Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Scene of the Crime

Wilson Wash-A-Teria, 2010

The other day I found myself in a hardscrabble little city in Northeast Pennsylvania that once teemed with industry and prosperity, but which now has almost none. The city occupies a beautiful location at the confluence of two rivers. There’s interesting architecture downtown and a variety of neighborhoods that hug the hills along the river.

I’ve thought many times that the only thing that keeps places like this standing is that they have so little perceived value to developers that no one has come along and torn them down. So the sturdy old buildings with their interesting and historic architecture remain, awaiting someone with the vision and deep pockets to repurpose them.

Before I got cleaned up and continued my trip, I went out taking pictures before breakfast. It was while riding through one of the old residential neighborhoods that I came upon the sign shown above. I decided to take a picture of the sign. But it took a little time to work my way around the steep hillside of one-way streets to get back to where I could park the car and get out and actually take the picture.

The hillside is so steep at this site that standing right beside the street, I was actually a good twenty-five feet above it, standing on a wall level with an adjacent street. I parked the car and stepped out to take my picture. I was stepping back into my car when an unmarked police vehicle pulled in behind me, blocking my way out.

A gruff old detective stepped out. When I asked if anything was wrong, he asked why I was taking pictures.

Now, I don’t know about you. But given the wide range of things I photograph, it can be a little tricky trying to explain to someone why something that is so mundane to them might be interesting to me. In any case, I didn’t want to come off as smug or arrogant about the people living in this tough neighborhood. I described how I sometimes take pictures of “old places” and that I’d found the Wilson Wash-A-Teria sign interesting.

When I asked why my picture taking had caught his attention, the detective explained that the bank across the street had been robbed three times in the last two months.

Pretty amazing, I commented, and even more so when the detective told me that they thought different robbers had been involved each time. “One guy even stopped out on the curb after robbing the bank and talked to people in the sidewalk. It was like he was waiting for a bus.”

The detective, who’d just been cruising the neighborhood, thought I might be casing the joint for yet another robbery. “I’m actually surprised that the bank security people hadn’t phoned in a report about a suspicious guy taking pictures,” he explained. “You’re a lot better off that I saw you rather than a patrol car. They’d have probably taken you downtown.”

Here I was, someone with out-of-state tags taking pictures of a laundromat sign in a woebegone neighborhood far from home. It was early in the morning. I hadn’t shaved or showered yet. I was dressed in jeans, the day before’s dress shirt and old cowboy boots. You tell me whether you’d find me suspicious, or not.

I don’t always do this, but I offered to show the detective my pictures to demonstrate that the bank wasn’t even in them. He declined the offer. After checking my license and auto registration, he thanked me for my patience and drove off. I went back to my motel, cleaned up and got the hell out of town.


  1. Oh, I'm glad you posted the famous (infamous?) photo. I love this story: pretty hilarious. Makes for a great blog tale about what you saw, though, I'll give it that! I'd say this photo was worth the altercation.