In retrospect, this was an encounter that could have ended badly, had this random stranger not been a nice person.
At first glance, I honestly wasn’t sure whether he was or not. I’ve heard things about what a teardrop tattoo means, and it kind of freaked me out.
But I should begin at the beginning…
I had decided that the main subject of my Rollei 35 test roll would be the Jefferson Center, after I photographed it in passing with my Blackbird Fly months before. My route took me straight up Jefferson St for about ten blocks. Unbeknownst to me, the Jefferson Center is right across the street from St. Paul’s Community Center, a homeless shelter that also provides various social services and support to its clients.
My walk became awkward before I happened upon the gentleman pictured above, as I just so happened to match pace with a woman for several blocks in silence before she cut across a parking lot right before my destination. (As it turns out, she was heading to the homeless shelter. She obviously had no desire to engage in small talk with me, and I didn’t try.)
As I arrived at the Jefferson Center and started to take stock of where I might begin photographing, I saw a man standing across the street from where I was assessing my photo shoot. He waved at me and started across the street, clearly planning to engage me in some sort of conversation.
I forget what he said to me, exactly, but he asked me if I was from out of town. (I figured maybe he thought I was sightseeing, because of my camera.) He made a crack about the wart on my eyebrow, saying that I must be from some particular state, since I’ve already got a wart. Whatever the joke was, I didn’t get it.
I gauged the situation and ventured to admit to this stranger that I work downtown.
“Downtown — you work for Social?”
While I explained to him that, no, I didn’t work for Social Services, I was checking this guy out. He had a small blue teardrop tattoo under his left eye, and a tiny blue anchor under his right. I was a little concerned, wondering OMG IS THIS GUY A MURDERER HE HAS A TEARDROP TATTOO, but also monitoring his body language and tone of voice and trying to figure out if there was a reason he came over to talk to me.
“So… how you been?”
This was his vocal tic, his default line when the awkward conversation would flag for a moment. He said it several times in the few minutes we were conversing. Each time he said it, I got progressively more positive with my answer — because I was getting progressively less worried and more interested.
“You want a cigarette?” he asked. I declined. He lit one up for himself.
He asked me if I had a family, and I told him I was married with a son. He volunteered his son’s name and birthdate, and told me that the name, Liam, means “Irish warrior.” He also told me that “she” picked it out. As it turns out, Liam’s birthday is exactly one year and one day before my son’s, and I told him so.
He then volunteered, “Megan’s coming to pick me up and take me to my appointment at Harbor.”
He gave me kind of a blank stare. It was the same blank stare I’d been getting from him in between each of our short exchanges, though, so it was OK.
“…Do you have a phone?”
At this point, I blatantly lied, because no way am I giving a stranger my phone.
“Nope, just my camera,” I said, and held it up. I explained that it was an old-school film camera.
“Will you take my picture?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Yeah! Here, I’ll stand behind you.”
That was the moment it could have gone extra wrong, in retrospect. He totally could have shanked me from behind, or strangled me, or any number of things. But he didn’t. He really just wanted to take a selfie with me.
I knew the focus of the Rollei wasn’t close enough for the selfie to come out, but I took the picture, anyway, on the count of three.
“You gonna put it on Facebook?”
“You want me to?”
“Yeah! Look me up on there: I’m Michael Z—-.”
It was at this point that I politely excused myself, and explained that I wanted to take pictures of this building here, just because I think it looks cool, and I like to take pictures. I wished him well, and I told him that I hoped Megan showed up soon.
I studiously avoided looking his way as I started photographing, for fear of accidentally re-engaging with him — not because I was creeped out by him, but because I really did want to photograph the Jefferson Center before I ran out of lunch break. Since I’d told him I didn’t have my phone on me, I made sure to look around and make sure he wasn’t watching anytime I wanted to use my light meter app.
I did try looking him up on Facebook later on, but either he spells his last name differently than I guessed from his pronunciation, or he actually has his account locked down really well. There are a couple Michael Z—- from Toledo, but none of them have a profile pic (or a friend named Megan).
I sincerely hope his appointment at Harbor went well, and that he got there on time, and I hope his boy is enjoying kindergarten this year.
But I don’t think I need to photograph the Jefferson Center again anytime soon.