During the final summer of his life, wheelchair-bound Ben spoke to his now-elderly parents about a daytrip he wished to complete on his own. He would hire a car and revisit some of the locales he'd lovingly photographed during the last quarter-century.
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The car arrived early Sunday morning. Caleb the driver introduced himself and assisted the handicapped man into a comfortable position upon the limousine's spacious rear seat. He placed a blanket near Ben in case the weather should grow cooler by evening.
"Would you care to take your Minolta along with you, Benjamin?" his mother asked.
"It's already in my coat pocket," he said, blowing her a kiss and waving to his father.
Traffic was unusually light on the turnpike from Branford straight to the Bronx. They made their first stop in Queens. Ben searched for landmarks, only to find that the private pool was gone, filled in and replaced by an automotive front end, brakes and body shop. Telly's, next door and later converted to a South American fast-food place, had been gutted by a fire.
They drove over to Brooklyn and to the el. Although the tree had long been reduced to firewood, the elevated structure was standing, rusty and neglected, but more or less intact and operational. Staring up at the lone signal perched high above, he noted its number and swore it was the same one. Pleased, Ben grinned.
His smile soon faded and his heart grew heavy when he learned from a resident that his young girl subject of the mesmerizing and award-winning "Fog" photo had been severely beaten in a street fight several years before. She'd died in a hospital days later.
They drove on to downtown Brooklyn, to the bridges and docks. On the waterfront streets of Washington and Water, where he had captured the majesty of the Manhattan Bridge support tower on a spring night, he found the area had festered and become a dumping ground for old sofas and other large trashed items. The sight of this site now overwhelmed and depressed him.
At the borough's other end an hour later, he found that Coney Island seemed to lack the spirit and attractions which had made it world famous decades earlier. Ben instructed his driver to find a parking space on Stillwell Avenue.
"Caleb, have you ever had a Nathan's hot dog?"
"Can't say that I have, Mr. Englander."
"Ah, a wasted life," he said, deadpan. "But you're plenty youthful, and it's never too late to start. Besides, I'm buying."
After lunch and lemonade, they crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and headed to the far end of Staten Island. There, in Tottenville, overlooking Perth Amboy across the channel, Rando Auto sales was long gone, along with its one dusty '49 Packard.
Ben, growing bone-weary at dusk, asked to be driven home. Contemplating thoughts from this day, he spoke very little on the return journey. Time having moved inexorably forward, the mystery and magic had disappeared from these places. Still, he quietly thanked his version of a deity for allowing him, at the very least, the time and talent to be able to preserve a small part of it. Sleepy, he closed his eyes to rest them from the harsh and irritating glare of passing night traffic.
He recalled that few interviewers ever asked him which photograph was his favorite. One had often been overlooked, except by a single person. After the release of The Exorcist, it found its way into many a small local theater to attract more paying customers eager to be terrified. In one of the boroughs, he always forgot exactly where, he snapped a fast shot of three parochial schoolgirls in uniform under the marquee's title. They seemed nervous while fumbling for money as they approached the ticket booth and tried hard to muster the courage to attend. "Abandon Hope, ye Who Enter" appeared in his first book.
Some years thereafter, he received a large manila envelope with no return address. It contained a black-and-white movie still, autographed by a prominent cast member. She had inscribed it, "Dearest Ben, you make my head spin!" It generated the biggest - and most unexpected - laugh of his life, and he immediately had it framed. That photo has remained on display on his mantle over the fireplace ever since, one of his most cherished possessions.
"I'll have you home in less than an hour. Are you comfortable back there, sir?"
"More than I can say, Caleb. Thank you for asking."
But Ben frowned as he touched the camera in his pocket. he hadn't taken a single photograph today, but he was forced to conclude there was nothing worth taking.
As he began slipping into a light nap, he asked whether his own legacy, like Hopper's, stand the test of time to survive him? To live on for others? who knows? Only the future has that answer, he mused, and then, lulled by the soothing, steady rhythm of the road, did he drift off into a restful, satisfying sleep.
A slow-paced, character-dreiven independent film, Don't Come Knocking, made its American premiere to decent reviews at the Directors Guild Theater in Manhattan on March 9, 2006. Seven years earlier, and to the very day and hour, Benjamin Englander, following his artistic mentor, had slipped quietly from this world.
Equally ironic were the many visually stunning scenes shot by cinematographer Franz Lustig in Nevada, Utah and Montana. Whether his focus was on sunlight, or on angles of buildings, or on the lonely, alienated characters in the story, these images achieved up on the big screen what Hopper had committed to canvas and Englander to photographic paper.
And it did not go unnoticed by an actress who had appeared in the film.
Toward the end of her career, but brimming with a lifetime of perception, Eva Marie Saint said in a filmed interview: "An incredible eye! It was Edward Hopper in Butte, Montana. It was seeing through his eyes..."
Copyright © 2010 James D. Young