Night lives: Illustrating U Street’s latest stories
By Dan Zak,
The world has turned into an amusement park.
Which is to say the 1200 block of U Street NW has turned into an amusement park, with its freaks and poseurs and overdeveloped esplanade, with the riffraff dogging the cuff-linked, the packs of sport bikes bumper-carring the taxicabs, the amazons in clown makeup tottering on high-heel stilts over wheezing grates, the queues snaking across warm concrete in slow-motion pursuit of so-so chili dogs and watery cognac and Cokes.
“On the count of three, have your good look on.”
And there’s the sideshow act who takes the Polaroids.
“One, two, three.”
A walking, talking photo booth. The flashbulb pops just before midnight Friday.
“That was magic.”
Bob Taylor, 81, opens the chamber of his converted accordion-necked 1964 Polaroid 110B camera (heavy as a baby), sticks the not-yet photo under his armpit and smiles at a table of young NASA employees in the backroom of Ben’s Chili Bowl, the fluorescent fun house of U Street.
While the photo develops, Bob shares a couple of thoughts.
Thought 1: “We’re all educated in something the other doesn’t know. And we are here to share our knowledge.”
Thought 2: “Life is like a big novel. We’re all reading a different page. But together we got a story.”
The NASA employees, versed in the precise physics of ion propulsion, seem charmed by Bob’s grandfatherly colloquialism. Bob slides the photo into a colorful paper frame that reads “SOMEONE SPECIAL.” Michael Jackson sings “Man in the Mirror” over the speakers.
“Twenty years from now, this will be a classic,” he says, handing over the group shot to Wayne North, 34, an aerospace engineer who’s visiting from Florida.
“Thank you for helping us to savor this moment for the rest of our lives,” North says genuinely and/or politely, handing over $5.
Life moves. We’re all on the Scrambler, whipping around.
Bob’s camera stops the ride.
He was born in Memphis, raised in Marion, Ark., and fell in love with photography while stationed on the Aleutian Islands as an Army cook in the late 1940s. His first memorable shot: A red sunrise reflected on snow-capped mountains in Seward, Alaska.
Sixty-some years later — after studying photography in Manhattan, after taking baby and family portraits and running his own studio in Brooklyn for years, after decamping to the District in 1988 when his marriage fell apart and his brother’s wife got sick — Bob started toting his Polaroid camera to the Adams Morgan and U Street corridors on weekend nights as a retirement hobby. From 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., he wanders in and out of Ben’s Chili Bowl and its neighboring spinoff, Next Door, welcomed by the staffs and greeted as a novelty by the clientele.
“How ’bout a pitchah?” he asks.
“The camera’s old as [bleep]; it looks like it’d steal your soul,” observes Allory Anderson, a hostess at Next Door, as Bob squeezes his way through the bar just after midnight. “But I’ve got two pictures of me on my fridge from him. I don’t have iPhone photos on my fridge.”
A physical photo, Bob says, is the presence of you in your absence. A photo is not for now or for Facebook. A photo is for later, when you’re gone. It is for finding in a shoe box.
Bob’s shift routinely unfolds to the thump of hip-hop. Bob lurks. Bob banters. Bob receives hugs, imparts wisdom, shoots instant classics, collects about $75 total.
At 2:50 a.m., Bob stands on a sidewalk grate, a whoosh of warm air around him, haloed by mustard-yellow light from Ben’s, looking up and away — past the litter and car exhaust and bellowing drunks, over the rooftops, beyond summer’s disregard — toward the perfect, porcelain-white disc suspended in the velvet sky.
Apart from Duke Ellington, who gazes godlike upon the scene in mural form, Bob Taylor might be the oldest man on the block.
“The moon,” Bob says, “is waning.”