Sunday, August 15, 2021

Down at the Brown

As haze-gray as a battleship, the Brown Building never did fit its name. But that’s what the local cops called the two story structure on the edge of town, so who was I to nitpick? I was just some young punk with a TV camera on his shoulder, surprised to be allowed inside the detective’s headquarters and always a little relieved to leave. It hadn’t been that many months since I was still pretending to be a college student and avoiding law enforcement every chance I got. Now, beefy dudes in short sleeve shirts and shoulder holsters ushered me into backrooms to gawk at bricks of weed, recovered guns or some schlub in cuffs getting his thumbs blackened at the fingerprint machine. It was the dawn of the 90’s and the hottest show on TV was COPS. Every Saturday night, the nation tuned in by the millions to watch real life police officers go out on patrol. The job itself was old, but that kind of access was something new. Suddenly, every small town cop, backwoods deputy and ham-bone sheriff was suddenly ready for their close-ups. That’s where I come in, a mostly sober 22 year old in love with the lens and the places I could take it. For the first couple of years, I took it to the Brown building, or at the very least, its parking lot.
A low slung gravel strip with just enough room for a dozen unmarked Crown Vics and two or three TV station news cars, the small parking lot behind the Brown Building was the scene of many a suspect’s perp-walk debut. Countless are the times I raced to that lot with the sole mission of putting some freshly arrested suspect on the evening news. Thirty years later, the sound of feet scuffling over rocks immediately takes me back to the Brown Building lot, where I learned the art of the grab and made some lifelong friends along the way. Andy, Paul, Carolyn and Woody were slightly older and far more experienced and together they taught me the way of the walk-down; how to bag as many different angles of a few short seconds while being in place should the shackled captive choose to confess on the way to the pokey. 
Don’t laugh. It happened.
Mostly though, the schmuck in custody bit their lip, remaining silent as me and my buddies swooped in with our logo’d lenses and leading questions. Accused murderers, suspected thieves and the occasional arsonist were regularly frog-marched into the Brown Building under a crush of local lenses. Some hung their heads, others shot angry glances and mumbled curses under their breath. A few of them still stomp through my subconscious: the hulking Marine in a torn hospital gown, accused of killing his family hours earlier. A scary biker in shackles and tats, who made it very clear he wanted to stomp a mud-hole in this cameraman’s candy-ass. The aging matriarch of a crack dealing clan who stared down my camera before hocking up a slow-motion glob of hillbilly spit that damn near landed in mind’s eye. Usually, though, it happened in a flash - with the ‘bad guy’ and a detective in tow disappearing into the Brown Building. Its heavy gray door would slam shut, a thunderous sound often followed by nervous laughter as we news crews critiqued each other's performance and played back our tape.
Those days are long gone. A few years after my time there, the city abandoned the Brown Building, moving their Detective Division to a shiny new fortress downtown. Now, curious camera crews have to call ahead and talk to shiny new Public Information Officers, slick individuals whose main mission seemed to be deflect and delay. Backdoor walk-downs are a thing of the past. Now officers bring in their suspects through a guarded sally port, well out of range of the Fourth Estate. Maybe that’s for the best. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes deserve a little dignity as they enter the Judicial System. Maybe. But I for one am so glad I got to cover the lurching parade of thugs, saints and felons with so few restraints, happy to have learned all that I did there, forever grateful I got the chance to sling a lens down at The Brown.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go find my heating pad.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Kevin O'Brien: A Remembrance

Kevin O'Brien used to make me so mad. He'd find my Betacam sitting on a desk in the newsroom and start flipping switches I didn't yet know about. I'd catch him in the act and he'd scamper off giggling, as I struggled to understand why the high dollar videocamera I'd been assigned no longer logged timecode or properly focused or recorded audio... 

Yeah, I cussed Kevin a time or two back then. But what I now know is that Eastern Carolina's Photog Emeritus was just doin' me a solid. By forcing me to figure out HOW he'd disabled my camera, he made me learn its every crevice. That was just one of the many backhanded favors Kevin granted me. I don't know why, for I was just some punk who'd conned his way into the hallowed halls of WNCT-TV. 

 When you're the Chief Photographer at a small market station in a college town, you put up with a lot of rookies. Kevin, or "K.O.", as he was affectionately known, did just that and in the process helped launched the careers of generations of TV journalists. That may not count for much these days, but to the thousands of young people K.O. helped and taught and coached, it means the world. 

 Kevin O'Brien died suddenly today. He left the world a better place - whether you watch TV News or not.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Ernest T. and Me

Somewhere back around the turn of the century, an elderly but energetic Howard Morris burst out of the back door of the Andy Griffith Museum in Mt. Airy, N.C.
Dressed as the character he made famous - Ernest T. Bass - Morris had grown bored disrupting the 'Mayberry Days' ceremonies inside. Looking around, he spotted a local cameraman he'd seen earlier and brusquely bummed a cigarette off of him.
I fished my pack out of my pocket and offered it to the man I'd grown up watching in grainy black and white.
"Mr Morris, it would be my honor," I said, offering him a light.
"You're damned right it is!" he said, leaning into the flame. As the end of the Marlboro turned orange, he held me in his gaze, his eyes bulging comically. Then he leaned back and with an air of satisfaction, blew smoke in my face.
For a native North Carolinian, it was nothing short of knighthood.
For the next few minutes we chatted about the squirrels scampering in the distance. I wanted to ask him a bunch of questions about Don Knotts, old Hollywood, production techniques I'd noticed on 'Andy Griffith', but I didn't dare break the reverie.
I've met A LOT of famous people. Most disappoint. But Mr. Howard Morris didn't. He was exactly what I'd hoped he would be. And while I'm proud to say I don't smoke anymore, I'm so glad I could spare a square the day Ernest T. needed one.
I just wish selfies had been a thing back then.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Two Minutes Out

"Two minutes out, guys…” Lars twisted the AirPod in his ear and nodded at the camera. The camera didn’t nod back. Neither did the shaggy man standing behind it. Lars barely noticed. All he saw were the concentric circles of the TV lens staring at him. He caught his reflection in it and thought about the tie he was wearing. As he did, he mumbled to himself. “That’s right, Nigel, those who live in this public housing unit are reeling in shock after a young girl…’ Lars’ voice trailed off as he kicked at a pebble with the toe of his Italian loafer. As he mumbled, he glanced up the street at a competing news crew. A striking blonde woman stood in her own puddle of light, holding a microphone by her side as a group of kids riding bicycles approached her. “You gonna move?” Huh?” Shaggy leaned into the light. “Are you gonna move? “Yeah, I’ll step out.” Lars looked back down at his phone and continued his monologue. “Police were first called here this morning when the mother of Beatrice Green found her bedroom empty…” “One minute…” barked the disembodied voice. Suddenly, the portable light Shaggy had set up off to the side went dark. Shaggy cursed and stormed off toward the car. Lars blinked, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. As he did, he made out the silhouettes of kids gliding up on bikes. None were over the age of twelve and from the looks of their beat up bicycles, not very far from home. They stopped just short of Shaggy’s camera and stared at the slim young man in his snug suit. Lars nodded at them, his lips moving silently over his script in the dim street light. “What happened to Beezy?” one of the boys asked. Lars eyes darted toward the group, before returning to the concentric circles. “I heard she dead.” said another boy. Lars scrunched his forehead and looked upward, still mumbling under his breath. “This gon’ be on the news?” a third boy asked as Shaggy walked up. “Yeah, little man, hang on.” Shaggy reached in and changed out the battery on then back of the light. When he did, warm illumination fell upon the public housing stoop, Lars standing on the bottom step, looking out of place in his shiny suit. “Thirty seconds.” Shaggy stepped in close to the tripod and leaned on it like an old friend. Lars cleared his throat and listened to the opening news theme in his ear, the  concentric circles now rotating as Shaggy twisted the lens. Why aint you sayin’ nothin’? the first boy asked, as he straddled a bicycle two sizes too small for him. Lars looked at the kid, then at Shaggy, who seemed to be picking his teeth. “Fifteen…” Suddenly, the striking young woman down at the corner began speaking loudly, her cadence quite dramatic. The boys turned and looked, two of them slowly rolling away just by picking up their feet. In Lars’ ears, another booming voice drowned out everything else. In overwrought tones, main anchor Nigel Lyerly read aloud sentences he was seeing for the first time. “A troubling discovery in the inner city, as police search for the person who led a little girl down a troubling path. Lars Parson joins us from where it all happened.” Lars honed in on the now glowing circles. Shaggy, the other reporter and the annoying little boys faded from his view. “That’s right, Nigel, those who live in this public housing unit are reeling in shock after a young girl was found badly beaten in an a community laundry room. But neighbors tell me, they knew the young girl was headed for trouble.” With that, Lars fell silent as a director back at the station punched to his pre-recorded piece. Lars rocked back and forth in his expensive shoes as the boys whispered among themselves. Shaggy leaned in to his viewfinder as if in a trance. He sat there frozen until Lars began speaking again. “With so few clues to go on, police say they’ll be here all night. CityBeat 12 will be there too, with Lexie Steller bringing you live updates at Ten and Eleven. Nigel?” Lars held his most dapper expression as Nigel moved on to a report about a truck in a lake. Only when Lars was certain the camera was no longer hot, did he relax, before making a beeline for his car, a low slung roadster he’d never thought to pop the hood on. The kids on the bicycles watched Lars screech off into the night, then pedaled over to the other news crew, who were breaking down their equipment. Shaggy lit a cigarette and watched the boys roll away, before turning his attention back to his own gear. If he hurried, maybe he could grab a bite to eat before Lexie shows up and wants to start knocking on doors...

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Peacocks and Eyeballs

It was a random bend in the road, until that dump truck plowed through the fence and into the old folks home. 88 year old Eustace Musgrave took a juice cup to the eye socket, but luckily, everyone else escaped injury. Still, the upended dump truck made a fine picture, sitting there in the front window with daffodils sticking out the tailpipe.

Someone must have made a few phone calls, 'cause before ya know it, little white cars splashed in all kinds of colorful peacocks and eyeballs showed up. They parked all this way and that, got out and popped their tailgates. Some were quite pretty, most all 'em young. The older ones among them didn't seem to be in charge. Anyway, they all pulled out their three legged stands and oversized cameras. With not a hint of urgency, they all trundled up to the edge there, chatting amongst themselves as if the conversation was already an old one.

I sat and watched them for some time, these strange interlopers from as far as forty five minutes away. They seemed neither happy or sad to be there, kind of like morning shift workers waiting on a bus. Only twice did they scurry around like in the movies, once when a young police fellow came out and another time when a 63 year old volunteer fireman walked by and was momentarily mistaken for an escaped resident of the old folks home.

Other than that, it was pretty dull. The dirtier ones fiddled with their gizmos as the pretty ones paced about and recited lines out loud, as if they were hearing their own private update and were just trying to keep up. Most of them disappeared into their cars until just before the top of the hour, when they sprung out all frantic like, the pretty ones now reciting all the louder as the ugly ones twisted lights and grumbled about "head-nods".

It all got quiet as four sets of 'em lined up with their cameras side by side. Suddenly the pretty ones all started babbling at once, the same strange cadence of their overly inflected speeches jangling with one another. It was like a strong gust blew through a wind chime store, just nowhere near as pleasant. Anyway, just as suddenly as they all started talking, they all stopped, then started again before dramatically stating who they were, where they were and whatever peacock or eyeball sponsored their trip.

Once they were done with that, the pretty ones stomped off as if in an argument with voices in their heads and the ugly ones started moving faster than I'd seen them move all day. Those fellas manhandled that gear like it owed them money, tossed it in the back of those little cars and peeked out of here without saying a word to anybody, as if their next mission was to get away from this little bend in the road as fast as their underpowered little cars would take them...

Strange folk.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Some night shifts you don't forget...

Covering Covid

"We could probably get two packages out of THAT.”
Whatever my assignment editor was trying to milk for two stories in one day was lost on me. Sunk low behind the wheel of my news unit, I shifted in the seat and squinted at my phone, which currently showed a quad-box of bored coworkers. Through the windshield, I could see the big bristling TV station none of us were allowed to enter anymore. Back on the phone’s grimy screen, I caught my own reflection in one of those Brady Brunch boxes. Instinctively, I reached up to scratch my face, then pulled my hand back when I remembered I shouldn’t be touching my face.
Welcome to News: Pandemic Edition
A couple of months ago, I would have told you I’d shot it ALL. Hurricanes, homicides, forest fires, floods, riots, pomp and squalor. Like most folk who read this magazine, I’ve been blessed with the kind of access to intrigue that would have boggled the mind of my seven year old self. I have floated through a sea of dead cattle, backpedaled in front of guilty Senators and sullied the edges of more homicides than I can recall. But I have never covered anything like the Coronavirus.
Who has?
At the local level, we’ve adjusted to the unique demands of a global pandemic in ways that were nothing short of unthinkable just a dozen weeks ago or so. Reporters cobbling together material without ever leaving their apartments. Directors punching shows from the comfort of their couches. Anchors hosting whole newscasts from their backyard. Gotta say, I’ve been white-balancing since the first Bush Administration and I didn’t see ANY of this coming. (Had I, I’d have invested in Zoom!) Now that it’s here, though, what’s left for the photog nation to do but adapt and survive?
Never before have local television photojournalists been so challenged to remain relevant. With social distancing comes the understandable acceptance of app-derived interviews. Couple that loss of camera-play with the proliferation of easily accessed file video and you have a combination of factors that could further take the ‘crew’ out of ‘news crew’. Don’t get me wrong: TV News will get rid of photogs only when you pry the fancycam from my leathery, middle-aged grip. But with MultiMedia-Journalists doing phenomenal work and ad revenue taking a biblical hit, now is not the time for the cranky photog to stage a hunger strike. You want to be a part of this splintering business? Get versatile.
At least that’s the view from where I sit, which lately is the driver’s seat of a Ford Explorer that’s packed to the gills with lights, scrims and all manners of hurricane gear that won’t help me in the least to cover a pandemic. Far more useful is my trusty laptop, a prehistoric model that until recently didn’t see much service. These days, it’s my only portal to a wider audience. But as much as I may have mastered my tools as of late, how exactly I was going to get my storytelling jollies in a sterile environment such as this? How was I going to get past the social distancing and surgical masks to make any memorable television?
The answer didn’t come for another week. A local food bank had organized a give-away and the faces in the morning Zoom meeting wanted me to turn it into television. Grateful not to be assigned another health director’s press conference, I shot my phone a thumbs-up and dropped the transmission into Drive. Minutes later, I arrived on scene. It was just a random vacant lot and even though the cases of fresh fruit and canned goods wouldn’t be handed out for another twenty minutes, cars were already rolling in. A few drivers saw me and my oversized camera and scrunched down behind their steering wheels. I let them be and went to find a food bank official to interview.
An hour later, I leaned against my tripod and watched the line of cars snake through the line, before passing right behind me on the way out of the no longer vacant lot. Occasionally, a driver waved as they drove by, but most averted my camera’s gaze. Reluctantly, I let them pass. As depressed as most of the drivers seemed, it had been a fruitful shoot. After interviewing one of the organizers, I put away my homemade boom pole and pretended to be invisible. The visuals poured forth: a low slung wide shot of tires crunching gravel, a tight frame of bananas before their pulled out of view, a silhouette of a driver’s profile as he patiently waited. Yes, I had everything I needed for my ninety second report.
Everything, except a soundbite from a non-official.
Maybe all the social distancing was getting to me. Whatever it was, I just didn’t have the heart to harass any of the folks as they popped their trunks for a few free groceries. ‘Maybe I can wrap my pictures around that one organizer’s interview, I mean, she WAS pretty good.’ Deep within my frontal lobe, I did the storytelling math and came up with an equation that convinced me I could turn my camera off NOW and still have enough for a pretty tight package.
That’s when I saw her. An elderly woman behind the wheel of a slow rolling sedan. A paper mask covered her mouth, but I could tell by her eyes that she was smiling. I moved in, camera rolling. In a sing-song voice, she gladly told me all about getting an e-mail about the food drive. Then she graced me with the kind of soundbite that told me I was done shooting for the day.
“God has helped me today.”
‘You and me both, lady’, I thought as I lowered the camera.
You and me both.