Sunday, October 20, 2013

In praise of my friend, a selfie pioneer

I was going through the photos on my computer, trying to find a photo I'd scanned to use as wallpaper.  I found a lot of photos of myself.  Over a period of two years, I took a picture of myself every day.  For the first year, I used my first digital camera -- an Olympus that was a mighty workhorse for years, never gave me a problem, and let me pass it along to someone to use.  For the second year, I used the Photo Booth feature on my computer.  I eventually just stopping the daily photos but it makes me think of my friend who passed away in 1988 from AIDS.

Eddis was a handsome man, tall and slender with medium brown hair, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, a first-generation American born of Latvian parents.  We met in college doing theatre.  It was a production of some Winnie-the-Pooh play or other.  I got to wear a great costume and be over the top.  I also became friends with Eddis, who played the narrator and was handsome offstage for the whole show.

In addition to being handsome, Eddis was also charming and quite brilliant.  With little effort, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and got into grad school.  Things went mildly awry at this point.  His professors insisted he read and work on his Masters program.  He wanted grad school to be as easy for him as his undergraduate days had been.  He had a great student job in the office of the school's performing arts manager.  He loved this job but it required his full attention both at and after work.  About his demanding graduate program he told me, "I don't have time for that!"  (I wanted to tell him it was graduate school and this was what happened in grad school but he was into a total full-of-himself mode and he wouldn't have listened to me.)  Six months of graduate school and he had to drop out, losing his job in the performing arts office.  He moved to Detroit (a pretty good place then) to try to find some work.  I moved to New York City, which he didn't know, and we lost touch.

I'd been living in New York about 18 months and went to a movie with one of my roommates.  It was a Katherine Hepburn retrospective because this one roommate was so into the film works of Ms. Hepburn that I can't even begin to describe her fervor, "Philadelphia Story" being her favorite.  [She would get up at 2 a.m. to watch a rerun of it.  Three of us shared a large studio, so you know this meant we watched (or heard) the movie when she did.]  As we waited for the movie to start, a tall, handsome man came in and sat about five rows ahead of us.

"Eddis!" I exclaimed.

He didn't even look.  He got up out of his seat, came over and sat next to me, and said, "How are you?" like he'd seen me the week before.

And we were again friends.

Eddis had an amazing ability to meet people and because he was so handsome, he met them way more easily than the rest of us.  Other gay men wanted this gorgeous creature around as arm candy, wallpaper, window dressing, coach covering.  Women wanted him to be their best friend, their boyfriend, their husband, their passionate misstep.  Because he was smart, he could hold up his end of a conversation.  He went to spectacular parties in fabulous residences.

Once he was over at our puny apartment and picked up my roommate's copy of Vogue, leafing through the pages.  He stopped at an article about two male designers who shared a fantastic apartment.

"I was here," said Eddis.  "I went to a cocktail party here."

"Really?  Was it fun?" we asked.

"They had steak tartare.  I'd never seen steak tartare before and I sort of shouted out 'There's raw hamburger in this bowl!'  They quietly said to me, 'That's steak tartare.'"

I knew what steak tartare was because my family members were well read and somewhat sophisticated.  He'd managed to never hear about steak tartare.  He wasn't invited back but it didn't bother him because he was 25 years old and they were decades his senior which didn't appeal to him at all.  There were plenty of other parties being held by impossibly rich people.  He could have had a swanky, ridiculously wonderful life but rich, old, gay men did nothing for him and that was that.

One day, Eddis happened upon a photo booth.  He whipped out 25¢ (yes, a quarter, decent money in those days) and took a strip of photos of himself.  The next day he did the same.  He roamed around the city looking for photo booths and every day he took a strip of photos and put it in his journal.  He took pictures when he lost a contact lense and had to wear an eyepatch so he could see with his one still encontacted eye -- he never wore glasses -- and if anything looked even more handsome and interesting.  He had favorite photo booths -- the Woolworth's near his home and another in some sort of Times Square arcade were preferred -- but if he wasn't near those, any booth would do.

Eddis might have ruled the world but he was an alcoholic.  His stepmother was an alcoholic and he followed that path.  When it came to things that could alter one's state, he couldn't help himself.  If he came to someone's home and they had marijuana, he had to smoke as much as there was.  If he went to a bar, he had to drink to the point of being totally drunk.  When he got home he would drink a quart of vodka before bed.  He lost job after job because he was either sleeping it off or too hungover to function.  He worked in a bookstore where customers wrote letters about him saying because of his recommendations, their Christmas was better.  He worked for record companies where he might have succeeded except he overslept or was drunk when he was there.  In a period of about eight years, he lost more jobs because of alcholism than I will ever have in my whole life.

He was lamenting to my oldest friend who'd been one of my New York roommates that he was having trouble finding challenging work.  She told him she thought she could get him in where she was but he would have to straighten up his act; he'd have to get sober and stay sober.  If she was going to do this for him, he had to behave and not make things bad for her.  She liked the company and they liked her.

And so he got sober and never drank again in his life.  Things went well at the company for them both but for him especially.  He made friends with someone who lived up in his part of Manhattan and they shared a gypsy cab into work every day.  He was promoted and then promoted and started travelling for the company.  Everywhere he went, he found a photo booth to take a picture of himself that day.

I was collecting postcards at the time and he would send me cards.  Because of his addictive personality, he would buy every sort of that particular card and write it out like it was one letter.  They would arrive in order sometimes but mostly they'd arrive whenever and I'd have to wait to figure out the point.  There were cards that featured anthropomorphic cats doing human things like going to work, shopping, or getting married.  He later told me these pictures scared him, that cats scared him, but he knew I liked cats and I would enjoy them.  They were my favorites of all the sets he'd ever sent me.  I love that even though he was frightened and they bothered him, he knew they would make me happy and he unselfishly persevered.

When Eddis got sick, his partner took a picture of him every day of his hospital stay so he'd have a record of it.  When he was finally released from the hospital, he worked when he could but he wasn't as good as he'd been before.  Someone not as deserving got the big promotion but he didn't think badly of the company.  Every day he slowly walked to get his picture taken at the booth nearest home.  He could finally not live on his own and his partner moved him to his home out on Long Island.  The pictures stopped because he was just too ill.

So here's a picture of me from my days of Photo Booth on my computer, when I was still using the mirror image instead of a true one.  Let's celebrate photo booths everywhere and selfies on Instagram and elsewhere.  Pictures of himself made Eddis happy, selfies make me happy, and maybe sometime they will make you happy, too.
If you see me on street, say hello.

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