downtown los angeles
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Walter said, setting my camera on the counter. I’d come barreling in through the front door of his repair shop after three failed attempts at opening the thing before realizing Walter had a timed lock on his door, and buzzed his customers in personally after ensuring they were not packing heat or sporting a balaclava.
I had neither. Walter unlocked the door. I’d been in refrigerators with more room than Walter’s Camera and Digital Repair. I bumped shoulders with the Koreans – the only other customers in there – in my attempt to successfully approach the counter. The gentleman I presumed to be Walter asked me what I wanted. He was a short man with no hair and a protruding belly that made me feel further from him than I really was. He kept one too many buttons undone on his shirt, and I couldn’t tell if this was due to the heat or his stomach. In direct contradiction to my loud and loquacious nature, he spoke quietly and carefully as if each word might be his last.
I showed him my camera. “We took this to the desert,” I said. “It’s been beat up a bit. I think the censor might be dirty. Can you clean it?”
Walter nodded, took my camera, and asked if I had change in the meter.
“Oh, I can’t stay. Can I pick it up tomorrow?”
“Sit? But I…”
The Koreans and I exchanged smiles but nothing else. They appeared to remain amused by my inability to get through the front door. I crossed my legs to make room for the three of us.
Walter’s Camera and Digital Repair felt more like a mechanic’s garage, or worse, the kind of place where a couple of goons might rough up some lowlifes with bad gambling debts. I studied the stacks of nonmoving parts distributed unevenly about the perimeter of the already dwindling space. Box fans hung haphazardly from the ceiling with shoelace. I dug my heel into a hole in the brown carpet beneath my chair.
Walter reappeared then with the Korean’s camera, sending them on their way. He turned to me and that’s when he said it. “I have good news and bad news.”
“Do I have to pick?”
“Yes,” he said, so I said, “Give me the bad news.”
“The bad news is I cannot take your money.”
He didn’t smile. He had no tell. Was this a joke? I couldn’t be certain, so I did the only thing I could think to do: I assumed the worst.
I cannot take your money, but it will COST YOU YOUR LIFE.
I cannot take your money because YOU HAVE NONE.
I cannot take your money because YOUR CAMERA IS BEYOND REPAIR.
“Camera is in perfect condition.”
“But … that’s not bad news. That’s great news.”
“Bad news for me. If nothing wrong with camera, I cannot take money. Honesty is best policy, yes?”
I held out my hand for him to shake. “Walter, thank you so much. You’re a good man.”
He doesn’t shake. Instead he asks, “Why you have Tamron lens? If your camera have problems, it’s because you have Tamron lenses.”
“What’s wrong with Tamron?”
“They not Canon.”
“Buy new lens.”
“Do you sell them?”
“No. I just fix camera. I do not sell. Can you afford new lens? How you make living?”
“I, uh, I’m an editor.”
“Editor. I edit video. And sometimes I write.”
“Oh. Writer. I used to be a writer.”
“You did? What did you write?”
“You wrote two movies?”
He shrugs. “I was ghost writer in Egypt.” No big deal.
I think about every twenty-soemthing in LA filling every seat in every coffee shop from downtown to Santa Monica, hoping for half the chance Walter’s had and he’s now fixing cameras in a room with box fans dangling for dear life from the ceiling.
“Is that where you’re from?” I ask. “Egypt?”
“When did you move here to LA?”
“1968. This is a good country, no? You should be proud to be here. Other countries very corrupt. America only little corrupt.” He laughed but did not smile. I wondered if it was an acquired skill or something you’re born with.
“Why did you stop writing?”
“My boss was bad man. People around him went to jail. I stop writing to avoid jail. Go to college. Receive my Bachelors of Business and Science.”
“So why go from writing screenplays to fixing cameras?”
“Opportunity for monopoly,” he said. “No one in Egypt fix cameras. Just two other men.”
“And you were the third?”
“Yes. But not for long. Soon I was number one.”
He finally smiled.
“And then you came here?” I asked.
“For better life. I fix cameras ever since.”
“Well thank you for doing what you do, Walter… You are Walter, I assume, right?”
He shook his head. “Walter is dead. I’m Sayad.”
“Oh. God. I’m sorry.” I’d heard the Koreans call him Walter. I tell him this.
Sayad shakes his head. “No, he told me I was Walter. Just as you did.”
“Why didn’t you correct him?”
Sayad shrugged again. “Walter is on the sign. Good for business if people think I am Walter. Bad for business if they think Walter is dead.”
I can’t argue with that. “Well, I am sorry for calling you Walter.”
“He was Jew, you know.”
I cringe. Oh no. “Who? The real Walter? My meter has probably expired by now. I should go.”
“Yes. He was Jew and I am Arab.” Sayad pokes his own exposed chest (with surprisingly little chest hair for a man of his age, I might add). He looks away from me, at everything, at nothing. “We were friends. All peace all the time. No politics. Just love. What do you think of that?”
“I think I like that very much, Sayad.”
“Me too, Max. You’re a kind man. Tell your girlfriend that Sayad said so when you get home.”
I collected the camera from him and placed it in my bag.
“Don’t set lens like that.” Sayad said.
“What do you mean?”
“Bad for camera to keep lens there.” Sayad handed me a plastic bag and told me to put my 50mm lens in there instead of next to the camera. “You must protect it. Bad for camera to leave lens unprotected.”
“You’re welcome. That’ll be ninety-dollars for plastic bag.”.