Friday, November 19, 2010
If you drove by a certain toiletries emporium the other night, you probably saw me leaning against that live truck. Truth is, I was barely hanging on. But you'd feign consciousness too, had your last eight hours been spent rushing headlong into happenstance. Most days, I dodge this kind of fruitless pursuit. Friday, I didn't have much of a choice. How it all came about never made much sense, but with a fresh deadline rapidly approaching and not a helluva lot else going on, logic is the first to fall. Which is why it's hard to explain just how exhausted I was as I watched traffic stream by my live shot. Who knows what all those motorists thought when they glanced my way? More than likely, they were just looking for someone famous. They couldn't have fathomed the truth: that a reporter they'd recognize was inside that very van collecting breast milk, that together we had launched and abandoned a hard-target search of every Christmas Tree lot in town, that we'd been saved from this insipid mission by some dude claiming to have a bomb in his duffel bag.
It all began in the morning meeting, when some well-meaning soul mentioned they thought they saw Christmas trees for sale on their morning commute. Exactly who foisted this deception isn't known, nor does it really matter. All that really matters is this simple fact: Before anyone could question the veracity of this unseasonable claim, the words 'Christmas Trees' were written under mine and a reporter's name. Somewhere down the hall, a guy in the Art Department began working on the over the shoulder 'Christmas Tree' graphic. The deed was done. Now all my reporter and I had to do was wrench reality in such a way that would fit the worldview of those who so rarely got outside. Did I mention the local tree lots stood empty? That the big box stores hadn't received their first shipment of former saplings? That even the local tree farm family was laying low until next week's Christmas Season kick-0ff? God knows I tried...
But to be fair, my words weren't worth a lot. I knew it too. In the world of morning meetings, a lousy idea still trumps nothing at all. So until I came up with something better to pitch, I was more than encouraged to swallow my opinion and go find some damn Christmas Trees. Besides, no one huddled around the conference room table believed such a story would ever make air. Surely some kind of spot news would crop up before the Six o Clock open rolled. A bus wreck, a meth-lab domestic, a demon sinkhole. Certainly something would crumble, jump up or erupt long before we took to the airwaves with tales of trees that weren't yet anywhere to be found. First though, we had to go through the motions - which means we had to hit every empty lot that's trafficked in trees since Bill and Hilary Clinton slept together on a regular basis. Hey, no one ever said this behind the scenes stuff was pretty!
We. Looked. Everywhere. Up and down the busiest thoroughfares, out behind Boy Scout huts, down around that garden center with the yard art out front. No matter where we went, we heard the same thing. This place will be hoppin' with trees this time next week. All seemed lost, until one of our many phone calls was returned. 'Yes', in fact, ' a few local Food Lions had trees on the premises and up for sale'. Without another word, my reporter and I raced to the nearest franchise and found a stash of unadorned trees leaning against the outer wall. Positive we'd hit pay dirt at last, we strode inside to congratulate the manager on his newfound free publicity. We expected him to go corporate. Instead, he went douche-bag and we were invited to take our cameras elsewhere. Knowing our chances of finding anymore cut trees was next to nil, I pointed my news unit due South. Thirty minutes away, the Spillman Christmas Tree Farm sat full but silent. The good people there hadn't answered their phone all day, but I was now prepared to drive straight there and take a hostage if that's what it took to get a cursed evergreen on tee-vee...
That's when it happened.
The Droid on my side blasted out a tone that told me the assignment editor had struck a vein. When I finally figured out how to make the newfangled phone stop ringing, the voice on the other end launched into a soliloquy. "Someone walked into the Bed Bath and Beyond on High Point Road and told the clerk he had a bomb. Stole some cash and the clerk's car ---" He didn't have to go any further. We raced to the store in question and found a cop car convention out front. The store folk weren't talking but the cops were feeling chatty. After no more than ten minutes on scene, we had everything were gonna get: shots of detectives smacking their gum, hardened shoppers rendered less than agog and enough store signage to remind everyone they're not even safe picking up a towel set for Grandma this Christmas. Laying in wait, we pounced on a few shoppers as they exited the store. We peppered them with questions. Did they want to be on camera wasn't one of them. Then, as quickly as we arrived, we left.
Two and a half hours later we returned, this time in a live truck. Since leaving earlier, we'd returned to the station, high-fived a producer or two over the sound news judgment and went to work on their new lead story. Not another word was said about Christmas Trees. Not with real news in the hopper. True, our story wouldn't change any lives. As robberies go, it was pretty inconsequential. Sure, the clerk lost her car and the company cash, but the average viewer would have to receive regular payments to even pretend to care. but the story of one loser's jihad against high thread count had more than enough to lead off a news cast. It had cop cars in the distance, a setting soccer moms knew well and, of yes, it had wordplay. 'Bed Bath and Bomb' the lower third graphic would no doubt read. The alliteration alone was worth it weight in promos. So as you can see, five hours of frantic effort can shatter upon impact when just a few minutes of the right kind of outrage presents itself in a timely manner.
I just wish the towel-hating bomb bandit would have struck a little earlier. Might have saved me a ton of runaround...