Saturday, January 15, 2005

And the News Gods Smiled

I just crossed the Virginia state line when my station cell phone rang. Without looking away from the 18-wheeler I was drafting behind, I fumbled for the shrieking gadget.

"Unit Four…"

"Yeah, the flower lady called she just remembered she had a doctor's appointment. She won't be at her shop until noon."

Noon?!? My bosses wanted my feature for the five o clock news and twelve bells was way to late to be just getting started -- especially when the story was ninety minutes away from the station in the first place. So much for my cushy Friday...

“You want me to come back?” I asked, eyeing the exit sign in the distance.

“Naaaah - there might be some storm damage up there from last night you can check out,” the assignment editor paused as scanner noise burbled in the background. “Keep heading North, I’ll call you.”

I hit the end button and did the math. Maybe they would leave me alone until 12 and let me turn the flower woman story for a later show. Maybe I’d have time to hit that used bookstore in Martinsville, then a diner on the edge of town. Maybe my planned day of leisure news making wasn’t ruined just yet.

“Deeedle- Leedle-Leedle Leedle Deedle Leedle Lee!”

“Unit Four…”

“Yeah, Stew - we still want you to do the flower story but first can you swing by Danville? I’ve got an address where there may be some damage.

I winced, tightened my grip on the wheel and absorbed the hit. “Swing By” - the most hated words in a photog’s vocabulary. What seemed like an easy feat to an assignment editor looking at a map in the newsroom often meant accelerated stress for a shooter looking through a windshield. In this case, the “swing by” entailed a sixty mile round trip. So much for the bookstore and diner. I scribbled the address 241 Holbrooke on a thin reporter’s pad and ended the cell phone. With an all too familiar sigh, I pushed the CD button and merged into the exit lane. Stevie tore into the lead solo of ‘Crosscut Saw’ as I steered my mobile news office down the slow rolling hills of Highway 58.

Thirty minutes and a Tic-Tac or two later, I pulled into a gas station on the edge of Danville. When my credit card wouldn’t swipe at the pump, I reluctantly headed inside the neon-striped building. A stout woman with salt-and-pepper hair rang me up, glancing at the brightly -logo’d SUV at Pump number three,

“Lord, what’s goin’ on in Danville this morning?”, she asked, handing my card back.

I took it and stuffed it in my wallet. “Not too much, you heard of any storm damage around here?”

“Naw, cain’t say I have. But t WAS a might windy here round 2 a.m. last night. “Woke up me and THREE of my dogs.” She handed me the receipt. I almost asked her just how many dogs she had, but thought better of it. Instead I went for some information I could use.

“You know where Holbrooke Street is?”

“Now, lemme see...Holbrooke. Yeah, Holbrooke! Whatcha wanna do is go out here and take a right, go up to the exit ramp and take THAT right. Once you get on that road, take your THIRD left. Then go left AGAIN. Look for a Hardee’s, but don’t turn there. Keep goin’ til you get to the new road. Not the old road, but the NEW road...”

I fished a pen out an inked-stained Styrofoam cup on the counter and began scribbling her instructions on the receipt. As I did, I realized the woman had yet to use a single street name, instead laying out a route based on the familiar landmarks of a lifelong local. Still, I kept scratching ink, making a special note to turn left where Hector’s used to be, whatever that the hell that was.

I shouldn’t have doubted the cashier. Her directions, autistic as they were, led me straight to Holbrooke Street, a winding narrow avenue choked with run-down project developments and junked-up cars. Passing a few fine taxpayers as they sipped on pre-lunch 40-ounce bottles, I scanned the street numbers on a long line of row houses. 237...239...241! Trouble was 241 looked fine if not a little in need of a new paint job. In the littered street parking lot, a pile of soggy cardboard boxes took up three parking spaces.

Slowing down a bit, I gripped my teeth and cursed the News Gods. Soggy cardboard. I started the day off early, hoping to get a head start on a feel goof feature only to be sent thirty miles out of my way for a pile of wet refrigerator boxes. I knew I should have done better in school, I thought as I looked for a place to turn around and blow out of town. Maybe if I’d been a better student, I’d have been spared a lifetime of wild goose chases in the name of filling silly newscasts. If only I’d gone to college, I could have scored a stable job of schilling widgets for a fat paycheck, instead of surfing the Great Unwashed for a few fleeting moments of contrived sound bites and gratuitous close-ups. Now I’d have to hall balls back to Martinsville and turn the flower lady story in half the time it should take, just so I can rush back to the station and cut a dozen segments designed to do nothing but trick the viewer into tuning for just a few minutes more. I whipped a hard left into a parking lot across the street and threw my news unit into Reverse, cursing my bad fortune under my breath.

Then I looked up and saw them: a pair of brightly striped SUV’s , their paint schemes boasting the cal letters of two Roanoke, Virginia TV stations. Behind the news wagons, two dozen people poured over the exterior of a badly aging apartment building. But something was missing, and as I caught a glimpse of a woman standing in the door of her upstairs unit, the bright sunshine on her hair and shoulders told me what it was.

The roof. The entire roof and ceiling of the corner unit was gone, blown off in the middle of the night by a violent downburst of tornado-strength wind. On the balcony outside, a news crew interviewed a fat man in a jogging suit while a dark-haired reporter/photographer spoke to his unmanned camera, trying desperately to sound important. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a faded sedan with a city of Danville seal on the door pull in beside me. With a sickly grin reflecting in my rear view mirror, I dropped the transmission into park and hit the release on my seatbelt , knowing I could forget all about flower shops, fruitless round trips and wild goose chases. For today, anyway.

The Book of Lenslinger

While I work on the conclusion of Moon Rock Madness, flesh out some other ideas and take a weeee bit of a break, why not visit my other site, The Book Of Lenslinger? There you'll find a series of longer works, twisted tales that were the first symptoms of this sickness I call Viewfinder BLUES. In fact I've just added an old favorite, a telling recount of an all too typical and tragic midnight call. Stay Tuned...

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Photogs Who Blog

As much as I might like to think so, I'm not the only person who squints through a TV lens by day and push-button publish by night. Long before I jumped on the blogwagon, a handful of pioneering camera scribes were hard at work defining the form. Since then, a few others have fallen under my sway and added their own unique voices to the mix. Allow me to introduce you to but a few:

A mysterious figure rides the ridge from Old West to New, capturing the madness of the Mexican American World with a lens long, dusty and Gonzo. He is Border Jumper and the shimmering heat coming off that lonely desert floor never stops him from telling its secrets. His Wild West misadventures make me feel like the pasty suburban gringo I am.

A more familiar face is my old friend Chris Weaver, who goes by the vowel-deprived moniker FTOJRLST. That's him with the coat on, standing beside another shooter who IS NOT HIS BRIDE! Truth is, Chris and I share alot in common: brand new xdcams, the same bosses and a habit of blogging about it in the midnite hour. When Chris isn't winning awards or chasing scanner traffic, he can be found digesting technical manuals and explaining them to me with the patience of a saint. Recently, FTOJRLST and another colleague had a most trying time behind the lens. Look for a link to his account in the coming days.

It's not just a 'boys club'. One of the more prolific photog-bloggers is the definitively female Peggy Phillip (far left), who's been orbiting the blogosphere since 2002. Along with a contingency of other very vocal Memphis photogs, Peggy covers her beat with an exacting wit I'd be afraid to even attempt. Peggy's also done considerable time in Tulsa and Miami and seems to know a thing or three about the world of TV stations. Salut!

Of course, any list of blogging photogs wouldn't be complete without the incomparable Little Lost Robot. Since October 2003, this quixotic, multi-talented lenser has been laying down the blog in only the way he can. In the process, he's entertained a nation of newsgatherers, and made alot of us re-think the value of little toy robots. Recently, LLR decided to follow his heart, and is leaving his beloved Portland for the moonscape-like surface of South Carolina. Oregon's loss is Dixie's gain.

And then there's ME. Since it's far easier to describe others than look in the mirror, I'm not sure how to continue. Let's just say this: I love what I do for a living (in theory anyway). I love the access, the adventure, the idiocy. But what makes an often thankless job incredibly rewarding is the cast of creative miscreants that populate our ranks. Most can be found hanging out in a magical place called b-roll, but I want to make sure others outside that realm meet these fascinatingly dark creatures. Tune in next time, when we visit the imposing Newshutr, a cat who calls himself 'The Left Sleeve' and the ever stalwart Jason Plank. Until then, keep the big end pointed toward the action.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

My Favorite Mistake

IT has happened to the best TV news photogs, and even to the fairly average ones like me. You hardly ever admit it, never quite get over it and tend not to repeat it. But it does happen. You might even say it is a right of passage for the young lenslinger. Certainly was for me.

It was a Saturday, one of two days a week when the newsroom is less than teeming. In fact, the whole station was empty as I leaned back in the assignment editor’s chair, cracked open a soda and imparted my newsgathering wisdom on a wide-eyed intern. Truth is I could have wrapped up my thesis in about three minutes, as the bosses had only allowed me outside the station with gear for all of six months. But the intern was awfully cute, the kind of hot college chick who wouldn’t look twice at me were it not for the network affiliate logo on my chest. As it was, she was only humoring me in the hopes I would shoot a stand-up close for her resume tape. So if I poured in on a little thick, what exactly do you expect from a 22-year-old punk with a news car and a bad mullet? Restraint? Not bloody likely…

“It’s a tough business, all right, I said, putting my feet up and reflecting on half a year of ribbon cuttings, fender-benders and ground-breakings. “Ya get to roll with the movers and shakers, really learn the area, its customs, its people. Plus ya get to drive like a cop.”

At that point, the bank of scanners behind me erupted in a frenzy of sirens and excited voices. Fifteen miles away, an old warehouse was suddenly ablaze, and judging from the tone of the dispatcher’s voice, nothing short of Armageddon was to follow. I jumped from my seat and spun around a few times before regaining my composure. Trying to channel my inner Han Solo, I casually motioned the intern to follow me as I ran jelly-legged for the nearest exit.

Outside, we jumped in my chariot, a late-model white Ford Bronco - the exact kind O. J. Simpson would one day popularize. But this Bronco had something even the future murderer’s didn’t have: TV station logos, those magic stickers that would get me past the barricade, draw politicians like flies, and, I still foolishly believed, would render me impervious to speeding tickets. But that particular revelation was still months away. When I peeled out of the station parking lot and headed for the highway, the intern sunk back into the seat and fumbled for her seatbelt. I couldn’t help but feel a bit puffed up myself as I floored the accelerator and pushed the cassette tape home. As an ungodly warble filled the car, I lit a cigarette and silently congratulated myself, for at that moment in space and time, nothing said ’cool’ like the scrawny bombast of Axl Rose. Go figure.

Soon, we were on Highway 11, where nothing but a dozen flat, straight miles stood in between the alleged conflagration and me. Still trying to impress the intern, I stood on the gas and speculated on just what we may find upon arrival.

“Wouldn’t surprise me if this turned out to be nothing. Probably a trash can on fire and somebody freaked. I remember a head-on collision call I went on last month. Two grannies winged each other in McDonald’s parking lot and we roll the LIVE truck…”

Eight miles and three war stories later, we first saw it: a swirling plume of angry black smoke stretching above the East end of Kinston. Gulping a little under my breath, I pushed the Bronco’s laboring engine even harder and tied to sound unconcerned.

“Black smoke - that’s good. It turns white when the fire guys throw water on it…”

The intern may have rolled her eyes at my forced bravado, but I never saw her. I was too busy admiring the way my shoulder-length hair unfurled in the side-view mirror. A few minutes later, I forgot all about my redneck haircut when we rounded the last corner and saw the building in question, or what little of it was visible through the biggest wall of flames I had ever seen. Fire and smoke shot upward through the old warehouse’s roof. Squinting through the windshield, I thought I saw the brick wall beginning to buckle in the shimmering heat waves. All around the blaze, fire engines pulled up, and parked at crazy angles. Dozens of sweaty firefighters in turn-out gear raced in every direction, barking orders, donning oxygen tanks and pulling miles of fire hose off the trucks. A bit overwhelmed at the feast of visuals, I found a spot and slammed the Bronco into park as my heart threatened to beat through the walls of my chest.

“Stay behind me and look for talkers,” I barked to the pretty intern as we scrambled out of the news unit. But as I ran around to pop the tailgate, all I could think of was the beginning photog’s spot news mantra, “Wide-Medium-Tight, Wide-Medium-Tight, Wide-Medium-Tight…”

But my mumbles dried up the instant I lifted the tailgate and threw open my camera case, for when I did nothing stared back at me but the deteriorating black foam of the empty case’s battered interior. Frozen in horror at the lack of camera before me, synapses in my head slowly fired off one by one, bringing to light the fact that at that very moment, my fancy TV camera sat back at the shop. It no doubt still rested on a gear room workbench, where I’d been fiddling with my back-focus an hour earlier when the pretty intern walked by and distracted me with her perfume and estrogen.

What followed was not my finest moment. After several long seconds of blinking in disbelief, I shut the camera case and the tailgate, motioned the intern back to her seat and tried not to look at the flames as I screamed out of the downtown area. And I do mean screamed. No exact words come to mind, but I am reminded of the scene in ‘Raising Arizona’ where John Goodman and his dim-witted partner realize they’ve left their kidnapped baby behind. Needless to say, the dozen or so miles that flew by just minutes before now drew out in slow motion, each individual center striped-line mocking my ineptitude and me one by one. I didn’t have the grapes to meet the intern’s questioning gaze; all I could do was try and melt the windshield in front of me with my imaginary heat-vision. When that didn’t work, I resorted to chain-smoking and murmuring curses under my breath. Counting my cool points was out of the question. They had all tumbled from my gaping jaw as I stood over the empty camera case, and dribbled down my acid-washed jeans. Had I been a Samurai, I would have gladly fallen on my sword.

Of course, the warehouse was still there when we returned a half-hour later. The firefighters too, but instead of rushing into harms way, they loitered in the building’s shade and drank water from paper cups. The roaring flames that had so tantalized my photographer’s eye were nowhere to be seen, replaced by a limp tower of ashy gray smoke. Setting up my newly rescued camera on the tripod, I captured a few shots of firefighters rolling up soggy hoses. The intern, who’d hung on my every word an hour earlier, was busy chatting up the square-jawed public information officer a few yards away. As I mopped up the leftover images, all I could do is shake my head in self-loathing and tell myself this would someday make for an interesting yarn. Someday.

Since then, I have yet to forget another camera - though I don’t dare say it will never happen again. One way I avoid doing so is through a constant habit of mental checklists. Even if I’m traveling two blocks from the station, I constantly check the rear-view mirror for the reassuring visual of all my gear splayed out in the vehicle’s rear, even if I just went over its contents with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. I can’t help it, really. If you slice me open and count the photog rings, I have no doubt you’ll find the lessons of that awful Saturday written into my DNA. Do you blame me?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Moon Rock Madness (3)

“Yeah, Stew…” I could hear phones ringing in the background as the shaggy producer scanned his rundown, “the Network’s going nuts for your Moon Rock story. They want it on the bird by 9:30.”

“They want fries with that?” I barked. Just what I needed, people in New York shaving off precious turn-around time.

“I know dude, but when you’re hot you’re hot. Do ya know what it is yet? We got all kinda crazies callin’”

Out of the corner my eye, I watched Frick sniff at the oblong metal mass, squinting intently behind a pair of bus-window eyeglass frames. In the kitchen, Frack had squeezed his considerable bulk behind the table, pulled several weird rocks out of a dusty leather case and was laying a serious science lesson on the poor trapped family of three.

“They ain’t ALL on the phone. Gotta go.”

I put the cell phone back on my hip and shouldered my camera. Walking up to the skinny man in the Members Only jacket, I stuck my lens in his upturned hands and focused on the object in question. Under his flashlight’s beam, the edges of the rock glistened, casting off weird flickers of green and silver. I could smell the cafeteria coffee on the old man’s breath as the wooly-haired print reporter joined us from the curtain’s edge.

“All right Professor - what’s your best guess?”

I can’t say he didn’t tell me, though I understood darn little of what came out of his mouth. Well-meaning and well versed, the stargazing scholar unfurled a looping thesis of everything the mysterious rock might NOT be. I tried not to think about my aching back as I panned the camera from the rock to his face, all while he went over the finer points of purloined moos dust. The newspaper reporter, who I came to think of Sideshow Bob, scribbled intently in his skinny notebook and said nothing. I backed off for a two shot of the unlikely pair hunched underneath the ceiling fan before moving onto the kitchen.

Bad move. The family sat with glazed looks on their face as Frack pulled musty photographs and cinched bags out of his cracked leather case.

“Now, this here is a piece of an asteroid from 1974, note the scarring on the edges, a distinct sign of burning entry…”

As I hovered over the kitchen table with my lens, the man of the house looked over at me. With his name on his shirt and his dirty fingernails, he didn’t seem too enticed with the science fair unfolding over his pork chops. The look in his eyes reminded me of a couple of hostage stand-offs I had attended. Poor guy, I thought, zooming out to better capture the catatonic clan, probably just wants to watch SportsCenter, not listen to a bunch of rock-obsessed lunatics expound on their favorite constellations. I almost felt real pity as I zoomed in for a tight shot of his hypnotized eyes.

After shooting a few sequences around the table, I returned to the living room where Frick was working himself into a theoretic lather. Sideshow Bob leaned in on every word, still bleeding chicken scratch into his tablet. Not wanting to appear too ignorant, I nodded behind the viewfinder and pretended to understand the litany of scientific terms. But I found myself drifting…maybe this was an honest-to-God Moon Rock, a one in a million piece of Green Cheese that would catapult the family and I into a whole new orbit. For all the astro-babble that Frick and Frack were peddling, they seemed growingly convinced the hunk of metal was not of THIS world. Maybe after all these many years of chasing tripe and trivia, I somehow stumbled across a story that would go down in the History books.

That’s when my cell phone rang. It was Shaggy, with a strange edge to his voice.

“Check it out, dude. Some yahoo just called and swore he knew what the moon rock is. He says, ’what chu got thar is a broke tooth off a tub-grinder’ - you know, one of those big wood-chippers? I wouldn’t have called but the guy sounded CERTAIN.”

“Wood chipper? “ I said, incredulous. Then I noticed the look on Frick’s face. As my own eyebrows scrunched, I heard a thirteen year old voice ring out from the kitchen.

“WE gotta wood-chipper out back!”

It was then the cross-country chase began.

Next Time: The Conclusion...

Monday, January 10, 2005

Stoplights of Delusion

I was waiting at an intersection and wondering what I'd blog about tonight, when I heard a voice.

"Hey Man..."

I looked over at the car beside me, a rust-colored Rally Sport idling rough. Behind the wheel a skinny guy with no front teeth grinned at me wide-eyed, while the fat woman riding shotgun pulled burgers out of a bag.

"Ya got yer cam'ra?"

"Sure," I said, playing along. "It's in the back."

"Yeah, well ya wanna see a MURDER!?! Suddenly the young hillbilly grabbed his heavy partner by the throat, and began shaking her to and fro in mock-throttle. Tinfoil gave way and lettuce flew as the burger tumbled down the woman’s Tony Stewart t-shirt. Amazingly, she didn't seem to mind. She positively beamed at her toothless suitor's cleverness, aping signs of pleasure and distress as if working through an ols stand-up routine. Together, the backwoods duo laughed uncontrollably, her head jerking back and forth, his splintered grin mugging for the imaginary camera.

One lane over, I chuckled nervously, my fingers poised over the automatic door-locks.

"Don't do that, man", I offered following up with the only thing I could think of, "I haven't had lunch yet..."

Cackles erupted in the old Camaro as the red light above us turned green.

"See me in a hour boss," the man said, releasing his date's jugular and grabbing the spongy black steering wheel. "I'll give ya a 'SCLUSIVE!"

With that, Skinny floored the old muscle car and peeled out with a screech into the distance. I could almost still hear the woman's laughter as her beefy hand wave goodbye in the hazy blue smoke.

I waved back half-heartedly, confused as hell, but no longer wondering what I would blog about.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

When Soundbites Echo

“I b’leeb da man wuz MURDERED and R-R-ROBBED!“

As observations go, it wasn’t very trenchant - as two men in blue jumpsuits had just wheeled a covered body out of the ransacked house and right past us. But the old man leaning on his cave under the shade tree seemed pleased with his statement and as I watched his image through the viewfinder, I wasn’t too bummed either. I knew I’d open my story with the captured sound the moment it left the old man’s cracked lips. I just didn’t know how long it would echo.

West Greenville in the early nineties. Unmarked Crown Vics and flashing squad cars clogged two city blocks of the old neighborhood. I surfed the crowd with camera and tripod, drawing mixed reactions from the grannies, kids and junkies gathered outside the old house. Behind the yellow-tape, sweat-stained detectives inspected the busted door-jam, while uniformed cops walked the perimeter in mirrored-sunglasses. I wiped the sweat from my own eyes, aimed the lens and hit ‘RECORD’. Another midday murder in the hood. Wonder what the Lunch Special is at Vinners?

For weeks, stabbings, stolen hearts and stand-offs had plagued West Greenville, putting my little corner of the market at the top of the newscast every night. As a result, I ‘d been the busiest broadcaster on my station’s all-too-small staff, answering clandestine phone calls, chasing scanner traffic and going LIVE from a different dusky street corner every evening at six. That long hot summer of larceny and homicide seasoned me as a TV news one-man-band, but at something of a cost. Where the beginning of June found me quietly horrified by the spike in Tragedy TV on my own station, by the dog days of August I’d dismissed any feelings whatsoever. Instead I focused on the craft at hand - the hard-scrabble chase of local TV news. With my Alice in Chains blaring in the news unit’s tape deck, I spent that long hot season immersed in my lens, lawbreakers and live trucks. Who had time to care? That would come later, when my own kids arrived to remind me what’s right.

The crime spree continued. Several, actually. A serial robber was knocking off convenient stores and doing it dirty, leaving a wake of brutalized clerks in his tall skinny path. In the projects, alcohol and humidity were fueling a steady parade of domestic gunplay and wrestling matches. Worst of all, three home invasions had turned fatal, when their old victims fought over jars of pocket-change and such. I chased every bit of it, prowling crime scenes and donut shops with my cop buddies and more illicit fare with my cameraman pals. I wrote countless scripts, shot endless footage and struggled through many a live shot. I was on my game, or what little I understood back then. But of all I went through that summer, of all the trumped-up tragedy I put on TV, of all the snatches of reality I kept in the can, one refrain and one refrain alone wraps up the pathos and bathos of that crazy six weeks.

“I b’leeb da man wuz MURDERED and R-R-ROBBED!“

For some inexplicable reason, this simple, cast-off phrase from a lonely old wino has turned into a spoken-word earworm that still bounces inside my head. Closing my eyes I can hear the old man’s liquored-up baritone and see his craggy face in murky viewfinder blue. He’s now a mental figment of my imagination; a drunken master of street level news. Who knows why HIS wino wisdom stuck in my head, butboy, did it. To this day, whenever I roll up on flashing blue lights and unfurling crime tape during hot weather, rest assured you know what eight words are going through my head.