“Hi Stew - gonna need to send you to Winston. There’s a busload of evacuees comin’ into a shopping center off MLK. “
With that, all thoughts of sunrises evaporated. I sat up in my office chair, leaned into the steering wheel and goosed the engine. Any cornhusks still stuck to my bumper quickly took flight as I fell into the fast lane. Twenty minutes and three interstate exits later, I pulled into the strip mall in question. Or so I thought. The lot in front of the Shoe Shop was all but abandoned. My eyebrows crinkled in the rearview mirror as I threw the Ford Explorer into its third u-turn of the day. Halfway through my impromptu donut I spotted the unmistakable profile of a TV live truck speeding past the parking lot. Falling in behind my competitor‘s van, I smiled at the freebie and tried to drive casual - tough to do when you’re the last float in a logo parade. I thought about tossing a few lollipops out to pedestrians, but the wino talking to a tree made me think better of it.
“Actually, it’s only one refu -- guest, a young man from New Orleans by way of Baton Rouge. We had hoped to bring back thirty-five people, but red tape kept them there …”
I pressed a button and marked my shot. Leaning into the viewfinder I rode the iris and zoomed in. As the image of a diminutive politician spoke into the microphones thrust before her, I fought with the low, stubborn sunrays behind her. Every time she shifted from one foot to another, blinding rays took enveloped the tiny screen, causing her image to silhouette. Three inches to my left, a newspaper photographer scrunched face and fired his own weapon. With every pull of the trigger, the shutter‘s sharp bark drowned out the sound coming from the coiled headset around my neck. I wanted desperately to reach down and pull the tiny speakers up over my ears, but with a face full of camera and colleagues, I couldn’t spare a hand. Besides, any sudden movement would jar the pens and lenses of a half-dozen working journalists - not something you want to do before lunch.
By the time the bus wheezed into the far end of the parking lot, the press-knot had loosened; assorted shooters and scribes fanned out among the mostly African-American group of volunteer, church leaders and just plain curious. Six says ago, this ad-hoc committee of congregation members had dispatched six of it own to Louisiana, in a local tour bus full of donated food, bottled water and good intentions. Today, as the very bus glided in and hissed to a stop - it’s familiar flat windshield a good deal grimier, heartfelt applause broke out among both the grinning and the embittered. With an eye on the other camera-heads in the crowd, I glided forward, letting my square lens-hood part the throng. By the time the doors of the bus hissed open, I held the entire de-boarding process at point-blank range. As the wall of lenses, loiterers and looky-loos tightened behind me, I pressed my eye into the viewfinder and wondered what was exactly that was pressing into my kidneys.
"Welcome to Winston-Salem!”
A tall skinny black man in a pale green shirt stepped from the shadows of the bus and into the bright sunlight. Cupping a hand over his eyes, he surveyed the assembled masses: squinting cameramen, beaming choir members, fresh-scrubbed children holding hand made signs. Through the blue haze of my XD’s eyepiece, I tracked the nervous look on the young man’s face as he took in the crowd in slow-motion wonder. We had to be a curious sight to this beleaguered traveler, total strangers putting on a conqueror’s return. For a moment, I thought the guy was going to turn around and get back on a bus, but after a few hard gulps, Rendell Bartholomew of the west bank of New Orleans smiled and waved to the grateful crush of onlookers, who instantly roared in approval. Perhaps the displaced Wal-Mart employee with only a duffel bag to his name sensed how badly we all needed a hero to cheer for. Whatever his true thoughts, the exhausted and affable young man hugged old ladies, signed autographs, answered countless dumb questions from the media and generally lifted everyone’s spirits, before climbing into his brother-in-law’s car for a final leg to Virginia.
I, for one, hope he rests well tonight.