Saturday, January 15, 2005

And the News Gods Smiled

I just crossed the Virginia state line when my station cell phone rang. Without looking away from the 18-wheeler I was drafting behind, I fumbled for the shrieking gadget.

"Unit Four…"

"Yeah, the flower lady called she just remembered she had a doctor's appointment. She won't be at her shop until noon."

Noon?!? My bosses wanted my feature for the five o clock news and twelve bells was way to late to be just getting started -- especially when the story was ninety minutes away from the station in the first place. So much for my cushy Friday...

“You want me to come back?” I asked, eyeing the exit sign in the distance.

“Naaaah - there might be some storm damage up there from last night you can check out,” the assignment editor paused as scanner noise burbled in the background. “Keep heading North, I’ll call you.”

I hit the end button and did the math. Maybe they would leave me alone until 12 and let me turn the flower woman story for a later show. Maybe I’d have time to hit that used bookstore in Martinsville, then a diner on the edge of town. Maybe my planned day of leisure news making wasn’t ruined just yet.

“Deeedle- Leedle-Leedle Leedle Deedle Leedle Lee!”

“Unit Four…”

“Yeah, Stew - we still want you to do the flower story but first can you swing by Danville? I’ve got an address where there may be some damage.

I winced, tightened my grip on the wheel and absorbed the hit. “Swing By” - the most hated words in a photog’s vocabulary. What seemed like an easy feat to an assignment editor looking at a map in the newsroom often meant accelerated stress for a shooter looking through a windshield. In this case, the “swing by” entailed a sixty mile round trip. So much for the bookstore and diner. I scribbled the address 241 Holbrooke on a thin reporter’s pad and ended the cell phone. With an all too familiar sigh, I pushed the CD button and merged into the exit lane. Stevie tore into the lead solo of ‘Crosscut Saw’ as I steered my mobile news office down the slow rolling hills of Highway 58.

Thirty minutes and a Tic-Tac or two later, I pulled into a gas station on the edge of Danville. When my credit card wouldn’t swipe at the pump, I reluctantly headed inside the neon-striped building. A stout woman with salt-and-pepper hair rang me up, glancing at the brightly -logo’d SUV at Pump number three,

“Lord, what’s goin’ on in Danville this morning?”, she asked, handing my card back.

I took it and stuffed it in my wallet. “Not too much, you heard of any storm damage around here?”

“Naw, cain’t say I have. But t WAS a might windy here round 2 a.m. last night. “Woke up me and THREE of my dogs.” She handed me the receipt. I almost asked her just how many dogs she had, but thought better of it. Instead I went for some information I could use.

“You know where Holbrooke Street is?”

“Now, lemme see...Holbrooke. Yeah, Holbrooke! Whatcha wanna do is go out here and take a right, go up to the exit ramp and take THAT right. Once you get on that road, take your THIRD left. Then go left AGAIN. Look for a Hardee’s, but don’t turn there. Keep goin’ til you get to the new road. Not the old road, but the NEW road...”

I fished a pen out an inked-stained Styrofoam cup on the counter and began scribbling her instructions on the receipt. As I did, I realized the woman had yet to use a single street name, instead laying out a route based on the familiar landmarks of a lifelong local. Still, I kept scratching ink, making a special note to turn left where Hector’s used to be, whatever that the hell that was.

I shouldn’t have doubted the cashier. Her directions, autistic as they were, led me straight to Holbrooke Street, a winding narrow avenue choked with run-down project developments and junked-up cars. Passing a few fine taxpayers as they sipped on pre-lunch 40-ounce bottles, I scanned the street numbers on a long line of row houses. 237...239...241! Trouble was 241 looked fine if not a little in need of a new paint job. In the littered street parking lot, a pile of soggy cardboard boxes took up three parking spaces.

Slowing down a bit, I gripped my teeth and cursed the News Gods. Soggy cardboard. I started the day off early, hoping to get a head start on a feel goof feature only to be sent thirty miles out of my way for a pile of wet refrigerator boxes. I knew I should have done better in school, I thought as I looked for a place to turn around and blow out of town. Maybe if I’d been a better student, I’d have been spared a lifetime of wild goose chases in the name of filling silly newscasts. If only I’d gone to college, I could have scored a stable job of schilling widgets for a fat paycheck, instead of surfing the Great Unwashed for a few fleeting moments of contrived sound bites and gratuitous close-ups. Now I’d have to hall balls back to Martinsville and turn the flower lady story in half the time it should take, just so I can rush back to the station and cut a dozen segments designed to do nothing but trick the viewer into tuning for just a few minutes more. I whipped a hard left into a parking lot across the street and threw my news unit into Reverse, cursing my bad fortune under my breath.

Then I looked up and saw them: a pair of brightly striped SUV’s , their paint schemes boasting the cal letters of two Roanoke, Virginia TV stations. Behind the news wagons, two dozen people poured over the exterior of a badly aging apartment building. But something was missing, and as I caught a glimpse of a woman standing in the door of her upstairs unit, the bright sunshine on her hair and shoulders told me what it was.

The roof. The entire roof and ceiling of the corner unit was gone, blown off in the middle of the night by a violent downburst of tornado-strength wind. On the balcony outside, a news crew interviewed a fat man in a jogging suit while a dark-haired reporter/photographer spoke to his unmanned camera, trying desperately to sound important. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a faded sedan with a city of Danville seal on the door pull in beside me. With a sickly grin reflecting in my rear view mirror, I dropped the transmission into park and hit the release on my seatbelt , knowing I could forget all about flower shops, fruitless round trips and wild goose chases. For today, anyway.


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