Through The LensbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
©2008 by ©Adrian Leverkuhn
Few things are as disheartening for a photographer as finding oneself confronted with the best of all possible circumstances: that perfect golden light as the sun falls behind purple clouds along a far horizon and sunbursts shoot toward heaven as if on cue, the composition you've worked so hard to find after hiking for hours along the Grand Canyon's North Rim Trail is better than you'd ever dare hope for, and then -- you press the shutter button, that climactic moment gathers in your soul, and -- zingo -- nothing happens. It doesn't matter what the cause is -- either no more film in your twenty year old M5 or the cards in your shiny new D3 were full; or you check the battery and it is -- God forbid -- dead, or -- worse still -- some arcane setting you've inadvertently made foils the cameras metering system and the dreaded word "error" blinks in the viewfinder . . . it doesn't matter . . . the result is the same. A nauseated feeling passes from your balls to your stomach, feelings of black dread blot out every other thought in your brain . . . and you look down at the offending instrument as if it is your best friend you've just found screwing your wife up the ass in the back seat of the new Porsche you've saved all your life for. You can't decide whether to hurl the mother-fucker over the rim or jump yourself. In the end, however, you do neither. You go on, make your way to the next shot because in this life you don't get second chances very often.
So, you watch the light fade, perhaps even enjoy the moment for what it is -- a rare, precious thing worthy of so much more than your glistening incompetence -- then you put away your gear in a black sulk and walk back to the trailhead as night gathers all around you, faintly depressed because you know better but got sloppy, careless. Thunderstorms gather six inches over your head as you walk and even mountain lions and rattlesnakes know better that to fuck with you in your present state. You get back to the Land Rover that -- if you remember correctly -- seemed old when your grandfather bought it when JFK decided to run for president. Well, what the fuck. Still some ice in the cooler, a couple of Cokes and a sandwich in there. Fire up the GPS and the satellite radio and head off into the night. Maybe Durango? Mesa Verde? The leaves are turning further north . . . maybe Aspen? The Maroon Bells?
My iPhone picked up a signal out there under the stars -- about three million miles from the nearest toilet (and this was of some immediate -- and alarming -- concern that had something to do with green chili stew); it hummed and burped as messages filed into memory then beeped with its unnatural, annoying cheerfulness -- "I'm done now! Look at ME!"
I picked up the silly thing, wondered how it would look in the rear view mirror bouncing merrily down the road in a shower of sparks, then decided I'd better check my messages:
- from: Nan D. (my agent . . . so far so good . . .), and in red, bold-faced type: "Urgent". Now, I typically associate "Urgent" with unsolicited credit card offers or unwelcome correspondence from dour, gray-faced women who work for the government, but when Nan (and I have to admit, this is somewhat rare) sends anything even remotely "urgent" my way it tends to involve money, so I tend to sit up and take notice when it happens.
I slowed down and searched for the screen that would take me to the screen that would take me to the screen where I could read the message, and then -- with an annoying reminder from the aforementioned green chile stew making itself known urgently as well -- decided it would be ever so much more practical to read this message squatting by the side of the road in front of the Rover's headlights.
Despite engineers and technicians having solved many of the technical issues that accompany driving a three ton truck over terrain that would give pause to a mountain goat, they have not yet, to date, thought to mount a toilet paper holder on the front bumper of even one of their offerings. This thought, too, never occurred to me while I read Nan's email in front of the headlights. Indeed, the only other concern I had at that particular moment was the remote possibility that someone, anyone, might drive by while I was so -- urgently involved -- with my urgent correspondence. If there were children involved they might be scarred for life. To make life even more interesting, while I read little green men in track shoes pranced around inside my small intestine practicing the four-forty, and I'm sure more than one crawling insect by my boots succumbed to my own overwhelming display of "shock and awe".
Anyway, one of the big weekly news magazines in New York was fresh out of staff writer/photographers and was willing to pay big pesos for some words and photos from a hastily called economic summit in Switzerland that coming weekend, the details of which were mundane at best and had something to do, if I recall, with a merger between OPEC and Toys-R-Us, and they were offering all expenses and accommodations on top of a hefty commission, and Nan (ever the comedienne) had gleefully accepted on my behalf.
And now we come to the punch line.
I'm squatting here by the side of the road on a brisk October evening, a Tuesday night to be more specific, hoping the mother-ship doesn't come down just then and catch me with my, uh, pants down, and here she's telling me I need to be in Davos on Friday afternoon; details on flights to follow. Though the math was daunting, and the cramps overwhelming, my bank account was in certain need of this infusion: I could not say no.
Sitting out there on the warm asphalt (well no, actually, still squatting -- but now with some of the aforementioned green men now in the final stretch running high hurdles, somewhere in the vicinity of my duodenum, I think), here I was in front of the old Green Brute, pecking away on an impossibly tiny touch-screen "keyboard" (yeah, right, the very word I'd choose...), writing something witty and smart of how wonderful the assignment sounded and that of course I'd be able to make all the connections, then I hit the send key with all the gracious aplomb of one squatting by the side of the road in excremental agony can muster. I put the phone away smugly in a vest pocket before remembering that said engineers and technicians in England had indeed not installed tissue holders on the front bumper of my Land Rover.
Shock and awe, indeed.
It's harder than you can imagine getting to Zurich these days, much more so than it was just five or six years ago, but unimaginably so from the 'Four Corners' area of the desert southwest. It's a strange new dance, and it goes something like this: Durnago to Denver, change terminals, submit to proctologic examination at the TSA/Homeland Security check-in line (And couldn't they have come up with something more original than Soviet-style nomenclature? George Orwell, where were you when we needed you? Anyway...on to...) Denver to JFK, transfer to the International Terminal, another endoscopic examination by a very determined TSA employee named Rufus (and whose hands were larger than an orangutans), thence onto a jet just a tad smaller than Yankee Stadium and into the toilet to remove all the K-Y that Rufus so thoughtfully left in an used corner of your Fruit-of-the-Looms. Dinner? You bet. In your dreams. Lights out as soon as the wheels leave the ground, unless you're in First Class, then they wheel out carts loaded with prime rib and Yorkshire pudding (but not until the Wine Steward presents you with the evenings selection). You are, of course, sitting between someone who looks just like Idi Amin-dada (and whose odor reminds you of a recent roadside experience in Arizona) and a delightful young lady who has obviously just escaped from a mental hospital (shaking hands, three prescription tranquillizers before she can get her seat belt fastened, non-stop blather about airline crash statistics and the comparative safety of travel by steamship); then a flight attendant announces that non-alcoholic beverages will be available for one hundred and fifty euros a shot. Some gonzo in the seat ahead reclines his seat just after takeoff and you spend the next hour and a half examining the zits on his bald head -- the back of which is now hovering just about four inches above your testicles. And this is Business Class. You wonder if that's the shuffling of hooves you hear from behind the curtain at the aft end of the compartment as you drift off into a somewhat contented sleep.
You dream of German trains steaming into quaint Polish towns in 1943, then you exit the upper deck bleachers and file into the terminal at Zurich-Kloten about eight hours later. Your mouth tastes like horse manure and your eyes feel like an old girlfriend dropped a used tampon on them somewhere over Greenland, and you can't decide if this is from the long flight or the soldiers in black fatigues walking around the baggage claim with machine guns and black dogs that look on expectantly -- as though they've had nowhere near enough to eat -- until they look at you.
And guess what? Only one more flight to go, and as you walk (yes, walk) across the tarmac to this one, you are saying under your breath that this one looks to be a doozy. One engine, a propeller, and six seats. You sit down and a cubic meter of vinyl makes a "whoosh"-ing sound as it's sucked up your anus. The plane takes off in a little less than half the length of a football field and buzzes through the Alps at a serene pace, and you know this is so because farmers on tractors are pulling ahead of you on the road five hundred feet below. Three weeks later the plane sets down in Davos in about half the length it used to take off, and as you take the one step down from plane to earth (Thank You, God!) you're hoping the vinyl hanging from your asshole hasn't fused to your scrotum.
Once on the ground you turn and look around, see you're surrounded by hundreds of little jets with names like Gulfstream V and Dassault 9000, but you remember the really big players arrive at Zurich or Geneva in Boeing 747s registered in Dubai or the Cayman Islands, and who are at that very moment shuttling up the valley in sleek helicopters the color of crude oil. It's a nice club if you can get in, you tell yourself, but you know you never will and the thought makes you happy. If people stopped to think about it, being around these people would be like a remora swimming along under a shark's open mouth; they'd be feeding off the scraps, and that just wouldn't do. There ain't no fun in that.
So, how about a couple of shots to get the flavor of the place. Whip out the D3 with the 200 f2 and fire off a couple before Security hits you with a cattle prod, then hop in the press shuttle and off you go to that cute little hotel on the other side of the lake. You remember, the one you stayed in three years ago that looks like a quaint chalet and that smells like week-old wiener schnitzel. Yes . . . the very one.
Drop your bags in the same room and slip a couple of lenses into the vest and away we go. Shuttle bus to huge hotel to pick up Press Credentials and submit to proctologic examination by Saudi security experts from North Carolina, then off to a pre-conference briefing where you'll no doubt be told when and from where you can take your photographs, and be given a handout with all the sound bites necessary for a top shelf Pulitzer Prize winning piece already summarized neatly for your due consideration and prompt utilization. Nothing happening tonight except for a few "meetings" (or so the PR hack tells the assembled "reporters"), so come back tomorrow.
The lobby is a media circus: oil ministers and prime ministers arrive in black-as-crude stretch-Mercedes S-Class limousines; they are confronted by adoring throngs of paparazzi who pause, fingers hovering over shutters, looking on expectantly to catch knowing glances from bored old Bedouins as starving refuges might line up for Krugerands. Representatives from Nikon and Canon are on hand to make sure the front ranks of the press corps are wielding the appropriate (read two and a half feet long, glistening white, brand-name prominently displayed) lens at the decisive moment (i.e., when CNN is taking pictures of the press corps)...
"This is a fucking zoo," I heard from somewhere behind me, closing in. I recognized the voice instantly and hoped it would go away.
No such luck.
"Rittenhauer? Is that you? What the fuck are you doing here?"
Why me? Why, God? Why me?
"Last time I checked, Needham, it was indeed still me. And I thought I'd come up here and check out the snow. Really want to work on my slalom technique this winter."
Hank Needham, hailing from Freer, Texas, and now working for a large daily in Houston. How best to describe him? Charitably, I suppose. The crew-cut face of a hedgehog atop a body stunningly similar to Orson Welles in his latter years: there, that about does it but mere words will never do him justice. Routinely called The Queer from Freer; not out of any reference to an alleged sexual orientation, but rather Hank's predilection for walking around with his hands in his pant pockets whilst jingling his scrotum about to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Parenthetically, one assumes Needham's sexual orientation would be given as: "right hand."
"Geesh, Rittenhauer, it's too goddamn early for snow here."
"Well, there you have it. Time for a new travel agent."
"Geesh. I didn't know you ski. Thought you were too old for that shit." Needham looked confused, but then again his hands were deep in his pockets. Maybe I'd just upset his rhythm. "Say, are you staying out at the Edelweiss?"
"No, Hank, I'm staying upstairs, with Queen Elizabeth and Oliver Stone. We're shooting a porn, and I signed on to do the script."
"Geesh, I didn't know she was here. Fuck man, can you get me in a scene? Always wanted to do a porn."
"You bet, buddy; bet you'd be a star. Just wait right here. I'll be back for you around midnight." I shook my head and slinked off through the crowd. Besides, there were more strobes popping-off now than in a San Fernando Valley disco in 1976; and certainly no story to be had here.
That's always my cue to get the fuck out of Dodge and head for the hotel bar.
Funny thing, though. The bar at the Edelweiss wasn't half bad. Maybe Needham wouldn't show.
The place was packed to the rafters with drunk reporters. Well, reporters -- at least real reporters, the one's who actually hunt down a story -- are always drunk, and there were a couple of them in the bar too. Cigarette smoke so thick it would make a pulmonologist shit his pants; noise level somewhere up there with an (old) Led Zeppelin concert (not that new shit, either...nothing more sad looking than a bald-headed fat dude doing pelvic thrusts on stage while belting out Whole Lotta Love). There were even a couple of decent looking women hanging around the fringes. Looked promising.
First table I come to they're talking about how good Jimmy Page looked at the concert. And how 'bout that broken finger?
Try the next table.
Two guys in leather vests from a Dutch TV network putting the moves on a very straight guy from CNN who usually reports on religious matters.
A woman older than my great-grandmother hitting on the religious affairs correspondent from USA Today?
Nope. Fuck, fuck, and double fuck!
Move on. But hey, wait a minute. Why are all the religious affairs types at an OPEC conference? What do they know that I don't? That the way to salvation is through your gas tank?
No. Surely not. Fuck!
Ah, behind those round, tortoise-rimmed spectacles? Is that the ever-hairy Mindy Tompkins. That hard working Ivy Leagued New Yorker, late of the The Times Tel Aviv bureau, sharpest observer in the Middle East, twice voted hottest reporter with Birkenstocks and a MacBook. What's she doing at an OPEC conference? This is way off her beat.
Ah, perhaps this is a story worth looking in to. And she's alone. My, what a surprise. Maybe she'd attract more men if she took up shaving those legs.
I sat down next to her and let out a big sigh, dumped my Billingham onto the stool between us.
Big round eyes, silent, observant, more than a little like an owls. And she's eying me like I'm some kind of rodent. What does she say? Nothing. Not a word.
"Grant Rittenhauer," I say, and suavely, too. "Howdy." I can lay it on thick sometimes. At least I've been accused.
No reaction, then: "Sounds like an after shave lotion, or maybe a shirt manufacturer. But yeah, Grant, have a seat."
I'm sitting there thinking 'now I know what an amoeba feels like while someone up above adjusts the focus on their microscope,' when who comes tumbling into the bar? Yeah. Hank Needham. He catches my eye, waves, crosses the room, headed my way. Tompkins takes one look at Needham and groans.
"Of fuck. The Queer from Freer."
Okay. She's just come up a notch in my book.
"Grant. No. Don't let him . . ."
"Very funny, Rittenhauer. Queen Elizabeth my eye. Geesh, peckerhead; I checked with registration. She not in town."
"Come off it Hank. She's not registered in her own name. Go back and wait for us."
"Yeah, Hank. I've talked this young lady here into doing a scene with a donkey. You won't want to miss it. Get back over there; we'll be there in a half hour. Soon as we get some Astroglide."
The hands in the pocket are going full steam ahead again. "I got some upstairs. Want me to get it?"
"Yeah, Hank. Get it and head on over to room 222. Ask for Kotter. That's the code to get in."
"Shit. Fuck-a-duck. Right." Needham bounced up the stairs and out of sight.
Tompkins looks at me like I'd just stepped off the mother ship. "I don't want to know, do I?"
"Not unless you're into serious self abuse."
"So . . ."
"Something to do with the Queen and Oliver Stone -- and making, uh, a film."
"Yeah. Kind of a documentary."
"Yeah. Mating habits and shit. For National Geographic."
Tompkins snorted into her beer; actually, she kind of exploded. Foam flew. People stared. She turned red.
It was great. A two liter stein of beer magically appeared. Greater still.
"And you told The Queer . . ."
"Oh yeah. He's gonna headline. The big money scene . . . all his."
"Astroglide and donkeys. Sounds right up his alley."
"I take it you've run into Hank before."
"Yeah. He was in Tel Aviv with W a few years back. Covering the religious angle for the True Believers back in Houston. He's a Grade A asshole."
"Yep. Nothin' like Hank in the known universe. The man can flat go through the pockets in a new pair of pants faster than laxative through a sick hog."
She looked at my press tag while she laughed. "I didn't know Newsweek was hiring?" she said, suddenly quite serious.
"They're not. Freelance."
"Ah. The scourge of our age."
"Sign of the times."
She held up her stein: "Well, here's to the good old days."
"Yeah. To old days." And friends long gone, I thought. I tipped back my stein and tossed off about half of it in one go. "So what are you doing here? Kinda off your beat, isn't it."
Just a hunch: my bet she was on to something. Would she talk about it? Not by a long shot. But did she want to talk about something else? She was looking kinda cute.
We drank for a while. Really, we drank for three hours. Jet lag and fourteen liters of turbo-charged beer. Nice combination if you dig the vomit scenes in The Exorcist.
Finally, she's looking at me like she's gonna talk. I'm thinking of just the right question to get her started when she leans into me and whispers: "I think I just pee'd my pants."