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​Workplace Hijinks in 1980s Times Square

Working the graveyard shift at a photo studio in Times Square leads to some bizarre happenings.

by Scot Sothern
Feb 2 2015, 7:17pm

1985. I'm married and living in San Diego with my three-year-old son. I haven't worked in a while, and our little home is not a happy one. I get a call from a guy in New York I worked with a couple of years ago in Saudi Arabia. He tells me he's with a firm that makes multimedia shows and special-effect slides and they need an optical camera operator, do I know how to operate a Forox optical camera?

"Yeah, absolutely," I tell him. "I used to work with a guy who had a Forox camera. What's it pay?" I've never heard of a Forox, camera and three days later I'm in NYC on the seventh floor of the Paramount Building in Times Square in a little room with a big camera on a rail and a console of toggle switches and numbers, looking for an on/off switch. A camera is just a camera, and I get it figured out quickly enough and am employed for the next year and a half.

The company is called Spinner's Slides, and I'm working the night shift. There's an oddball guy named Kershaw who develops the long rolls of Ektachrome in a little dip-and-dunk darkroom. He keeps the door closed with the lights off even when there is no film to develop. Because we are shooting slides we have containers of film cleaner and cotton swabs and hoses connected to a compressor to blow the dust away. The film cleaner is highly flammable, though it burns out quickly. I like to soak the swabs in the fluid, put the sticks into an air hose, light the cotton tip and shoot them through the air like a meteor. One night I'm having a cotton swab firefight with my friend and coworker, Josh, when I get an idea.

Kershaw is in the dark darkroom listing to music. In the hallway outside the darkroom door we pour a puddle of film cleaner on the tile floor and flip out the lights. Josh pounds on the door, yelling Fire! Fire! When Kershaw opens the door I drop a match and a great blue and orange flame erupts, almost high enough to singe Kershaw's nose hairs. He whoops but then as the flame dissipates and he catches on he says, "Real funny! Shouldn't you be in your own room doing your own work? Leave me alone and go somewhere else and grow up." He closes his door and I can hear him flick out the lights. For weeks after, Josh and I can't mention it without cracking up.

The Paramount building on Broadway between 43rd and 44th is 33 floors with four clock faces at the near top and a big round ball at the very top, like the Daily Planet. Late night most offices are closed, and I like riding the elevator and taking the stairs and exploring the nooks and crannies of other businesses. Every night for three weeks I break into an office and steal all the M&Ms in a tray at the reception desk.

One night Josh and I take the elevator as high as it goes. We find the stairways and jimmy our way up to a ladder that takes us up and outside on top of the clocks, just below the ball. We are both photographers and neither of us has brought along a camera. I tell Josh I'll give him $100 if he will stand on the edge and take a leak. He tells me he'll give me $200 for the same thing. We crawl on our bellies to the edge and look down at Times Square. Because we are both boys, we spit and watch it fall.

At work we have a film dryer in the darkroom, a metal cabinet like a double-door armoire with a blower and heater inside. I'm walking by when the timer dings so I open the door and the rolls of hanging film are dry. I climb inside and squat down low. A minute later my friend and fellow employee, Ethan, opens the dryer doors. I jump up and growl like an angry dog. Ethan clutches his chest and falls to the floor and just lies there. I think maybe I've just killed him, and I start putting a story together: I don't know what happened. I just walked into the room, and there he was on the floor. Ethan begins to laugh hysterically, and I'm glad he's not dead but a bit concerned when he just lies there laughing and doesn't get up for another ten minutes.

My buddy Mike, who is freelance at Spinner's Slides, is a computer wiz. Mike did the programming for a 12-projector show, but there was a money dispute and they gave him $600 less than he invoiced. One day I come into work in the afternoon to find that the phones have not stopped ringing for five hours—every line is ringing, and each time you pick up nobody is there, and as soon as you hang up it starts ringing. It's pretty amusing, and the next day Mike tells me he did it from his computer at home. I'm impressed, and Mike feels somewhat vindicated.

There have been a couple of major fucks-ups at work, and it looks like Spinner's is a goner. It's a shame because it's been fun and easy and I love New York. This is the third place I've worked that went kaput, and I feel a little guilty. On my last day after a sad goodbye, as I walk down to Penn Station my backpack is heavy with three hundred-foot 35mm rolls of Kodachrome, three camera lenses of varying dimensions, four boxes of mounts, a darkroom densitometer, a stapler, a three-hole punch, 35mm Pentex with a wide lens, various office and drafting supplies, a can of film cleaner, and a box of cotton swabs.

Scot's first book, Lowlife, was released in 2011, and his memoir, Curb Service, is out now. You can find more information on his website.