Around my fourth hour of staring at a nondescript ranch house in the foothills of Mount Tabor, my mind begins to wander. My laptop picks up an errant Wi-Fi signal from one of the neighborhood's many modest homes, so I do some Googling. I type in "Michael McDermott," the name of the guy who lives in the house where I've been parked, in my creepy gray van, since 7 am.
A page of results about a Chicago-based folk-rocker floods my screen. I'm not here for a musician's autograph, so I tack "jd salinger" on the end of my query. I'm led to the website for Salinger, the forthcoming film about the later years of the notoriously reclusive author. The trailer opens with McDermott—the photographer, not the folk singer—re-enacting a 1979 assignment from Newsweek that led him to a post office in Windsor, Vt. That's where he'd learned that Salinger, an old man who just wanted to be left alone and write without having to publish, picked up his mail. McDermott persisted for two days, eventually snapping one of the last known photos of the literary great. This is my guy. Michael McDermott, the stalker.
McDermott moved to Portland 15 years ago and now makes videos for Oregon Health and Science University and the University of Oregon. Maybe you've seen his viral video "Call Me a Duck." Now I am following him, with the intent of taking his picture—hopefully grimacing and swinging his fist.
With Salinger back in the news, and rumors swirling about the impending publication of several posthumous novels, there's been renewed interest in McDermott's photo. He figures prominently in the trailer and recently got full feature treatment in The Oregonian. And he's still trying to turn a profit from a picture of an old man with his mail.
"After three decades, the release of the documentary inspired me to make this historic photograph available to the public," reads a post on the Facebook page McDermott erected to promote limited-edition prints of the photograph he's selling. "It has been painstakingly reproduced using a process that is worthy of this extraordinary image.â
I am being paid considerably less to take McDermott's photo. The afternoon sun bakes my van like a convection oven. I take off my shirt and pop open the windows to create some airflow. I try to act normal as a young couple walks by with a pair of poodles, only to realize this may be impossible when you're sitting shirtless and sweaty in a van.
With two used Hondas in what my research suggests is his driveway, I wonder just how busy McDermott has kept. Is this a sign he's home? Each time a neighbor jogs by or slams a car door, I poke my head through the blinds like a nervous groundhog. My senses are heightened to the point of paranoia. I begin to admire McDermott's resilience as I wonder if there's a better way of going about this. McDermott must have brought snacks: It's close to 7 pm and I'm famished. Can I get pizza delivered to a van in the street? Wait a second…
My new plan: smoke him out by sending a pizza guy to his house. I dial Domino's, give them McDermott's address and ponder the two outcomes of this brilliant idea. Either he answers the door and I get the photo, or I intercept a pizza when the driver realizes no one is home.
I focus my camera as the driver, a standard-issue fat guy with acne and a shitty car from the '90s, bangs on the front door. After three minutes he gives up and looks around in a daze. I swing open the van door, which leaves him rightfully dumbfounded. Here's a sweaty, shirtless guy pouncing out of a van with a camera in one hand and a credit card in the other, claiming he picked this house, at random, to get a pizza sent to the van he lives in. He hands me the pizza with a sidelong glance. The sun creeps behind the McDermott residence and I realize my window of opportunity is about to close. While eating my pizza I find the eBay page McDermott created to sell prints of the infamous photograph. The price? $7,500. I hope he sells a ton, because his lawn looks like shit.
SEE IT: Salinger is rated PG-13. It opens Friday, Sept. 13.