In horse-trading and other one-sided swaps, there are winners and there are losers. I had no delusions to which category I belonged.
This was back in the days when we were starting out in a new city and new identities, established and yet not, feeling the immensity of it all like a great hand squeezing the breath from our lungs, the mountains rising on the western horizon, the broad sweep of prairie rushing to greet the dawn, the city with its diverse permutations ranging from dark alleyways reeking of urine and overflowing dumpsters to the palatial mansions of Cherry Creek and their obscenely rich denizens whom I came to despise, though not from any deliberate slight, or not many, anyway. If I learned anything from navigating those two estranged worlds it was that we all have our place in society as in life, and ours was a work in progress. I can’t say much has changed in that respect though so much else has that I sometimes catch myself in wonder, or turning find the years glimmered away and some other land at my feet. Where once this sudden disjunction sent me cartwheeling into a black hole, I now try to accept it as a bewildering but harmless collision between then and now, reminiscent of the latest Hubble photos of galaxies scything through one another in the farthest reaches of space.
Being firmly ensconced within the confines of a lower middle class wage taught us the astronomical gulf between want and need. Bills came first and if anything was left over it went to savings or extras. Admittedly we weren’t good at saving in those pre-children years but we were just learning who we were, and who each other was, and the future was an incomprehensible abstract it was easy to ignore. So distanced were we from any concept of aging, so innocent, that we vowed to jump off a bridge when we reached forty, a number somehow equated with senility and, as it turned out, all too soon passed. Though we reset the date to the age of sixty, that too was nixed for obvious reasons. Now we’ve no detailed date of departure but I suspect we’ll know it when we get there, even if it means having to find an accomplice to tip us into the abyss from out of our wheelchairs.
Having few financial means meant being creative in terms of acquisition. Sales were a plus as were coupons and house brands for food, but beyond that everything else remained a scramble. After carrying a .38 Special revolver for several years, I scrimped and saved until I could afford a 9m/m Colt Combat Commander in satin-nickel finish, with two extra clips and leather. My timing was gloriously impeccable. The day I purchased it the city of Denver passed an ordinance forbidding anyone other than police officers from carrying semi-automatic pistols. Lori was not amused.
The pistol became material for exchange. Bartering, that ancient and honorable tradition uniquely geared toward have-nots, thrives to this day, notably in third world countries where the average daily wage hovers around fifty cents. The advent of computers and computer literacy has transformed bartering into a more lucrative venue, so that while the rich still buy and the poor still trade, for the rest of us there’s eBay.
I became interested in photography shortly after we married. Having a company discount facilitated a growing arsenal of camera gear, though each purchase included a stomach-churning fear of financial wreckage. By the time I decided to develop my own photos, having had terrible results through commercial developers (my fault, not theirs, though I was too stupid to realize it), it was painfully obvious that outright purchase wasn’t an option. So I set out to find someone who wanted to swap.
It didn’t take long. Nor was I as selective as I should have been. A fellow employee unloaded a truckload of outdated darkroom equipment with little dickering or negotiation, but he was happy as was I so by that criteria alone the exchange was a success.
I went home with a fresh roll of exposed film, taped shut the bathroom door, swapped the lightbulb and set up my trays and chemicals, the very model of a budding Ansel Adams but with none of the prospects or talent. For the most part, my pitiful efforts met in disaster but I kept hammering away at it with the sure knowledge that nothing comes easily, that practice makes perfect, and discovering in the process that we’ve been lied to. Sometimes our greatest efforts come to naught.
And yet none of that mattered when that first image floated to the surface of the emulsion, eerily lit by a single red bulb, itself lending an otherworldly air of mystery, almost seductive, the paper a blank slate without texture or detail one moment and ghosting into shades of gray the next. It reminded me of seeing snapping turtles surfacing in gravel pits near our grandparents’ house in west Texas, their shadowy silhouettes gradually materializing in the turquoise-green waters, subaqueous shapes lifting from the murky depths to stare at us through cold reptilian eyes, hesitating for a long heartbeat on the nether side of the thin meniscus before shattering it into a thousand shards of light. And seeing the same thing in my impromptu darkroom, images of broken windows and staved-in doors, the aftermath of burglaries I’d covered, emerging phantom-like in the liquid chemical bath, something from nothing, a conjurer’s sorcery.
My darkroom days were few. But they were important, for they set the stage for what would follow decades later, a digital, computer-driven darkroom sans chemicals, red lights and blackened rooms. Though the transaction was one-sided, and I was surely hoodwinked—something my wife pointedly pointed out—what I saw in that emulsion fired my imagination from that day to this. For that, I wouldn’t trade anything.