What does one wear to a nitric acid spill? That was the question I wrestled with just before six a.m. today as I stood in my closet, clad only in boxers and bed-head. Minutes earlier I’d been positively unconscious - locked deep within a watery dreamscape fraught with confusion. For some reason I was flinging donuts off the side of a pirate ship when my bride elbowed me - causing the pastry-wielding privateers to my left and right to vanish in a most unsatisfying ’poof’.
“Your phone’s buzzing.”
A low string of obscenities escaped my still sleeping lips, causing the wife to mutter her own disapproval, which convinced the cat to make a hasty exit from our pitch black bedroom. Not wanting to squash the family feline, I made a clumsy swipe for the flashing gadget and succeeded in knocking it out of reach. When I fished it out from behind the nightstand, I hit the ‘Talk’ button and immediately heard the background burble of overheating police scanners. Swallowing any further profanity, I made only caveman noises as the morning producer yammered excitedly about overturned 18 wheelers and toxic highways. That’s how I found myself standing and stretching before a sea of wrinkled cabana-wear. For the record, I went with a combination of blue denim and brown leather - a choice based on warmth, not fashion.
Comfy as I was, my utilitarian ensemble didn’t help me get past the roadblock. Neither did the rolling billboard I was piloting. In fact the sleepy-eyed deputy waved me away like any other motorist, forcing me and my live truck to abandon the promise of Highway 52 for the uncertainty of car-clogged back-roads. When the ribbon of slow moving cars ahead of me led me away from the highway, I pulled the first of many ill-advised u-turns and got the morning producer on the horn. She tried to help, but Mapquest or Google or whatever the hell she was using insisted the road I was on didn’t exist. It was then I squinted through the windshield, summoned all my Jedi-like photog powers and took a hard right on the next available blacktop. The winding road offered only seclusion at first, but a half mile later it brought me in view of the deserted highway. In the distance, I saw an impromptu parking lot of swirling emergency lights. Closer in, I caught sight of a competitor’s live truck mast slowly rising in the morning mist. For the first time since gaining consciousness an hour earlier, a smile crossed my furry mug. I love it when a lack of plan comes together.
My cross-town rivals barely batted an eye as I my rumbling live truck hove into view. They were too busy readying their own equipment for the hours of updates that would soon follow. Parking my logo’d beast behind theirs, I jumped out and commenced the frantic yet methodical set-up involved in a breaking news situation. Back at the station, a darkened control room full of sardonic colleagues glanced at a dark monitor, waiting impatiently for it to begin radiating scenes of smoldering wreckage and lost highways. Meanwhile I ran desperate circles around the live truck, flipping switches, pulling cables and cursing the buzzing cell phone on my hip. A few minutes later, I beamed an image of color bars to a lofty receive dish perched on a tower 12 miles away. This pleased the cabal of co-workers back at the shop and an excited voice poured from the tiny speaker jammed in my left ear. “We’ll take your shot in two minutes…” the producer said. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘that almost gives me enough time to set up my camera...’
The familiar forms bent around the cluster of tripods hardly acknowledge my presence as I joined them there in the middle of the highway. Consumed with their own mission, they leaned into their cameras’ viewfinders and pushed their glass to the limit. Fifteen hundred feet away, acrid smoke wafted over a sea of police cars and fire trucks. Silence ruled over our small group as photog and reporter alike watched the plume dissipate. Two hours earlier, the bent metal at the base of that smoke had been a mechanized beast roaring up Highway 52 for parts unknown. When a fellow trucker hauling formaldehyde a mile up the road flipped his rig, the driver let off the gas to accommodate the slowing traffic ahead. Too bad someone behind him didn’t. A delivery truck traded paint with a late model sedan, which rear-ended an SUV , hitting another car until the whole lot of them slammed into the vessel in question. All involved managed to escape their vehicles before the fire started but the nitric acid on board the struck eighteen wheeler fueled the flames until a potentially toxic cloud hung over the suddenly crippled highway. Peering through my lens at the truck’s smoldering carcass, it occurred to me that someone else’s morning sucked a whole lot more than mine.
Not that my colleagues or I grew at all verklempt over the situation. Instead we beamed our live pictures and commentary to our collective mother-ships. In my earpiece, I waited for our bearded traffic reporter to mention the Highway 52 tie-up before I slowly pushed my zoom lens through its practiced creep. When the avuncular anchor threw it to a commercial, I backed away from lens and chatted up my friends and contenders. We didn’t talk about the wreck much. Instead we continued conversations we’d abandoned at press conferences a week before, we gave each other shit for parking in the mud, we helped each pull cable and bemoaned the breakfast we were about to miss. All in all, it was very much like the idle banter you shared with your colleagues around the cubicle this morning. The fact that we shared our well wishes, driving tips and dick jokes over the sun-baked pavement of some mild disaster isn’t the least bit odd to us. We’ve all shared similar ribbing at sundry other scenes. Inner city stand-offs, glitzy fund-raisers, early morning drug raids and late night body finds: name the calamity and there’s sure to be a news crew nearby, riffing on the twisted predictability of it all.
That makes us either voyeurs or vultures, I can never decide.