The Collector

12,260 tons. 

That’s how much garbage New York City sanitation workers toss in the backs of trucks every day along 6,300 miles of city streets.

Sam and partner

We’ll call him Sam. I spotted Sam around 7am on a chilly December morning in front of the Winter Garden theater on Broadway. I can’t remember what I noticed first - the bright uniform, the red cap, or his classic cigarette pose.

I remember that pose from the 50s. Then it seemed like every man on the street held a cigarette in his mouth that same way. 

At first I passed by. I didn’t say hello or even drop a nod. Why was that? It nagged at me. About twenty steps in I made an about face. 

“Hey guys, how’s it going?”

“It’s going man,” Sam said “It’s going.”

We chatted a bit about what it took to keep the streets clean. Now if you live in or have been to New York, you know what the mounds of bagged trash, cartons, boxes, and everything else that ends up on a New York City street looks like. (And if you haven’t been to the City, picture 12,260 tons of garbage hitting your streets every day. Yeah, it’s a lot.)

While I talked to Sam, his partner tossed bag after bag into a truck. He didn’t say much but kept an ear turned our way to make sure I hadn’t trapped Sam into a long conversation. I knew Sam needed to get back to work so it was time for a few pictures.

As I pressed the shutter, I imagined Sam’s day.

It’s 3:55am. The alarm is set for 4 but Sam always beats it. He doesn’t want the rest of the family rattled by the buzzer. Sam counts on strong hot coffee for a kick-starter. Last year he picked up one of those coffee makers with a timer. It was on sale. Nice thought, but Sam’s routine didn’t budge. 7-11, the one on Fordham Road in the Bronx. He saw the same folks there every morning; each headed in a different direction but starting their day together with strong coffee and an exchange of small talk and smiles. Or grimaces, depending on the weather. There was an unspoken camaraderie among them. Sam moved over to the 6am shift a couple of years ago when his kids - two girls - started middle school. It was important for him to be home when the girls got home. He could do that working the early shift. These were important years for those girls. Sam heard enough stories about kids left to fend for themselves. He knew that drill well. He never talked about it much, but you could read his own childhood story in his eyes. No, that wasn’t going to happen to his girls. They were special. The kind of daughters who give their Dad a hug even when their friends are around.

I like the City. I’ll be there again soon. I’ll look for Sam at the corner of 51st and Broadway. I won’t have to backup to say “hey.”

If you see Sam first, give him a nod. 

Ben the Warrior

Turning a corner is an adventure.  

On a downtown street he was tucked into a doorway niche that I walked by many times.

"Is that a Leica camera" he asked. 

"Yes, it's a Leica."

"Are you from Germany" he wanted to know with the clear knowledge that a Leica is a German camera.

"No, I'm not from Germany." And that was our beginning.

He told me his name was Ben. ”I'm Philip." We shook hands. His hands were as strong as his eyes.

He knew a great deal about cameras and photography, that was evident. Not the bragging kind of intellect that people use to fill dead space. No, his wisdom was honest and sincere. 

Ben told me he hoped to save enough money for a camera so he could start taking pictures again. Long ago he had been a photographer, he told me. I believed him. I wanted him to have a camera again.

"Can I photograph you?" Something inside told me he was waiting for me to ask. Without objection, he allowed me to work around him as we continued to talk. That's when I noticed the knife and sheath around his neck. I wanted to ask him about the knife, but for some reason I didn't. Perhaps I wanted to imagine my own story about Ben? 

And I did.

Ben was a warrior. He traveled to protect others who were not as strong as he. No one ever needed to call out for him. Ben simply knew when he was needed. That was his purpose. He wasn't a Robin Hood. Ben was selfless; a true Good Samaritan. When necessary, he threatened with - but never struck with - his knife. He didn't need to. Ben's fierce eyes were enough to abate danger. The knife? It was given to him long ago (who knows how long) by his Master. Or by his father? Or both.

The wind whispered. Ben grew quiet and looked to the street. I knew that was my signal to leave.

I still look for Ben around corners.

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