Joseph Dankowski

Joseph Dankowski

On January 1 of this year, my mother emailed me to say how surprised she was to read the name of Joseph Dankowski in her local paper, The Somerset Times. When she mailed the newspaper clipping to me at my request, I saw that it was a legal notice to creditors announcing who had been appointed personal representatives to certain estates, including his. But as soon as I got her email on New Year’s Day, the following memory of my father, Joseph Dankoski, came instantly to mind.

I don’t know if it was in the summer before he died in 1998, or if it was any other time he was sick before then, but I remember that one time my father and I went to the Rite Aid pharmacy in Houlton, Maine. We strolled up to the white counter in the back of the store to pick up a prescription, perhaps, for my dad. The pharmacist, a tall man stationed as his computer, asked my dad for his name, and my father answered in a grumbled, almost annoyed, voice: “Dankoski. Joseph.”

I’ve heard the sound of our last name pronounced myriad ways, and the sticky vowel is the O. Many Polish (and Russian) names ending with -ski preceded by an “o” sound are spelled with a w, so most Americans when trying to spell our name tend to include the w in our name — even if they ask us to spell it. We get to “…K-O-S” and they instinctively write “W” instead of “S”. I don’t know if my ancestors had the w and during our evolution it was weak and fell off, or if a customs worker hacked it off at the front of an immigration line, but such is our name. I remember how my sister Teresa was the most adamant of the spelling of our name, saying something like “we’re not a cow, so don’t spell it like we are” which is ironic because her birth certificate was the victim of such misspellings, something she was none too happy about.

And the same misspelling, a mistype into the pharmacist’s computer, must have happened 13 years or more ago, but we didn’t know it at the time. The pharmacist couldn’t find anything in the computer. He asked if he was the same Joseph Dankowski who lived in some other town in Maine that I hadn’t yet heard of (a town that I think today must have been Shirley).

“Naw,” my dad said, quickly dismissing it. “That’s not me.”

My memory of this conversation is fuzzy, but I remember distinctly how quickly he dismissed it, how uninterested he seemed to be to know that there was another man with the same name living in the same state as ours. If our family name would have been as common as Smith, of course it would not have mattered: Living with such a name would have signaled being part of a vast network of families, related or not, nonetheless sharing a common bond.

But up until that day, it felt like we were the only Dankoski family on the planet. This was just prior to the dawn of the Internet, where this curiosity could have instantly been quenched. This was at a time when we felt so isolated as a family. My father had moved us from Pawtucket, R.I., to northern Maine, where our neighbors did not welcome us with open arms and in fact told my father to go back where he came from. Mainers, the old-timers especially, did not take kindly to outsiders. So we were stuck in desolate northern Maine, living in a community where most of us did make some friends, apart from my father, who took to wonder constantly when the next guy would verbally kick the legs out from under him.

Still, I marveled at my father’s dismissal. As he and the pharmacist clarified the confusion, I stood there watching, but wondering was it just some clerical error in the pharmacy’s computer system? Was it really my father in there and that some pharmacist of sickness past entered in a wrong town? Was there really another Dankoski in the world? Could it be? I entertained the thought that perhaps my father was living a double life: He was gone most of the week, working two hours away down in Bangor, and he’d come up to us only on Wednesdays and weekends.

But I wouldn’t have figured it out until this month, on New Year’s Day, when the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. My mother emailed me and said she saw the name Joseph Dankowski. I remembered the scene with the pharmacist, and then I did some Googling.

So who is Joseph Dankowski?

Joseph Dankowski

Joseph Dankowski

Joseph Stanley Dankowski was born in September 1932 in Camden, New Jersey. Tributes.com says Sept. 1 while a friend and Wikipedia say Sept. 2.

He was a photographer whose black-and-white work “Manholes and Gutters” can be seen on display at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York City), in the Smithsonian in D.C., in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, and at the The Joy of Giving Something Collection.

(That JGSC link seems to work and not work at random, but if it works, there are some great photos there.)

After living for 20 years in New York City, where he gained recognition as a photographer, he moved to Shirley Mills, Maine, where he continued to photograph.

One of the many manhole covers photographed by Joseph Dankowski. It almost looks like an eerie aerial photo of a crop circle, doesn't it? Is it just me?

He died Nov. 5, 2010, in Brewer, Maine.

His friend Goldberg has a fascinating, “sort of” memorial to Joseph Dankowski on his blog. And friend and colleague Michele Maks, author of Wreathmaking from the State of Maine, which includes Dankowski’s photographs, has a heart-felt remembranceon her blog.

Untitled, a photo of a gutter by Joseph Dankowski

Untitled, by Joseph Dankowski, on display at the Smithsonian

One of his “Untitled” gutter photos at the Smithsonian, seen above, remind me of one of MY photos that I took two Novembers ago on a rainy day in Watertown, MA, seen below.

Wet in Watertown

Wet in Watertown, by Stanley Dankoski, on display on Flickr

I hope his friends and family don’t mind my taking the time and effort to write this. Although we had never met, I still find it fascinating how two people could have lived so relatively close together and be unaware of each other’s existence. It’s likely Joseph Dankowski, the photographer, was nothing like Joseph Dankoski, my father, or like me. Nonetheless, I remain fascinated by how close we were in distance and in names, how (in addition to writing) I’m contemplating doing something more with photography, too. As his friend Goldberg wrote in his post, “Joe Dankowski photographed the things we all see but don’t notice.” Somehow I see, in this, connectedness with a fellow man, a man I did not know, but someone I noticed by name, by a fluke chance, in a pharmacy long ago.