Who was I to tell a shop owner, “Though shalt not shoot vandals whom the police won’t stop”?
THUNK. THUNK. THUNK. With each step I take, my telephoto lens slaps my chest. The slapping is the price I pay for wearing a vintage long-lens camera as a necklace. But hey—someone has to serve as the town shutterbug. A human-interest shot can present itself anytime, anyplace.
\Especially in Poolesville, where small-town living drew us here. Most shops are a 5- to 15-minute walk away, making walking almost a civic duty. I walk because I welcome the exercise, but also because when I walk, I see people. And when I see people, I see pictures.
On this Saturday morning, I’m walking to the pharmacy in the shopping plaza beyond the McDonald’s. Lying on the grass by the plaza entrance, a large, yellow rectangle catches my eye. It’s a metal sign, flat on its back. I cock my head to read it: There’s a sale at the sandwich shop.
A downed sign, I’ve learned, often tells a story. My photo albums tell stories of drivers who failed to note a stop sign, a speed limit, a hairpin turn.
But a sandwich sale? No story here; I’ll save my film.
Still, I’m puzzled. On this windless weekend, why is a metal sign lying on the grass?
As I approach the pharmacy, the answer unfolds with deafening clarity. “That sign cost me a hundred-fifty bucks!” roars a large, burly man, “So help me, the next time, they’re gonna get it!”
The vowing vigilante is the sandwich shop’s owner. Fist shaking, he fulminates like Yosemite Sam. Never in this town have I witnessed such a public display of rage.
I approach. “Sir, I saw your sign. Who tore it down—a competitor?”
“Competitor? Teenage punks, that’s who!” His neck veins bulge like rope. “But so help me, the next time they come, I’ll be waiting with my four-gauge!”
It’s been just two years since the Colorado high school massacre, which taught the nation that an “idle” threat can be deadly serious. “Sir,” I say cautiously, “I must tell you, I’ll probably tell the police what you’ve just told me.”
“Tell ’em!” he barks. “They arrested those kids eight months ago. Did the punks serve time? Hell, no! They were ‘too young.’”
Do not try to pacify a man in his anger, cautions the Talmud. Quietly disengaging, I move on, to the pharmacy.
At the prescription counter I wait my turn, perusing a PC magazine to kill time. From across the counter, I hear: “Nice camera.” It’s Sharon, one of the pharmacy assistants.
“A Pentax,” I say, “with a one-o-five lens,” referring to my telephoto. “Do you shoot with Pentax?”
“No—an old Nikon SLR, a new Nikon SLR, and an old Canon rangefinder I keep in my car.”
A rangefinder is a quiet, simple camera. I’ve been wanting one for some time. With this SLR—single lens reflex camera—I’ve missed too many stealth shots for fear I’ll be betrayed by the per-chunk of the shutter and mirror.
“A rangefinder! May I see it?” I entreat.
“As soon as I take care of a couple customers.”
Minutes later, Sharon and I are standing by the open trunk of her Chevrolet. Soon I’m peering through a 1973 Canonet.
In the next parking row, a navy blue Chevy pickup pulls to a stop. From behind the wheel stares the sandwich shop owner, his window down. “Hey—You wanna report me? I’ll spell my name for you: Zellerman—Z-E-L-L-E-R-M-A-N. Tell ’em! Maybe this time they’ll lock the punks up!”
My camera is cocked against my chest, lens jutting outward. Without looking down, I turn to face Mr. Zellerman, rotate the focusing ring, and softly press the shutter. I have my prize shot—and evidence, should anything happen.
Now Mr. Z’s voice lowers. “Look, I’m just trying to run a business. The first time, those punks broke a window. The next time, they walked off with a hundred and thirty bucks. I’ve got bills to pay, a payroll to meet. But the cops, they won’t do a thing. So: Would I shoot if the punks broke in again? Damn straight!”
“I see your point,” I say, with genuine sympathy. “But shoot those kids, and you could spend years behind bars.”
“Hey—it’s worth it!”
“Look,” I reason, “I’m a writer. Suppose I wrote about your frustration in a local paper? Maybe the city fathers will be shamed into protecting you.”
“That’ll be the day. If you think it’ll help, go ahead.”
As soon as I step in my house, I call the police to warn them of Mr. Z’s threat. “After Columbine,” I explain, “I couldn’t chance that he meant it.”
“You’re right,” assures the dispatcher. She sends a squad car to meet me, and soon I’m sitting alongside Officer Bonnie Foyer.
I recount my tale. When I start to spell Mr. Z’s name, Officer Foyer holds up her palm. “Good old Mr. Zellerman,” she smiles. “I’m very familiar with his case: I was one of the cops who arrested the boys. Mr. Z likes to sound off. I’ll have a word with him.”
A year has come and gone. Several times a navy pickup has passed me, and I’ve averted the yes, doubtful Mr. Z. has forgiven me for sending Officer Foyer his way.
But on this Sunday morning, as I swing my dumbbells en route to the video store, a blue pickup slows, giving two short blast of its horn. It’s Mr. Z, smiling. He waves.
I guess he’s too busy to hold a grudge. Too busy worrying about making sandwiches. About finding someone to fill in for Joey this Saturday. About minding the store.
For me, such concerns have always belonged to someone else. I draw a salary. I can’t imagine what it must be like to manage a small business. To face day-to-day uncertainties like vandals, floods, and no-show employees. To deal with curve balls like lawsuits, September 11, and the Internet bust. To be a restaurateur, mindful you can lose it all in a New York minute.
Recently, at a gathering of my lunch club, I declared that if Osama bin Ladin were tried and found innocent but vowed to continue killing Americans, someone should “take him out.” Tom observed that my views seem to follow a pattern: “When the system has let you down,” he noted, “you feel it’s OK to take matters into your own hands. I’m not saying it’s wrong or it’s right; it’s just an observation.”
He’s right, or close to right. But the charge didn’t trouble Dirty Harry. Or my namesake, vigilante Paul Kersey, in Death Wish. And after listening to Mr. Z, I’m not sure it troubles me.
Just an observation.
© 2002 Paul Franklin Stregevsky