We meet all kinds of characters while out in the world doing our photography thing. Here's a story about a guy I met late one night while I was in in Portland, Oregon for the 2014 Adobe Educator Summit...
I met Michael Jackson Ingleman last night, at the Providence Park Max station in Portland. I was doing my thing, shooting moving trains at night, minding my own business and trying not to draw attention. The shots were looking like they always do, and each one reminded me that it’s probably time to come up with a new idea.
He approached me from behind, disheveled just enough to not be mistaken for some regular guy in jeans and sneakers and a ball cap. Slurring his words and carrying a mixed sixer (three bottles of Coors Light and three cans of something I didn’t recognize), he asked me if I was a photographer.
“I am”, I said.
“What are you photographering?” he asked.
I told him I was making blurry pictures of trains. When he asked to see, I carefully unlatched my camera from the low tripod, wrapped the strap around my wrist, and showed him.
“That’s a nice camera”, he said. “What is it, a Canon?”
“Nikon”, I said, then, thinking that maybe I should attempt to devalue it a bit, just in case, I added “It’s an old one. They don’t make it anymore”.
“Nice. What’s your name?”
I paused. I didn’t want to be talking to anybody, and certainly not some drunk on a strange city street. I wanted to be invisible. I wanted to just make my pictures and then go back to my very comfortable deluxe hotel room at the Hotel Deluxe a couple of blocks away. But I was in it now, and I could either ignore the guy, or pack it up and find another place to shoot.
Or I could talk to him.
My middle name is what everybody knows me by, but it’s always felt like a boy’s name to me. My first name is my grandfather’s name, it’s a man’s name, and I thought I was in for a man’s conversation.
“John”, I answered.
“Want a beer, John?” he asked, offering me a bottle of Coors. I declined, and he twisted off the cap and took a long swig.
“I don’t know much, but I know who I am. I’m Michael Jackson Ingleman. I’m a Marine. Gulf One. Fifteen confirmed kills. I wanted to go back after they discharged me, but they didn’t want me back.”
As he talked, I put the camera back on the tripod and snapped a picture. Low, about knee height. I didn’t want to move it so I was ready for the next train.
“Did you take my picture? Let me see.” I showed him.
“That’s a nice camera”, he said again. “What is it, a Canon?”
“Nikon”, I said, turning away as he hawked up a wad of phlegm from deep in his throat and spit. It hit the cobblestones with a little smack.
“I’m not very good looking” he said.
“You look like a Marine” I said, right back to him.
“They wouldn’t take me back. We should have killed fucking Sadaam. And they call it a tour of duty. Like it’s a fucking vacation or something.”
A train was approaching the station.
“I was married, too. Divorce is hard.” He looked down. “She gets 19 percent, but that’s ok. She deserves it. I don’t have much, but I’m leaving her everything when I die.
I know a thing or two about divorce, but I wasn’t about to get into that with him. The train made a gently curving left turn across the intersection and slid into the station.
"Hold still, Michael."
As the train rolled to a stop, I made a 4 second exposure. Posing heroically, he held still for less than 2, rendering him blurrier than the train. If he wasn’t distracting me, I would have made three or four shots, instead of just the one.
But like I said before, I was in it now.
"Let me see!” he said, lurching toward me excitedly, like a robot, like a child, like a full-on dead drunk.
Like an old buddy, he pressed his shoulder against mine and stared at the colorful little thumbnail on the back of my camera. I tried not to back away as I zoomed in on the image, then showed him where to stand for the next one. I could already see the approaching lights of another train a couple of blocks down Morrison St.
He asked me if he could hold his beer for the shot. I told him he could do whatever he wanted, as long as he tried to hold still.
The train moved into the station slowly, and this time I made a series of long exposures until it came to a complete stop. I coached him as I shot, encouraging him to remain still. He tried, striking and holding a series of poses for a second or two while either holding his beer bottle admiringly at arm’s length or clutching it close to his chest. He was really getting into it, but we were out of synch.
The train pulled away. We looked at the images together. He was blurry in all of them, almost transparent in one. He asked if that was OK.
“It kind of makes you anonymous, representational” I said, then realizing how ridiculous I sounded, I assured him it was just what I was looking for.
As much as I was starting to get comfortable with him, I felt like I might be pushing my luck if I hung around much longer. I picked up the tripod and folded the legs.
“I’m going to move on, Michael. Thank you for helping me.” I dug into my pants pocket for my wallet, opened it, and gave him a five. “Your modeling fee.”
He took the bill and looked at it for a moment. “Give me a hug”, he said.
I smiled and stuck my hand out instead, and then at the last second before he took it, I turned it into a fist. He tapped his fist to mine.
“OK, a fist bump.” Then, grabbing my forearm and telling me to do the same to his, he said “brothers in arms– that’s how we do it.”
I thanked him again, and started to walk away.
“Hey John! What are spider webs made out of?”
“Silk”, I said.
“And what do cows drink?”
“Milk”, I said.
“Water! They drink water!” I left him behind, laughing, beer in hand and five bucks richer.
A block later, as I was crossing 16th St., I heard a beer bottle hit the sidewalk and roll away. I looked over my shoulder and saw Michael following me, walking just a little faster than I thought he should. I picked up my own pace a bit, and then turned the corner toward my hotel on 15th street. As I did, I looked back again. He was gone.
I went upstairs to my room and immediately washed my hands, and felt bad about doing it.
This morning, I sat in the window of a neat little donut shop across the street from the same train station, drinking coffee. A pretty young blond woman in black leggings and a short blue skirt stood at the spot where Michael and I met just a few hours earlier. I stared across the tracks, and wondered where he had spent the night. The beer bottle he had offered me and then held in his hand for the pictures I made of him lay in a small tangle of weeds on the sidewalk.