Sunday, January 09, 2005

When Soundbites Echo

“I b’leeb da man wuz MURDERED and R-R-ROBBED!“

As observations go, it wasn’t very trenchant - as two men in blue jumpsuits had just wheeled a covered body out of the ransacked house and right past us. But the old man leaning on his cave under the shade tree seemed pleased with his statement and as I watched his image through the viewfinder, I wasn’t too bummed either. I knew I’d open my story with the captured sound the moment it left the old man’s cracked lips. I just didn’t know how long it would echo.

West Greenville in the early nineties. Unmarked Crown Vics and flashing squad cars clogged two city blocks of the old neighborhood. I surfed the crowd with camera and tripod, drawing mixed reactions from the grannies, kids and junkies gathered outside the old house. Behind the yellow-tape, sweat-stained detectives inspected the busted door-jam, while uniformed cops walked the perimeter in mirrored-sunglasses. I wiped the sweat from my own eyes, aimed the lens and hit ‘RECORD’. Another midday murder in the hood. Wonder what the Lunch Special is at Vinners?

For weeks, stabbings, stolen hearts and stand-offs had plagued West Greenville, putting my little corner of the market at the top of the newscast every night. As a result, I ‘d been the busiest broadcaster on my station’s all-too-small staff, answering clandestine phone calls, chasing scanner traffic and going LIVE from a different dusky street corner every evening at six. That long hot summer of larceny and homicide seasoned me as a TV news one-man-band, but at something of a cost. Where the beginning of June found me quietly horrified by the spike in Tragedy TV on my own station, by the dog days of August I’d dismissed any feelings whatsoever. Instead I focused on the craft at hand - the hard-scrabble chase of local TV news. With my Alice in Chains blaring in the news unit’s tape deck, I spent that long hot season immersed in my lens, lawbreakers and live trucks. Who had time to care? That would come later, when my own kids arrived to remind me what’s right.

The crime spree continued. Several, actually. A serial robber was knocking off convenient stores and doing it dirty, leaving a wake of brutalized clerks in his tall skinny path. In the projects, alcohol and humidity were fueling a steady parade of domestic gunplay and wrestling matches. Worst of all, three home invasions had turned fatal, when their old victims fought over jars of pocket-change and such. I chased every bit of it, prowling crime scenes and donut shops with my cop buddies and more illicit fare with my cameraman pals. I wrote countless scripts, shot endless footage and struggled through many a live shot. I was on my game, or what little I understood back then. But of all I went through that summer, of all the trumped-up tragedy I put on TV, of all the snatches of reality I kept in the can, one refrain and one refrain alone wraps up the pathos and bathos of that crazy six weeks.

“I b’leeb da man wuz MURDERED and R-R-ROBBED!“

For some inexplicable reason, this simple, cast-off phrase from a lonely old wino has turned into a spoken-word earworm that still bounces inside my head. Closing my eyes I can hear the old man’s liquored-up baritone and see his craggy face in murky viewfinder blue. He’s now a mental figment of my imagination; a drunken master of street level news. Who knows why HIS wino wisdom stuck in my head, butboy, did it. To this day, whenever I roll up on flashing blue lights and unfurling crime tape during hot weather, rest assured you know what eight words are going through my head.

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