susan sontag annoys me from the grave

Two or three times a year I’ll open up Susan Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography and read a few pages. I usually do it when I’ve finished reading another book and I want a breather before starting something new. I’ll open it to some random page, read for a bit, then close the book and mutter “Susan fucking Sontag.”

The thing is, Sontag/On Photography 1) always makes me think and 2) always annoys the hell out of me. Always. Always and for a dozen different reasons. The main reason, though, is that she’s usually entirely correct. Nobody likes a person who is always right. This is what stuck in my mind last night:

To photograph is to confer importance.

That’s Susan Sontag for you. Six words, and there it is. Six words, and she confronts you with a notion that ought to be self-evident but isn’t always. Six words, and she lays out a way to both shoot and understand photography. To photograph a thing is to confer importance on that thing.

That’s not to say what a person photographs will be important to anybody other than the photographer. It only means that by making the decision, consciously or intuitively, to isolate one chunk of reality and photograph it is a way of stating that particular chunk of reality has personal value for the photographer. It’s saying “This little chunk of reality is deserving of my attention, however fleeting that is.”

To photograph is to confer importance. Sontag illustrates that notion by discussing a photograph made by Edward Steichen in 1915 — a photograph of a couple of milk bottles sitting on a tenement fire escape. When I say Sontag illustrates the notion by discussing the photograph, I mean exactly that. Any other writer and any other book on photography would have included Steichen’s photo to illustrate the point. But not Sontag. That’s another annoying thing about her and On Photography: there are NO photographs in the book. None at all. If you want to see a photograph Sontag is talking about, you have to go find it. Which I did.

steichen_milk_bottles

Instead of showing the photo to make her point (which, if you recall, is to photograph is to confer importance), Sontag chooses to illustrate the concept by — and I’m not making this up — quoting from Walt Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

Each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty.

It is annoying as hell to quote a poet to explain a photograph. But yeah, as usual, she’s entirely correct. Each precise object exhibits a beauty and to photograph a precise object is to confer importance to it. Remember, Steichen shot that photo in 1915. Photography at that point in time was cumbersome and expensive. Steichen couldn’t just notice the milk bottles and take a quick snapshot of them. He had to set up a tripod, attach a large boxy camera to it, compose the image beneath a shroud using a screen in which the image appears upside down and reversed, then calculate the exposure. And all that takes place before the labor involved in developing the film and making a print. Taking a photograph in 1915 was a lot of work.

So yeah, to photograph was damned sure conferring importance. You don’t subject yourself to all that fuss and bother unless the precise object exhibited a compelling beauty. So Steichen was faced with a question. Milk bottles? On a fire escape? Really? And his answer was, yes, really, milk bottles on a fire escape!

This sort of photo is common now, but in 1915 it was revolutionary. Now, with digital imagery, a photographer can piss away hundreds of photos on milk bottles on fire escapes without any concern or thought. So even if we agree that Whitman is right and every precise object exhibits a beauty (and I’m not about to argue against our boy Walt), we have to ask if Sontag is still right. Does photography still confer importance?

I kind of want to say no. I want to say no partly because if modern photography requires absolutely no training and is subject to anybody’s passing whim, how can it confer importance on anything? I also want to say no just because Sontag continues to annoy me, even though she’s been dead for a decade and a half.

I kind of want to say no, but I can’t. Even if a digital image requires less commitment to the subject and the process, the decision of what and how to photograph remains the same. Here’s a photo I shot recently on a walk. It took maybe ten seconds to notice, to compose, to adjust the exposure, and take the photo using my cellphone. Maybe fifteen seconds. Then I was back to walking.

It probably took hours for Steichen to photograph his milk bottles and make a print of it. It took me only a moment to photograph a shed in somebody’s back yard. But the fundamental process is exactly the same. You observe the precise beauty of a thing, you isolate that thing in a lens, and you confer personal importance on it by photographing it.

Susan fucking Sontag. She annoys me from the grave.

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knuckles steps away

Back in January I began a second photo project (and seeing what I’ve just written, there’s a part of me asking ‘What sort of boneheaded idjit starts a photo project in fucking January?’) under the Knuckles Dobrovic alias. The first project was simple and stupid and rather fun: I put a thing on a table and photographed it. This second project was also simple and fairly unoriginal: when I took a walk I’d stop periodically and photograph my feet. The only original aspect of the notion was that I’d layer two or three of those photos on top of each other, making double or triple exposures.

January 29, the project began.

Why? Well, since it’s a photo project, there has to be at least one pretentious bullshit element at work, right? Dude, this project has two pretentious bullshit elements. Here they are.

Pretentious Bullshit Element One: Susan Sontag described photographs as ‘a thin slice of space and time.’ By layering different photographs shot at different times in different places on the same day, I wanted to suggest there’s a thread that ties together those discreet slices of time and place. I wanted to suggest that although I shot THIS photo HERE and THAT photo THERE, they’re basically one photograph of the same walk.

Pretentious Bullshit Element Two: The Buddhist monk Thích Nhat Hạnh, said this about walking meditation: When you walk, arrive with every step. I love that idea, though I’m not entirely sure what it actually means. But when I stopped to take the photos for this gig, I liked to tell myself that I’d arrived at that scattering of dead leaves, or at that lost mitten, or at that manhole cover.

February 19

See? Told you it was pretentious bullshit. But it helped me establish the gig in my head. It made the project purposeful. The concept appealed to me. The concept still does. But it’s been nine months, and I think I’ve learned as much as I can from the gig. I’d like to say I’ve accomplished my goal, except that there really wasn’t any goal. It was just an interesting thing to do while walking. And now it’s beginning to feel a tad stale to me.

March 12

One of the things I learned, though, is that the sort of stuff I’d originally thought might be interesting, often wasn’t. Shadow turned out to be surprisingly difficult to incorporate. Bright colors were often discordant in double exposures, or else they just turned into a muddy mucky brown. And small visually interesting stuff (like, say, a dead sparrow or a pair of sunglasses with one shattered lens) just tend to disappear in double exposures. 

April 26

I also discovered that I’m in bondage to a certain level of geometric orderliness. Initially, I deliberately photographed a lot of diagonal lines in the hope they’d add a pleasing complexity to the final photographs. Sometimes they did, but more often they just made the double exposures confusing. So I found myself relying more and more on lines that were horizontal or vertical — a sort of Mondrian neoplasticism (and boom, there’s more pretentious bullshit).

June 11

Finally, I was sort of surprised that not every walk resulted in a double exposure I found pleasing enough to publish. I’ve no idea how many total photos I shot for this project, or how many walks I took, but I generally shot at least three and up to eight photos of my feet on each walk. On some walks I simply failed to photograph two things that would work as double exposures.

August 17

So there we are. Nine months, 124 photographs. That’s enough. This gig is done. But I’m going to re-repeat something I said at the end of the first Knuckles project (and repeated at the beginning of this project):

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

September 29

I don’t know yet what the project will be. I’m still intrigued by double exposures, so it may have something to do with that. And I’m intrigued by the concept of appropriation, so that may work into it somehow. Or it may be something completely unrelated to those things. Or hell, I may not come up with any idea at all, and this will be the end of Knuckles Dobrovic.

But I doubt it.

October 31, project ends.

ADDENDUM: I have been chastised for not including a link to the project on Instagram. For some reason, it never occurred to me. I suck at self-promotion. But for those interested in seeing all the photos, here you go: Knuckles Dobrovic.

something something photography something

I used to be a camera app junkie. I regularly walked around with half a dozen camera apps on my phone — each of which did one or two things particularly well. I had two apps just for black-and-white work (one in square format, one in 3:2), another app just for awkward lighting situations, one for…well, you get the idea. I regularly downloaded new camera apps just to see what they could do, and discarded them ruthlessly

I’m in camera app recovery now. I only have two apps on my phone — one sophisticated app that gives me a lot of control over exposure, and one app that I’ve simplified in such a way that I can toggle between color and b&w (both in square format). I shoot almost exclusively with the simplified app. All the photographs in this post were shot with the same app.

A few folks have asked me why I bother to shoot in b&w when I could just shoot in color, then process the image as black-and-white. It’s a valid question. After all, a digital image in color contains a more information than a b&w image, and the use of color filters in post processing gives you more control over the final image. It would be smarter to shoot in color.

But I don’t. There has to be some sort of decision-making process that takes place in my head — some sort of algorithm firing in my brain, evaluating the scene and arriving at a decision. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much thought involved at all. I usually know if I’ll be shooting color or b&w when I pull the phone out of my pocket.

I also tend to photograph a lot of stuff that’s not obviously photo-worthy (if there is such a thing as photo-worthy), partly because I often find a photograph of a thing to be more interesting and appealing than the thing itself. Sometimes the entire point of a photo is in the act of photographing, not the thing being photographed. If that makes sense. Sometimes the point of a photo is in the decision of what to include in the frame and what to exclude.

As I wrote that, a thought occurred to me. Over the last several years, I’ve made my living dealing with narratives in one form or another. Now I walk around shooting photos that tend to be narrative-resistant. When you get down to the bone, a photograph isn’t anything but an arrangement of light on a surface. There’s no inherent narrative content. No matter what people say, a single photograph doesn’t tell a story. It can’t tell a story. Any narrative that might emerge comes from the viewer, not the photograph.

I don’t recall who said all photographs are self-portraits. One of those photographers from the 1930s and 40s, I’m sure — the ones who did the grunt work of turning the craft into an art form. It’s a great line, partly because it’s artsy bullshit and partly because it’s got a fuzzy kernel of truth. There’s a decision made behind every photograph. Every single one. And that decision reveals something about who you are.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who photographs kids at a birthday party, maybe you’re the sort of person who is passionate about photographing life on the street, maybe you’re the sort of person who is attracted by the arrangement of weeds growing along a drainage ditch. You might even be all the sort of person who does all three.

I had a point to make when I started writing this. I’ve totally forgotten what that point was. I suppose if the point was important, I’d have remembered it. This is what happens when you think about photography instead of doing photography. You might learn something new; you might also lose the point.

…and took the photo

I took a walk yesterday. I take a walk most days if the weather isn’t completely hostile. Walking on Thursday is usually a bit special, though, because (as I’ve written before, and before that) I belong to Utata — an international group of photographers and other reprobates — and Utata walks on Thursdays.

The group has been doing this for 619 consecutive weeks. That’s very nearly 12 years. We walk and we take a few photos of whatever we see. Not everybody in Utata does this, of course, but there are always a few people out walking with their cameras. This week, for example, we had people walking in Vancouver, in Switzerland, in the U.K., in Indiana, in Austria, in Ontario.

Normally during a walk I’ll shoot maybe half a dozen photos. Well, probably a few more than that now that I’m consciously shooting a Knuckles Dobrovic project. Yesterday I only shot a single photograph. This one:

I’ve been noodling around with cameras for a few decades now, and I’m familiar enough with whatever equipment I have with me to compose and shoot without a lot of conscious thought. I usually know the geometry of the composition I want before I bring the camera (or cellphone) up to shoot the photo. But with this particular photo, a process that normally would take moments ended up taking a few minutes.

I’d actually walked a few feet past that structure before my brain registered that its shape echoed the shape of the shed in the background. So I stopped, walked back, started to take the photo…but there was a distracting bit of playground in the back yard of the house. Couldn’t have that, could I. So I shifted my position a couple of steps to the right…only now the trees were out of balance. So I shifted again…only now a tree partially blocked the shed. So I shifted closer…but the top of the structure no longer aligned with the roof of the house. So I squatted…only now it cut off a corner of the damned house window. So I unsquatted a bit…only now there didn’t seem to be quite enough of the fucking sidewalk. So I shifted back a couple of steps and re-squatted, then re-unsquatted a bit…but some cruel, heartless son-of-a-bitch pulled a goddamned car into the drive of the neighboring house and left its ass-end hanging out just enough to intrude into the fucking frame.

So I said ‘fuck it’ and took the photo.

the return of knuckles dobrovic

I’ve already written about my slow conversion to Instagram, so I won’t repeat myself. Well, I won’t repeat myself much. I’ll repeat that my original IG account was meant as an experiment–a test or sorts. I designed a stupidly simple project idea: I put things on a table and photographed them. I didn’t expect it to come to anything and I didn’t really want to be associated with it, so I created a pseudonym: Knuckles Dobrovic. The whole thing was meant to be easily cast aside–project, alias, and the entirely of Instagram.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. I learned to love Instagram and the stupidly simple project idea turned into an actual project (though it remained stupid and simple). And as silly as it sounds, I love the name Knuckles Dobrovic. Here’s one more thing I’ll repeat: this bit in which I considered what I’d do when the project ended:

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

The Things on a Table project ended in August of 2014. I put Knuckles Dobrovic out to pasture, with the idea that some day I’d–okay, I actually wrote I’d haul his ass back and put him to work, as if Knuckles Dobrovic actually existed.

Here’s the thing: I write and teach fiction, so I’m fairly used to thinking of characters in terms of their internally consistent integrity. So are you, for that matter. You have a fairly good idea how Sherlock Holmes thinks, what Princess Leia believes and would fight for, what Hannibal Lecter wants for supper, who Elizabeth Bennett would like to dance with and why. You have a fairly solid grasp on these fictional characters.

Me, I know what Knuckles Dobrovic would like to photograph. So despite the fact that Knuckles doesn’t actually exist, there are still certain Knuckles-based parameters that I knew would have to apply to a new photo project.

  • The project had to be simple, grounded in something commonplace. It had to grow fairly organically out of an everyday occurrence.
  • It needed to be something that didn’t require much planning or forethought. It had to be open to spontaneity. It also needed a certain–let’s call it ‘temporal economy’, meaning I didn’t want to have to spend much time fussing around with it.
  • The project didn’t need to be entirely original (how many projects are?), but it needed enough flexibility so I could make it uniquely mine. Or, rather, uniquely Knuckles’.
  • The project had to be something I’d find interesting–or at least something I wouldn’t mind doing–over the course of several months, regardless of the weather or season.

I confess, that’s largely bullshit. It’s not like I actually thought about it enough to make bullet points. I didn’t actually articulate any of this until I sort of stumbled onto this project idea. Over the past four years I’d occasionally consider project ideas, but they were all too fussy, or too complicated, or too much bother, too esoteric, too stupid, too something. Until last week.

I walk a lot. Most days, I try to take a lazy two or three mile walk. During that walk I’ll occasionally shoot a photo or two with my phone. I usually delete them. Last week, as I was deleting photos, I noticed I’d taken two shots with similar framing–looking straight down at stuff near my feet.

Nothing out of the ordinary there; I’d guess almost everybody who’s ever held a camera has taken that same basic photo. On a whim, instead of deleting the photos, I used a simple app to lay one image over the other–a sort of faux double exposure. And I liked the result.

January 29, two locations

I liked it enough I almost posted it on my Instagram account. Then it occurred to me that the photo had Knuckles potential. It met all the criteria. Walking was a commonplace event; it required no planning at all to notice stuff near my feet; it’s not an original idea, but it’s flexible enough to allow me a different take on it; and it was dead easy to layer one photo on top of the other.

So I decided, what the hell–I’d do it again on my next walk. See if the idea had legs, so to speak.

January 31, three locations

Again, I liked the result. I figured I’d repeat this for a few days to see if it was actually a viable project concept.

For the most part, I walk in my neighborhood, which is pretty suburban. There are some newer middle class areas, some older working class homes, a few small parks, some bits of light industry not too far away, a handful of strip malls and small shops fairly close by. It’s not particularly visually interesting. But there’s always stuff on the ground. Always and everywhere.

February 2, two locations

What I like about this idea is the element of randomness. You never know what you’re going to find on the ground. But there’s also an element of intentionality and deliberation that I find appealing. You have to make deliberate, intentional decisions on HOW to photograph the random stuff.

The biggest surprise was discovering I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. You’d think it would be easy to photograph random stuff in such a way that they’d blend together in an aesthetically pleasing way. But it ain’t. At least not for me. At least not yet.

February 6, two locations

I really like the fact that I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I like the fact that a lot of what I think will work as a double exposure turns out not to work at all. I’m pretty comfortable with the flawed and fickle nature of this gig. I’m okay with the fact that some days nothing I photograph will produce anything interesting.

I suspect that over time, I’ll get better at it–but I’m in no hurry. There’s always another walk tomorrow. There’s always going to be random crap at my feet.

February 7, two locations

The best thing about this gig (for me, at any rate) is that — well, there are two best things. The first best thing is that I get a ridiculous amount of enjoyment out of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. The second best thing is that this encourages me to walk with anticipation but without expectation. If that makes sense.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk who advocates a form of walking meditation, says this about walking: When you walk, arrive with every step. I’m not a good enough Buddhist to do that, but I try to be open to arriving. There’s just something pleasant and satisfying about seeing something on the ground — a leaf, a shadow, an oddly shaped stone, a bit of paint– and stopping a moment just to appreciate it. To arrive at that leaf or stone. I do that even if I don’t take a photograph.

So I think this project idea might work.

death of an innocent accidental photo project

The first thing I do every morning is…well, the first thing is I get dressed. But after that, the first thing I do every morning…well, okay, I usually make the bed. Some times I’ll make the bed before I’m entirely dressed. You know what? It turns out there are maybe have a half-dozen picayune things I do first thing every morning, including stretching and putting on socks in the colder months and greeting the cat, who is usually waiting for me. None of those things matter for the purposes of this blog, honest.

August 31, 2014

Here’s what matters. The first thing I do every morning is check the perimeter. When I say ‘check the perimeter’ I basically mean I look out the back door. I don’t know why; it’s a habit. The cat almost always joins me for that. She stands beside me and we look out the door for a long moment. Sometimes I’ll step outside for a better look. The cat may step out with me, or she may not. I’ve no idea what her criteria are for this decision.

February 18, 2015

Once we’re certain the perimeter is secure, we go about our day. Coffee for me, stink food for her, reading the news for me, going back to sleep for her. Every day, we do this. And every so often, I’ll pull out my phone and take a photo of the cat beside me. Again, I don’t know why. It’s basically the same photo, with minor changes, over and over. Most of the time the cat shuffles off before I get the phone out, so a lot of my photos of the cat checking the perimeter end up as photos of nothing except my feet. Sometimes it’s just my feet and a cattish blur. Usually I delete the photo as soon as I’ve taken it. Usually. Not always.

October 8, 2015

It occurred to me yesterday morning that the cat and I have been doing this for three or four years. Every day, me and the cat checking the perimeter. And I realized I might have created a photo project without being aware of it. I’m not terribly fussy about backing things up on my computer, I’m afraid, but I figured Google Photos would likely have saved some of those photos I shot with my phone in the cloud (at least the ones I didn’t delete immediately). And hey, bingo, what do you know, they did.

February 10, 2016

Eighteen photos altogether. My feet, the cat, the door. I’d have guessed there would be more, but as I say, I usually delete the photos immediately — even before Google has a chance to back them up in the cloud (I hate saying ‘the cloud’). I delete them because I’ve shot the same photograph so often. How many photos does a person need of his feet, a cat, and a doorway? Fewer than eighteen, probably.

July 21, 2016

Actually, there were a LOT more than eighteen photos of my feet, the cat, and the door. Google Photos is pretty damned efficient. But there were only eighteen in which the cat wasn’t moving or that didn’t include distracting crap like the edge of a dustpan or the intrusion of the leg of a stool. So let’s just say eighteen ‘acceptable’ photos, shall we?

December 4, 2016

Some of the photos are in color, some in black-and-white. It all depends on which camera app I happen to choose to open on a given morning. I’m the sort of guy who has (okay, I had to stop typing to actually check and count them) six camera apps on his phone. Six. Two of which are dedicated black-and-white apps. Oh, and a video app that I’ve never used. Why so many camera apps? Damned if I know. I’m sure I have a good reason.

January 2, 2018

It turns out there’s a flaw in the whole innocent accidental photo project. The flaw is this: it’s innocently accidental. Which, of course, is also what makes (to me, at any rate) interesting. It’s a flaw, though, because the innocent accidental quality means I didn’t save a single photograph of the cat, my feet, and the doorway in the entire year of 2017. Lots of photos of the cat, of course, and an alarming number of photos that include my feet, plus a few photos that include the doorway, but none of all three together. None. In all of 2017. And yet I already have two this year. Go figure.

January 23, 2018

Knowing I was going to write this, I intended to make another photograph of the cat and I checking the perimeter this morning. I thought it would be fitting to end this post with a photo taken today. The cat, being a cat, didn’t cooperate. Which seems oddly appropriate.

I could try again tomorrow. But I probably won’t. Now that I’m aware of it, the innocent accidental project has lost its innocence and its accidental nature. I’ll almost certainly shoot more photos of my feet, the cat, and the doorway, but when I do I’ll be more conscious of what I’m doing. It’s kind of a shame, isn’t it.

time insists on change

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” Brecht was right about that. Time insists on change. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome.

Corning’s Cash Store

In 1893, the International Order of Odd Fellows established Lodge 576, apparently named for General William Tecumseh Sherman — the Union general who famously (or infamously) inflicted total war on the Confederate states during the U.S. Civil War thirty years earlier. The Odd Fellows held their meetings upstairs and leased the ground floor to Corning’s Cash Store.

At some point in the 1940s, the grocery store was sold and Fairground Hardware opened. Mike (I don’t know his last name) bought the place about twenty years ago. In a couple of days, everything in the store will be auctioned off, and Fairground Hardware will become…something else. Possibly a bistro.

Fairground Hardware

The fact that Fairground Hardware lasted as long as it did is something of a miracle. Small, local hardware stores have been failing for more than a decade, driven out of business by big box ‘home improvement’ enterprises and giant retail chains. Online shopping drove the last nail in the hardware coffin.

Fairground Hardware’s survival was due in part to its location; as the name suggests, it’s located directly across from the Iowa State Fairgrounds. During the ten days of the state fair, the hardware store saw a lot of customers — drawn in more by the store’s appearance and its peculiar inventory. A lot of people enter the store just to look around.

That was certainly what first attracted me to the store. I occasionally eat at a working class diner on the corner opposite Fairground Hardware, and I always found myself intrigued by the store. Not so much the structure itself, but by the fact that it was called a hardware store, and yet the shop windows contained an assortment of cowboy hats, old radios, oddly shaped tin canisters, and ancient advertisements for products I’d never heard of before.

The interior of the shop makes the shop windows seem almost normal. Yes, there are some of the things you’d expect to find in a hardware store — wood screws, paint brushes, wrench sets, replacement parts for water heaters and toilets, mallets, cold chisels, shovels, crank-neck gouges, screwdrivers. But scattered throughout the store are things you do not expect to find in a hardware store — things that have nothing to do with hardware at all. Things that have nothing to do with normal reality.

Stepping into Fairground Hardware is like stepping into a set for a David Lynch film. The mix of normal and not-normal is wonderfully disorienting. Above a display of sockets for wrenches, you’ll find brightly colored fishing lures hung on a line like holiday ornaments. A plastic lobster is affixed to a ceiling water pipe, under which is a selection of coils of industrial wire. An old leather horse collar hangs from a peg-board along with some gardening tools.

Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods? Those can’t be actual canned goods. Can they? Can they?

Maybe the shelving made sense at one point in time. But it seems clear that in recent years none of this stuff was placed where it is as part of a merchandising strategy. It’s equally clear it hasn’t been placed simply to astonish the customers. I can’t say how Mike decided to put anything where he did, but walking through the store it feels more like he simply had a thing in his hand and saw a place without a thing, and so put the thing in his hand right there. And that’s where it stayed.

Mike himself, the owner, you couldn’t call him a ‘character’. Not really. I’ve probably gone into Fairground Hardware once or twice a year for the past few years. He can probably tell I’m just there to look, not to shop — and for the most part, he’s remained quiet and reserved. But when he decides to talk, he talks. You can’t get him to stop. And he’ll talk about almost any subject. The Old West, his childhood traumas, Donald Trump (he’s a fan), clowns, the inevitability of change. You can try to ease your way out of the conversation, you can say, “Well, I should probably be goin…”, and he’ll start on another tangent — his issues with his foot, why he prefers baseball caps to other hats, the history of camouflage.

You get the sense that he spends a lot of time alone in that shop — and that he’s been okay with that. He’s not reconciled to the fact that Fairground Hardware is going to close. He’s obviously a tad skeptical of the plan to turn the building into a bistro — you can tell simply by the way he says bistro, as though the term itself smells like bad cheese.

Time insists on change. Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. Because things are the way they are, the authentic weirdness of Fairground Hardware will likely give way to a trendy bistro. In a working class neighborhood. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome. And it’ll be a sad day when Mike has to turn off the ‘Open’ sign for the last time.