Saturday, March 12, 2005

New Car Smell

I crawled into a co-worker‘s brand new company car yesterday and traveled back in time. Sitting back deep in the driver’s seat, I watched as scenes from my days as a purveyor of fine automobiles unfurled across the windshield. With the intoxicating aroma of new car upholstery filling my senses, I could all but taste the summer of 1989.

Not that it was all that triumphant a time. Truth is, I had absolutely no business prowling the proverbial car lot, but the guy with the biggest desk on the local BMW-Volvo-Jeep showroom floor happened to be my formerly estranged father. Wanting nothing but to help me, he was eager to show me the ways of the sales force. “I’ll hire anybody if they can move units,” he intoned. Putting my complete lack of automotive knowledge or sales experience out of my mind, I wasted no signing up. I even got a haircut and bought a few cheesy ties.

I couldn’t have been more miscast. Bookish and bleary-eyed, I knew less about cars than your average red-blooded American male. Even after pouring over glossy brochures and taking every car on the lot for a test drive, I couldn’t tell a BMW 750 from a Volvo 240. All I had going for me was an inside connection and a growing ability to bullshit. That, and the fact that the dealership was bursting at the seams with the then wildly popular Jeep Cherokees and you have the only reasons I didn’t quickly starve.

Not all that excited about harassing old customers over the phone, I spent a lot of time watching the other salesmen. What a crew! Except for the token black guy, the sales force was dyed-in-the-wool good-ole-boy. They had different sales techniques, but they all distrusted the young bearded wise-ass who looked suspiciously like the Sales Manager. At the top of this testosterone heap was a silver-haired walking beer gut named Jerry. Jerry had been selling cars longer than I’d been alive and out earned me every day just by picking up the phone. Whenever a stranger wandered onto the lot, Jerry would claim they were his beloved relatives - even if they looked to be from Pakistan. Jerry would waddle out to meet them like a long lost boozy uncle, and nine times out of ten the hapless looky-loos would drive off in a new car.

There was another salesman I remember: a young puffed-up know-it-all named Kurt. Kurt was about my age, but counted himself years older in the sales game of life. A far better pusher of horseless carriages than I, he never missed a chance to rub his latest done-deal in my face. Since I only got paid when I sold something, this never failed to get my goat. My only solace was that, outside of the dealership’s inventory, Kurt was dumb as a pocketful of rocks. The few times we squared off, I took great pleasure in correcting his caveman English - a move which never failed to infuriate him. If life were a movie, I would have decked him with a sizzling right cross, then locked him in the trunk of an Ultimate Driving Machine. But it wasn’t meant to be…

Neither was my car-selling career - or for that matter, my father’s. One morning I walked into a morning sales meeting to find his desk suspiciously bereft of personal effects. As the NEW Sales Manager was introduced to the troops, I knew my days hawking over-priced imports were numbered indeed. Not that I cared much. I knew from the first ten minutes I took the job it wasn’t for me. Once my father fell victim to office politics, I pretty much stopped trying altogether. Instead, I focused all energies on my growing distaste for the chain-smoking General Manager who canned my old man. But since that man is no longer of this Earth, I won’t trash him here.

As my unfortunate lineage and lack of moved units made me a marked man, the boss forced me to share an office with an older, wise sales associate. Short and dark-haired, Phil reminded me of my beloved step-father. He took one look at my wrinkled shirt and unkempt beard and proclaimed me unfit for duty. He soon made it his mission to assist me out of the business and out of his office.

I was drawing three-masted ships on my desk calendar and ignoring sales calls one day while Phil flipped through the morning paper.

“So what is it you WANT to do with your life, Pittman?” he asked from behind the classifieds.

“I dunno,” I moaned as I stared out the showroom window at the line of shiny BMW‘s. “I’d like to work in radio - like I did in the Navy - or maybe television…”

“Hmmmm”, Phil’s voice trailed off behind the rustle of fresh newsprint. And then a few minutes later…

“Hey - here’s something. NCT’s looking for a production assistant. Ya ought to give ’em a call.”

“Yeah…maybe,” I said distractedly, more intent on shading my ship’s starboard hull than focusing on any career opportunities. But a few minutes later, I did call. The next day I went for an interview at the local CBS affiliate. Strapped for another warm body to pay minimum wage, the Production Manager offered me the job. I took it, left the evil world of car sales without looking back, and in the process, stumbled across my true calling.

Funny how life works.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Scenes from Broadcasts Past

In a most inexplicable use of internet technology, the good folks at Eastern North Carolina DTV have posted a small treasure trove of images from some TV stations of my past. They may be the broadcast equivalent of faded news clippings, but for me they're reminders of adventures long forgotten. Hey, there's my buddy Thomas Cormier riding atop the live truck. Good ole Thomas taught me how to first power up a camera. I'm not sure whether I should thank him or drop kick him in the stomach.

And here's Harris Faulkner during her brief heyday as noon anchor at WNCT. Harris hasn't done too bad for herself since, going on to anchor at powerhouse KSTP, where she bagged her share of Emmy's and assorted other tokens of acclaim. Most recently she's signed on to be a correspondent for the nationally syndicated re-launch of "A Current Affair". Go Harris!

After completing my undergraduate work at WNCT, I enrolled at the Chocowinity Institute of Pain and Television, WITN. Here, a scene from WITN's 6:00 News Opening shows a nameless technician cueing a wall of monitors. Why anyone would wave at a row of inanimate objects is beyond me, but it made for an iconic image that no one watching ever thought to question.

Geez, where do I start? Back in the early nineties, Andy Cordan was the ballsiest practitioner of street-level TV journalism Eastern North Carolina ever witnessed. Andy perfected the art of one-man-banding, approaching every assignment like a SWAT Team Cop on truck stop speed. He looks pretty sedate here, but The Great Cordan was a whirling dervish of talent and attitude who taught me more than he's willing to admit. Last I heard he was kickin' arse in Nashville, terrorizing all in his path and enriching the lives of his viewers along the way. I still remain in awe.

Last but not least, we have the Dean of Downeast News, the late Jim Woods. For 31 years, Mr. Woods was a steady presence in living rooms from Raleigh to the coast. When I first sauntered in to WNCT back in 1989, the first on-air person I recognized was Jim Woods. Until then I knew him only as the gravely-voiced, avuncular noon anchor who brought me the news with grace and authority. I grew to know him as a true pro with high standards, a twinkle in his eye, and a huge heart. I count myself lucky to have worked under him - he was a paragon of old-school broadcast virtue, the kind of television journalist who never bought into the hype and dazzle that so distracts many of today's talking heads. Rest in Peace, Jim and thanks to Eastern North Carolina DTV for the memories!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Logos in the Wind

When I first started piloting news cars, I thought the logos on the doors were a license to speed. So I did - whether it be to breaking news or to a Wendy's drive-thru. Only after a sustained slew of high-dollar tickets did I begin to rethink my leadfoot ways. That, and a few kitchen table guilt trips from the Missus. Now I travel at a much more reasonable pace, though I am something of a tailgater. But I'm working on it.

I once thought Johnny Law would leave us speeding newsmen alone, seeing as how we're so important and all. But then radar-bearing officers from every agency under the sun pulled me over for impromptu counseling sessions. Not all of them gave me tickets, but most did. Still - I forged ahead at breakneck pace, marveling at how no vehicle was more fun to abuse than a dogged-out station car.

I even totaled a brand new Chevy Blazer once, thanks to my high-speed proclivities. It was a rainy Saturday in Greenville, I was following a station wagon too close and too fast when it hit the brakes. I had time to brake myself, but having just watched a Smokey and the Bandit marathon on cable, I swerved right and punched it. That maneuver sent me skidding into a gravel filled parking lot, where I slammed into the backside of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket.


When the dust settled, my passenger, a much-reviled reporter who will remain nameless (rhymes with ’weight’ - starts with ’Sp’) promptly lost what little cool he had. Hearing the splatter of liquid hitting the pavement beneath us, he shimmied out the shotgun door window and ran away screaming like the little girl I always knew him to be. (I suppose he thought it was going to blow sky-high like in all those earnest A-Team documentaries).

A bit dazed myself, I crawled out and looked underneath my crumpled chariot. Blue antifreeze hissed and sizzled as it poured out of the busted radiator. Chuckling a bit through sore ribs, I motioned him back towards the accordioned vehicle. He was rather vexed at me, and had every right to be. He was even more pissed the next week when I was named employee of the month, an honor that had far more to do with my work ethic than my driving skills.

Finally, a hefty speeding ticket sent me scurrying to a lawyer’s office. When the greasy litigator stepped from behind his desk and unfurled my driving record, I knew I had to slow down. The unfolded sheath of computer print-out stretched from floor to ceiling. Immediately I made a solemn vow to slow down, if not for my personal safety then for the forest of trees I was killing with my lengthy trail of printed infractions. It was all I could do not to beg forgiveness from the Gods of Unneeded Acceleration as I cut a rather sizable check to the discount attorney.

That was easily a dozen years ago, and while I probably won’t win any Triple A courteous driver awards, I steer my shiny news ride with a lot more forethought than I used to do. Come to think of it though, I never did get a good look at the list of tickets that lawyer so dramatically presented to me that day. For all I know, it was a rundown of lawsuits threatened by his many wronged clients. Oh well, at least it slowed me down. Now GET OUT OF THE FAST LANE YOU *&$@#&^%, I GOTTA RIBBON CUTTING TO TELEVISE !!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Photog Looks at Forty

Spend just one year chasing news and you’ll quickly start repeating yourself. Winter storms, Spring training, Summer camps and Fall Festivals, all punctuated by a steady barrage of crime and grime. I’ve spent the past fifteen years running circles around this slow lurching parade, doubling back and stealing glances while trying not to get run over or step in too much horseshit. It’s a ludicrous way to make a living, but it’s the one I’ve chosen.

Or maybe it chose me. After following my lack of ambition around for a bit, I wandered into my first TV station at age 22. Imagine my shock at all the inmates running the asylum. Character straight out of vaudeville sat in corner offices, puffed-up anchors arm-wrestled for face time and zonked out production types regularly fell asleep at the wheel. Suddenly, I was home! Looking around at the twenty year old technology, blustery egos and simmering incompetence, it occurred to me I’d found my special purpose.

So I dove in headfirst, soaking up everything there was to know about backwaters television. I started each morning slow-dancing with a studio camera as ladies with blue hair hawked homemade potholders. I learned to run audio for the noon news and tried not to doze off during weather. After lunch, I’d hold up in a musty edit booth, watching wizened masters craft polished spots out of sticks and scrap metal. Along the way, I traded notes, jokes and a few unmentionables with the pirates, freaks and madmen that made up the station ranks. Staffers a few years older told us we were attending the Roy Park School of Broadcasting - a half slam against our affiliate’s miserly owner. How right they were. The steakhouse coupon I got for being Employee of the Month turned out to be the only sheepskin I've ever received.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming the World’s most well-read studio tech. I saw...THEM. Swaggering through the tape room like dusty gunslingers, the station’s news photographers ambled past with their cameras hung low and dirty. I couldn’t look away. With their streamlined gear, digital pagers and seen-it-all stare, they bled the kind of street cred I‘d been faking all these years. As they passed by my darkened post on their way back to their waiting news steeds, I sunk further in the tape room’s shadows and swore to myself I’d one day join their ranks.

And so I did, but not the way I‘d envisioned. It took a fake handgun and a twist of fate to draft me into service, but once I became indoctrinated, I never looked back. How could I? I was too busy learning the ways of The Force, sharpening my camera skills and editing acumen until I could slay the scariest of deadlines. Looking back, it all seems quite silly, but at the time, it was a heady rush of newsgathering truths, a period of time in which great mysteries dissolved into well-worn tips and tricks behind the lens. Before long, I was blowing through the station with considerable swagger of my own, convinced I’d already seen it all because I’d attended a half dozen press conferences.

That was a decade and a half ago, though it feels even longer. In that time a lot has changed. I’m a father now, one who places a higher value on getting home on time than scoring that elusive exclusive. I don’t knock over old ladies to get to house fires anymore, I don’t jump curbs to attend ribbon cuttings. More significantly, I don’t high five co-workers over tears captured on tape, I don’t roll up on children in peril without swallowing hard and thinking of my own beautiful girls at home.

No, the joys and pitfalls of the evening news aren’t quite as intoxicating as they used to be. What rendered me spellbound as a 24 year old news punk with an attitude now barely holds the attention of this 38 year old taxpayer with a mortgage. I suppose that’s only normal, but as I spend day after day peering into the same old viewfinder, I find myself wondering how much longer I can keep it all in focus.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a groundbreaking I have to get to.

The Woes of Weather Video

Ah, weather video - that immeasurable service TV stations provide for all those viewers held captive in window-less basements. What solace my static wide shot must be to all those folks quietly chewing their way out of their restraints. I can envision the thank-you notes they might send: letters and words ripped out of newspapers and magazines, haphazardly pasted to faded construction paper...

tHanKs fOr SHOwIng tHe gEEse AT tHE PArk. noW caLL thE POlice...

Actually, I don't mind shooting weather video - even when it's one of many stops on a whirlwind tour of swing-by vosots. It gives me a chance to drive around a lot, looking for the perfect environmental vista to leisurely frame and endlessly tweak. But when the clock is ticking, and deadlines are fast approaching - the hunt for weather VO can turn into a frenzied race around town, a circuitous loop around favored haunts looking for new actors on familiar backdrops.

Okay, perhaps I'm over-dramatizing it. What's new? But there have been many times when I've felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 - hurtling through streets at break-neck speed, scanning every side alley and back street for the imbedded image that will set off lights and sirens in my internal cyborg viewscreen.

Of course I'm not on the hunt for the one time-traveling ancestor who can save the planet. I'm looking for wind-surfing senior citizens, rush-hour secretaries struggling across windy avenues, loafers from the homeless shelter building snowmen. Perhaps I should slow down. But who has time to dawdle when you've got two tapes full of daily tripe wedged under the sun-visor and a cell-phone full of unanswered messages? Hear that idling engine? It's the sound of me missing deadline.

I only wish I could benefit monetarily from the pursuit - but alas, I'm an indentured staffer. I do recall one shooter from way back who excelled at turning precipitation into compensation. By the time the third unlikely snowflake fell, he'd have The Weather Channel on the horn - transforming his fifty seconds of lame snow into a couple of hundred bucks and a TWC ball cap or two. I never quite wrapped my brain around the legality of his endeavors, but it doesn't matter since he left the biz long ago to focus on shystering full-time. Last I heard he was pimping cell-phone service, and no doubt out-earning his photog days.

All I got are a couple of faded ball caps.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Brown Building Walk-Downs

As gray as a battleship, the Brown building did not fit its name. But that’s what the cops called the two story brick job on the edge of downtown so I didn’t object. I was too busy anyway, scrambling to detail the steady flow of crime and grime headlines that flowed through that ugly windowless structure. From its gravel parking lot out back to its tiniest interrogation room on the second floor, I put almost every inch of that place on the local news.

Getting in was tricky, at first. But sling a camera around enough crime scenes and the detectives would soon buzz you through the lobby door, especially when there was a fresh arrestee in handcuffs waiting on the other side - which was only always. I’d hate to guess how many times I breached that threshold with camera in tow, only to point it at some fine taxpayer getting their thumbs blackened for the third time in a not-so-illustrious criminal career. If you were lucky, there was evidence to photograph: duct-tape bricks of marijuana, illegal guns, black market electronics, all spread out on scuffed conference room tables by beefy detectives in short sleeves and shoulder holsters. For a local news photog, it was like shooting ducks in a barrel.

But the real action was in the parking lot, a low slung gravel rectangle with enough room for a dozen unmarked Crown Vics and two or three TV station wagons. It was this humble lot that every criminal of intrigue arrested by the city made his perp walk debut. Countless are the times I raced to that lot only to pace for hours with chain-smoking buddies until a late model sedan swooped in and all conversation stopped. The sound of feet scuffling over rocks filled the air as we backpedaled in unison, orbiting the accused with zoom lenses and leading questions. If we were lucky the cops would park in the farthest available space, giving us a long runway to bag as many angles of the walk down as possible.

Come to think of it, you could judge how much publicity the cops wanted on individual cases by the distance they parked from the Brown Building. Accused murderers, thieves and arsonists made many a forced march through the wall of local lenses; some hung their heads, others shots angry glances and cursed the assembled cameramen. All gave a show, from the drunk Marine in a hospital gown accused of torching his own apartment to swarthy bikers in shackles and tats who looked as if they‘d hunt you down given the chance. All gave a show, with their buzz-cut captors in a supporting role. Despite the revolving cast of bad actors, every performance ended the same: with the heavy metal thud of the building’s back door, often followed by a burst of nervous giggles as we lenslingers critiqued our one-eyed backpedal.

But those day are gone now. A few years back the City abandoned the Brown Building, moving their Detective Division to a shiny new fortress downtown. Now, curious cameramen have to call ahead and talk to the new Public Information Officer. Backdoor walk downs are a thing of the past. Now officers bring in the bad guys through a guarded sally port, well out of range of the Fourth Estate. Maybe that’s for the best. Even those accused of heinous crimes have a right to enter the Judicial System without a cocky camera in their face, even they have a right to a little bit of dignity on the way to the Big House.

Maybe. But I’m awful glad I got to cover the slow parade of thugs, saints and felons with so few restraints, happy to experience the Wild West atmosphere of a small city’s corral of testosterone-rich crime fighters, thankful I got the chance to sling a camera down at The Brown.

The Tarheel Tavern

The Tarheel Tavern, a weekly compendium of North Carolina bloggers of which I am taking part, is now in it's second edition and available here. Do drop in and sample the wide variety of diatribes, reflections and screeds lovingly prepared by the many on-line thinkers from around our state. Tell 'em Lenslinger sent ya...