It is humbling to think about all the good people who intersect our lives briefly, but with impact. That’s what I’m pondering today, as I recall meeting Roger Blake on a Sunday night in St. Paul, Minn.
Our conversation lasted all of five minutes, while I tried to give justice to Mickey’s Diner, a 1937 art deco railroad car that is plunked in the heart of the city. High-rise buildings surround it, and inside is funky food theater at its best. You can absorb the rhythm of the grill cook’s work and eyeball other customers at the same time.
It is an intimate place, open all day, every day of the year. The grub is good and cheap ($3.20 for the specialty, Potatoes O’Brian – hash browns with green peppers, onions and ham).
A lot of tourists wander over, but typically not on a Sunday night, so only a handful of chatty locals were sipping coffee and eager to engage strangers such as myself. This is the only working guy’s restaurant left in the city, I was told.
Eventually, I was standing and aiming my camera at the counter – trying to take a picture of the menu, instead of paying $35 for one of my own – when Roger arrived. My little photo exercise took a while, and I never could completely ditch the glare of the diner’s bright interior lights.
The newcomer didn’t have a lot to say, but he mentioned that he was a picture taker, too. He looked blue collar, a little tired from driving all day, a little amused by my bumbling.
As I headed out, we swapped business cards, and Roger asked whether I’d like to be added to his e-mail list, so I could see his work. I was agreeable, even though one part of me figured it was all just talk.
Another part hoped his photography wasn’t porn.
When mail from Pixcafe arrived a week later, I almost deleted it, assuming it was junk. Then I spotted the subject line – Mickey’s Diner – and reconsidered. Attached was a fine shot of all the neon that makes Mickey’s a masterpiece at night, plus a quick note about how the diner “will stick in my mind as a reminder of slower days when I took the time to sit and stir a cup of coffee just to watch the steam rise.”
Very cool, I thought, and the next day shots from a San Antonio truck stop arrived. At the pump was a guy “dressed like he’s off the set of a John Wayne movie,” wearing striking green cowboy boots.
Roger was sending these greetings from – go figure – Shelton, Conn. He gets around so much because of his work as a truck driver. It’s “about the only thing left undone in my long list of careers” that has ranged from U.S. Navy radar intercept officer to commercial real estate salesman.
He has lived in California, New Mexico, Texas and Who-Knows-Where-Else. “I’ve been living mostly in trucks since 1997, waking up every day in a different place, crisscrossing the country what must be hundreds of times and loving it,” he says.
“There is a rhythm and pace to it that suits me. It requires me to be self-reliant and independent. Around every turn there is a new view.”
Art has been a longtime passion, and Roger says he used to paint and have his own galleries. “After trying to survive making art and jewelry for another year, it was time to make a decision whether to starve or go back to work,” he writes.
It all could be a bunch of hogwash, I suppose, but as the great pictures keep coming my way, I doubt there is heightened embellishment. For somebody like me who likes travel, this has been a wonderful way to stay on the road while I take a break.
Roger has taken me, and other armchair travelers, all over the place. I have seen a nautical weathervane from Portland, Maine, and I know what the Manhattan skyline looks like when you’re stuck in traffic.
“I have no training in photography,” he writes. “If you enjoy what you are seeing, it is from years of being my own severest critic. Hopefully, my pictures reflect a joy for life in America – its scenery, its history, its people, the things they create and leave along the way.”
There sense of connection in what Roger does, and that makes his work much more than the average vacation scrapbook. There are freeze frames of Elk Mountain in Wyoming, a mailbox near Winterset, Iowa, blooming flowers, ripening apples, a cow chewing her cud.
Then, around Thanksgiving, came a note that began this way: “An accident is a collision of events, decisions and actions at a particular moment in time. I’ve been driving these big trucks around the country for over seven years and up till now I’ve been able to avoid making any major mistake …”
Parts of the roof and door of his trailer had peeled off after passing under a bridge near Philadelphia. “It wasn’t bad luck or bad timing,” Roger wrote. “It was simply my fault” because of an operational mistake.
Attached was a picture of his crippled rig, plus many more words about the accident, which had obviously unsettled him. But Roger had returned to the road before the month ended, again sending pretty pictures of ponies and shiny cars, funny prose and perceptive observations.
I’m glad that I met Roger Blake and wish I had taken the time to really talk to him last September in St. Paul. After his accident, we exchanged a few emails. I know he’s taken more than 200 pictures while on the road and would like to make a book out of them and his little stories.
I’d buy it, and I feel a little guilty about enjoying his art for free, but that’s the way it works, for now.
If you want to join this great ride, send an email to Pixcafe@aol.com and tell him Mary in Wisconsin sent you. It’s probably the best holiday gift that I can offer without breaking the bank.