Dressed in a faded, wool top hat and crocs, Mac Nolte drags a shopping cart with crooked wheels across uneven Hollywood roads. The cans and bottles he’s spent the night collecting bang and rattle over the gravel and against the cart’s wire frame.
The sun is nearly useless this time of year in southern California. There is no refuge from the cold once it sets. Walking home, Mac and I pass each other on the sidewalk. He turns, smiles.
I nod and understand that while I am done for the day, Mac’s work is far from over. It’s not uncommon in Los Angeles to see shopping carts piled high with cans, bottles, and bags, all headed to the local recycling center for change on the pound.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
“Yeah. Yeah I am. How’d you know?”
“Anyone digging through the trash for bottles at 9 pm on a winter night in LA probably isn’t trying to save the planet.”
I get Mac a turkey sandwich, some string cheese, and a Snickers.
He thanks me, tells me I’ve made his night.
“Well, my name is Max. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Max? No shit. My name is Mac. Max and Mac.”
“We could be partners in crime,” I say. I ask Mac where he is headed. Tonight, we’re going the same direction.
Mac arrived in Los Angeles thirty-seven years ago, and made a name for himself as an entertainment photographer. He grew up in Mississippi where he says he learned to survive. “It was a time where if you looked at a white girl, you were hung. And to all the white people you said, ‘Ya’Sir.’” Mac was born an artist. He knew he wanted to be a photographer from a very early age, but his family was poor. If he wanted to go to school, he was going to have to pay for it all on his own.
As soon as Mac was old enough, he left Mississippi for Baton Rouge, Louisiana to work on a cherry farm. While there, he enrolled in an all black school. “After I jumped on the cherry farm bus, I worked for the Jolly Green Giant. You know the Jolly Green Giant. They do corn and peas.”
But Mac didn’t want to put corn and peas in a can for the rest of his life. He wanted to go to art school. So he hitched his way to Milwaukee. “I had a cousin there who put me up. At my school in Baton Rouge, I had a teacher in the ninth and tenth grade that encouraged me to never give up on my dream to be a photographer. So I stayed in Milwaukee with my cousin and worked all day, every day, until I finally had enough money for college.”
After graduation, Mac hitched his way to Los Angeles.
“One guy that helped me in the photo world was Lester Sloan. He was the only black photographer working for Newsweek magazine.”
Sloan was hired by Newsweek’s Los Angeles bureau in 1970. In 1975 he was awarded a Niemen Fellowship to study at Harvard University. After completing his studies at Harvard, Sloan returned to LA and worked as a photographer until 1996. Today he is a visiting professor of photojournalism at Savannah State University and contributing essayist to NPR’s Weekend Edition.
“Man, you were trained by the best.”
“That’s right. I just met a lot of people. I was with a guy, this particular guy, this guy was struggling and starving. This was Johnny Depp. Do you know Johnny Depp? I used to shoot the band Rock City Angeles. This was when Johnny Depp wanted to be a musician at that time before he landed a role on, on, on that show. That show 21 Jump Street. You see he met Nick Cave, and Nick Cave sent him to his agent and the agent signed him, and, well, the rest with Mr. Depp is history.”
When we arrive at my house, I ask Mac where he is sleeping tonight.
“I have a studio up on Wilcox.”
“Like an apartment?”
“Like an office. I can’t afford a real apartment so I sleep where I work. I don’t have a bed though. I don’t want anyone to know that I live there.” Mac tells me he sleeps on a mat. “You just roll it up and you got space.”
“Isn’t the uncomfortable? You might as well be sleeping on the floor.”
“Oh man, nawww, it’s okay. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now. I took Judo all throughout my life, and the key thing there is that your mat means a lot. So when I sleep, I sleep on that, then I roll it up and file it away. No need for a bed. Bed takes up too much space.”
“You’re out here recycling. Why are you collecting cans?”
“Well, I need extra cash. I’m trying to take a class at Pasadena City College. And that’s two credits. And that’s about $120, you see? I signed up. But I only got three days to pay. So. I’m trying to get $120 in three days. It’s a poster and silk-screening class. I want to start silk-screening.”
“Is that what you do at your shop?”
“Yeah. I make t-shirts and sell photography. I put stuff in the window. Occasionally, I have a yard sale. I can’t afford a city permit to sell. I live in a storefront. It’s all I can afford to rent. But I want to get better at making shirts. I can’t get better unless I take this class. And to take this class, I need exactly one hundred and twenty dollars.”
“How much do these cans go for?”
“Well last night I cashed in and made fifty-three bucks. I’m gonna run this here cart till about one a.m. this evening. Then I will do a yard sale of my shirts and prints and hustle up that money so I can take this class.”
“Mac, what if I could give you that money?”
Mac looks at me like he’s just realized he’s made a terrible mistake. Like he shouldn’t be speaking with me at all.
“Are you serious?”
“Maaaannnn. You would be like a mother fucking dream!”
Mac asks what I do for a living. He wants to know how I can afford to give him such an enormous sum of money. I tell him I know it isn’t much. I wish I could give him more, but I don’t have a lot. I just can’t stand to see someone digging through the trash to pay their bills. “I’m just a writer.”
“A writer!? Oh man. I can’t believe it. I respect writers to the top. TO THE TOP. You are coming up with something that never existed. Come on, man. It’s not there. But you see it. And you make it real. A good artist makes things tangible. Man. I respect you.”
Mac says he used to be friends with a writer named Marilyn Ferguson. An author most recognized for her work The Aquarin Conspiracy. I decide to believe Mac’s stories about Johnny Depp and Lester Sloan. If you’re trying to drop celebrity names, why on earth would you tell me you were friends with such an obscure writer? I have no idea who Marilyn Ferguson is until I look her up later that evening. Mac and Marilyn met when he was getting ready to move eight years ago. Divorced and with an estranged son, Mac held a yard sale. Marilyn stopped by, asked is he was moving, and told him she had a small place she was trying to rent. He ought to come by and check it out.
Mac lived in her place until 2008 when she died of a heart attack. He lost a best friend. Without knowing where to turn or what to do next, Mac now sleeps in a storefront window in Hollywood on a Judo mat.
“What about your ex wife or son? Could you ever reach out to them.”
“Man. This is America. You’re alone here. My son, though, he is a computer expert and a policeman.” Mac pauses, looks down. “I don’t talk to him much. Maybe every two or three months.”
“That’s okay, Mac. Sometimes I go a month or two without talking to my dad too.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s just the way of things between fathers and sons.”
When Mac and I part ways, him needing to finish the night’s work and my needing to rest before the next day’s work begins, I hand my new friend the money for his class. I tell him to use it for whatever he needs. Food. Beer. Rent. But he insists on telling me the money is going right to that class. He thanks me, says I am an angel and it’s been an honor to meet me. He wants to hang out again, and asks me to stop by the shop sometime so he can give me a couple of t-shirts.
“No, Mac. I’m no angel.” I ask him if he believes in God.
“If I don’t,” he says, “I’d better fucking start tonight.”
copyright 2013 by Max Andrew Dubinsky, All Rights Reserved