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Every Block Tells a Story 

A Mission bagel shop proves an eye-opening site for Bert Katz

Wednesday, Mar 27 1996
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Bert Katz sits at his usual table beneath the tall front window at his son's shop, Katz Bagels on 16th Street at Albion. Although he is studying the pile of loose yellow notebook paper strewn before him, he also pays close attention to the story unfolding in the conversation of two regulars.

"We should call the police," one of them says.
The bagel shop habituŽs are talking about the previous day's drama: Katz fingered a street person (resembling "the Road Warrior," one of the regulars says) who was trying to lift some Odwallas from the refrigerator at the back of the shop. Katz told Mad Max to put the drinks back and there'd be no trouble; a scene ensued regardless, and Max promised to return and break all the windows.

"Yeah, he's a big fella," the 64-year-old Katz says, only a hint of concern in his voice. He returns to the papers in front of him, part of a book of photo-portraits and monologues of the citizens of 16th Street that he is compiling.

He asks, "Do you think, when this couple on a Greek island strip off their clothes to swim in the moonlight, I should mention they were on LSD?"

Katz's book is almost finished. The photographs are stunning, just a few of the hundreds of portraits he has taken on 16th Street, some of which hang on the walls of the bagel shop. Simple color 8-by-10 portraits, head shots mostly, of street people, barmaids, and punk kids, all people Katz has come to know in the three years he's spent here. Each portrait faces a page of print -- the monologue that Katz fashions from interviews with his subjects.

"It's called The Mission," he says of his book, then he laughs, "or They Walked Past the Bagel Shop."

He opens the album to the first picture, a stubble-faced man, maybe 30 years old, in a torn felt hat and woolen scarf. "This guy, Andrew, acts as a chorus," Katz explains. "He's an intellectual who's rather Chekhovian in his style. He contradicts himself two, three times in one sentence and knows it, uses it, and entertains you with it. He has a real sense of what's going on in the area and he tells you about it, and he tells you about his own struggles -- he weaves his own life into that, and as such he becomes the chorus."

Katz refined his sense of dramatic flow as a teacher (he was Susan Sarandon's high school drama instructor) and a playwright. He worked in theater back East for several years, until the early '70s when he and his wife opened a movie house in Morrisville, Pa.

Three years ago, he came out West with his wife. The original plan was to spend a few months helping their son get the bagel shop going, then go home. Instead the Katzes stayed.

"I can't be flippant about it," Katz says of his life since resettling. "It's been a very spiritual experience. I've learned so much -- these are my teachers," he waves a hand over the photo albums filled with his pictures. "They show me God shining through. They show me the magnificence of the human creature. They show me the courage of people. They show me how infatigable they are."

The next portrait in Katz's book is of David, the night manager at a nearby residential hotel. David holds a candle before him, his graying goatee and soft eyes blurred slightly beneath a mantle of darkness. In color and composition, the picture resembles a Rembrandt, which enhances the effect of the chilling ghost stories David tells. The hotel in which he spends his nights is a very old place, "and there's a high probability," David's monologue reads, "that someone has died in every single room."

"See, this book builds, has a structure," Katz says as he flips through the pictures. "It starts with young, innocent starry-eyeds coming to San Francisco and what they experience when they come here: What goes on? Who do they meet? But it all builds to a sort of second-act climax which is that woman's murder."

He's opened the album to Shellie's picture. A worn, once beautiful woman smiles tiredly, her eyes propped open by insistent swaths of mascara.

"Shellie came in here crying one morning," Katz begins quietly, "and our relationship began." He tells me how he befriended the Capp Street prostitute, shared her troubles. "I could get her to stop crying by giving her a bagel and a cup of coffee."

"How many hearts have I broken along the way?" Shellie muses in her monologue, recalling the time her father saw her strolling the sidewalk.

She was one of the first subjects Katz interviewed for the book. That was last September. On Thanksgiving morning, Shellie was found murdered, probably killed by a john.

While most of the stories aren't as sordid as Shellie's, Katz admits to hiding some of his subjects' less pleasant aspects. "There's manipulation in this thing," he cautions. "Because I don't want this to be a book about dope addicts. In the first place, that immediately prejudices the reader; second place, it obscures other important things that might get left out. My job is just to contain."

Largely because of his editing skills and an uncanny ability to allow each voice to emerge, many of the passages read like poetry, others like old blues songs.

"I'm doing it all by myself here," a ruddy, broad-faced woman named Momma Sue says. "Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard, and sometimes I go without."

Katz says he treats the words and the photographs as a sort of counterpoint; they define and enhance each other. With many of his subjects, this harmonic resonance can be striking.

Such is the case with the picture of a young woman named Violet. The lace along her sleeve and the cameo at her throat give her thoughtful features the delicate look of a Victorian doll. She is staring intensely into the camera; real tears hang in the corner of her eye. "I want to find a hollow tree to make my home," she says. "Or find an old crooked house in the woods."

The book has a sort of Spoon River Anthology feel, and Katz admits he's always admired Edgar Lee Masters. But Katz's work has something more -- eyes. The real emotive power of his photographs is mostly due to the way Katz is able to catch even the subtlest feeling in the eyes of his subject -- a talent he says he learned on 16th Street.

"In the beginning there's ... the pierced noses and lips and things. And you watch the sun gleam on these things, and you saw a shot there and you took the picture." Katz often slips into the second-person personal when talking about himself. "But after a while, you ran out of props. And you stopped using a telephoto lens and you started using a close-up lens, you started getting up closer to people and you became fascinated with their eyes. Now I'm doing this for the first time in my life other than with my children, my wife -- getting close up to people's eyes -- and I'm trying to just get them at the moment when something really godly comes out."

For Katz, who's been taking pictures since he was a kid, 16th Street represents more than a human art project; it's the scene of a rebirth, a place where a closed, cynical Easterner might find something more. And as his pictures aptly show, what Katz has found here is more than just a crowd of interesting faces.

"People open up here," he says. "You know who they are, and they know who you are. I'm not used to that. I'm from a land where people are reserved, you hold back." Katz pauses to watch the slow parade of people passing by outside.

"I'm a guy who used to go to the Trenton train station first thing in the morning," he says after a long breath, "sit there at 6 o'clock, drink coffee, and listen to this abominable rock music, and watch the people go off to work. That's how badly I needed the Mission."

But what about when the Mission smells like stale urine? Or a madman threatens to break your windows? Katz concedes that sometimes the godly just doesn't shine through.

"But you put on rose-colored glasses," he says. "Because you feel this is the best social experience you've had in your lifetime, other than the one you had in your kitchen, your living room, or your bedroom, and it's very compelling."

It's almost 10 a.m. Katz has been at the bagel shop since around 5. Every morning, he helps open the shop; then he hangs out, playing Scrabble, reading the New York Times, working on the book.

There are only a few more interviews to gather and the The Mission will be finished. Will he publish it? Maybe. He plans to let his brother, a writer for the Denver Post, check it out before he decides to submit it anywhere.

As Katz is packing up his notes, a woman pauses on her way out the door to compliment him on his photographs. "It's a lot of work," she says, nodding toward the faces on the wall.

But as Bert Katz will tell you himself, he's never seen it as work.

About The Author

Paul Critz

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