Editors Note:

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fresh off a three year managerial stint, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger is back on the street and under heavy deadline. As the numbing effects of his self-imposed containment wear off, vexing reflections and pithy epistles are sure to follow...

Thursday, October 28, 2004

A Day in the Strife


Last Friday wasn’t one of them. Nothing earth shattering happened, just a prolonged series of predictable events that the average photog might call typical. Thing is, I ain’t average - or typical. I work hard to produce solid packages WITHOUT a reporter, and as a result, I enjoy a bit more autonomy than most shooters. However, two days ago forces outside my control conspired to screw me and at times, I took it like a rookie. Along the way, there were moments of great déjà vu - certain episodes and aspects of the daily chase that strike me as almost universal. I may be wrong, but perhaps this has happened to you…


I knew I was screwed the moment I entered the newsroom. As usual, I’m the first photog in. Say what you will, it is a long-held habit that pays great dividends in story selection. Today however, I would not get to cherry-pick my gig. I’d barely made it to my desk when a burly assignment editor scurried up, shuffling papers and radiating panic. Seems a shooter called in sick and since we were down he needed me to ’load up and hit the road’ with the tall well-dressed fellow standing behind him. I recognized the tall guy as our most recently hired reporter, and as the assignment editor babbled on, I realized resistance was futile. Minutes later, my partner-for-the-day and pulled out of the station parking lot, passing several arriving photogs along the way. Knowing I’d taken a bullet for at least ONE of them, I grinned and flipped-off them ALL.


He seemed nice enough, and was awful cheery -but as I merged on the interstate, I could barely bring myself to look over at my reporter. When I did, a well- groomed twenty-five year old grinned back innocently. He’d only been with us for a week or two and the constantly grinning chap was bubbling with wholesome enthusiasm. His hair cut-close, his dark slacks pressed, and his tie a sensible one - the guy looked like he should be selling bibles somewhere in the Midwest. I know reporters come in all flavors, and I ‘m pretty sure I’ve tried them all. But at the moment, I was more in the mood for some bitter, disillusioned hack than the starry-eyed choirboy seated to my right. As we sped down I-85, I chewed a toothpick and fought the urge to throw his bright Tupperware lunch out the window.


It was then my colleague unfurled our itinerary. Our mission was to package the latest chapter in a controversial school re-districting plan. A press conference was scheduled for eleven o clock and according to the desk, sparks were certain to fly. Not a great story, but okay. I was soothing my veteran feathers with thoughts of one-stop-shopping when The New Guy ruffled them all over again. “Oh yeah, before that we gotta swing by and pick up a vosot. We need to hurry though, it started an hour ago and is probably almost over” Biting my toothpick in half, I spat out the remains and stood on the gas. Racing the clock for forty seconds of forgettable television is something I’ve spent way too much of my life doing, and all familiarity breeds contempt. As I once again made that mad dash, I drove imaginary spikes though assignment-editor voodoo dolls in my head. The fact that I knew we’d make it in time (as we always do) made doing so all the more unpleasant.


The finger sandwiches told me all I needed to know. As my tall colleague and I sauntered in early to the Department of Education boardroom, I couldn’t stop staring at the decorative lunch items on the corner table. They don’t serve happy food like that at heated confrontations, that is mere workshop fare. I didn’t know all the details of the debate at hand, but I did know my bosses back at the station were desperate for a decent lead story. The ongoing school board saga had provided fodder for weeks, and the suits back at the shop smelled blood. I however, smelled pimento cheese and it told me there would be no controversy here. Pulling my reporter close, I told him of my fears. This ain’t what we thought it was, we’re gonna end up shooting enough for a lame-ass package and they ain’t gonna want it…” I handed him the cell phone and told him to call the bosses, hoping against hope I was wrong. As it turned out, I wasn’t.


“What else ya got for us?” I could hear the head-deskie’s voice coming out the cell phone receiver. My partner, still cheery but growing confused, stammered an answer. I sat behind the wheel and stared at the school board building parking lot through the windshield. ‘What ya got for us? How ‘bout an empty stomach and a bad attitude?’ I chewed over other replies as Too Tall nodded and repeated okay’s into the phone. He hung up and looked over at me. His grin was still there, but it was growing a little vacant. “They want us to go to the strip. The Women’s ACC Tournament’s in town and….”

“They want us to talk to local businesses about the economic impact”, I answered. “I did that same weak piece last year”. Dropping the gearshift into drive, I pulled away and grimaced. If they want me to repeat myself, FINE, but sweeps ended two days ago, it’s now Friday afternoon and I already got thirty minutes of tape in the can. It’s a hell of a time to ask for one of Stew’s Greatest Hits.


Fifteen minutes later, I was loitering in the kitchen of a Sports Bar Steak House. After a few too many in-camera questions for the restaurant manager, I shouldered my camera and began collecting b-roll. Busy cooks squeezed past me and passing waiters did double takes at the floating betacam in the prep area. I stared though my viewfinder and bent over the grill, bringing the image of a thick sizzling burger into focus. A plump cook leaned in and made matters infinitely worse by adding bacon. The glorious smell of the savory bacon burger washed over me and I nearly grew feint with imaginary hunger pains. Swallowing my drool, I tried to act casual as I worked the lens into submission. After a few more minutes of deprived taste-bud delirium, I stumbled out of the kitchen and made eye contact with the grinning tall man. “We got enough - get me to a drive-thru, quick!”


The burger I soon devoured was a pale imitation of the one I’d caught on tape. Still, I sat in my mobile office and polished off the McSomething as my reporter exited his fourth hotel in ten minutes. Opening the door to my idling news unit, he hopped in and slammed the door. “Guy said business sucked! Then he went corporate on me.” I chewed my straw and watched passing traffic. I was about to lay out my umpteenth smartass assertion of the desk’s incompetence when the cell phone rang. There wasn’t just one idiot on the line, a half dozen voices called out, sounding as if they were at the bottom of some metallic hole. Speakerphone, the communication choice of the think-tank set. “ Guys, head over to the Mall - It’s been sold - We’re sending you a truck!” The straw dropped from my lips as I processed what I was hearing. When the voices fell silent, I knew they were waiting for a reply. ‘Eff the Mall!’ I wanted to yell. ‘The next time you wanna play jack-around-the-new-guy, LEAVE ME THE HELL OUT OF IT!” Instead, I looked over at my no-longer grinning partner. “Tell whoever’s bringing the truck to meet us on the JCPenney’s side.”


At its best, a truck swap can be a moment of reprieve from battle, like the scenes in the Highlander where the far-flung immortals rendezvous briefly at some unlikely spot. It can be a chance to vent, bum a battery or cigarette. Unless of course, the person pulling up in the rolling billboard is LESS than a buddy, a friend or a pal. Then the transaction takes on the air of a tense prisoner swap at some hostile border checkpoint. As you switch gear from the news vehicle to the larger live truck, you try to maintain eye contact with the driver, and wonder if he’s there to aid and assist or merely gather Intel for the goons back at the shop. For better or worse, my would-be rescuer seemed anxious to unload the live truck and be on his way. He did just that, and I found myself hoping I had what I needed as he pulled away in my beloved Ford Explorer - no doubt planning to race it’s engine and pilfer it’s contents.


What with having to interview uneasy Mall officials, shoot exteriors, process our four stories and cut countless teases, my tall partner and I had our hands full. As curious shoppers rubbernecked their way past our live truck, we juggled the phones, tapes and papers required for your average live shot. And average it was. With a view of the Mall, nearby Convention Center and interstate exchange, there was plenty to look at it and nothing to see. Once the stories were cut, I set up the camera, raised the mast and tuned in the shot. After feeding the tape back to the station and talking trash with the head edit chick, I settled in the back seat of the truck and started the long wait. The generator engine rumbled and the air reeked of exhaust fumes. Up front, my favorite Tall Guy was applying make-up and cheerfully mumbling the lines he would soon deliver live on camera. Amid all this technology and preparation, I sat frozen in the back - my eyes glazing over like some spaced-out junkie. Forty minutes to Showtime, then another fifty-five minutes before our hit at six. As the generator rumbled its long pathetic song, God pressed the pause button and went out for a sandwich.


By the time we made it back to the station, my reporter was no longer grinning. He’d been used and abused by the desk this day, and he was smart enough to know it would happen again. Still, he took the punches and rebuffs well, never losing focus and cursing far less than I. This makes Him the winner and I told him such before dropping him off at the station. Looking down at the gas gauge, I saw that I was well under half a tank. Knowing a half-empty tank would lead to terse voice mails from the chief, I steered the live van back out on the street. The gas station was a block away, and besides after this quick errand my day would truly be done. That was when my pager began vibrating and as I struggled in the darkness to decipher the feint letters I already knew what it probably said. “Don’t forget your ten o clock re-cuts” Once again, I was right when I didn’t want to be.

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