One of the first times I worked with photographer Jeff Couch was on a Christmas Day when I was a newer reporter at The Record.
I walked into the empty newsroom – weekends and holidays were the thinnest of skeleton crews with only one reporter and one photographer on until the copy desk came in later in the evening. He was in the photographers’ cubby hole staring at a computer and didn’t bother turning around when I walked in, even though he must has heard the back door slam shut as it always did.
“Merry Christmas Jeff,” I hollered through the large, rectangle windowless window into the photographers’ on the way to my desk.”
“Fuck Christmas,” he said in a matter of fact manner without a hint of malevolence.
Right then I knew Jeff wasn’t exactly a people person. Actually, I thought he was kind of an asshole. And I was right on both counts. He readily admitted it most times. The asshole part I mean. And he didn’t care. He wasn’t known to put airs on for anyone or anything at any time.
Yep, Jeff was about as warm and fuzzy as the grizzly bear he resembled. He wasn't really an asshole, though, he just like to play one.
One thing I did later learn about him was while he might not have liked Christmas Day too much, his Christmas had already come and gone by playing Santa Claus for little kids during the Victorian Stroll.
He was actually kind of funny to watch. The grizzly bear turned into a puppy dog when he donned the red suit. I would bust his chops about how he cooed and kidded with the kids to get them to smile for the camera, and he while I expected the grizzly glare, he would just smile like one of the kids into the camera and say “fuck you, its fun.”
We had kind of a bond, I guess. I was from the mill town of Gloversville and he was from the mill town of Cohoes. We both tried to be tougher than we actually were and we played off it. It was always fun busting chops with Couch and more fun still teaming up with Jeff to bust the chops of others. At this point in time, I don’t recall anyone or any subject that was off limits.
I remember when his front tooth cracked off. He came over to my desk cursing up a storm and then seemed to think about the fact he didn’t have any money, or desire, to go to a dentist and said: “well, now I guess I can never leave Cohoes.” He walked away with a belly laugh knowing he stole my line.
He was like that about everything. Give him an assignment and he would bitch up a storm about it - but get the shot. Give him a dozen assignments on any Saturday or Sunday or holiday and he would bitch about it for hours – but get all the shots.
Plus some if there was a fire.
I’m pretty sure the guy slept with a scanner next to his bed, or his recliner, or wherever he laid his head at night. And if there was a fire, one thing as sure as that fire was hot to touch, we would have a Couch shot on the front page. He had a knack for getting fire shots, and nothing got his blood pumping like a good old-fashioned Cohoes fire.
It helps he knew all the firefighters and they gave him some special privileges – and some inside info too. I used to love covering fires with Jeff. I didn’t have to do much work, but it was still fun because we, more often than not, got some piece of the story nobody else had even a chance of getting.
He did take his job seriously. Even if he did bitch about it. I remember sending him to cover an event in Cohoes where Assemblyman Ron Canestrari was the guest speaker. Now, anyone who knows Jeff knows he didn’t like Canestrari. I never knew why for sure – it could have been something to do with his mother or the fact Canestrari didn’t hire him as a firefighter - but I know the beef went back at least a couple decades. I know of nobody who could hold a grudge like Jeff. Anyway, after he processed his photos he put five or six prints on my desk and not one of them had Canestrari in them. I said something like “uhmmm, Jeff we need a photo with Canestrari.”
“Well, I ain’t got any,” he said and walked away.
We had a few more words that included a bit of swearing and name calling and I went for a walk to cool off. When I got back, there was a print with Canestrari on my desk.
He took his job much more seriously than his health. And this he readily admitted and I’m sure, near the end, accepted. He smoked too much, did more than his share of drinking and if he had more than two pieces of a fruit or a vegetable twice in at least a decade it was a lot. And forget about any type of physical activity.
I remember visiting him at Sunnyview where he was re-habbing from his first stroke a couple years ago. I walked into the room, he smiled said hi and the next words out of his mouth were “do you have any smokes.”
While pushing his wheelchair outside, my conscience dictated I ask him if this was a good idea. He said “probably not,” and added with urgency “and don’t tell Jimmy.”
Jimmy is, of course, Jimmy JS Carras, who along with Tom Killips and Mike McMahon and Couch made up the best photography crew any reader of any newspaper could possibly hope for.
Change is the only constant, though, and none of those fine newsmen are there any longer. Neither am I. But, for a while, it was a great place to work and one reason was the miserable, hairy, grizzly bear/puppy dog of a man named Jeff Couch.