Saturday, April 05, 2008

Rotgut Theater

"I have never served a drop of alcohol IN MY LIFE!” the old woman said with conviction.

I would have believed her too, had she not been surrounded by liquor bottles, shot glasses and plastic milk jugs full of homemade hooch. No sooner had the lady made her strange claim than a red light began flashing in the corner of my viewfinder. DAMN! Two minutes into my first ‘shot house’ bust and my camera batteries were dropping like flies. Shifting my weight, I pulled the camera away from my face, balanced it on the fanny pack strap slicing into my waist and traded one dead brick for a slightly newer one. As I did, deputies of every stripe squeezed past. By the time I re-shouldered my lens, a leathery old man in bib overalls began arguing with the interlopers trying to handcuff him, at which point they took him to the floor. Suddenly a giant ALE filled my tiny screen, as a behemoth in a windbreaker joined in on the dog pile. Shoved backward, I came to rest on a pool table, the petrified cue-balls scattering and clattering as I reached behind me to avoid falling. Contortionism aside, I squinted and grinned as the cops all but hogtied the inebriated senior. THIS, is what I’d come for.

It was early 1991 and I was in heaven. Actually, it was rural Jones County, North Carolina. A few hours after sunset I’d met a rabble of good ole boys in unmarked Crown Vics at the county line as they plotted the evening’s takedown. The target: a jacked-up shack smack-dab in the middle of Jones County's skeeviest trailer court. According to my new friends, the rundown structure was a den of sin, a gathering place known to all as a good place to purchase a snort of moonshine or a shot of illegally re-sold liquor. Truthbetold, I couldn’t give less of a shit what went down inside there. If the state wanted to spend resources making the county safe for self-respecting alcoholics, have at it. I was just a 23 year old photog high on police access. If the guys with the high and tight haircuts wanted to bum-rush Barney the Dinosaur, it was fine by me - as long as they didn’t block my shot on the way in.

The television show COPS cast a long shadow over my entry into newsgathering. Every Saturday night, a sofa bound nation leaned into their sets and chortled on cue as some shirtless buffoon protested his innocence before getting cuffed and stuffed. I was among those hanging on every televised arrest and so were my bosses. Though they never really said it, the landmark reality show and it’s cinema verite influenced the way we covered the local cop-shops. Suddenly, police agencies were granting the media all-access passes to drug round-ups, property seizures and the like - all in hopes they’d be seen striking heroic poses on the evening news. Young, dumb and with something to prove, I happily obliged. ‘Justice? Eff Justice,’ -- I thought. I wanted to ride shotgun in police department squad cars follow cops up crack-house stairways, and do cameraman pirouettes around the mad, the bad and the otherwise shackled. For longer than I care to admit, I got my wish.

So you can imagine my glee when a deputy buddy asked if I wanted to tag along on a shot house raid. I ran my fingers through my feathered hair and said “Damn skippy!” -- though at the time I didn’t really know what a shot house was. When it was explained to me I merely nodded, though surely it couldn’t be like my cop buddies described. It was. After rendezvousing with the authorities a block away, we descended on the aforementioned shack with lights, lens and logos blazing. Following the fuzz as they burst through the door, I all but guffawed at what I saw. The interior of the one-room shack looked like a scene out of Roadhouse. A few crusty customers slumped at the bar, one hillbilly bent over the felt in mid trick shot, the matronly old woman behind the bar - all froze in repose as The Man came crashing through. I was but a gnat in on the action, but the ensuing maneuvers added to my street degree and really spiced up the weekend news. I can still hear the sound of the liquid hitting pay dirt as a beefy deputy emptied jug after jug of rotgut on the driveway outside. So too can I recall the exuberance of my heavily armed hosts as they unmade everybody’s day.

But more than anything else, I remember the old barmaid’s claim; her wrinkled face and every inflection burned into my mind’s eye the moment it passed through my camera’s lens. I don’t know why some soundbites echo, but I’m betting anyone who’s slung a lens for more than a week carries around a few audio snippets they’d probably like to erase. Now if only I could remember all my computer passwords as easily...


Anonymous said...

Re: Passwords

Just write what she said PHO-net-ic-Lee. The CIA could bust that code.

Carolyn said...


My Man's passed out.