Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Strung Out on the Access

Fox 8 Gang 024The grueling pace, the shrieking desk, that empty feeling at the end of the day ... there’s a lot to loathe about the newsgathering process. Of course it didn’t seem that way in 1989, when every other assignment was a lid-tripping exercise in self discovery, time management and electronic field surgery. Those breathless days of constant epiphany are gone forever, I’m afraid - leaving only the thunderous march of a thousand deadlines to fill the void. Most days I can still hack it, occasionally I can’t, but so far it hasn’t stopped me from saddling up every day for another crack at the fruitless pursuit. Why? The easy answer is the paycheck of course, but I’m pretty sure I could find a less soul-jarring way to make the same pile of escudos every week. No, its not the pay that draws me to the newscast factory every weekday morning and it damn sure ain’t the glory. It’s the access, plain and simple - the ability to enter other people’s lives in times of times of triumph or downfall and quiz them on just how they feel about it. It ain’t the classic approach to an education, but it will litter your subconscious with a million prophetic impressions:

I remember knocking on the front door of an inner city home and asking the red-eyed giant who shuffled forward for a picture of the daughter he’d lost the night before. The Polaroid he thrust forward was wrinkled, tear-stained and to him, priceless.

I remember reaching down out of a hot air balloon to snatch a few leaves from the top of a Randolph County oak tree. When the horses in the pasture below whinnied in protest I heard childlike laughter and realized it was me.

I remember slipping into a crowded courthouse just in time to hear a young woman drunk with distraught try to explain why she torched a couch outside her boyfriend’s apartment and accidentally killed four people in the process.

I remember gripping my camera tightly as an overdressed lackey pushed a golf cart to its absolute limit in hopes of catching up with the King of Nascar. We finally caught up with Richard Petty and after a bit of cajoling I stood in the shadow of the great man’s hat for the very first time.

I remember backpedaling in a bad part of town late at night as a female officer escorted a coughing, hand-cuffed homeless man away from a smoldering blaze. It was only upon playback that I realized the weird thing on the side of his head was the melted remains of his John Deere cap.

I remember walking into a Winston-Salem bar with my camera shouldered and turning every head in the standing-room only place. As I floated wordlessly around the room, tough guys stiffened, happy drunks tried to high-five me and inebriated college girls fought for my lens’ attention.

I remember sitting in silence in the back of a 500 pound woman’s Winnie-the-Pooh decorated bedroom as she explained how bad judgment, youthful abuse and poor metabolism has imprisoned her inside her tiny home for the better part of three years.

I remember sucking air though my teeth in hopes of maintaining my composure as hundreds of returning marines embraced their wives, girlfriends and children. It was my very first shift on the baby stroller and cleavage scene, but not my last.

I remember waiting for David Melvin’s head to explode as the silhouetted figure in my viewfinder chugged beer, put a pistol to his temple and flipped off me and the SWAT Team. David survived the stand-off but he changed many people’s lives that day, including mine.

No, with unfinished imagery like that still simmering in my brain pan, how could I even entertain the notion of finding other work? No other role could afford me such storytelling fodder, no other job could expose me to more delicious turmoil, no other gig could teach me so much about the human condition. Still, it would be nice to have all my holidays off...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dog Bites Man

If Comedy Central's new experimental offering Dog Bites Man nails the flavor of local news, I'll eat my press pass. Though it does sound promising: producers of Da Ali G Show combining narrative comedy and improv to follow 'an outrageously inept local news crew chases down the big stories, leaving innocent bystanders and journalistic integrity in their wake.' Hmmm. Sounds like a few high noon live shots back in the day, but I digress. Here's hoping the show at least delves into the inspired lunacy of local broadcasting and doesn't just squeeze the Mary Tyler Moore newsroom template for a few more boorish laughs.

Whatever the case, it's only a matter of time before some comedy team mines the fertile mirth of local news for laughs that ring true among the off-camera set. Broadcast News captured the insipid machinations at the network level. Anchorman delved into mid-seventies affilliate life, but in a fairly schizophrenic and cartoonish manner. (Still, can you a fault a film that features a street fight between rival news gangs? I think not.) Is it wrong to yearn for newsgathering goofs that are a bit more, I dunno - acerbic? Perhaps ... Hey, I got it! How about a series of film shorts based on the stylized prose of one blowhard photog? Cast some brooding hotshot and call it Viewfinder Bl-- Hmm? What's that?

You're right ... that would never fly.

Chasing Aiken

Operation:IDOL
When American Idol viewers failed to place Chris Daughtry in the finals last week, they did more than crush the hopes of millions of couch-bound rockers. They put the kibosh on Chris' whirlwind hometown tour - a American Idol rite of passage reserved for the final three contestants. I was scheduled to ride point on Chris' swoop through the Piedmont, from his planned appearance on our morning news to the mini-concert scheduled for First Horizon Park. Though the 18 hour day would have been grueling, I was bummed not to be able to document Daughtry's triumphant return to central North Carolina - not just because I like the guy, but because an Idol homecoming is a media orgy of mind-boggling density.

I first learned this years ago, when my superiors hastily dispatched me to Raleigh to stalk some dork named Clay Aiken as he flittered his way through Capitol City. The ensuing camera cluster left me bruised, amused and positively agog at the power of this cheesy new show. It even landed my future bald spot in the shrieking pages of US Weekly. Read the long, frightening story behind the above shot here ... or don't. Either way, you have to admit: Chris was robbed.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Dr. Tom and the Chili Peppers

For the Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, Stadium Arcadium is a landmark work - a two disc collection of sonic merriment unimaginable at the wobbly outset of their recording career. I know - I’ve been listening to this impossibly unique California band since the early eighties, when a wise man turned me onto their slap-happy lyrics and infectious groove. It was just one of the ways Dr. Tom enriched my young life.

At 16, I was a mess. Never a great student, I’d figured out in junior high school how to eek out the minimum and not think about tomorrow. Whenever a new teacher would glance at my dismal student file and began the underachiever speech, I’d finish their sentences for them. School work was never that hard, just damn uninteresting. I’d much rather lose myself in Stephen King novels, David Bowie albums and WKRP in Cincinnati reruns. As for team sports, such physical coordination and feigned camaraderie was simply beyond my scope. I was much more at ease hanging with my juvenile delinquent friends, an endearingly ragtag group of outcasts and thinkers who spoke my own language of thwarted potential. Was it any wonder I went absolutely batshit at the first possible chance?

Well, I did. As soon as I passed driver‘s ed, I purchased my grandmother’s old jalopy for 500 dollars and promptly began skipping school. At first it was only a class or two - a math period here, a science session there. But soon my penchant for truancy grew into full blown dedication to the craft. I’d arrive at school a little early, hang out in the smoking area until I rustled up a group of aspiring hoodlums and hit the open road. The beach, the tobacco path, the vacant lot - I went everywhere that year. Everywhere but the tenth grade classes I was supposed to be attending. Through treachery and deceit, I snowed my parents into thinking all was well at school. In reality, I was running from shadows, projecting inherent rebellion among my buddies but cringing every time the phone rang at home. Near the end of the school year, that bell tolled for me. To make a difficult story short, I got busted. Hard. My poor mother, agog at her once promising son’s academic descent called an immediate conference with all my teachers. After the longest 30 minutes of my life, I left the school library for summer vacation with the unfathomable news that I would be returning to the tenth grade in the fall.

Aside from removing every semblance of fun from my 16 year old world, my Mother did something I’m eternally grateful for. She sent me to a therapist, a child psychologist of sorts who helped crack open my skull and sift around inside. Tall, animated and Midwestern, Doctor Tom first struck me as an insufferable doofus. Between his goofy grin and flat accent, I just couldn’t take the guy seriously. For the first two sessions, I sat in an easy chair in his office and rolled my eyes behind mirrored sunglasses while he spoke seemingly at random. After a while I began to talk back, mostly lies at first but then the occasional glimmer of truth slipped through my punk-ass fa├žade. Dr. Tom seized on the details and in one ten minute period broke down my complicated web of excuses, delusions and alibis. I maintained my neo-gruff exterior, but inside I was amazed at the man’s mental dexterity.

It’s difficult to express just how Tom helped me. Never once did he produce a magic elixir or mulit-colored pill to ease my clouded mind. Mostly he just listened, chewing his lip and nodding at the ceiling as I struggled to explain how miscast and ill-equipped I felt to deal with the perils of high school society. You know - the same crap teenagers have been struggling with since the first cave kid popped his inaugural zit. Though he’d no doubt heard variations of my plight a thousand times before, Dr. Tom leaned in and listened. Whenever I’d run out of words, he’d encourage me to continue, like a late night deejay milking a distraught caller for every sordid detail. Just as I was spent, Tom would lean back in his worn brown recliner and walk me back through my diatribe, gently pointing out all the bad judgments and escalating foolishness along the way. Never once did Tom make me feel stupid, or childish or anything less than worthy of his admiration. Turns out, that was all I really needed.

Toward the end of our visits and my summer of exile, Tom presented me with a token of his esteem, two carefully labeled mix tapes of the new music he was listening to. Later, when I popped the cassettes into my beat-up player at home, the strange sounds that emanated from within seized my imagination. Weird bands I’ve never heard of before with names like the Talking Heads, the B-52’s and the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasted my ears and libido like only revolutionary music can. The Chili Peppers especially ran roughshod over my limited concept of rock and roll. Their staccato delivery, thump-bass funk and surf-frat bombast grabbed me by the t-shirt collar and shook every vestige of Classic Rawk fan out of my system. By the time I re-entered the tenth grade, my head was far from unscrambled. But thanks to Tom, I approached high school life with a bit more realism and a lot better taste in tunes.

----------------------

Fast forward six years. Fresh from the Navy but still lacking any real direction, I took a job at the local hospital’s radiology department while I weighed my lack of options. At first my duties consisted of mind-numbing darkroom work, passing undeveloped x-ray film from one dimly-lit bin to another. When that quickly proved boring, I stuck my head out to flirt with all the pretty x-ray techs and nurses - a move that quickly brought me the female attention I yearned for all those many months out to sea. Pretty soon, I was one of the gang, pitching in with clerical duties and eventually patient transportation. I found I liked donning a white coat and ferrying patients back and forth to Radiology. It was in the hallways of Wayne Memorial Hospital that I refined some of the confidence I’d cultivated in the military. Who knows what the female staff really thought of the scruffy new orderly who liked the sound of his own voice. I was too busy talking smack to ever ask.

Hospital work was never anything I wanted to do long term, but it was awfully good for me. The wreck victims, AIDS patients and psychiatric ward residents taught me more about life than I’d ever learned in uniform. Though I still possessed no idea of how I was going to spend the rest of my life, I was growing more and more comfortable with the person inside me. I was feeling particularly good about myself the day I looked down at the patient card in my hand and saw a familiar name. When I knocked lightly outside the room, a voice from my past answered and I pushed open the heavy door to see Dr. Tom sitting up in bed wearing a hospital gown and his trademark goofy grin.

“Can you believe it? I was having dinner and just doubled over in pain. Someone called an ambulance and the next thing I know I’m here,” he said with no small amount of astonishment. “the doctors said my something ruptured in my gut and dumped toxins in my system. Dude ... I could have died!”

Tom chuckled as he said this and I couldn’t help but join him. He looked great despite the lack of color in his cheeks and tassled hair. Not quite forty years old, he was quite surprised to be sitting in a hospital room, staring at an old client who was starring back at him. Within seconds, we fell into deep conservation - something he was especially gifted at. I told him of my misadventures in the Navy, my stint as an on-board radio deejay and the girl named Michelle I found myself infatuated with. Tom nodded and laughed at the appropriate times, telling me about his own growing kids and flourishing psychiatric practice. Despite our sudden reversal of roles, we chatted emphatically until I had to get back to my appointed rounds. Though I didn’t come out and say it, I yearned for a way to thank him for his positive influence. Not quite sure how to do it without jeopardizing any of my young man machismo, I held off and told him I’d see him tomorrow.

On the way home evening, it came to me. I could make a mix tape for Tom, go through my own growing CD collection and cull a few new favorites to share. When I got home I did just that, working a dilapidated cassette deck to the limits of its discount store ability. When I left for work the next day, I had an eclectic collection committed to audiotape, Metallica, Jethro Tull, XTC and of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I couldn’t wait to present to him along with a low key thanks for helping me grow into the man I was beginning to pretend to be. Dropping the 90 minute cassette in the pocket of my white lab coat, I stopped by the radiology desk to confirm Tom’s room number. Once I found the right patient card, I held it up in hopes of deciphering the physician’s chicken scratch.

“Oh, that card’s outdated,” said a well-meaning x-ray tech, “the patient died last night.”

When I could move again, I walked to a nearby trash bin and with trembling hands, threw the carefully-crafted cassette away. Too bad all of life's regrets aren't so easily disposed of.