Today's Reading

They walked into the high chrome of the Los Angeles morning and headed for Claude's usual diner on Hollywood Boulevard. Claude took a few images with the still camera as they walked along—their own reflections in the chrome whorl of a hubcap, a sparrow standing up to a pigeon over a bread crust in the gutter, a cat sleeping on a sunny stoop. A few of the indigent men on the boulevard waved to Claude, and one of them, a dropout named Billy, a tall kid in overalls and an army surplus jacket, asked for his photo to be taken. Claude obliged and told his subject to look off into the distance instead of at the camera. Pretend you are staring back at Iowa, Claude said, snapping the image.

* * *

The diner straddled a corner, a wedge of checkerboard linoleum and two rows of booths forming a wide V along the big windows. A middle-aged waitress named Gail showed them to Claude's favorite booth, in the apex of the V, where he could see the street as well as the rest of the diners. She handed them menus and he handed her a paper envelope of herbs and mushrooms for the kitchen. Claude cleaned his black-rimmed bifocals with a paper napkin—framing a distorted Martin briefly inside one smudged lens—before unstrapping his cameras and placing them on the leather bench. He watched Martin scanning the laminated menu.

—I am biased, but I recommend the omelet they call the Frenchman.

—Did they name it after you?

Claude smiled, gave a modest, Gallic shrug.

—It's possible I gave them the idea of adding fresh herbs and mushrooms with grated Gruyère. They pay me a little for my foraged herbs and they give me a regular's discount.

* * *

Gail arrived back at the table and they both ordered omelets and coffee. When the coffee arrived, Claude took a meditative sip and lingered his eyes on the street. A few bright-scarved secretaries were coming out of the studio and record label offices for a cigarette break, walking a little dazedly into the sunshine. Claude picked up the still camera, took some shots of the women smoking at the curbstone, wrote the details in his notebook.

—Strangers have always interested me, Claude said. The way they illuminate their own sorrows or joys when you least expect it. It might be half a second of staring into space, then it vanishes. In English, we say 'perfect strangers', which is very apt, I think.

He looked over at Martin, who was sipping his coffee.

—Nobody remembers my work anymore. How do you know it?

—I'm writing my dissertation on innovation in American silent film before 1914.

—And there is someone in existence who would read such a thing?

—Other film scholars mostly. Listen, my classmates aren't going to believe I'm having breakfast with Claude Ballard.

Claude waved a hand dismissively.

—How did you come to these studies?

—My grandparents raised me and they owned a movie theater out in the Hill Country, west of San Antonio. I was a certified projectionist by the time I was ten. You could say the silents are in my blood.

—I didn't become a projectionist and cameraman until I was nearly twenty.

—I'm guessing cinema hadn't been invented when you were ten.

—That's correct. My first job with a camera was in a hospital in Paris where they were studying hysteria. Then I took a job as a concession agent for the Lumière brothers. I was the first agent to show projected images in America and Australia. The brothers sent projectionists all over the world . . . India, Cuba, Brazil, China, Russia . . . sometimes the locals treated us like gods, sometimes like heretics . . .

* * *

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