The Slot Machine
by Charles Rotmil
I found this slot machine, a one armed bandit made in Chicago in the late fifties, 1959? I had a loft in Chelsea then, on 19th street, for $125 a month. It was actually two lofts. We were not supposed to live like that, but a lot of us did, in spite of what the fire department thought. The bathroom was outside. One loft had a sort of Japanese rock garden. The previous tenant was a painter who had committed suicide. So no one wanted to move in. Well, I did, even I kind of believed in ghosts. It was fine. But I only had a futon on the floor and I used the loft as a photo studio. I had been an assistant to various photographers, including Allan Arbus, who was then separated from Diane Arbus. But she used to come in Allan’s studio uptown in the late 1950s or early 1960s near Fifth Avenue. It was unreal. She was just starting to make it as a grotesque photographer studying with Lisette Model at the New School. Diane would come in and beg me to use the darkroom. So she was still going there to use the darkroom….and her child was only a few years old. If I was working for Allan I would ask her to wait. I had no idea at the time what she was doing. But I felt really drawn to her, and she had that gaze that mesmerized me. Allan wanted to become a mime and studied with the famous French one, Marcel Marceau, I think. As it happens I studied painting with Evsa Model and Lisette used to come to the class too. So I got to know her there, but we did not get along too well. My real teacher was Harold Feinstein, once Eugene Smith came to our class. At the time, Smith had photos for Life Magazine published, out of his broken window on Sixth Avenue. In the loft I mentioned, Jay Milder, the painter, had an opening and asked to use my loft for the after-opening party. I gave him the key to it. When I got there it was filled with probably 100 people. Robert Frank was there. And Red Grooms was dancing to the only record I had at the time, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” When I lived on 10th street and Avenue B I would occasionally run into Diane, as she was on assignment to photograph poor people living in rooms in a sort of Victorian style, formal setting. Allen Ginsberg lived down the street from me. We knew each other by sight. There was the time when I stood by Jack Kerouac once on a Sunday afternoon in a café of McDougal Street listening to Gregory Corso read his poem “Gasoline.” What could I say to Kerouac? I wish I knew then he spoke French. That would have been an opening.
In any case, back to the slot machine. A woman I knew took me to visit her parents who had a speakeasy in the basement. It had a pedal organ and the one-armed bandit. The father said I could have it. I brought it home in Chelsea and put it up as a prop in the studio. Larry Zox had a studio above me and I would hang out with him. (One time I had a loft way downtown near Wall Street. That loft was very cold and I had a coal stove to heat it. One night I could not sleep because there was a jazz band below rehearsing all night. I went down to ask them to stop. It was Pepper Adams and, of course, he would not stop playing.). I had a very good hi-fi system in the loft that someone had given me, Lansing speakers and all; monophonic but real good. So that day I was playing it real loud and I went up to see Zox. When I came back down I was greeted by two plainclothesmen who asked about the slot machine. They arrested me and took the machine as well. I was taken downtown, fingerprinted, and put in a cell, until I made it to night court. There was a judge who told me come back for a trial. About a month later I went back to court and was ordered to get a lawyer, who was assigned to me. I brought in the above photograph and others and the judge understood what was going on. They had me under Art. 80: Gambling. The judge threw the case out and when I asked for my machine back, the judge said to my lawyer, “Tell your client not to push his luck.”
I didn’t. Now you can find these machines in 2nd Avenue antique stores. It should be noted that this was before the Miranda rule. So when they took me to be interrogated in the Fifth district, the detective did not have to read me my rights. He asked what I did and I said I was a photographer. A pair of black gloves was on the table next to his typewriter. “Oh another fucking photographer.” I did not want to provoke this guy. I asked if I could have my one phone call. And he said, “What fucking phone call? You see too many movies.” I did call my friend and told her I was delayed and would not come over for dinner. I did not get home till past midnight. The New York Post wrote up a story about my trial called “Photog Takes Wrong Picture.”