 year career that I enjoyed so thoroughly. So, for all those years, I thought about this great story, but held off for fear of alienating my friend.
And then, lo, out of the blue an epiphany occurred. It happened a few weeks ago, at the monthly Dinosaur Brunch that gathers a large bunch of old time newspaper folk from the Long Island/New York area, who have retired or are near retirement, at a diner in Farmingdale. A bunch of us were recalling how we used to shnooker one another. Cliff and Ken were at opposite ends of the large table. Cliff was seated next to me and he started laughing.
"Do you remember when that s.o.b. Spencer pulled that Widow Brown and the Leekas scam on me? Wasn't that a riot? He really had me going. I'm still gonna get that bastard." All of this with a big smile on his face.
I'd never have an opportunity like this, again. I told him that I had been wanting to do this story for ages but had been afraid that it would offend him.
"Offend me?" he said. "Hell, no. I'm not that thin skinned. You've got to do it. It's a funny story."
So, here it is, Cliffy. Along with my apologies for having underestimated the depth of your character for all of these many years. You are truly a man of character ( as well as being a character of a man) and I thank you for allowing me to put these wonderful memories into print and still having you as my friend.
I also offer it as a testimony to a wonderful group of people who, with humor, professionalism and dedication, put out a truly great newspaper and never took ourselves seriously. We were more than just associates. We were friends who gathered socially outside of work, and throughout the intervening years, we still remain friends.
blog comments powered by Disqus
|Contents Page||Editorials||The Platypus||Links||Copyright|
|Portfolios||Camera Corner||War Stories||Dick's Gallery||Comments|
|Issue Archives||Columns||Forums||Mailing List||E-mail Us|