Barry was the first person who ever took the time to teach me about photography. He wore over-sized early-80’s style glasses. He always cleaned them smudgy on the corner of his plaid shirts, which were half tucked around his round belly.
We worked together at a retail photography store in the late 90’s on the heels of my college years. He was one of the top salesman. I was a Customer Service Associate– fancy title for cashier-who-must-be-polite-to-whatever-idiot-walks-in-the-store. Barry and I would make fun of the weirdos and assholes who did walk in and thankfully walk out. He had an aversion to anyone of religious identity. I had an aversion to the perpetually drunk woman who swore it was our fault her photos were always out of focus.
Barry was one of those coworkers essential to making it out alive in the tumultuous world of retail hell. He made the pain of standing for hours on end a little lighter. He made jokes when the clock was moving so slow we thought we were in a time warp. He spouted off random facts I’d later recite to customers when they asked me questions a lowly cashier had no clue about. He made goofy faces. He laughed at himself. He took me under his pale, sarcastic, hilarious, genius, kindly peculiar wings.
Some nights after work I’d follow him to his house after a quick stop at the liquor store. This was before my wine days so I was still in the process of figuring out what my drink of choice was. I was in my White Russian stage so he’d buy me a four-pack of mini Kahlua mud slides and bourbon for himself. We’d drink our respective beverages in his basement, which he took over as his nerd lair.
He was an amazing photographer, specializing in astrophotography. He’d sometimes set up his gargantuan telescope and we’d catch the light of the stars he recognized like the freckles on the back of his hand. He had thousands of photos he hoarded in his basement. “They can’t pay me what they’re worth,” he’d say sneeringly when I suggested he try to sell some of them. He also had a mad collection of albums he’d play on his souped-up stereo. He was the first person I knew to have internet access from his television. He introduced me to The Daily Show and South Park.
I went with him to buy his second Honda Hatchback, which he paid for in full from the money he saved working at the store. He took care of his mother, who lived above his nerd lair. He bought her mayonnaise and butter and bologna, the only “food” she would eat. Barry microwaved Lean Cuisines for himself on lunch break, two at a time.
I’ll never forget the time we had worked two weeks straight during the holiday shopping mayhem. It was Christmas Eve, our store’s metal chain-link security gate was half closed, and we were doing our final count of all the drawers. Some last-minute shopper ducked under the gate and begged us to let him buy a camera. Barry frantically took care of him while I tried to make sense of the day’s numbers. The boss was at home eating a warm meal with his family. Barry and I hadn’t eaten real food or seen the light of the sun in days. The last-minute shopper finally left and Barry and I continued our closing duties. The shelves were in disarray, the carpeted floor speckled with paper liter, and our count was way off. Barry grabbed the calculator for the fourth time and it slipped out of his hand, spinning in the air and crashing on the concrete floor below his feet. “Goddamn it!” he yelled in exasperation. “Screw it,” I called back as I ran to my purse, grabbed my cigs, and proceeded to light up and give one to Barry. We stood there laughing hysterically, puffing away, trying to fix the calculator.
I found out this morning Barry passed away. I hadn’t talked to him in years. I hadn’t sent him a photograph Christmas card since the one where my son, a toddler at the time, is waving at the camera. Barry told me it looked like he was waving at him.
I don’t want to imagine Barry in whatever way I’ll find out he died. I want to remember his silliness behind the counter, or crouched behind a wall of purple pansies teaching me macro photography, or sipping Jim Beam under Arcturus.
Rest in peace, Barry. Thank you for the lessons, the friendship, and most of all, the laughter.