Every five years or so our church publishes a photo directory of the membership. My husband, Buck, and I reluctantly signed up for the sitting. We had dragged our feet on it long enough that we thought we had missed it altogether, but then someone from the church called to let us know that an additional “make up” time had been scheduled. So, yesterday afternoon, dressed in our Sunday best, we drove in from the country to the beautiful old Episcopal Church downtown to have our likenesses struck.
A sign-in table was set up just outside the parish hall, but no one was there. We opened the double doors, peeked into the cool dark room, and were spotted instantly by the circuit riding picture seller. She greeted us with a salesman’s aggressive bonhomie, and then sat down at the sign-in table to enter our names in the book. Outfitted in tan Capri pants, high heels, and knit top, her faux leather jacket was an orange-tan color that made me think of what Velveeta fudge might look like.
When she sat, the top of her head was on display to us, gray roots visible through the frosted short layers. Her shiny peach-colored fingernails ended in long points, and seemed to make it difficult for her to efficiently grasp the pen she used to write in our names. She tore the completed form off the pad with a flourish and stepped briskly into the darkened room, high heels clicking on the wooden floor.
Buck and I followed her. She disappeared, but a youngish man materialized out of the gloom. His black rat tail thin mustache and quick movements called to mind a sleek, anxious ferret. He swiftly guided us to a corner of the room where a screen, stools, lights, and camera were in readiness. In this business, time is money, and he only took about twenty seconds to issue instructions to us: “You sit here; you, there. Shoulders back!”
He moved behind the tripod-supported camera: “Look here. Say ‘let me outta here!’” Then we were blinded by a bright flash.
This process was repeated several times in slightly different poses. Each time, just at the point of snapping a shot, the photographer would fire a staccato machine gun volley of words instructing us to say something allegedly “cute” – presumably to elicit a smile.
Problem was, he was in such a hurry that neither Buck nor I could react in time, so that in one shot Buck was frowning with the effort of concentrating to hear what the photographer was saying, while in the same picture I had a pleasant half-smile, but with my eyebrows arched halfway up my forehead, clearly trying to understand what was expected at that precise moment. The next picture had our expressions reversed. What we ended up with was a halfway acceptable picture of Buck looking solemn and slightly hostile and me over-smiling like a horse trying out for a tooth whitener commercial.
Once this quickie sitting was completed, the photo-ferret motioned us to a folding table in another part of the room. It was set up with a lap top computer and a large, flat-paneled monitor. Each end of the table was anchored by a display of some truly ugly generic family photos. Three metal folding chairs had been placed in front of the table.
Buck and I just stood there, wondering what came next. We didn’t have to wait long. The sharp tap-tap-tap of high heels announced her return. She hailed us by our first names as though we were long-lost friends, and gestured for us to take a seat. Buck sat to my right in front of the computer monitor; the picture seller to my left, ready to download our photos onto the screen, launch into her sales pitch, and take our credit card number.
She began by explaining the “sweetheart set”, a three photo package, including one of Buck and me together, one of him alone and one of me alone. They would be digitally touched up to remove those pesky character lines, the final product printed onto a mat surface several inches thick — kind of like composite sawdust — and then fitted into three semi-gold-painted-ersatz-substance oval frames, just like the generic samples displayed on the table. All of this could be ours for the bargain price of $285, and that included a “complimentary” 8×10 portrait, which was a copy of the picture that would be appearing in the church directory.
We wanted to be nice, but that price called for more talk. Especially since the pictures were, well, maybe gruesome is too strong a word, but neither of us was eager to have ourselves immortalized with those expressions.
I began to squirm. The picture seller realized things were going badly. She moved to her first fall-back package. And the next. And the next. Finally, Buck and I realized she was almost to her end game.
Backing away from the screen, I looked more carefully at this woman.
Her accent wasn’t northwest Florida. It was more Tennessee or maybe Arkansas. I couldn’t quite place it. She looked tired. She tried one or more gambit on the “sweetheart” grouping. “Don’t you have children that you would like to give a set of these pictures to?”
“Well, we do have children,” Buck said, “but they live right here and we see each other frequently.”
“Any grandchildren? Wouldn’t you want them to enjoy these pictures?”
“Oh, yes, we have grandchildren,” I said, “but we’re together often and also share e-mail photos all the time.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice drooping. But then, she looked up gamely, and said, “I have two grandchildren. With my travel schedule, we don’t see each other very often, but when we do, it is quality time, I assure you, quality time.”
I was no longer interested in the screen or those silly pictures.
“Do you travel around with the photographer, taking picture orders?” I asked.
Her back straightened. “Three hundred nights last year, each one in a different motel.” We looked at one another directly. “And, you know, we travel by car. I put 60,000 miles on my car just last year, going between the panhandle of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.”
Buck took it all in. Taking out his credit card, we bought a middle of the road package of those awful photos. Completed the transaction. Took our leave.
Buck and I had sort of planned to go out to dinner somewhere in town. But our mood had shifted. We held hands walking out to the car, and drove north toward home, stopping at our favorite little neighborhood Chinese restaurant for some take-out. The owner, Phoebe, oohed and ahhed over how well we cleaned up. “You look so nice,” she smiled. “I never see you all dressed up before.”
Arriving home with our paper dinner boxes, we hugged our chocolate Labrador retriever, put on our soft clothes, and read our fortune cookies aloud to each other. We felt stunned almost speechless by the munificent gifts of shared love, comfort and ease in which, unearned, we daily bask.
Buck and I drank a toast to the Circuit Riding Picture Seller and the photographer. We made a wish that they would find a comfortable bed at the end of each day, customers who will buy their pictures, and a bonus at year’s end.
Note: This was originally posted in a now-defunct first blog effort in January of 2004. I just found a hard copy of it and wanted to include it here. That hard working woman with her thin, nasal twang has remained in my memory now for more than a decade. I thought of her again recently when Buck and I met with another nice woman doing what I think of as a difficult job: selling burial plots and monuments from a funeral home. Why we were there is a story for a different day, one I’ll tell soon.