Photo Lady

The Photo Lady emerges from a corner of the venue dressed all in black. Her salt-and-pepper mane is pulled back into a tail off a softly weathered face. "I gotta fish," she announces, eyes all wide behind buglike specs. The urgency in her voice suggests something big, as if she has hooked a giant carp.

Without breaking stride, the Photo Lady slides snakelike through the club's Gap-colored throng, clutching her 35mm Canon. She moves with verve, a mix of confidence and coyness -- picture Alice from The Brady Bunch crossed with Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars. It is an aloofness that supports a service-industry civility. At first glance, the petite photographer could be some matriarchal cocktail waitress employing a perfected hustle.

It is Thursday night and Beeloe's Cafe and Underground Bar in Tempe is filling up fast. Calista Flockhart clones and Dead Heads mix with silver/gray suits and frat-guy coifs. World-beat seers the Azz Izz Band is onstage celebrating its new CD release with an odd Zeppelin cover.

The Photo Lady's "catch" is a scrubbed-face couple seated at the bar. The guy is cocksure, but looks uneasy. She's in tight pants and a loose sweater and is nervous to the point of being peppy. They show the awkwardness of a first date, as if each is afraid to embrace the situation for fear that an ungraceful move might sour it.

For the couple, the Photo Lady could be the ice-breaking distraction that sparks a shift in the night's tone. For better or for worse, a photo will document the evening. The pair is an easy sell, and the Photo Lady moves in. She introduces herself and offers up her pitch. She explains that for 10 bucks they will receive a 4-inch-by-6-inch print that comes matted and stamped with a Beeloe's logo. The portrait will arrive in a matter of days.

The guy reaches back for his wallet. He pulls out $10 and hands it over. The Photo Lady steps back and lifts the Canon to her face. The couple's heads fall together. In the instant before the flash, the woman lets go an obliging smile that would sit well in a frame upon any suburban mantel or bookshelf.

Within Beeloe's, there exists a kind of boho provenance. Drawings, paintings and various art objects, all created by local artists, garnish the periphery and are available for purchase. A craftsman sells custom jewelry from a booth near the bar. A small shanty facing the dance floor offers swag. The bar's nod toward community and its idea of celebrating local artistry seems like a '60s throwback when juxtaposed against Mill Avenue's Mall of America motifs. Beeloe's is one of the last holdouts against the avenue's corporate smother.

Since 1996, Nancy Parks has become popular at the Mill Avenue venue, where she's known to many as the Photo Lady. She's fashioned a worthy living simply by snapping, matting and mailing out prints of rosy faces that have passed through. Since no other Mill Avenue bar would allow Parks to simply roam freely and do what she does, Beeloe's homespun artfulness proved the ideal ground for the independent contractor. Parks has benefited from a four-year run here. Last month she was given the boot.

Working in any bar is a mine field of tricky situations, particularly when you are pawning something other than sex, smokes and booze. Not everybody wants his or her picture taken. Some consider Parks an irritation.

I watch Parks bid her services. Each time her method is the same, no more obtrusive-seeming than an assertive barmaid. Of five couples, one complains. "She's annoying," the guy says, swishing his hand in front of his face as if swatting a fly.

AJ Edelstein, Beeloe's proprietor, tells me it's time for Parks to move on. He says his decision had nothing to do with Mill Avenue going corporate, or whether Miss Parks is talented. He says the decision was a business one based upon customer disapproval.

Parks claims the complaints were never brought to her attention: "When he first told me in January that he wanted me to leave, he said to me, 'Well, I've had a lot of complaints.' I looked him in the eye and I said, 'AJ, why didn't you come up and tell me?' He says, 'Oh, it doesn't matter, it's just a decision I've made.'"

"If this is gonna make me look like a bad guy, then that's the downside to running a business," Edelstein says. "People like her, I know. But we've gotten complaints. It was a tough decision."

"They oughta be kissin' her ass, to put it bluntly," says a somewhat irked Beeloe's customer, David Llewellyn. "With her Beeloe's stamp on the mat, and how everybody knows her out on the street, they're getting all this free advertising. She brings all this color to the place."

"Did AJ have a hair up his ass one day, or what?" Parks asks. "I mean, if somebody complained about you and you are the boss, wouldn't you go up to the person and tell them people are complaining? So I don't know where he's coming from. It's like my home away from home; there's no other way to describe it."

When Parks speaks, her voice is loopy and animated, pitched in the key of East Coast working class. Growing up in Connecticut, her pop was a mechanic and mom stayed at home. Parks earned a degree in fine arts from Northwestern University and found work as a graphic artist on the East Coast. She designed magazine ads for large corporations and did photography as a hobby.

"Do you remember back in the '70s, that had a polar bear with a scarf?" she asks. "With the little penguin skiing down the slope? That was Pepsi. You're talking to the broad who drew those."

Parks moved to Phoenix five years ago, after her marriage of 20 years fell apart. She had an idea from the old Jack Dempsey restaurants, which would employ roving in-house photographers. She found Beeloe's to be receptive to her idea.

"I went up to the Beeloe's GM at the time and I says, 'Lookit, I want to be an artist here that's working, but I feel like a jerk.' I said, 'Let me be the photo person here.' He says, 'Okay, go ahead.' He didn't think it was gonna take off. But it did."

Parks likes to think that hers is a service, capturing a space in time that would otherwise be lost. In her best week, Parks says, she made more than a grand. The worst, $300. Lately, working three days, she is averaging $400 to $500.

Her photos are often snippets that become instant nostalgia, sugary barstool moments unobscured by all the flaws that make them forgettable, the flaws that, when sober, can be insufferable.

Parks has had some funny moments. A soused husband once posed with his lover and used his wife's credit card to pay for the photo. When the bank statement came home to roost, Parks received a call from the wife.

"I just told her, 'Hey, he was just havin' his portrait done.'"

Women have flashed Parks their mammaries. Mothers of drunken frat guys have called Parks requesting copies of photos of their sons to mail as Christmas gifts to relatives. Parks shot a couple on a first date who wound up getting married. The couple returned on their anniversary to have Parks do another.

She estimates that one in 10 of her customers reorders photos.

Parks pulls in the dough. Tonight, by 9:15, a good 15 minutes after she started, she has cleared 40 bucks.

She is organized and shows diligence toward her work. Parks' self-made hustle bought her a house in Chandler. She employs a bookkeeper and an accountant. She pays taxes. She holds business licenses that allow her to work legally.

Her expenses are many. They include postage and envelopes, reorder forms, Visa/MasterCard charges, developing of hundreds of photos every week, mat stamping, gasoline, business cards.

The custom mats are cut in Georgia, and the foil logo is stamped by hand at a Mesa printer. If she shoots a photo on Saturday night, the customer receives the photo generally by Wednesday afternoon.

"Sunday I type in the address labels. Monday I mount the photos -- I have to mount all the photographs because they have to be attached to the mats because that's when I get them back from the lab. Monday and Tuesday I do my mailing."

Parks is a popular fixture on South Mill. A woman in a black leather jacket stops Parks and carries on in the it's-been-too-long vein. Passersby leer, the typical greeting being, "Hey, Photo Lady."

If the Mill Avenue milieu is such that the woman can no longer make a living there, she has other ideas. She has turned to wedding photography. From savings earned at Beeloe's, she has placed an ad in a major bridal magazine. Calls are coming in, and weddings are on the books.

"I don't know how it all works out . . . but I get enough every week to pay my bills. I eat. It's a lot of work, sure, but I've made it my business.

"But, ya know, the wedding thing is slow to get going," she continues. "People look at photographers as low on the food chain. It's happening, sure, it's just not happening quick enough. It's a little scary."

Will she miss what she describes as a "motherly thing" with club employees?

"Yeah," she says. "They're all like my good friends, my kids. I dunno, I'm gonna miss the place. It's a torn thing that I have here. It's something that I can't figure out. Some of the girls at Beeloe's come up to me and talk to me and they say, 'What am I going to do? I'm going out with this guy, and he's a schmuck,' and I try to tell 'em to lose the guy or whatever. . . .

"My 19-year-old daughter just announced that I was gonna be a grandmother," she continues. "She's moving in with me to have the baby."

Parks surveys the inside of Beeloe's, the joyful drunks, the staff, the band onstage, everything. She tells me of a woman who is getting a petition together to keep Parks on at Beeloe's. She shakes her head slowly and shrugs her shoulders.

"Ah," she says rather dolefully, "maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is just outdated. At least I'll be able to spend time with my granddaughter."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith