John and his Magic Touch
Strange things happen to John pretty regularly without fazing him in the least. He hasn’t met an animal that acts as if he isn’t their best friend, practically demanding a
warm greeting as they pass him on the street, while their owners struggle to hold them back. When John became acquainted with a war veteran with a background in special operations, the man invited him over for a beer. He told John, in advance, about his three very protective dogs but didn’t offer to put them in another room as some might. John went to visit and even before ringing the doorbell, the dogs started aggressively barking and scratching at the door. However, within minutes of sitting down on the couch with a drink in his hand, two of the dogs had their heads in his lap – while the third one lay at his feet. The man was amazed. He had never seen his dogs respond that way before to anyone.
The summer of 1985 we vacationed at the Marshall’s Hotel. The children and I were occupied at the A.R.E. so John would take his umbrella, head to the beach, light up his cigar and try to read the newspaper. For some unknown reason, complete strangers would come by, sit down and join him. He seemed to attract a very nice and diverse crowd of people; Vadim, the Russian mathematical professor, Tania, the artist, John S., the NASA physicist, Steve, the A.R.E. librarian, Sally, the ageless Southern gal, Hilde and Mike, the worldly, down-to earth D.C.-ites, etc. Eventually this ever changing group named themselves the “Do Nothing Club”. You need do nothing to join. The door was always open and opinions about love, politics, and metaphysics were tossed around like a beach ball. I witnessed this same phenomena when out daughter was recovering from a stroke after brain surgery in Los Angeles. John would take an occasional break from her bedside to go outside and relax with a cigar. Despite the smoke and numerous empty benches, perfect strangers would come over, sit down next to him and talk. They would talk about themselves or loved ones being cared for in the hospital and he would listen. It was as if he wore an invisible sign that said, “Welcome.” I must have felt the same thing when I met him in the early 70’s. He had a way of being comfortable in his own skin that made it easy for you to be comfortable in yours. The twinkle in his eyes, though, was the clincher for me. At that time John led a double life; one as a hairstylist to pay the bills and one as a photographer to express his passion for life. When he invited me over to see his “art work”, he meant it. His creativity had first emerged through oil painting but that slower medium quickly transitioned into artistic photography. This was not the age of the digital camera. He did it all in his small apartment darkroom [aka bathroom] – from developing film to printing negatives in bins in the bathtub. As a hairstylist, he also had the touch. John worked in Belle Harbor, New York, a well- to-do neighborhood, that could have doubled for Peyton Place. [I’m really dating myself with that reference!] Women would share the most intimate details of their lives, as he did their hair, knowing they would be safe with him. When he finally had saved extra money to invest, he picked up the N.Y. Times financial section one day and, with hardly a pause, called a company that was marketing unusual tax-free bonds with an extremely high interest rate. The man who answered the phone must have explained the situation to John’s satisfaction because within 24-hours John had a check in the mail for all of his savings. Ultimately, John quadrupled his original money and borrowed against what he had earned in order to invest even more in this little understood relative of the defaulted WHOOPS bonds. He tried to tell anyone who would listen about this opportunity, and some made the same gains he did, including my mother. Investing in those bonds could have literally been a very poor decision, but instead the Midas touch appeared to be at work. However, one of the most extraordinary events in which John played a key role involved his divorced sister Julia and her teenage daughter. At the time, John and I were living in an old dilapidated house we had purchased close to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. When John wasn’t working, he was dedicated to renovating it. Sometimes when he was looking to replace parts that were damaged and no longer available, he wandered through old, nearby “schlock” stores to find substitutes and would come upon real gems, like a discarded stained glass window that matched the ones at home, or old-fashioned glass doorknobs to make a period piece coat hanger. More “stuff” would be brought in regularly so you never knew what “treasures” you’d find. One day Julia, called the house in tears. She would soon be getting married again which had recently prompted her daughter to ask about the wedding pictures from her first marriage – the wedding of her mother and father. The problem was twelve years earlier during the time of the divorce, Julia, in her anger and sorrow, had destroyed the photographs. Realizing her mistake now, she had tried to locate the neighborhood photographer that had taken the wedding pictures, but to no avail – he had gone out of business. We all felt terrible for her daughter after hearing about the loss of these irreplaceable memories, and felt a void that was there. After they spoke, John took a walk by himself. He ended up going into one of his favorite schlock stores in the heart of Brighton Beach. The owner of the store was actually the superintendent for the old apartment building above it. As people moved in and out of the building, the super had collected more than enough “donations” to keep his junk store in business indefinitely. The place was dark and dingy with only one window when you walked down into this basement storefront. Towards the back was a storage area consisting of a surplus of shelves and boxes. In that area, one lone bulb hung from the ceiling, barely giving off enough light to see where you were going without falling. John absently rummaged around, not looking for anything in particular that day, until a dusty cardboard shoebox caught his eye. He stopped and opened it. It was stuffed to overflowing with about fifty white envelops, all the same size. They had writing on them, but it was too dark to see what they said. John couldn’t resist. He thought he’d pick just one to see what was in them – and he did. Inside, he was surprised to see photographic negatives. He took one out and held it up to the dim light. To his well-trained photographic eye, the negative held the image of what looked like a familiar figure. He stared at it more closely. He could swear it was a picture of his dead father – in a tuxedo no less. He took out another one and held it up to the light. This one looked like his twin brother all dressed up. He took out one more – and caught his breath. It was his sister in a wedding dress! He took the envelope to the front of the store where the light was much better and there marked clearly on it was his sister’s and her former husband’s names, leaving no room for doubt. The shoebox contained the negatives of the many jobs the professional photographer had done in years gone by. If John had first pulled out any other envelope except his sister’s wedding, it would have held no interest for him, or if he didn’t have the ability and training to interpret a photographic negative, he would have missed what lay in his hands now. But, somehow, John had picked out the only one that would have meant anything to him – and fill the void for his niece. He left the store delighted with the gift he would share, but not awed. Don’t try telling him he was a channel of blessings – again. To him it was just another day.
A Memorial Service will be held for John Caputi on Saturday October 29, 2022 at Altmeyer Funeral Home Maestas Chapel 1801 Baltic Ave, Virginia Beach VA, 23451. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you make a donation to a charity of your choosing in John’s memory.