Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Light in the Darkroom

It is my first week on a new job and already, Adrienne Ivey catches me in a lie.

The time is May 1981. I've just started my first real job out of college as a reporter for the Daily Herald in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. During my job interview a few weeks prior, the newspaper owner had informed me that not only would I be reporting, I'd be taking pictures as well.

"You know how to develop pictures?" he'd asked.

"Sure. My father's a professional photographer." The second part of my statement was true. As for the first part, I assumed I'd never have to actually develop film, as the newspaper had a staff photographer.

I assumed wrong.

That first week at work, one of my assignments is to write a story about an elderly woman named Grace who was being sprung from the local hospital after an extended stay. Her church is hosting a homecoming party for her. My editor, Dick Kern, who always mumbles with a pipe in his mouth and rarely makes eye contact, assigns me to cover the story. He wants photos.

"You'll need to develop the pictures," Mr. Kern mumbles. Phil, the paper's photographer, called in sick that day. "I need them before you leave today."

A Frantic Call to My Father

Heart pounding, I wait for the newsroom to empty after the noon press deadline and dial my father's studio in Greensboro. I'm hoping for an impromptu lesson by phone in darkroom techniques. My father had often tried to teach me such things when I was a kid, but my head wanted to fill itself instead with I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, and The Wild, Wild West.

"He's out on a photo shoot for the rest of the day," my father's secretary says. "Why don't you call him tonight at home?"

"Why don't I look for another job?," I wonder. I glance at the darkroom door. Maybe if I venture inside, I'll discover written instructions explaining how to develop film. I open the door and leave it open, so I can see because, being a darkroom, it is dark. My eyes glaze over at the bottles of chemicals, which look familiar and foreign at the same time. I open a drawer, then another and another. One of them contains a stack of blank paper. I keep opening drawers until a woman's voice startles me.

"What in Sam Hill are you doing?"

It's Adrienne Ivey, the paper's long-time city reporter. She is probably not much taller than five feet, with short hair red like the tip of a matchstick. As she speaks, she removes her small, rectangular-framed sunglasses, revealing the hardened expression of someone who'd grown up in a mill town (Roanoke Rapids). Deep crinkles circle her eyes as she sizes me up.

I decide to come clean, telling her I didn't have a clue how to develop film. I never expected that I'd have to actually do it, I explain.

"Yeah, well, you're gonna be doing a lot of things around here you never expected," Adrienne quips. Her gaze lands on the stack of paper in the drawer. A smile that is partly a smirk, an Adrienne trademark, creeps across her face.

"Let me enlighten you, pun intended," Adrienne says. "You see that stack of paper? That's what you print pictures on. When the paper hasn't already been exposed to light. Which it has been now, because someone left the darkroom door open."

I try to swallow. "You mean..."

Adrienne nods, still smiling at me in her particular way. She picks up the stack of photo paper. "This is every bit as good as Confederate money."

"Is there any more paper?" I ask, hopefully.

"Of course not," she says, smiling.

What if Mr. Kern Finds Out?

I apologize profusely, mortified at my stupidity, fearful of being reprimanded, afraid of--dare I say it?--being exposed. Like an astronomer studying the night sky, Adrienne knows exactly what is going on in my head.

"What will Mr. Kern say when he finds out?" I ask.

She kooks at the useless paper, at me, at her watch. "He ain't gonna find out shit,"she says. With the stack of paper in hand, Adrienne walks out of the darkroom and heads toward the press room, with me close behind. She stuffs the papers deep into an enormous trash bin, then stirs up other rubbish--banana peels, old newspapers, leftover lunches and such--until the photographic papers become invisible as well as unusable.

"Thank you Adrienne," I say when we return to the still-empty newsroom. "But what will I say when Mr. Kern asks me--"

"Good Lord child," Adrienne says. "You'd like to worry me to death." She lit a cigarette, studied me. "I can handle Dick." After a beat, she smiles mischievously. "Maybe I should rephrase that."

Gaslighting Mr. Kern

About an hour later, Mr. Kern returns from his lunch break. Adrienne informs him there is no film-developing paper. "That can't be," he responds. "I just bought a bunch last week."

"Well, there's none now. How do you expect us to develop pictures?"

I say nothing, busying myself at my desk. Within a few minutes, Adrienne not only assures Mr. Kern there's no paper; she convinces him it's his fault and to go out and buy more. I go on to my assignment, after Adrienne tells me to meet her back at the office later that afternoon, to show me how to develop film.

I do as I'm told. As we work together in the darkroom, the photos I'd taken of an elderly woman, transported on a gurney back to her home, begin to take shape. They're not bad, I think; my father would probably like them.

"See?" Adrienne says. "I told you that you'd be doing things here you never expected."

Adrienne and me, mid 1980s

I wrote about Adrienne in my last post, "Southern Storytelling - The Preacher and The Cigarette." I have another Adrienne story I'll share later. It takes place in the middle of the night--at a murder scene, no less.

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  1. I really am at a loss for words...I know I've said this before but I just LOVE your writing. What beautifully captured memories! Looking forward to many more to come :)


    Lady Grace

  2. Oh Adrienne Ivey has dick jokes. Please tell me she drank bourbon?

    If only we could all have an Adrienne on our first job. Just think how much happier everyone would be.

    And by the way, you're reminding me of Mary Tyler Moore in these tales. Does that make Adrienne, "Lou Grant?"

    1. Too funny Judi. I used to love the old MTM show -- but I suspect you know that!

  3. I love this story, Jimmy. I can just feel your mortification oozing out at having to confess your crimes to Adrienne, and yet I'm sure she was a partner-in-crime on many other occasions. I spent SO many hours in a homemade darkroom when I was a teen. I took over a half bath in the house, built a table over the toilet for my enlarger, and used the sink as my wash and chemical bath. I'm not sure why my parents tolerated it. :) So I completely relate.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Wow! My father would have loved you, Tom. He tried to get me interested in photography but it just didn't happen. Oh well; I did inherit a love for his first profession, newspaper reporting.

  4. Jim,
    Every time I read what you write I thibk back and know this wasalways your calling. Your stories are wonderful and connect on so many ways.
    I am so proud of you and know this is just the start. I claim baggage boy once you make your first million.

    1. Tim, you are too kind, my friend. Bag boy is yours! Or maybe you could be my French tutor...

    2. Loving the tales of the not-so-old South, Jim. But lordy y'all - or they all - smoked a lot back then. Funny how those cigarettes and pipes stick out nowadays.

      Looking forward to the next Adrienne story . . . ;)

    3. Chris, at one point my entire family -- including me! -- smoked. I only did it for a few years, thank God!