And now I can go see what everyone else came up with and judge myself even more. Ah, the joy of being me.
A LIFE IN PICTURES
Even as a child, Carlotta Rodriguez had had dreams. Amazing, technicolor dreams, as exotic and vibrant as her waking life was dull and drab. She had started life on the wrong end of the poverty scale in a posh beach resort community where her mother worked two jobs - maid and waitress - and still barely earned enough to house and care for her young daughter. On occasion, though, Mrs. Rodriguez would bring home throw-away treasures, things that rich, self-indulgent tourists discarded as carelessly as you or I might toss away a used kleenex. It was one of those treasures that had changed Carlotta forever. For her daughter's 10th birthday, Maria Rodriguez had splurged on three rolls of film and wrapped up an old Kodak camera that someone had dumped unceremoniously into the waste basket in their room at the hotel. From that moment on, Carlotta had seen the world in photographs. She was a born artist with a gift for creating beauty from even the most unexpected scenes and objects. A wise mother, Maria had quickly taken note of both her daughter's passion and her talent and had encouraged her enthusiasm. They read books on photography and together explored all the potential aspects of picture taking - except color. This was not because Carlotta didn't want to take pictures in color, but because even baby-sitting for extra money and even with her mother putting aside every cent she could, it would have been a choice between a new camera but no film and no pictures at all, or continuing to work in black and white. All Carlotta ever dreamed of was a new camera. She saved every penny she earned towards that dream.
But then her mother died suddenly and Carlotta became a ward of the state, a foster child. The state - and, the foster parents to whom she was entrusted - decreed photography to be frivolous and expensive. Foster care was a nightmare. Her foster parents felt no compunction about going through Carlotta's belongings and "borrowing" whatever they wanted. When she asked for her precious old camera back, her foster father simply smirked and said, "not on your life. It's mine now." Later that night, he had come into her room, camera in hand and told her that perhaps he might let her borrow it if she would consider "entertaining," him. She ran that night without the camera, but with her innocence still intact. Luckily, neither social services nor her foster parents had found her hidden camera money. She had hidden it well. She ran with almost nothing. A few photos of her mother, a change of clothes, and steely determination.
Strangely, horrible and frightening as it was, it turned out to be the luckiest night of her life. When, the next morning, she stumbled, sleepy and frightened, off the train and into the crowded, bustling roar of New York City's Grand Central Station, she had no idea where to go or what to do. But as if led by an unseen angel, the very first thing she saw was a camera store. Hunger and tiredness forgotten, she entered the store as one walking into paradise. She saw and heard nothing except this world of cameras. Like the proverbial child in the candy store window, she was consumed with a hunger that pushed aside fear, doubt, even common sense. After train fare, she still had $180 of her camera fund left, nestled snugly next to her heart. She would worry about food and a home later. She had to have a camera. Nothing else mattered, nothing. And then she saw it. The camera of her dreams... the one she had read about, hoped for, pined for, dreamed of for what seemed like forever. She asked the clerk if she could see it and he handed it to her with an unnecessary warning to be careful with it. It felt like heaven in her hands. She pointed it here, there, checking the focus, the zoom. It was perfect. So lost was she in this world of her imagination, that she didn't notice the elderly man at the next counter watching her with a thoughtful expression. When she asked the clerk what the price of the camera was and he said $350, she couldn't believe it.
"But I only have $180," she said. "It's everything I have. Is there any way you can lower the price... or maybe I could work it off or...."
"Oh, sure," the clerk replied, "sarcasm oozing out of him, "I'm sure I can trust you for it. No chance."
It was then that the miracle happened. The old gentleman who had been watching her stepped in, whispering quietly,
"Give her the camera for $180, Fred,"
"But Mr. Candoza..." Fred stammered.
"I'll make up the short-fall, Fred. Give her the camera... and a dozen rolls of film. I've been watching her. She has the gift. Look how she holds that camera... with love... how she frames the world as she looks at it. I can see myself in her. She should have that camera... and I can easily afford it... but I want her to feel that she bought it herself."
Fred thought the old man was crazy. She looked like a punk kid to him, but as long as he got his money, he didn't care. Tony Candoza was a long-time customer and a famous photographer and Fred wasn't about to cross him over a $350 camera.
"Here, kid. This is your lucky day, I guess." And he was right. Because Tony Candoza did more than just help buy her a camera. He decided to take her under his wing.
"Excuse me, young lady," he said kindly. "My name is Tony Candoza. May I ask your name?"
"Tony Candoza! The photographer! I love your photos! They're so.... creative... and the way you get shadows, why... I just love them... I... I...," she trailed off, blushing. "Oh.. my name is Carlotta. I'm honored to meet you."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Carlotta. And always an honor to have my work appreciated so generously. May I offer you some breakfast? And maybe you can tell me about yourself - and who or what you are running away from. Come on, let's get some food into you and hear your story. I sense a fellow artist in you and us artists have to stick together." To her own astonishment she followed him eagerly as he led her to a surprisingly quiet little restaurant at the other end of the station.
Over a toast and eggs and bacon and orange juice, she told him the story of her life... and he told her the story of his... how he always seen the world in images, had drawn and painted from the time he was two. He had been lucky to have parents who were able to nourish his talent both emotionally and financially. He had gone to art school and during his time there had discovered the mystery and magic of the camera. It had become his life, his love, his mistress, his eternal passion. Watching her in the camera store, he told her, he has seen in her that same love. As she finished off her breakfast he said, "I have a proposal for you. Let's put some of that film into that camera of yours and see what you can do with it. If you're as good as I think you are, I'll make arrangements to become your legal guardian. If not... well let's not worry about that. I know you have the "eye." Let's go play. Today for certain you will have food to eat and a roof over your head in my guest room where you will be safe there, I promise."
They spent the next four hours exploring the city, taking picture after picture until all 12 rolls of film were used up and they were both happily exhausted. He watched her work, even as he took dozens of photos of his own. She watched him too, much as he watched her and picked up - even on that first day, little tricks she would not have thought of on her own. Then they ate sandwiches in the dark room and she watched him bring her photos - and his own - to magical life. She was in heaven. And just when she thought it couldn't get any better, they ordered Chinese food - which soon became her favorite - and he showed her many of his own photos. Her favorite was a strange photo of green M&Ms in a giant Starbucks cup. She didn't know why she liked it so much, but she did. He told her it wasn't one of his favorites and if he had to guess why she liked it, he thought it was because the colorfulness of it that appealed to her after so many years of being forced to create her work in black and white. She had realized that he was right. He knew her that well even from that first day. And she knew she was home in that moment. She knew that everything was going to be alright.
It was the beginning of a life-long (probably an eternal) friendship. Carlotta Rodriguez spent the next 15 years as Tony's adopted daughter and devoted student. He taught her everything there was to know about cameras, light and shadow, framing, developing film. He taught her about art and beauty, nurtured and nourished her talent, her passion and when she was ready, fostered her career. And he did something even more important; he wrapped her in kindness and love. He became the father she had never had, and his gentle generosity eased the pain of losing her mother at such a tender age. It didn't take long for Carlotta to become famous in her own right, but she became something better than famous. She was happy and fulfilled - in her life and in her work. Not everyone can say that.
Three months ago, when Tony had crossed gently from this life, he had bequeathed to her - among other things - the summer cottage by the shore where they had spent many happy days taking pictures and basking in the beauty of their surroundings. Even after she had married, she and her husband Tom (who loved Tony as much as she did) spent many weekends by the ocean with visiting with Tony - Tom drawing and painting while she and Tony did what they loved most. The cottage was full of Tony's love and his photographs and she studied them now, like journey through her own life. Her two favorites were very different. The first, surprisingly, was a picture of herself standing on the beach, wind blowing her hair across her face. It brought back a particulary happy moment on a particularly happy day. It wasn't very flattering, but it didn't need to be.
Her other favorite was taken on the last photo expedition she and Tony had taken together. It was her gift to him for his 78th birthday - the fulfillment of a life-long dream to photograph Siberian tigers of all things. She was surprised at first that he had never done it, but then she realized that he had probably sacrificed many dreams when he adopted her. That was one dream, at least, that she had been able to give back to him. It had been a wonderful trip. Their beautiful black and orange framed against white snow, those tigers were a photographer's dream. Tony had taken some of his best photos on that trip... and so had she. He had photographed tigers and she had photographed him, absorbed in his work and as young in spirit as if he'd been a teenager. She loved those photos. All she had to do was look at them and Tony was right there with her, laughing, pointing out some trick of light or color, pointing out some object of beauty or showing her the beauty of something most people didn't see as beautiful.
But there would be time to think about this later. The others were waiting for her on the beach now to give his ashes to the wind and rejoice in a life of a man they had each and every one been blessed to know.