This reconnection — as random as that first encounter — was a gift to both of us. It’s a reminder of his past, a tangible record of a time long gone. For me, it’s a reminder that sometimes the highest goal photographers can aspire to is to give someone back a piece of their history, a feeling more gratifying than kudos about compositions. In an age when people chronicle everything on smartphones, an old-fashioned print from film still packs an emotional wallop.
Mr. Pagan was 12 in that first picture. He had moved to Creston Avenue, south of Kingsbridge Road, a few years earlier from the South Bronx with his mother and four sisters. Nicknamed Macho by his father — who was out of the family’s life — he lived up to the moniker.
“I remember when I moved there, all the boys wanted to date my sisters,” he said. “They told me, ‘Hey, you’re the guy with the four sisters.’ I told them ‘Yeah, and you better stay away.’ I was a little tough guy. I was the boss.”
He was as tough as he wanted people to think. He credited his mother, Letty, with instilling in him a sense of respect for others and the good sense to avoid trouble. He became friends with other kids on Creston, playing handball and stickball, or going to St. James Park or Poe Park to watch early hip-hop D.J.s perform.
But as much as he tried, trouble found him at DeWitt Clinton High School. Not that it was his fault. “I was working construction for my godmother’s husband so I had money to buy nice clothes and go to school looking good,” he said. “People always tried to rob me.”
His mother transferred him to Evander Childs High School. “We were walking into the school and somebody grabbed her purse and ran,” he said. “We were going to a supposedly better school and got robbed. You think I wanted to go there?”
He dropped out, hung out and — when he met his now-wife, Lena, in 1988 — started spending his time a few blocks north with her and her Albanian friends. His neighborhood, which once was a haven, started feeling sketchy from drug dealing and violence, so his mother moved near the reservoir at Jerome Park. He took a job as a garage foreman, had three children and landed the doorman job for better pay and benefits.
It turns out he loves photographs, which he keeps in yellowed albums where snapshots show slender young men smiling or strutting. In one, he and his friends were at the Poe Cozy Nook, a nearby bar. They were all underage, drinking sodas. Another shows him — bare-chested, of course — with two girls from the block.
“Today, people don’t do photography like we did back then, even with a 110 Kodak camera,” he said. “You take a picture now and it stays on your phone. Then the phone breaks and there goes your memory. You can’t hold it like a print. History doesn’t exist anymore.”
A few days ago, Mr. Pagan returned to the block to stand where we had first met. Johnny Martinez and his brother Freddy, the middle kid in the original photo, had moved away and lost contact. But within minutes, Charlie Nieves — Mr. Pagan’s former brother-in-law — shouted “Macho,” then ran up and embraced him. It had been two years since they had seen each other.
“We were just talking about you,” Mr. Nieves said. “Me, Smitty and Fats are trying to get a reunion and do a barbecue. We miss you. We’re family here.”
They exchanged numbers, hugs and promises. As it turns out, you can go home again.