Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train was halfway between Washington and New York when the guy sitting across the aisle noticed I was sorting through a stack of 11 x 14 photos and typing notes on my laptop.
“You a photographer?”
“Man, I love taking pictures. Always wanted to be a photographer.”
“Well, if you’re shooting, you’re halfway there.”
“Nah. Not like you guys. Travel to exotic lands, getting paid to do something you love. That’s the life.”
“Don’t you like what you do for a living?”
“Not really. Don’t get me wrong. I make good money and the family has a good life but I’m bored.”
“Then do what you like.”
“It’s not that easy. I’ve got a wife, three kids, one of them ready for college, and a mortgage.”
I stopped typing on my laptop and thought back about 12 years, to a morning when I was the guy across the aisle, on a plane from Washington to Chicago, talking to a photographer just back from an assignment in the Middle East. I was vice president for political programs for the National Association of Realtors, a fatcat Washington lobbyist job with a six-figure salary and lavish expense account. Amy and I vacationed at fancy resorts, ate at the most expensive restaurants and drove fancy German cars.
Yet not that many years earlier, I had been the guy sitting next to me on the plane, a photojournalist who could barely cover his monthly Visa bill, driving a 15-year-old junker and eating at diners and fast-food restaurants. Yet he was talking happily of his next assignment and I was headed for a meeting in Chicago, my blood pressure held in check by pills and my frequent migraines controlled by prescription drugs.
I walked away from that life in 1994, gave my $2,000 Italian designer suits to Goodwill, put the fancy gold watch in a safe deposit box, replaced the German cars with a couple of Jeeps and went back to jeans, a stained and a faded Domke photographer’s jacket. I had to take my cameras out of a dusty closet and clean them off and the eye that controlled the finger that pressed the shutter needed practice. Photography had changed in the time I was away and I had a lot of catching up to do.
Last year, I made less money than I paid in taxes in 1990 but that’s no big deal. Our homes are paid for (as are the cars) and our biggest debt right now is the $71.00 I owe Shell on my gas credit card. Amy and I still eat at the best restaurants because we discovered — too late in life — that the best is seldom the most expensive and we vacation at exotic places like Branson, Missouri, and Camp Jeep in Nelson County, Virginia.
On that train to New York, the guy across the aisle continued to talk about how unhappy he was. I noticed the shake in his hands, the puffiness in his face and the bloodshot eyes. Then I saw the miniture bottle of vokda beside the orange juice on his tray. He downed four before the train reached New York.
“I envy you man,” he said as we got up to leave the train. “I really do.”
I dug a card out of my wallet and gave it to him.
“Call this number. It’s the first step of getting your life back.”
“What is it?”
“Alcoholics Anonymous. They helped me in 1994. Without them, I wouldn’t be back to doing what I love.”