Mask in window in Berkeley store on Shattuck.
June 4th, 1999

Ships Passing
Lacerda is the name. A freelance photographer on my way to Vegas to cover The Mint 500 with some guy named Duke whom I meet tomorrow at the hotel. I am sitting here in this straight out of the '30's clapboard and aluminum luncheonette in one of the window booths drinking Tequila from a bottle and watching the traffic blast by as if we didn't exist. I am confused.

I've shot for every magazine in North America: on the job in Washington, in Birmingham, in Watts, on the job in every damned town in every damned state except Alaska and that's because I missed the plane. This guy Duke, I don't know, they didn't have much to say about him, said he'd be travelling with his attorney, which made my ears pick up because nobody pays money in this business to bring along an attorney unless it's part of the story and what part of the Mint 500 gets involved with the law? I was tempted to pass, the Agency sometimes comes up with some really weird assignments that nobody else will touch that turn out bad and put you off your profession, but they'd sent an advance and the check hadn't bounced.

I've covered the Mint 500 before: dust, dirt, wind, whiskey and nothing to shoot once it starts. You go for the atmosphere, the making ready of the motorcycles, the riders in their gear. Early morning shooting in the desert with the light just right over the horizon. One or two shots of the beginning, the dust clouds mushrooming, some nice panoramic stuff if you've got the right location. Otherwise it's dust dust dust and you zip up the cameras and keep them under cover unless you want a cleaning bill from Nikon that's bigger than your fee.

I'm driving down the highway on my way to Vegas thinking about these things, experiencing a vague sense of foreboding, when I notice this place materializing out of the heat. Art deco diner sitting on the side of the road. I could use something cold and something to eat so I pull over. There's an old guy in a sombrero and a serape sitting on a chair beside the front door and I think to take his photograph. 1930's diner with a 1930's version of a Mexican peasant sitting out in front, make a great black and white, but when I bring the camera up he's gone and I'm thinking as I push open the door where did he go? And why, just at the last second, as I looked down at the camera, had he winked at me like a Mexican Santa Claus?

There are maybe ten people in the place, four at the counter and three groups of two at the tables. I take an empty window booth. The waiter brings a menu, Mask shot is store window in Berkeley. single plastic laminated sheet not too clean. I'm looking over the list when I glance up for a moment and notice his eyes are glowing white globes without pupils. I am hurridly getting up to leave, muttering excuses, menu in hand, when a woman brings a burger and fries, a large glass of water and a bottle of Tequila without a label and a glass and pushes me back down into the seat. I do not say a word, they do not say a word. I sit down because I must and sit there and contemplate the layout, watch the people eat, wonder why I'm sitting here calm and collected drinking Tequila from the bottle instead of screaming and running for the car. The couple behind me is talking about their trip, how glad they are to have found a Denny's on the last 50 mile stretch of empty road. Denny's. They think this is a Denny's. The guy with the eyes? Not Denny's material. When is he going to bring the bill? I am frozen in my booth. I wish I were in Denmark.

A big Land Cruiser rolls up with two guys inside, California plates. They get out and slap themselves on the sides of their legs as if to get their circulation going. Wherever they're going, they've been on the road for a while. As they come through the door a red car with no top blasts by out on the highway in the background doing maybe 90 driven by a fat maniac in a loud Hawaiian shirt, singing at the top of his lungs, one hand on the wheel, a quart of gin in the other held aloft and pointing at the sun. His companion has crawled precariously over the back of the passenger seat, cigarette holder clamped tightly between his teeth. He's grabbed what looks to be a teenage kid by the front of his shirt, a hitchiker with a pack sitting in the back seat, and he appears to be shouting. All this in a flash of 90 mile an hour heat and they're gone. I have a feeling this has meaning, but what?

I focus back on the two men who have entered. I'm losing it. Got to hold it together long enough to pay the bill, get back out on the road, forget about this place and the man with no eyes. A quirk of the profession, a bad dream: you don't know, you don't ask. It's not good to discuss such things with the locals, they'll put your head in an ice bucket and take away your medicines. The two men take the empty booth in front of me, the tall-ish one, maybe 6' 2", the size challenged 6 footer scoping the counter for trouble, a Brownie Hawkeye and a map in hand. I smell meat eaters on a quest. Outside, between the diner and the road, a bush bursts into flames, the fire casting the faintest outline of a woman onto the ground, I'm thinking Cher. Men with no eyes, burning bush, Cher. Where's that bill? I can't move a muscle except to take another drink and that is maybe not advisable.

The two order like wolves, chicken fried steak and eggs with hash browns and whole wheat toast, double ladled gravy. I am drinking the Tequila and sweating. They are chasing the horizon, looking for a phone booth on the desert that has lost contact with the outside world. One lone outpost at a crossroads without communication and they, time heavy on their hands, have made a pact, a mad dash across the desert on a fixit mission from God. Or the Devil. They're hoping for a quick fix, a hand set off the hook, but of this they are not certain. I am sitting here in a booth drinking Tequila from a bottle watching a man with glowing globes for eyes polish the silverware behind the counter and these guys are pushing into the heat in search of a phone booth. I wonder that I do not wonder at all. Was it their burning bush or mine or was it just a burning bush practice run in anticipation of an entirely different set of characters who were even now pulling onto the highway in our direction?

Their talk moved on to music and pie and movies and moustaches. To women and booze and frogs and journals. What in the fuck are journals? The waiter comes to my table with the bill. I am not certain what is written there, all I am certain of is that I must pay whatever price it takes to get out the door. The two men are finishing their breakfast. I place down a $20 on the table, noticing I've been charged $1.67 for the bottle of tequila and realizing maybe not everything around me is real for a reason. I head for the door. I don't feel anyone putting their hand on my shoulder. I pass the two men, they are discussing map reading tactics, one of them is squirting pineal gland extract into his eyes from a small dispenser. This makes sense. Why, I don't know.

I start the car and pull out on the road. I am suddenly much relieved and looking forward to working with this Duke fellow. After this diner, he'll be a pussy cat.

The banner photograph was taken through a store window in Berkeley on Shattuck two weeks ago.