Saturday, December 10, 2005

Remembering Richard Pryor

As a spindly little white boy helping a large black family harvest a local farmer's tobacco crop, I had few rights or privileges. Slow, weak and ill-at-ease, I struggled to keep up with the rest of the farm hands as the old harvester rumbled through the sticky forest of tobacco stalks. My older brother fared better; he could strip the passing spires of their ripest leaves with the best of them. But I barely managed to hit every stalk and I caught a lot of good-natured but incessant ribbing due to my overwhelming lack of agricultural acumen. Don't get me wrong: Edgar-Lee and Miss Ruth were good - no, great people. They and their half dozen kids could 'take in' a barn of fat green tobacco leaves faster than most crews of full-grown men. That I emerged as the weakest link was more a product of my young age, coke-bottle glasses and uncoordination than any overt strains of reverse-racism. Still, it was tough to swallow at times, even for a kid as used to being an outcast as I was at the time.

Luckily, there was one time of day when persecution of the smallest Pittman fell by the wayside. Sometime around the noon hour, after the four corner nabs and Dr. Peppers had been drained, Edgar-Lee, Miss Ruth and kids would gather under the shade of a tree or barn-shelter and laugh away the remaining time before the farmer arrived to resume the workday. During those precious few minutes, Edgar-Lee's clan acted more like a family and less like a gang of hardened tobacco-pullers. They's laugh and joke, kid one another and treat me and my brother like one of their own. I still remember watching the older girls of the family practice dance moves to Kool and the Gang's new song, 'Celebration'. With that song playing endlessly from a filthy boombox, color, class and cutting remarks faded away. But the one thing that totally erased the differences between all of us was a battered 8-track of Richard Pryor in concert.

We'd all gather around my brother's Rally Sport Camaro and try not to shoot soda out of our noses as the caustic comic fashioned a life of poverty and pain into a bold new form of comedy. I was way too young to understand all of his material, but one thing that seemed abundantly obvious even then was that Pryor's acerbic wit and lethally true observations crossed all socio-economic and racial barriers. Richard Pryor described himself simply as a 'comic'. To the twelve year old me, he was so much more; a street-level preacher could make you laugh, think and possibly wet your pants, all while understanding that neighbor who doesn't look like you a little bit better. Here's hoping he's finally at peace.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Is That Thing Heavy?

"Is that thing heavy?" It's a question even the most strapping photog hears on a regular basis. People marvel at the oversized fancycam on our shoulder and with creepy regularity inquire about its weight. Now imagine you're a diminutive (and thoroughly fetching) female underneath that lens. The lame remarks, unwanted attention and feigned machismo must be a stone-cold drag. That's why I can't help but respect Angie Moriconi, who doesn't let her natural born role as 'psycho magnet' stop her from slinging a mean lens all over Miami. Recently she and her reporter-husband even bagged an Emmy - that elusive mantle-something many TV journalists spend a whole career unsuccessfully pursuing. That's right, photog-bloggers, she's married. To a reporter. Talk about a stone cold drag...

(A dip of the lens to Weaver, for alerting me to Angie's blog, as well as saving my bacon late today. That's about a jillion times now, Chris. Back off! You're making me look bad!)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

More Questions Than Answers

Don Matney 1As a younger photog, I only wanted to shoot news stories that involved flashing lights, handcuffs and walkie-talkies. But as time passed, I realized good storytellers valued character over conflict. So I began casting about for interesting people to profile, small-town personalities to point my lens at. This, unfortunately earned me a reputation as a 'features' guy, a position that, despite alot of lip service, ranks pretty low on the newsroom taxonomy chart. No bother, I'd still rather hang out with a truly unique individual than go cover my millionth 'senseless homicide'. I find by doing so, I feel better at the end of my shift and take home something to think about.

Don Matney 2Take Thursday for example. Instead of rushing to the edge of controversy, I ambled over to High Point Regional Health System, where a man of quiet conviction was enriching the lobby's atmosphere with simple Christmas tunes. But 76 year old Don Matney's life hasn't always been a song. Born legally blind, the Waynesville native didn't regain limited sight until his late teens. Once he did, he began hanging around a local radio station, so impressing the staff with his insatiable curiosity that they eventually gave him a job. What followed was a storied career, including a thirty year stint at Davidson County Broadcasting, where he held every position from announcer to General Manager. Not bad for a little boy who was never expected to see past the haze of chronic cataracts.

Don Matney 3These days you'll find the retiree at hospitals, clubs and restaurants, sharing a love of music he first discovered as a young child at the North Carolina School for the Blind. In fact, he never stopped plinking on the ivory as I set up my camera and pepppered him with questions about his life, volunteerism and of course, broadcasting. Mr. Matney answered them all, rarely looking up from the holiday song he was hammering out. I didn't mind, as nothing pleases me more than a subject who's not afraid to ignore my lens. By the time I left the lobby, I had everything I needed for a nice feature, as well as the feeling that I'd made a new friend.

But Don Matney's peace with the world flummoxed me somewhat. Does contentment come with old age? Will I grow increasingly satisfied with mere existence as my body slowly erodes? Will happiness supplant angst as I grow nearer to my grave? Will this tortured orb start to make sense just as I prepare to leave it?

Let me get back to you on that...

UPDATE: After the above passage was posted on Greensboro 101, an eloquent lady by the name of Brenda Bowers offered a few answers to my questions. Her response is priceless...

Dear Mr. Pittman, Yes, we do mellow and find contentment as we age. You see we find ourselves Free for the first time in this lifetime. No one expects anything from us. In fact, they are surprised as you were, to discover that we do indeed have something to say; that we keep up with the world around us but can look at it from the perspective of having weathered many storms and obstacles in the past so nothing seems too daunting, or too very serious. We are free to be us. We no longer have to set an example or be concerned with how our economic status/appearance/opinions with affect our careers/marriage/friendships. The “careers” we pursue now are for fun, not money; the marriage has come to the point of quiet pleasure in each others company (I can't change the old Goat so I might as well see the humor in it all!); the friendships are old and lasting and accepting of each others foibles. And the best part are the opinions! At last free to call it as you see it and to do it if you want to (and still can!). Aside from the inevitable aches and pains and other physical annoyances I would have to say that being a senior citizen, or old broad, which ever you prefer, is FUN. -- Brenda Bowers

Semi Hits News Unit

There's a scary piece of tape circulating through the internets that strikes fear in the hearts of anyone who's parked a news unit in a breakdown lane and hit the flashers. A CBS 11 chopper was hovering over an 18 wheeler on Westbound I-20 outside Dallas when a semi traveling in the opposite lane skidded on ice, jack-knifed and plowed into a news unit before bursting into flames, all while cameras rolled. From the CBS 11 website:

'The SUV that was parked on the shoulder of the highway belongs to Telemundo, a Spanish language television station in Dallas-Fort Worth. The photojournalist who was driving it was also covering the first 18-wheeler wreck. He was not in the vehicle at the time and was not hurt.

Watch closely and you'll see a figure jump/thrown from the skidding semi. That person is in the hospital, while the truck driver escaped relatively unharmed. It's frightening footage that every photog should watch, as well as the deskbound staffers that dispatch them to backed-up highways and high-speed collisions. Careful out there...

Coming Soon...

No, I'm not lost in mourning over my dead television set, I'm just busy. Very busy. Orchestra recitals, holiday commitments, and prepping for a weekend jaunt eastward have eaten into my evening writing time, leaving me absent-minded, grumpy and creatively constipated. But fear not, dear reader(s?), powerful laxatives are on the way...

"Fiction is dead!" scream the websites. No duh, so's my TV. Actually, there's more to the demise of the novel than that, and it's something I'd like to talk about once I get more ample desk-time.

While some on-line scenes are plateauing, the photograsphere continues to extrapolate. Look for a whirlwind tour of my photog brethren (and one award-winning sis-tren) in the coming days...

More immediately, I have a story scheduled for today that may very well result in an interesting post. That would be swell, as the broadcast minutia of the past couple of days has yielded very little in the way of blog-fodder...

From the weather center, the meterologists in my life are predicting a mixture of sleet, freezing rain and inconvenience will fall this very evening. Will I be dragged kicking and screaming onto some icy overpass so a reporter buddy can marvel at Mother Nature every fifteen minutes? I think you know the answer...

Finally, there is someone I've wanted to tell you about for a l-o-n-g time. Though he goes by the name Munk Siddiq, I'll always think of him as Brian Wagoner. A mercurial musician and potent performer, Munk is as brilliant as he is misunderstood. He's also my cousin. As kids we were kindred souls; as adults we're starkly different (on the surface, anyway). It's been a year or three since we've visited and I miss him, as he's always been a miscast hero of mine. Let me work the tattered cell phone numbers in my wallet and I'll bring you all into the fold. Trust me, it's worth the wait...

Stay Tuned...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Diagnosis: Tube Death

"You'll never guessed what just died downstairs..." my wife said as I walked in the door.

My forehead wrinkled at her use of the 'D' word. The woman's an E.R. nurse fer cryin' out loud. That's when a certain gray box popped into my head.

"The...Tee-Vee?", I croaked.

"Yep," she nodded. "I was watching for your school bus story and it went 'POOF!'"



TV DOAShoulders slumped, I turned and walked downstairs to pay proper respects to my fallen friend. It sat there in the cabinet, speakers silenced, 37 inch screen forever dark. Plopping down on the couch, I stared at the fireplace's reflection on the tube's surface. As the flames danced, I thought about the good times...Wrestling it out of the box and into my very first house in 1993...watching home movies of my oldest's first birthday moments after she blew out the candles, marveling at how images I'd first seen through a tiny black and white viewfinder earlier in the day looked in full color big screen color on the evening news...movies, cable, VHS and DVD...

As I sat there, caressing the remote, guilt washed away all my warm feelings. Truth is, I hadn't been watching my old pal like I probably should have. I'd even discouraged my kids from doing so well, often (gasp!) turning it off and demanding they get active. Sure, I still logged an hour or two every other evening, but more often than not I spent my den-time staring at my laptop rather than bathing in my RCA's loving blue glow. But that glow was forever gone now and I guess I knew it was going to happen. For the last month, a small section of the screen had become distorted, then the reds and oranges began to look a little funky. 'It'll be fine', I told my family, 'It gives it character'. But I knew it wasn't fine, for it was apparent to any TV geek that my boxy friend was slowly dying. I just didn't think he would go this quick. As I stared into the milky abyss of the eerily silent screen, my wife came into the room and sat down beside me.

"Honey," she said as I peered into the ether.

"Yeah babe?"

"Don't think for a moment you're gonna hang one of those flat things on our wall."

Bones of Calamity

I was congratulating myself for having avoided Presidential visit duty all day when the scanners in the newsroom began barking words nobody wants to hear…

…School Bus…head-on collision…multiple injuries…

School Bus WreckHoping the evening crews would cover this late-breaking news, I slithered into an audio booth and watched the newsroom go nuts through the sanctuary of sound-proof glass. For a brief moment I thought I’d escaped, but when my reporter for the day began pulling on her red station raincoat, I knew I was screwed. Moments later, we pulled onto the cold wet windy interstate, headed due north. As the petrified wipers smeared streaks across the windshield, I cursed myself for not yet replacing them and punched the home button on my cell phone. Beside me, Caron Myers did the same. Together we told our respective spouses we wouldn’t be home for dinner, as we were suddenly late for a place we didn’t want to be.

School Bus WreckA word on school bus wrecks. I hate ‘em. Seriously, there’s nothing that strikes dread in the hearts of those with children than the prospect of little ones injured or worse on the cold, hard highway. Why, if I were a producer, I’d say it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Since I’m not, I’ll skip that particular cliché and admit I’m somewhat inured to the suffering of others. Not that I don’t empathize with victims of tragedy, God knows I do; but it’s my job to remain detached, remote, neutral. Luckily (or not), it’s my nature to compartmentalize such things, choosing to deal with any resulting scar tissue late at night through deep reflection and half-baked prose. On scene, however, I’m far more focused on looming deadlines than humanity’s excessive woes. It’s a wholly undesirable occupational hazard, one achieved with long lenses, thin cynicism and a dollop or two of self-absorption. It ain’t noble, but it’s honest.

Tara Live ShotSo as I stood there in the rain, breathing heavily as I pointed my fancycam at the bus in question, I was as relieved as any father of two would be to discover the wreck wasn’t quite as sever as the scanners made it sound. However, it was still news - or it would be, provided I spent the last half hour of dying sunlight very wisely. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Far from it, for the news suits back at the shop had thrown every available crew at what sounded like a very big story. When I first pulled up to the phalanx of flashing lights, I noticed one of our live trucks parked nearby, it’s mast slowly poking upward over the fire trucks and ambulances. Inside, nightside photographer Chris Morton flipped switches and dialed the station, attending to all the details that go into establishing a live shot. I didn’t see his partner Tera Williams, but I figured she was there as I jogged awkwardly underneath the strain of camera and tripod.

Bateson, MyersThe next eight minutes passed very quickly. With Caron Myers trailing behind me, I swept my camera over the scene, from the bus’s crushed hood to the accordion car to the group of middle school students shivering by a neighbor‘s driveway. When the door of a nearby ambulance swung opened and a paramedic jumped out, Caron caught sight of a young boy strapped to a stretcher inside. Eyeing the crowd of kids in the distance, I loitered by the ambulance, camera on shoulder. When the paramedic returned and climbed in back, I captured three seconds of a sheepish young man laying on his back and looking around the ambulance before the door swung shut. As if on cue, a single file line of school kids walked right by me, their adult escort hunched forward to escape the stinging rain. Caron grabbed my wireless microphone and before I knew it, we were interviewing an 11 year old. Seconds later, an out of breath Dad walked by with kids in tow. Inside the viewfinder, I squinted at his image as he thanked God his little girl was okay. By the time he walked on two minutes later, we had everything we’d come for.

Tara WritingBut all was not done. Back at the truck, Chris (“C-Mo”, to his coworkers) couldn’t align the shot. The truck he’d arrived in had a shorter mast than most, its dish couldn’t reach above the canopy of trees to shoot a signal back to our tower. Luckily, even more back-up had arrived. Tim Bateson and Nico Belha, fresh from babysitting Air Force One on the airport’s tarmac, pulled up in another live truck, one with ’a bigger stick’. Soon, all of six of us gathered around the second truck. While I furiously edited the footage into a forty second sequence of shots, Bateson and C-Mo pulled cable to a tripod they’d left on the side of the road. Caron and Tera hammered details into a workable script and Nico fielded phone calls. When the 5 o clock newscast’s opening music rolled a few minutes later, Tera was the only crew member to appear on camera, but both her message and her medium were very much a group effort. I love it when a plan comes together.

Me, C-Mo, BatesonAfter the anchors pummeled Tera with a few follow-up questions, they moved on to another story and the director cleared our shot. With a entire hour before we were due back on air, we all chuckled nervously and caught our breath. Tera crawled inside the live truck to refashion her five o clock words into a six o clock script. The rest of us loitered outside as she did, trading gossip, talking shop and bitching about our silly jobs and the cruddy weather. It was then a familiar attitude fell over our group. With deadline met, excitement thwarted and tragedy averted, we chatted and joked like any group of office mates would. The fact that we were huddling by a rainy accident scene mattered little; our idle chat and sophomoric jokes were like that of any water-cooler gathering - albeit one involving workers who deal in disaster and hype, instead of widgets and sales figures. However strange our roadside rendezvous may seem to you, for me, it is the picture of normalcy, small talk among reluctant buzzards as we rip apart the still warm bones of calamity…

Beats selling Amway, I'm told.