Brooklyn lost one of its unique sons last week when James Modafferi was taken from us — far too soon — at age 66.
Jim held no elective office, was never a civic leader, nor a captain of industry, yet his passing leaves a hole in the fabric of the lives of the many whom he touched.
Most knew Jim as an accomplished professional photographer whose work preserved and continues to preserve memories for generations. Many more knew Jim as the owner of Bay Ridge Film Center, a small store at the corner of 95th Street and Third Avenue, which he ran for decades up to the day he died. In many ways, the store was not very different from the myriad of other small businesses, which grace every neighborhood in the borough. But Bay Ridge Film Center was something more…a sort of real life Floyd’s Barber Shop straight off the main street of Mayberry.
A focal point of the community, it was for decades a place where a countless array of curious characters — many regulars — would assemble and “hang out”…often for hours on end, and often for no particular reason. Jim didn’t care. Between the ebb and flow of customers they would joke or comment on the inventory or recount the highlights of their excruciatingly dull day…but they had found a home, and that’s all that mattered.
Jim never kicked anyone out, he was never curt, and even when it was packed the store never ran out of a little space where this motley, endearing and often-changing crew could stand or lean against the counter reading a newspaper (which Jim provided). Often, they would self-enlist themselves (and often to Jim’s chagrin) as volunteer clerks and stock people just because they wanted to feel useful. One of that motley crew, it turned out, included me.
At that formative stage in my life, I was compelled — as part of my job — to become a bit proficient in photography. My introduction to the store came as sheer serendipity…it was the only local place I could find that would develop black and white film quickly and at a price I could afford. But unbeknownst to me I had also found a home. Circumstances had me returning almost every day to get a roll or two developed and it wasn’t long before the anonymous customer who would pay his bill in cash from in front of the counter became the kid who hung out in back on the counter and began charging his purchases…or I would just mill about for no reason (Of course, it also didn’t hurt that the person processing the film was an engagingly pretty, lithe redhead — about my age — an Irish tomboy in lace with whom I made sure to become fast friends).
I spent literally years as an almost daily store visitor who soon — like so many others — thought of the place as my store. Jim just did all the heavy lifting and paid the rent. Eventually I would find myself spending time at Jim’s home. And his buddies had become my buddies. I even became part time caretaker for his three-legged dog Scrappy whenever he vacationed. Was I such an engaging exception? Certainly not…I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right guy who took me under his wing as my friend. And my story was hardly unique.
But that was Jim…he was always willing to give of himself, personally and professionally. He had a boundless generosity, which extended itself to so many beyond the family who loved him and whom he adored…his son James, his daughter Nicole, his wife Linda and her son — who became his son — Heime.
Jim was a shopkeeper in name only. The store and his professional photography work paid the bills and gave him some satisfaction — he was a superb photographer and, like a good doctor, always kept learning his trade no matter how accomplished he became. But one conversation with Jim was all it took to realize this was a man who could have achieved anything to which he set his mind. He was well read, a font of information on a countless array of topics, able to absorb new ideas and concepts instantly and adapt well to any situation. He was just smarter than most, more savvy than most. Another time, another place, another set of life’s circumstances and who knows what Jim may have become. But these are my thoughts…not his. However, like almost everyone, he yearned for more, and while he was uniquely capable of achieving it, he also radiated contentment.
But mostly you just liked Jim. He always had a broad smile and quick laugh and he made you feel good about being around him. He never asked for anything in return and almost certainly had no clue about the warmth he engendered in so many. He was also a very funny guy…I still recount the story of the “pet passport photos taken” sign he had hanging on his wall (Scrappy was the model) and how many people told him they never realized the State Department had such a requirement.
I do not wish to sound mawkish about Jim. It’s just that you like being around some people; it’s just their natural make-up and Jim was one of these. He was Italian with a Jewish wife who was as much at home at a Sons of Italy dinner as he was at a Bar Mitzvah at Shaare Zion. His friends ran the gamut from surgeons and cops to Jackie Gleason-type dreamers who never had two nickels to rub together.
Jim — you gave me and so many like me so much. Now all I can give back is my heartfelt thank you; small change for such a magnificent endowment.
Viewing of Jim Modafferi is at Scarpaci Funeral Home, 14th Avenue and 86th Street, March 9 from 7-9 p.m. and March 10, from 3-5 and 7-9 p.m. The mass will be held March 11, 10:30 a.m. at Saint Finbar’s, 138 Bay 20th Street.
To reach the writer, e-mail Kenneth Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.