Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Bird Man

Yesterday, after a morning photo walk, I finally ended up at a curious place: The Camera House. The Camera House had been pointed out to me early one morning on another photo walk, as a man who collects and sells antique cameras, he also (as described by a giant poster that adorns his building) feeds thousands of parakeets twice daily. No big deal.

"Come for the cameras, stay for the parakeets."

My "Uncle Ed" and I ascended the four stories of his building to his shop using the most narrow concrete staircase the world has to offer. When we reached the top, we knocked several times on his patio doors, and scoped out the parakeet feeding terrace curiously.

At about the moment we decided he wasn't home, an Indian man with an exacting and unbelievably dense pencil mustache opened the door and welcomed us inside.

We were there in hopes of having a look at his collection, to find a camera I have been searching for and to have a lens repaired. We slipped our shoes off at the door and we entered the foyer of his home.

The front of his home was a small cubicle-like space, two cubicles to be exact. As Ed scoped out the situation and talked him into showing us a few things, I scoped out the cameras. Surrounding the one small stool Ed had been invited to rest upon within one cubicle, were mountains of plastic shopping bags and black trash bags spilling with cameras and camera parts. To the left of Ed, to the right of Ed and in front and above Ed, were cameras. At one point, I saved Ed when he was nearly buried by an avalanche of cameras. The only semblance of organization I spied, a stack of lenses in a single neatly stacked and lighted display case.

In the well sealed cubicle behind Ed, smooshed up against the upper plexi-glass partitions, were several shelves of antique cameras: A whole shelf of Rolliflex TLRs, a whole row of 35 millimeter bodies, some lightly wrapped in dusty plastic and taped, and some still brandishing the torn cardboard film-box end that identified the film that still slept in them. I can only describe the scene as an episode of "Hoarders" on TLC. Rising nearly chest deep and filling in every cubic foot of the cubicle-turned closet were bags and bags, stacked upon bags and bags of cameras, camera parts camera boxes, dark room equipment and an entire bag of leather straps hanging over the top of the cubicle like tentacles as clues to the rest of the creatures in the deep.

I just wanted to help this man. I was overcome with an intense need to lighten this clearly overwhelmed man's load and to dive into the treasure trove he had buried himself into. I played it cool and let Ed take the lead.

At my first opportunity to sneak a word in between my new and very excited friends, The Camera Man's twin three year old daughters, as to the camera I was hunting for, he told me they weren't for sale. Behind the curtain that divided the "shop" from the house I spied floor to ceiling shelves, lined end to end with foldable tourist cameras each laden with at least an inch of dust.

"None of them?" I asked quizzically.

No response.

I didn't belabor the point, until Ed made a breakthrough and he began to show us photos, newspaper write ups and even a lens or two that Ed found interesting. Suddenly things had prices.

After assuring me that he didn't have the camera I was looking for, of which I saw at least fifteen on the shelf behind me, he proceeded to explain to me that it was too expensive and tried to sell me on something different. When I insisted that if he "dug up" what I was looking for in good condition and when he began to see that I really knew what I wanted and that I really wanted to "use" it, not collect it his tune changed.

"Ten days." He told me.

"Ten days and I'll come back." I said in muffled, antique camera tomb-induced hysteria.

Information received.

He never spoke of having taken a photo or showed us one photo of his own, only photos of the feeding birds and of himself surrounded by thousands of neatly arranged rows of identical cameras from his collection taken by various newspapers throughout the years.

After learning the names of his daughters, seeing their new school backpacks and meeting both his wife and mother, we politely excused ourselves, promising to return for his invitation to bring the kids to see the afternoon parakeet feeding.

I rushed home, grabbed our car (and driver),  I threw a tired Clem, a bag of snacks and our maid in the backseat and snagged Peter from preschool and Sam from Kindergarten, just before the bus did. We drove back across town and piled up the tiny staircase once again and onto the terrace of Camera House just in time to see him finishing laying out hundreds of tiny and perfectly measured mounds of rice.

Unclear as to the best vantage point, we asked if we could stay on the terrace. He directed us across the street to an apartment building and told us to watch from the fourth story stairwell landing, warning us that if we stayed the parakeets would be scared and fly away. He was right. Even he closed and shuttered his family within the apartment and made his way down the staircase to the street below. Where he stood, arms crossed, observing the sky.

When we arrived in the dusty dirty fourth floor landing across the street, the evening light had just begun to stream through the fretwork. Pete and Sam chose low peepholes, while I held Clem, my camera and Shanti, our snacks.

We watched as one, then two, and three parakeets made their way to the cable wire stretching from our building to theirs. The wire began to bob and sway under the weight as their numbers increased until finally one made the move. In moments, thirty then forty and fifty parakeets descended on the rooftop buffet.

A flock of large blackish-blue crows or the relentless TATA horns below spooked the sea of green and the early birds dispersed into the giant afternoon sky, finally settling in a number of large neighboring tamarind trees.

As we waited for the flock to return and multiply the kids became restless. After a long day at school, a hot and dusty stairwell and a keyhole view of parakeets, Peter and Clem were growing restless. A third floor neighbor befriended our maid and she returned with a bottle of water she'd filled for us to share. She then invited the kids inside and moments later had her brother headed down the street to buy them little chocolate bars while their crazy mom held them hostage in the waning afternoon light.

At 5:15, the very time the Camera Man had quoted, the parakeets returned by the hundreds to finish off what they had started.

Peter, always terrifyingly honest, gave up watching before the feeding even began and told me, "I don't like anything, not you or your birds." Reminded by his sour face, of endless, seemingly insane adventures my mom had tortured us with as kids and I knew I'd done the right thing by bringing them back. They may not remember anything from these two years in Chennai, but they will remember this.

When the feeding frenzy subsided we swooped by and picked Paul up from a nearby mall, where he waited out the insanity and Peter fell asleep on the way home at 6:00pm.

Nearly twelve and a half hours later, clearly refreshed, he emerged from his room with only this to say:

"I sleep hard, I eat messy."

Perhaps in another ten days I'll take them back to see round two..

1 comment:

morgan said...

Guys can you just stop doing and seeing so many amazing things, and stop the kids from learning to swim, and stop with the blanket pillows, and freeze everything so I don't miss it? No? I guess it's unreasonable of me to ask. In that case, please keep writing about it and phtotographing it so that I feel like I'm there. I love you all.