“Swamis,” Right Now

This is another part of my manuscript that I am completely changing. It wasn’t some obvious attempt at having Ginny and Joey ‘meet cute.’ Still, I thought it was kind of cute/authentic. I will restate that Joey is not me. I did try to sneak into advanced photography without the prerequisite. No Ginny, no Big Jackets; ran into them later when I was writing for the “Port Townsend Leader.” Like the look, can’t pull it off myself. The having to pee but can’t leave the photos developing thing is real.

Oh, I did notice that Joey mentions Bucky Davis. He is a real person. When I said something about him and my early Kook days, a friend (okay, ‘Shortboard’ Aaron) said that Bucky Davis is the perfect surfer name. Yes.

As far as the sort of magical aura of being in a red-lit darkroom: When I was working in the Sign Shop at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, I did, on my first trip to the yard’s photo lab, go into the darkroom with, rather than the burly main photo guy, a woman who was not all that attractive in regular light, but, with the added mystery of it being very close to Halloween, and with the woman in some sort of costume (cat, I think, with appropriate makeup), it was sort of, um… let me not get myself in trouble here… it gave me something to use here, thirty-plus years later.

This works. Kind of.

Everyone in the correct classroom seemed to know each other. They were standing around in small groups, some in those multi-pocketed, khaki-colored newspaper photographer vests or coats; versions, I thought, of great white hunter jackets, modified trench coats. Big Jackets. Some had more than one camera, more than one leather camera bag. The more pockets on the coat, the bigger the camera bag, the better the photographer must be. One guy was wearing a green beret (French artist, not Army Special Forces style), another had on a gangsters-in-old-movies fedora. Very noir, I thought. One guy had on the fishing version of a pork pie hat; the look completed with a couple of fishhooks. None of those obviously real photographers, I thought, could possibly take Fish-hat seriously.

Poser. Faker. Hodad. Kook. Like me; trying to blend in without having taken the prerequisite.    

I looked down at my favorite vinyl windbreaker, selected because it had pockets for holding the two rolls of exposed film I had with me, one per pocket, balanced.  An inside pocket contained a pack of cigarettes, my dad’s lighter, four ballpoint pens and a Surfboards Hawaii decal I’d picked up at the shop, free, to me, the girl at the counter said, with my purchase of two bars of wax, as if I was special. 

Most of the Photography II folks were men, grownups, though not as old as the potential realtors. I couldn’t help thinking that most were probably most interested in artistic nude photography. Artistic. Nude. Perverts. Little groups of perverts with multiple pockets on Big Jackets.

Then there was Virginia Cole; a ponytail hanging out of a hand-crocheted girly version of something between a watch cap and a French beret. She may have had on some makeup. If so, it was minimal. She was wearing a neutral-colored and oversized sweater, and Levis, 501s; boy jeans. She had that large, gray-and-stained, possibly-leather bag on the floor in front of her. She had that Ginny Cold look (I would say neutral, but it was cooler than that) on her face.

Not that I knew her.

I did know the look; the don’t-even-think-about-it expression necessary for a young woman’s survival in the surfing community. Or any community, including night class.

Trying not to so obviously looking at Virginia Cole, I leaned against the table, close to her, checking out the black and white framed photos on the wall, and more samples, unframed, spread out on this and other tables. I did glance over occasionally. Virginia Cole didn’t look around.

“Hi,” I said. No response. “It’s like a pervert convention,” I said. No response. “The Big Jackets.”  

No response. I chuckled, Virginia didn’t. “I surfed Pipes this morning… pretty good. Dawn patrol. All the high schoolers… back in class. I had some day classes. I work… yesterday.”  

I was undoubtedly talking too fast, definitely nodding like a fool. “I mean ‘worked’ yesterday. At the market. Cardiff. San Elijo Market. Lot of people call it Mrs. Tony’s.” 

Virginia cleared her throat. “Got a great deal on grapes.” Nothing. “Seedless.” I thought I saw a bit of a smile, quickly dropped. “You get any waves?” No response. “They’re seedless; on sale. Grapes. Mrs. Tony’s.”

Virginia Cole turned toward me. She had the ‘drop-dead-and-die’ look ready to go; with the possibility of her expression moving from there to the ‘may-your-dick-fall-off-just-before-you-drop-dead-and-then-die’ look; but just as she turned, as can happen in the hours after a person surfs, water, trapped in the sinuses, suddenly, uncontrollably, flowed out of Virginia’s nostrils.

It was less than ‘poured,’ more than ‘dripped.’  No, poured is more accurate.  She pushed herself away from the table and quickly brought a hand up to stop the flow.

She looked at her hand, looked at the wet streak down her sweater, the drips on the floor, looked to see if any of the Big Jackets had witnessed this. They hadn’t. Then she looked at me. I wasn’t laughing. I must have shared Virginia Cole’s expression; both of us cringing.

Virginia Cole tried to reset her serious expression and couldn’t. “Seedless, huh?”

“Okay, class;” a man’s voice from the front of the room announced, “time to pick a partner for the dark room.”

Frightening; the choosing process. Always.

I took the neckerchief I had around my neck (part of my junior college-cool outfit), handed it to Virginia. She looked at it for a second, unraveled it, wiped her nose, her eyes on me. Green, yes; translucent. She reset her polite-but-serious face, looked down as I wiped at the puddle with my bare feet.

“No shoes,” she said.

“No. No shoes. Wasn’t expecting…” I did an unnecessary sniffle.   

Virginia Cole folded the neckerchief so that the wet part was on the inside, gave me a lesser version of the cringe. I moved one of my rolls of film to the other pocket, accepted the neckerchief, stuck it in the other pocket. I raised my Yashica 35-millimeter camera, briefly considered pointing it toward Virginia Cole.

She looked at the camera, then at me. No.

“My mom,” I said, “she bought it from a Marine, he’s… was, back from Vietnam, at her work. On the base. Photo lab, matter of fact. He’s dying, maybe he has died by now… probably. They sent him back to Arkansas or some place; some, some unspecified disease. I think it might be, um, syphilis. ‘So young,’ my mom said.” I moved the camera closer to Virginia. “So, ‘Fifty bucks,’ my dad said. It was more like a question. ‘Fifty bucks?’ ‘It’s for Junior,’ my mom said. ‘Guess it’s better than that Brownie,’ he said. So, um, she actually got it for thirty-five, cash, gave me the rest… for film. So, it’s mine.”

Ridiculous scattergun blathering. Still, I must have wanted to see, again, her ‘drop dead’ expression. I did raise my camera, did look at her through the lens. Though I never took the shot, her face, just before she put her hand over my lens; that is still my top Virginia Cole image.


This was new. The darkroom. A certain foggy closeness, warm, chemical smells. Different.

Something about being with (that is, near) a woman in a dark room; the lighting so different; highlights and profiles in shades of red; a certain intimacy. I was a little too thrilled. This wasn’t a date.

With me so obviously amazed and clueless, Virginia almost shoved me toward an empty station near one of the many sinks set and spaced out on several long black counters. She took my camera, made sure it was rewound, opened the back, took out the roll of film, unfurled it, cut it into several sections, put on some heavy rubber gloves, then, using tongs, placed those sections into the tray of developer.

“How did you even get into this class, Junior?”

I put on rubber gloves. “Beginning photography was closed.” I just stood there, stood by. Eventually the first roll of film I would ever watch develop was coming to life. Images were emerging. Negative images; everything white gone black. So excited. Not that it’s necessarily connected, but I had to piss. Desperately. I couldn’t leave. “You?”

“Me? What?”  

I tried to pass on my question by sweeping my hands toward, then past her, then around the darkroom. “Photography… Two. Two, as in, with a prerequisite.”

 “Me? Oh. Took it while I was in high school. Last year. It’s… probably didn’t tell you out in Fallbrook. It’s… possible. It’s allowed. Quit dancing.” Maybe the ‘quit dancing’ was too much like an order. “Please.” She looked at my feet. “I don’t get your no shoes look.” I looked at her feet; brushed leather almost-hiking boots. Hush Puppies. I guessed with socks. “You know, there are… chemicals… in here.” Maybe I looked like I didn’t understand. “Shoes, Junior; at least some go-aheads; something… sensible.”

“Shoes. Shoes. Good. Good idea. Sensible. Yeah. I, um, had some Hush Puppies; got them because Phillip, a friend, from, um… he surfs. Pretty well. Phillip… fashionable… he had some. I kind of…”  I put my hands on my knees. “Bowlegged. Me. Sort of. I ran them over… at the heels. They were… I liked them. Mine. You?”

“Me, again. Me what?”

“You, uh, Hush Puppies; you like them?”

Virginia Cole just shook her head. She nodded toward my first roll of film, floating in the developer. I gave her a look that requested her permission. She gave me a look that said, ‘yeah, dumbass, you can pick it up.’ What she did say, pointing to the other tray at our station, was, “Now, Junior, the fixer.”

I grabbed my roll from the tray, by the edges, held it up to the red lights. There were the images, negative, 35 millimeter, white-and-black images of Swamis, of friends on the beach, two shots of waves at Oceanside Pier. I let the roll slide into the fixer and took the second roll, gloved fingers on the edges.

“How long in the fixer.”

“Long enough.” Insufficient information. “Until it’s fixed.”

“Some of the shots are from the time Phil and Ray and I were at Swamis… shorebreak; and Bucky Davis, he was a Junior at Fallbrook when we were freshmen, one of my earliest surfing heroes; he showed up packing a seven-six, and said surfboards need to get even shorter. Shorter? I had waded out, down where the rip-rap starts, got, yeah; two shots of Bucky, cheater-five on one, and look, he’s smiling, kind of a closeup, on this one.”

Virginia did look. “A little blurred, Junior. Shutter speed, maybe, but, uh, kinetic.” Pause. “Artsy. Bucky Davis; perfect surfer name. I’ve heard it.”

“Yeah.” Something positive. “I, uh, I don’t actually know his real name.”

“Well. Maybe it’s… Bucky.”

Virginia took my roll, hung it on the line with her five rolls of negatives: Flowers, spears of that dark and heavy kind of iceplant hanging onto steep bluffs, palm trees and sunsets and clouds, and various groupings of the San Dieguito surf crowd in the Swamis parking lot.

“Whoa,” I said, “it’s so… magical. Poof; images.”

“You could act like you’ve, um, seen this magic… before.”

“I will. I have been to my mom’s work, never in the darkroom.”

“Shit, Junior; here comes Broderick. Quit the dancing.”

The instructor, Mr. Broderick, middle-aged guy with extended sideburns and a combover, was approaching Ginny and me from another sink/rack setup; but stopped to inform the shortest guy among the Big Jacket crew that Broderick’s Photography and Fine Arts Studio in Escondido should not be referred to as a ‘shop.’  

“Okay. Studio then.”

Broderick, Short Big Jacket, and Short’s lab partner, Rotund Big Jacket, began whispering; sharing some rude, no doubt, remark about the model photographed by a different Big Jacket they referred to as Nikon Nelson, who, evidently, heard his name, and, along with his (Nikon’s) partner, Black Big Jacket (not because he was black- his jacket) came over to join in.

What I overheard, from various voices, was, “Coarse. Grainy. Well lit. Butterfly lighting.” “Kind of chunky.” “Hey, that’s my wife!”  “Oh, yeah; but she looks so much… sexier in my photos.”  “Gentlemen…”  Laughter.  “Asshole!”  “Hey, partner; I was joking; your wife looks just as fat in my photos.”

Virginia pulled on my arm. Swinging around, I ended up quite close to her. She whispered, “Broderick’s had to figure out; or he will, soon. You… here.” Our faces were, maybe, too close.  For her. She moved back a bit. “You’re… quit it… the dancing.” It was more like slightly off rhythm marching in place. “You have to…”  She followed my arm, my hand, down to my crotch area, for a second, half second. “Go.”

“Go? Yes. Go. It’s just…” The developing; so… exciting.”

“Go. Please. But, uh, take the gloves off.” I peeled the right glove off, left the other. “We’ll, when you get back, make some contact prints.”

“Uh huh. Great!” I avoided eye contact with Mr. Broderick, side-stepped him and two Big Jackets, two stations over, all busily looking at sheets of white photo stock that were, most likely, contact prints, the images, obviously, nudes.

“Well lit,” I said, in passing, “Grainy, but yes; subtle.” Two of the Big Jackets nodded, one more pleased than the other. The other one gave me a look, kind of blocked me from coming closer or looking more closely. “Not fat. Statuesque.” Broderick gave me a look. I gave him a nod. “Bathroom,” I said.

TONE- I can’t seem to help it. I am writing “Swamis” as neither gritty nor light; rather as how I envision our lives. We stumble through, try to maintain a balance, some sort of dignity, and a perspective; optimistic if possible. I can’t help it if sometimes shit’s just really cutesy.

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