Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Rendered to Cinders

Regular travelers along Highway 158 in Forsyth County know Loui’s Restaurant as a great place to eat, but when I pulled up to its gravel parking lot this morning, it was just the latest gutted structure in a l-o-n-g line of overnight fires. Nothing more, nothing less. With a precision honed over fifteen years of peering through the ashes, I grabbed my cameras and got to work. A biting wind took my breath away as I prowled the lot and collected shots. Nearby a tired looking man in turn-out gear sought refuge behind the warmth of his pickup’s steering wheel. He was kind enough to roll the window down for the pesky cameraman but neglected to go before the lens. Seems in his haste to leave the house, he forgot his teeth and didn’t want to be televised sans dentures. Do you blame him?

Moving closer to the building to escape the bracing wind, I got a better look at the restaurant’s interior. A thick paste of ash, firewater and mud covered the floor, turning everything into an ashy, abstract landscape. Less than eight hours earlier, it had been a thriving country diner, a welcome oasis between Stokesdale and Walkertown. Now it was a soggy, smelly mess. After bagging a few close-ups I moved around the parking lot, gathering the obligatory wide angles and compression shots. When my ingrained photog instincts told me I had enough images in the can, I leaned on my tripod and thought about sound. No news story is complete without it and I knew that if I couldn’t find any, two dozen nifty angles of a burned out building didn’t mean diddly. Through my viewfinder, I zoomed in on the firefighter nestled in the cab of his pickup. From the way his head had rolled to one side, I knew he was either asleep or dead. Not wanting any more story than I already had, I assumed he was sleeping.

That’s when I met Louie. The small gentlemen with the Greek accent sat behind the wheel of a nearby car and surveyed the broken building that bore his name. At first he didn’t want to talk on camera, but after a little coaxing, he voluntarily stepped in front of the glass. Through halting English and a no small amount of pride, the kindly immigrant told me how he’d spent the last twenty five years turning this roadside diner into a daily destination for hungry locals. For a quarter of a century he fed his family by feeding the legion of farmers, firefighters and factory workers that frequented his establishment. Business had been good in recent years, so much so that Loui sank sixty thousand dollars into renovations, money he now wish he’d spent on a decent fire insurance policy.

As the implications of this last detail sunk home, I pulled away from my viewfinder to catch sight of a lone tear rolling down the man’s leathery face. Suddenly I felt guilty for my earlier annoyance at the lack of talkative bystanders. While I was pouting over the dearth of preferred storytelling components , this grizzled businessman was staring at the charred remains of a lifetime of labor, wondering how his piece of the American Dream has been so suddenly rendered to cinders. I had no answers for Loui, just words of gratitude and a promise to share his plight with a million or so viewers. What good that may do remains unseen, but I for one am hoping his lifetime of good karma and daily specials will now pay off in spades. And just maybe, someone who can help Loui get back on his feet will do so because they saw it on the news. I've been doing this long enough to know my limited role won't mean alot in the long hard reconstruction, but how else is a TV news photog supposed to sleep at night?


Weaver said...

Man, I only got to eat at Loui's once. It was September 18 of last year if I remember the date exactly. It was one day after the tornado went through the Stokesdale area.

We had just finished interviewing a man whose doublewide had been scattered about the countryside and it was time for lunch. We asked the man where the nearest good eats were and "Loui's is just down the road", was the quick response.

It was a great lunch, with great atmosphere. I don't get up that way much, but I certainly would have remembered to stop by there again.

Marie said...

Wow! Powerful post. Wish I could have seen your story.

Ken Corn said...

Stew, the way you just described this man's story in your own words was more intresting and meaningfull than any twenty second vosot could be. My friend you are much more than just a lenslinger, you are a journalist. Edward R. would be proud.

melinama said...

It's up:
link to it if you get a chance...