He sits there in a heap, crying like a baby, begging for something. At first glance, I assume he wants money. Or a fix.
All I hear is a mumbled “Al Pacino”.
“Al Pacino is coming here. I’m waiting for him. I’m gonna wait four days for him. Right here.”
My gut tells me to walk by, eyes ahead, avoiding the possibility of incidental contact. But that’s not why I am in the Castro District of San Francisco today. I am here to take photographs. I stop to look into his pleading and exceptionally beautiful green eyes.
“When is he coming?” I ask.
He doesn’t hear my question. Instead, we start to list all the movies we could think of that Al Pacino is in. And then, as though he finally registers my initial question, he nods upward toward a poster on the Castro Theater wall announcing that Al Pacino will be there in a few days for a movie opening.
My inner Midwestern upbringing good-girl mentality kicks in, and my brain goes straight to: “Don’t photograph this poor soul. It would be exploitative.” But my gut is starting to have the upper hand in my life these days, and I proceed to hang up my piece of black velvet with the help of my body-builder friend Mark who had agreed to meet me there. I can’t get it to stick on the side of the building because of the soppy rain spots, but Mark helps to hold it in place. When I bring my camera out, Mr. Castro perks up, as much as his wobbling head will allow.
“Want me to photograph you?” He chokes out the words, a little shy-boy look across his face peering out from behind his dangling wet hair.
Sure! (Are you kidding me?)
I give him my camera making sure to secure the strap to my hand. He’s an active, erratic and currently high addict. His eyes get glassy and he tries to take the camera from me, saying he needs to get a better handle on it as he frames me. I don’t let go.
He can’t find the shutter release, even though I show him about ten times where it is. His fingers keep slipping off the camera. He starts to fall. Twice. My hand grips the strap even harder, waiting for him to begin his descent, ready to whip the camera over in my direction before it could crash along with him into the sidewalk.
What in the hell have I done?
When he finally snaps the photo, I try to pry the camera from him, but he insists that he needs to hold it to see the photo. I say ok, no problem, and try to show him how to view it on the back of the camera. He reluctantly lets go, but not without first looking stoically into my eyes and holding his gaze on me, as though to say, I know your game. You would never trust me.
I start to pack up, giving up the notion to photograph him, as badly as I would like to do it. He is right: I don’t trust him. He does scare the hell out of me. I have no business being there, in his world, as I, dressed in new Diesel jeans with a healthy check on my own vices, am tipping on the edge of my security, and he, not in the same stage as I in his life, could live as free from structure as I could only imagine.
As I put my camera in my bag, I heard Mark murmur under his breath let’s get the hell out of here.
“Don’t you want to photograph me?”
The sound of his strained voice jolts me.
He asks a second time. I get my camera back out, this time searching his face and locking my eyes into his.
As I look at these images now at home, he haunts me. We all start out as little precious beings, seeking love and attention and a safe place to rest our heads and our hearts. I study his worn yet lovely face. Cleaned up and sitting at a desk in some corporate setting or spinning records in a downtown hip venue, he would be a strikingly handsome man. Instead, one decision leads to another, and here he is.
I wonder about his mother. Does she care where he is? Does she know he sleeps on the streets and hustles for heroin and gets beaten regularly? I conjure a vision of a mother sitting in a living room somewhere, gazing out from a window, sickened to her core that her little boy went from middle school beer tasting to high school vodka to pot to acid to cocaine to riding this wild horse.
He knew I wanted to photograph him. And he was quite happy with his reflection as he looked at it, as well as he could understand it in that state.
As I write this, I am sitting in my cozy little house sipping a glass of Pinot Gris and wearing a warm cinched corduroy jacket with turquoise leather inlay cowboy boots. I think about him often.
I wonder if Al Pacino returned his hello.