Low Light

PART ONE

1 Dangerous Offer

Low-light-BookCoverImageIt started in April with the long distance, person-to-person call from my wife’s cousin the gangster, Sam Brodsky. He wanted to offer me a job, he told me, one that would pay a lot, one that he chose not to discuss over the telephone. My first thought, when he came on the line, had been that he wanted to spread a little of his money around by having me take the pictures at his June wedding. I dropped a hint, which he ignored. Instead, he told me that his fiancée was a lovely girl named Anne whom everybody in the family would love. I told him that Ida, who is Sam’s first cousin, and our two daughters were fine. Pretty soon we were done reminding each other that we were family, and Sam got down to business.
     “Al, I have a job for you,” he said. “You are the perfect guy for it. It’s a special kind of photography. I don’t even know for sure if it can be done.”
     I thought he was being secretive because he was worried about nosey neighbors on the party line or that the operator might be listening. It did not occur to me that he was worried about wiretaps by the Investigations Bureau of the United States Department of Justice. At that time, I was just an ordinary businessman who didn’t even know there were such things as wiretaps. As I recall, I had never even heard of the Investigations Bureau.
     “So why don’t you come down to Philadelphia, and we’ll talk about it,” I said. “I’ll show you my studio. You’ll see, I have some terrific equipment, I can take just about any kind of picture.”
     “I’ve got a better idea,” he said. “The picture has to be taken in Atlantic City. Why don’t you meet me here?  I’m staying at the new Ritz.”
     “Sam, it’s barely even April. Who goes to Atlantic City at this time of year?”
     “Al, I guarantee that it will be worth your while. We’ll have dinner at the best restaurant in town. We’ll go to a few night spots where, I guarantee, you’ll have a great time. If you want to stay over, I’ll get you a room at my hotel. Everything’ll be on me. We’ll have some fun… talk some business.”
     Ida and I had always suspected that Sam was into something that was on the shady side. We didn’t know what kind of business it might have been, although we were aware of rumors that Sam worked for Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster, the famous “Mr. Big” who was supposed to have fixed the 1919 World Series, and who’d been murdered in November of 1928 − front page news, even in Philadelphia.
     After supper, as the girls were cleaning up the kitchen, I sat down with Ida in her sewing room and told her all about Sam’s call. She was as curious as I. We speculated about the kind of photography Sam might have in mind. “Just be careful,” she had said. “Don’t agree to anything until we discuss it.”
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     In summertime, because traffic backed up in the one-horse towns between Philadelphia and the resort, the ride to Atlantic City usually took three hours. On that gray April day, with little patches of snow still in the furrows in the fields, I made the drive in a little over two hours. Because I was early, I went onto The Boardwalk in front of the hotel to stretch my legs.
     Seagulls were wheeling in the wind above the boarded-up cabanas; others stood on the rippled beach and watched the surf. I thought about the tricks I could use to capture the wintry feel of the place. I’d use a wide-angle lens. After developing the negative, I’d expose the paper in stages, using cutouts and stencils for the gulls and the cabanas. I’d make the gulls brighter against the sand and the sky, the cabanas, perhaps, darker. So,  I ended up being a little late to see Sam because I was working on pictures in my head.
     A doorman in a red coat touched the brim of his top hat and opened the door to the newest, fanciest hotel in town. The desk clerk, after he called Sam’s room, told me to wait for someone to come and get me. A few minutes later, a short man with a waxed handlebar moustache, wide shoulders and muscles that bulged against his suit, emerged from the elevator and spotted me waiting for him.
     “Rubin?  Follow me, please,” he said with a Russian accent.
     You needed to use two elevators to get up to Sam’s place. An operator closed the brass lattice on the first elevator and took us to the eighth floor. We crossed the corridor to a smaller elevator that Mr. Moustache operated himself. The dial was all the way over, pointing to the gold “Penthouse” letters when the car stopped. The strongman gave a little bow and gestured for me to step out.
     I realize, now, that the beautiful things I saw in Sam’s penthouse got to me. The first thing I liked about the place was the view. I liked looking down at the wheeling gulls, at the unobstructed view of the sky, at how the low sun painted the towering clouds orange and pink, at the vast spread of the cold Atlantic. I liked the way the white rug, the first one I’d ever seen, made the room seem bright. There were real oil paintings on the walls, the kind you see in museums. The furniture was all smooth curves and hard edges, the latest style. A bronze statuette of a dancing woman graced the corner of a desk  that was almost as big as my darkroom.
     From behind the desk, Sam capped his fountain pen, closed the ledger book in front of him, and rose to greet me. I was struck, as I usually was after not seeing him for awhile, by his small stature, only an inch or two above five feet tall. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair. As always, I was  happy to see Sam, a man I regarded as a friend as well as a relative.
     Al,” he said, smiling,  “How’s, Ida?  How’s business?”
     “Good, good.” I said. We’d never had a visit from Sam, so I told him all about my building in Southwest Philadelphia: ‘Albert Photographic Studio’ in gilt-lettering on the storefront window; the darkroom in the back; our three-bedroom apartment upstairs. The property had a long backyard where Ida grew flowers and vegetables in the summer. The building was in a row of stores, a few doors down from a corner trolley stop, so there was a decent walk-in trade. When I told him how I’d been trying to hire somebody to help in the darkroom, I saw that he was losing interest. “Sam, I can’t complain. And your business, Sam?  How’s by you?”
     He shrugged. “Good, good.” I was not surprised that he didn’t elaborate. Then he got down to cases. “Al,” he said, “What I wanted to ask you about was taking pictures outside your studio. Do you do that?”
     “Sure, all the time. I have a couple of cameras I schlep around to weddings, to the high school for yearbook portraits, you know. I sometimes take them over to the park, down by the creek. I’ve even got pictures of birds.”  I mentioned my pigeon pictures, how I was proud of the way I’d captured the sheen of their ruffs.  “But do you want that kind of stuff?”
     “No. Nothing like that. I guess I wonder whether you can take pictures inside like it was outside. You know, without the flash powder and the sitting still and all.”
     “It depends,” I said. “You mean taking candid pictures indoors?”
     “Yes. Exactly. Taking candid pictures indoors.”
     I said, “I’d use bulbs instead of powder. That’s how we’re going to do it from now on. They’ve just come out with an attachment I can get for the side of my camera that’s wired to the shutter and to a miniature dry cell battery. You press the shutter lever, and POOOF, you got just as good light as with the powder. At least that’s what the Kodak people write in the advertisements. I was thinking of getting one anyway.”
     Sam seemed disappointed. “But people know you’re taking their picture, right?”
     “Hard not to.”
     He frowned and walked toward the window. He put his fingers into his back pockets and stared out at the horizon. “There’s no way to take a picture without people knowing?” he asked.
     I thought it over. “You could do it easy, if the people were outside and if it was daytime and they weren’t walking or talking or anything.”
     He turned to me, frowning, and asked,  ”It can’t be from the next room?  Like through a little hole?”
     “It could be inside,”  I replied. “But your subjects would have to be in a room with windows. Maybe like this one, with the sun coming right in and bouncing off a white rug and white walls. So, I’m saying, you could get a good picture, but it would have to be in the right room on the right day. And, yeah, you could set up your camera behind a wall.”
     Sam faced the wide French balcony doors. It was dusk; we watched a lamplighter on the Boardwalk far below lean his ladder against a post. The gas lamp flared, setting an aura of sea mist aglow.
     “What’s this about, Sam?  Why don’t you want people to know you’re taking their picture?”
     Sam thought for a moment, lips pursed, and came to a decision. “It’s simple, Al. I need to get the goods on a man who’s coming to this hotel on Decoration Day. He’s in a very important job where he has to be Mr. Perfection. If I get a picture of him doing dirty stuff,  I can solve many problems.“
     Sam turned from the window. “This guy we’re talking about has been here in Atlantic City more than a few times, and he always comes with a pal. He may even be a faygelleh, this guy. There’s a good chance he is, and if I have a picture of  him naked with another man, that would be terrific. But maybe him and his pal get whores. I don’t know. I do know that grownups don’t come here for the saltwater taffy. A million men come to Atlantic City every year because they can do stuff here that they’re afraid of getting caught doing back home. They want to believe that whatever happens in Atlantic City stays in Atlantic City.”
     Sam looked at me to see whether I was shocked. I kept a poker face. I knew right away, absolutely, that I didn’t want anything to do with Sam’s plan − I’m not a blackmailer. I should have said ‘goodbye’ right then. But I didn’t. Partly,  I didn’t want Sam to think I was condemning him. Also, I wanted to act like a man of the world, a guy who looked on blackmail as an everyday sort of thing. Hah!  But there was also the fact that I liked where I was. Sam’s world, surrounded by the finer things in life, was more beautiful than mine. Being in that room, with its beautiful view and elegant objects, had an effect. I admit it, now.
     “So who is he?” I asked.
     “Did you ever hear of John Edgar Hoover?”
     “Who’s he?  The President’s brother?”
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