Thursday, September 13, 2012
I liked Sheeka Strickland the moment I heard her cellphone's ringtone. It was Coltrane, which told me that, if nothing else, El Ocho's newest reporter had great taste in music. I told Sheeka as much, then began avoiding her like the plague. Nothing personal, it just behooves me to work alone. But a funny thing happened on the way to exile. The News Gods thrust us together in a flurry of assignments: ludicrous jaunts into the unknown, forged by her determination, my lead foot and the shared belief that you can ALWAYS get lunch. Other shooters took note and soon the scuttlebutt around the damp places that attract photogs was thus: The tall news reporter isn't just capable; she's also pretty chill. "Chill": that's slinger-ese for "This lady won't escalate a bad situation with theatrics or stagecraft." It may sound like feint praise, but when you've worked with the kind of unabashed nut-bags I have, a little rationale is highly valued.
Still, I had my doubts until one day Sheeka and I were dispatched post haste to the scene of a fatal fire. We filled the interior of Unit 4 with small talk all the way there, but that chatter subsided when he pulled up to a smoldering mobile home. The night before, a woman had succumbed to smoke and flames. As we got out of the car, her teenage son looked up from where he was burying the family dog to take in the strangers in the plain white station wagon. Other young relatives were rifling through the dead woman's possessions and the tension was as thick as the smoke that ended her life hours earlier. It was then I noticed the butt of a handgun sticking out of one the boy's waistband. I locked eyes with Sheeka, gestured to the weapon and silently implored her to tread lightly. She nodded acknowledgment, then proceeded to work a difficult scene with compassion and grace. When we left ninety minutes earlier, a few of the family members hugged us and I never again worried about Sheeka Strickland's bedside manner.
That was nearly four years ago - a lifetime in a medium market newsroom. In that epoch, Sheeka proved herself the kind of partner you wanted along, whether the story was certified trophy bait or just some smelly turd. Either way, Sheeka could be counted on to dispose of it properly. Not only that, she smelled fabulous in the process. But despite the high heels and perfume, Sheeka soon became one of the guys. That's a tall order, even for a lady of her height. TV news photogs are a famously bitchy lot. We slay, pray and rage in Hi-Def. That kind of energy and angst can drive many reporters mad, but Sheeka never once let our despondency or histrionics derail her from the deadline looming in the middle distance. She also learned to look the other way whenever I passed out in a parked live truck. I cannot tell you how many times I've woken up from some tortured, contorted drivers seat nap only to see Sheeka next to me, hammering on a laptop and totally ignoring the fact that I'd been drooling, murmuring to myself or, on occasion, weeping. Hey, what are friends for?
Don't bother answering. Just know that I'm really gonna miss this Georgia native. See, Sheeka's about to peace out. After four solid years of knocking down every kind of news story there is, a certain Miss Strickland is fixin' to get her learn on. That is, she's leaving the fold to pursue a Masters of Science and Leadership at Northwestern University in Illinois. On a scholarship, no less! So join me, won't you, in wishing my friend the best of luck her new endeavor. Sheeka's long been a reliable presence in a sea of uncertainty. I know Weaver joins me in treasuring the memories we made while covering Hurricane Irene. After all, we three shared a religious experience over a bucket of freshly fried chicken (first hot meal in three days) and nearly walked out of a Waffle House when the waitress warned us against swallowing anything 'chunky' we might find in our drinks. And then there was the John Edwards trial, a six week ordeal in which Sheeka and I faced every kind of conundrum there was and, usually, came out on top.
So, there you have it: glowing words about a local TV news reporter. It's not the kind of thing you'll read much of around here and I wouldn't share it now if I didn't mean every syllable. I just hope Sheeka will use that new sheepskin wisely and stay the hell away from this disintegrating end of the business. Otherwise, she's slummin' and she's just too smart for THAT. Besides, I got the market on charming underachievement locked up. It's a skeevy disease, one that no amount of Coltrane can fully cure. Thanks for trying, anyway, Sheeka.
Now go kick grad school's ass.