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."