Photo Essay

From Centre Mall to the Fringe

Can a photo essayist and a documentary filmmaker find each other if there's no Tim Horton's to guide them?

By Mark Fenton
Published June 16, 2006

Andrew Stevenson and I had agreed to meet at the Tim Horton's -

Tim Horton's coffee and unspecified confection in a paper bag
Tim Horton's coffee and unspecified confection in a paper bag

- across from Centre Mall:

Centre Mall
Centre Mall

Andrew is a filmmaker and photographer who lives in the greater Hamilton area. At the time we made these arrangements we had not met; we had just talked and exchanged photos on email. Because we had discovered an uncanny similarity in the things we liked to photograph, we decided to go on a walking tour together to shoot some photographs.

I had left early for the meeting partly because I had a nagging suspicion something would go wrong with our plans, and partly because I enjoy driving slowly down Barton Street and absorbing its ambience. It was the perfect time of year to appreciate the flower-embedded medians, punctuated with retro street lamps and the most slender and delicate of trees:

Barton Street
Barton Street

which I couldn't resist photographing as I drove. And just as the pickup driver behind me honked at my having slowed to a dangerous speed, I was struck by the geometric similarity to Eugene Atget's early 1920s photograph of an admittedly more spare and manicured and pedestrian path in Saint Cloud:

Saint-Cloud (Photo Credit: Masters-of-photography.com)
Saint-Cloud (Photo Credit: Masters-of-photography.com)

It was after this lyrical moment that things began to go seriously wrong. After two passes in front of Centre Mall I determined that the blocks across from Centre Mall are among the few stretches of major road in Hamilton that do not boast a Tim Horton's. (It intrigues me that both Andrew and I thought there was one here, suggesting that the two of us really do operate with a similar mental process and sensibility.)

However, I still wasn't anxious about our ability to find each other. Andrew and I had exchanged cell numbers. This is, for crying out loud, the 21st Century, I told myself. How possible can it be, with today's communication's systems, for two people to remain lost to each other for any length of time? I decided to pull into the parking lot of a Tim Horton's drive-through just west of Centre Mall because:

  1. I thought there was just a chance Andrew would have pulled into the nearest Tim Horton's to the Mall on the South side of Barton street and we'd meet there, although this was an ill-conceived plan, since neither of us knew what the other looked like, and walking up to every male stranger at a table in a Tim Horton's to ask if his name is Andrew is one thing, but walking up and knocking on windows of vehicles to ask if the driver is named Andrew is quite another, particularly when one of the vehicles looks like the pickup truck whose driver had honked at me for distracted driving;

  2. I don't want to succumb to distracted driving again while making a cell call, and what better place to make it than the parking lot of a Tim Horton's drive-through; and

  3. I wanted a picture of this particular Tim Horton's drive through for this essay, since these things are like some 1950s idea of what an alien spacecraft would look like if it had the good fortune to land somewhere as interesting as Barton Street East.

Tim Horton's
Tim Horton's

I decided to risk my voice being drowned out by ambient traffic noise, and actually stepped out of my car to make the call, where I was sure that every fibre of my being would scream Raise the Hammer Contributor and I wouldn't have to find Andrew, because Andrew would easily identify me. Unfortunately, Andrew's cell service, after announcing rudely that I was calling long distance and offering to connect me, then informed me that there was no service here, almost as though that were just reward for being so audacious as to want to call long distance.

I call long distance all the time and sometimes get messages like this and sometimes don't and I really don't understand the scientific and cultural space these sound waves take me to, but those who've been following these articles have probably guessed that being on the cutting edge of, and articulate about, digital technology isn't what people come to me for.

It was, however disheartening to realize that we'd agreed to a rendezvous at a place that didn't exist, and that we had now no means of communicating about a new rendezvous. I felt the vertigo of a climber whose last safety hook is trembling on the verge of dislocation. Then I pulled myself together. I have worked extensively in the aviation industry coordinating arrivals and departures of heavy aircraft, working with complex regulations and meticulous timelines. I was certainly not going to be outdone by a slight miscommunication between two persons with motor vehicles; two people who were even at this moment probably less than a kilometer apart.

Not surprisingly my mind went a passage from Mercier and Camier, a novel Samuel Beckett published in 1970, but had written some decades earlier. This work is unjustly neglected in the Beckett canon and I strongly recommend it (no more appropriate time than this year to [re-] discover it, as 2006 is the centenary of Beckett's birth). Mercier and Camier are two men who are challenged by meeting up with each other each day, and then really have nothing to do when they do meet up with each other.

If their adventures become overly complicated for the reader, Beckett has, at the end of every even-numbered chapter, handily inserted a summary of the preceding two chapters, which is of use if you've dozed off while reading and don't feel like going back. As a document of men who get together with only the most mundane and tenuous of agendas it ranks with The House at Pooh Corner and the better Seinfeld episodes.

The passage I was thinking of occurs a few pages into the book, and describes, in awesome detail, how Mercier and Camier narrowly miss seeing each other at a rendezvous point, because each gets tired of waiting and walks away, just before the other arrives. Beckett has drawn up a handy schedule for us thus:

Text from Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett
[W]hen after five and ten minutes respectively of uneasy prowl, debouching simultaneously on the square, they found themselves face to face for the first time since the evening before. The time was nine fifty in the morning. In other words:

Arr.Dep.Arr.Dep.Arr.Dep.Arr.
Mercier9.059.109.259.309.409.459.50
Camier9.159.209.359.409.50

(Samuel Beckett, Mercier and Camier, Grove Press, New York, 1974

If there's an algebraic expression of the inevitability of their eventual meeting, it's beyond me, but one thing I like about publishing on-line is that readers don't hesitate to write in with information on things that I haven't bothered to research or problems I just haven't worked hard enough to solve, so if anyone wants to treat the above like something on the puzzles page of the Scientific American, be my guest.

While I realize it's a bit confusing for the reader to begin this quote in the middle of a sentence (i.e. where it breaks at the top of the page) I've scanned the actual book page, rather than keying in the text, because I'm hopelessly attached to my vintage copy of the Grove Press paperback, resplendent in grainy pulp paper and wonky letterpress, all of which were once the mark of avant-garde publishing.

The thought of typesetters scratching their heads on how best to set up this really quite pointless schedule of arrivals, departures, near misses, and final meeting between two men who would then have been called tramps and would now be called street people, is too appealing for me to resist. I imagine the typesetters deciding it was a good time to go for coffee before launching into this aberration from left and right justified block text.

Typesetter 1: What the hell do you make of this stuff?

Typesetter 2: Damned if I know. If I'd wanted to set stuff like this I'd've stayed at my job printing schedules for the Subway.

Typesetter 3: I had a contract once for a little magazine in the East Village. They did a whole issue of concrete poetry. Made me wish I was doing schedules for the New York Subway.

Typesetter 2: Let's get a coffee.

Typesetter 3: I'm having pie.

Typesetter 1: Yeah, what the hell, it's Friday.

I imagine the place they go as nothing like a Tim Horton's, but rather as a hole in the wall near the East 11th Street offices New York NY cited on the publications page of my edition (more likely the typesetters were out in some industrial no-man's land in North Jersey, but allow my flights of fancy).

The place would exude local colour, complete with an old Westinghouse Fridge and those metal milkshake machines that look like something you'd use to change the oil in your car. I imagine them all smoking, because more people did back then, particularly, I'd guess, in the backstreets of the publishing world. Imagine it with me, and consider the touch of the human in printed matter, something that we've lost with the speed and so-called perfection computers have given us to process text.

I was worrying, of course, that if I departed this Tim Horton's now I might be creating a situation like that of Mercier and Camier at 9.40, i.e. that I would be departing the parking lot at precisely the moment Andrew arrived into the parking lot. To avoid this I walked in, bought a muffin, eat it, and returned to my car. Nothing. My stratagem was clearly not working. Instead I tried to think what Andrew would do under the circumstances.

When it came to me, it was like I'd known the answer all along; I simply needed to clear the irrelevant mess from my psyche so that my logical next step would become self-evident. 'Yes,' I told myself, 'discovering that there is no Tim Horton's across from Centre Mall, he will search for one actually in Centre Mall.'

When I arrived at the Centre Mall parking lot and approached the mall itself I was struck by the loveliness of its architecture and decided I needed a photo of it, stopping between cars to get the angle I wanted (Andrew had waited this long - if he was even locatable here - so a few seconds wouldn't make much difference).

I wasn't concerned about the people who got in the way; I just wanted a quick shot of the entrance I was headed towards.

Centre Mall entrance
Centre Mall entrance

Days later, after downloading this photo I was struck by the two men in the photo. What interested me is that the man on the right appears to be looking at the man on the left (looking at it now I think it's more likely he's looking at the approaching car, so he can cross safely. But when I cropped it down the new photo insisted on a relationship between the two men.

A relationship between the two men?
A relationship between the two men?

This gaze is accidental and meaningless to the viewer, because the time and the place I took this shot aren't important. But what if they had been? What about an unlikely event, such as the beheading of, or - if that's too dire a scenario - the attempted beheading of an elected official in the Centre Mall parking lot, by members of a terrorist cell, aborted at the final moment by our shrewdest and bravest law officers?

Yes, in such a circumstance, all photo images would be solicited by the authorities and any potential relationships within them submitted to the utmost forensic scrutiny. My mind went to a relationship that has haunted me for years, one established by investigators, between two men who appear by chance in numerous film frames and still photos shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

That's right: I'm talking about the mystery of the Dark Complected Man and the Umbrella Man!

The Dark Complected Man and the Umbrella Man (Photo credit: Ronald L. Ecker)
The Dark Complected Man and the Umbrella Man (Photo credit: Ronald L. Ecker)

In the photo-image above, the man on the left is known to history as the Dark Complected Man (DCM), the man on the right is known as the Umbrella Man (UM). (The DCM is in earlier accounts is sometimes referred to as "the Cuban" - an ethnically tendentious term that pushes the identity of the DCM into the vortex of antagonism between JFK and Castro. There is no evidence at all that he was Cuban, and he now consistently retains the (slightly) less politically pointed designation of Dark Complected Man).

In the combined photographic records, these men appear from several angles, and seems to be talking to one another. In some of the more sensational books about the assassination there are wild captions next to hopelessly blurred blow-ups of the two men, like: The DCM appears to be talking on a radio! Most important, though, in the clearest transfers of the Zapruder film (don't even bother trying with Internet downloads), they can be seen from behind where, roughly a second before the first bullets hit, the UM pumps a black umbrella open and shut, simultaneously to the DCM thrusting his right fist in the air.

Investigators searched in vain for any information on these men. When the UM was finally located decades later and extensively interviewed, the conclusion was that the two men hadn't met before that moment and never met after, and neither had any connection with the assassination. It seems they engaged in odd but ultimately meaningless gestures, simply in order to be noticed; and the gestures wouldn't have been remembered by anyone but for the moment at which they occurred.

Over the years, I've spent hours tracking down the existing literature on these men, and have been compelled by their enigma to the point that my photo taken in the parking lot of Centre Mall took on a thematic link with pictures of the DCM and UM.

During one of my particularly obsessive DCM/UM periods I would lie awake at night developing the plot of a film which followed the parallel lives of the DCM and the UB, who would have no connection with one another except for a few minutes on 11/22/63, and that scene would be as unclimactic and ordinary as all the other scenes, except that it would be shot in real time - complete with one of those cool digital time counters in a corner of the screen, you know, the ones that even flip hundredths of seconds so fast you can't see the numbers which makes you think Wow, this is so-like-real! - and in my insomniac treatment I had cast Antonio Banderas as the DCM and Sean Penn as the UM and Bill Murray as Abraham Zapruder, and the whole thing was done in a tone of non-political, off-the wall blandness in the manner of say, a Jim Jarmusch film - oh, and you'd never even see the car JFK is in - and I'm sort of glad I've moved on to other obsessions now.

I think you'll agree I needed to explore why I was so intrigued with DCM/UM lore.

I quickly realized that part of the problem was that I found something magnetically sinister in the very word "complected." In fact it was only in reference to this man and his momentary historical cameo that I'd ever encountered the word "complected". I checked Dictionary.com and came up with this:

2 entries found for Complected.

com·plect
tr.v. com·plect·ed, com·plect·ing, com·plects

To join by weaving or twining together; interweave.

[Latin complect, to entwine : com-, com- + plectere, to plait; see plek- in Indo-European Roots.]

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Indeed! For what is the legacy of the JFK assassination, if not an interweaving of shadowy relationships and agendas?

The second definition was closer to what I expected, being an official and ethnically clinical one.

com·plect·ed
adj. Informal

Marked by or having a particular facial complexion. Often used in combination: "A white-haired and ruddy-complected priest stood on the deck of one of the trawlers" (New York Times).
[Back-formation from complection, variant of complexion.]

Usage Note: Complected has a long history in American folk speech, showing up, for example, in 1806 in the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: "[The Indians] are... rather lighter complected... than the Indians of the Missouri" (Meriwether Lewis). Complected has long been treated as a dialectal term in dictionaries, but it actually should be regarded as informal Standard English, since its nationwide distribution disqualifies it as a regionalism. In 1915 its reported use in west Texas extended its semantic domain beyond skin color to general appearance: "a fat-complected man."

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

In the case of a "dark" complected person, it's obviously then a label for the set of all persons whose skin colour doesn't instantly identify them as Caucasian when they step under the midday sun of Dallas (i.e. about 90 percent of the world population).

So that answered my question. Sonically the word is marvelous, having the same syllable count, and rough consonant crunch of both the word "complicit" and "completed." Complectioned would sound too refined. It would let the DCM off too easily. So it's as though he's not only a figure in the conspiracy, he's the final completing puzzle piece, the one that will put the whole mystery to rest.

It's always more appealing to believe in a conspiracy than to allow that only random chance is at work. Random chance tells us that there is no explanation, no structure to the world. It is too awful to accept that there be no answers; too awful to accept that the mystery around a national tragedy will never be solved.

I also delighted to learn, by incidental surfing into Mother Tongue Annoyances, that "to Zapruder" is now an officially recognized verb. It means to pore over photographic media frame by frame, millimetre by millimetre, in order to discover identities, motives and explanations. So in other words I was Zaprudering my phototograph outside Centre Mall, to establish a plot between the two men in it. Whoa!

So by demystifying a word, I ended my obsession with the DCM and UBM. Of course I wasn't yet thinking of any of this when I took the photographed the two men in perceivedness of each other outside of centre mall. Particularly because a second after I took it, it became clear that I had been standing too close and for too long a duration to the car next to me which then began to deploy its alarm and everyone around, including, no doubt, the two men I'd just photographed, stared at me, curious as to what the guy with the camera was doing next to the car that was beeping. I felt bad, at both the noise pollution and the drain on the owner's battery but there was no way of stopping it, and I proceeded as unsuspiciously as possible into the Mall.

I decided to give Andrew's cell phone another try. He picked up on the first ring. He had just loaded new minutes into his phone. Fantastic. Where was he? He was actually in Centre Mall. So was I. He believed he was walking towards the Tim Horton's. I believed I was walking towards the Tim Horton's (from what the legally deaf gentleman who I'd asked directions of had just told me, and these directions and clarifications shouted back and forth between us subtracted another full two minutes from whatever destinations I might have today.)

It was then I noticed a man in a black shirt about eight feet in front of me, walking the same direction as me and talking on a cell phone, and he had a black bag which might well contain a camera. I asked if he was wearing a black shirt. The voice on the phone sounded puzzled. The body language of the person in front of me looked uncertain. I hung up and we introduced ourselves. Just like Mercier and Camier at 9.50.

It realize I have taken up most of this essay getting to the walking tour portion of the essay, which is what this essay was mostly supposed to be. Sorry.

I will end with a few photos from its beginning of our tour. (I will probably try to do the rest of a tour in a subsequent issue, although I can't promise it will be in the next issue because I'm just not capable of keeping myself to a rigid plan.)

On our tour I took this shot of the Cadbury Adams building:

Cadbury Adams building
Cadbury Adams building

This is a beautifully proportioned building, painted in two-tone reds, but what's most interesting to me is the approach to it: a pedestrian walkway which takes you up stairs, over a railway line, and then down stairs on the other side. Mysteriously there's no fence keeping you from just walking across the tracks, which are straight in both directions as far as the eye can see, so that a pedestrian would have more than adequate time to note an approaching train and walk safely across it, rather than wasting a minute or two climbing stairs.

So the existence of this bridge, particularly looking up at it from the ground, is like a visual Zen Koan: Why, you ponder, would they make you climb and descend, over a stretch that possesses no impediments to walking? Is there some invisible force below that bridge which, if you passed through it, would rob you of vital spiritual energy? I really wished that I'd gotten a good shot of it, (you can just see the end of the stairway in the bottom left of my photo) Thankfully, Andrew sent me one of his -

Pedestrian walkway (Photo Credit: Andrew Stevenson)
Pedestrian walkway (Photo Credit: Andrew Stevenson)

- and also this view of crossing the bridge:

Crossing the bridge (Photo Credit: Andrew Stevenson)
Crossing the bridge (Photo Credit: Andrew Stevenson)

When Andrew sent me these it struck me that they were similar in subject matter to what I was doing, but obviously the product of someone with more sophistication as a photographer. I was reminded of Andy Warhol's comments when asked why he stopped doing paintings of Dick Tracy comics when he discovered that Roy Lichtenstein was doing something very similar:

Warhol: Because [Lichtenstein] did it so much better ... I was just copying from magazines and he ... sort of ... took it and made something out of it. (Photo Credit: Painters Painting, Emil de Antonio, 1972)
Warhol: Because [Lichtenstein] did it so much better ... I was just copying from magazines and he ... sort of ... took it and made something out of it. (Photo Credit: Painters Painting, Emil de Antonio, 1972)

Shortly after we got past the novelty of the bridge and the beauty of the Cadbury building, we found a small uninviting park which announced that ball playing was forbidden. I snapped a bunch of photos here. There were no people around, until the very end of our stay, when a girl rode by on a bike and appeared accidentally in one of my pictures.


And the near-silhouetted girl in the late afternoon light reminded me of Giorgio De Chirico's "Melancholy and Mystery of the Street."

Giorgio De Chirico's 'Melancholy and Mystery of the Street.' (Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org)
Giorgio De Chirico's 'Melancholy and Mystery of the Street.' (Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org)

My photo has no intended meaning, which De Chirico's obviously does. And yet even without the menacing figure in the De Chirico, there was something unsettling to what I'd photographed. Perhaps it was the very fact that I would never dream of deliberately photographing a strange child without guardian's consent, and am only using it here because her image in the shot was unintentional, and she's unidentifiable. That rationalization may speak loudly enough for the menace that public space has come to represent for anyone with children.

By contrast, I'm guessing that Lewis Hine didn't gain parental consent to photograph child labourers.

Girl worker in Carolina cotton mill, 1908 Photo Credit: masters-of-photography.com)
Girl worker in Carolina cotton mill, 1908 Photo Credit: masters-of-photography.com)

Although on a more positive note, it isn't such a bad thing that North American society has largely abolished child labour.

Much of what happens in the photographs which impress us is not only beyond the photographer's control, it is beyond what the photographer can even imagine. This may explain the power we ascribe to photographic images, and how we can even be fooled into thinking that the technology itself creates the unfolding of events it portrays. We so easily validate our own truth about people and events by the fact of them simply being in a photograph.

Did Abraham Zapruder ponder this in the few remaining years that followed his thundering debut as an auteur? When he stepped onto the grassy knoll on 11/22/63 with a recently purchased 8 mm, M. 414 PD Bell & Howell Zoomatic, he expected nothing more than a few frames of the smiling President in a shiny convertible, captured with his own eye and hands.

Perhaps he hoped his reel would become a family heirloom. But, certainly, as the film rolled, he didn't foresee that he was making his family name eponymous, or that his heirs would one day file a suit against the American Government to revaluate this 26 seconds of work at $16,000,000. And did he ever wonder at his instant fame, since his machine had been no use in stopping the bullets.

Abraham Zapruder (1905-1970) (Photo Credit: jfkmurdersolved.com/zapruder.htm)
Abraham Zapruder (1905-1970) (Photo Credit: jfkmurdersolved.com/zapruder.htm)

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at www.markfenton.ca.

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