Friday, April 21, 2006

Awaiting the Giant Scissors...

Awaiting the Giant Scissors
WFMY News shooter Chris Keimig strikes a pose familiar to anyone who's done time behind the lens: the Hurry Up and Wait. This time it happened alongside South Elm Street, where forward-thinking community leaders cut the ribbon on a new wi-fi hot spot - but not before making the press wait thirty minutes longer than originally announced. That may not sound like very long to you, but when you got a new deadline every ninety minutes, a half hour of downtime can mean the difference between highly finessed editing and meatball surgery. But this South Dakota native took it all in stride - whistling a tune in the cool Spring breeze as I paced about and fidgeted with my digital camera. No one likes a show-off, Chris...

The Social Fabric of Firefighting

House Fire Du JourHighway 109 was backed-up for miles and despite the shiny logos on my door, no one was getting out of my way. So I did what any good photog does when presented with such an impasse: I activated the flashers and pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. There I accelerated in fits and starts, working my way past stalled traffic and hoping the tall grass I was traversing wasn’t hiding any broken glass or unseen ditches. Luckily it didn’t and I managed to get to the head of the pack with only a few dirty looks from the stagnant travelers. ’Sorry’, I thought as I rumbled past, but those flashing lights in the distance are calling my name. More importantly, my bosses were hovering over laminated maps back at the shop, wondering why Stewart wasn’t at the house fire yet. Before long, I was. Pulling in behind a farm truck with red lights in the dash, I threw Unit 4 into park, grabbed my gear and made a trek I’ve made a thousand times before. As I stepped over hoses and dodged distracted firemen, the smell of freshly cut grass and burning furnishings transported me back to the early 80’s.

Wallburg's BravestI grew up in a rural community that revolved a single church and a nearby fire department. Whenever the emergency whistle blew (and it did often), my older brother and I would drop everything and run as fast as we could for the church softball field next door. Once we scaled the outfield fence, we’d dig out our special key and officially unlock Saulston’s Volunteer Fire Department. By the time the bay doors had risen to reveal a few dilapidated fire engines, someone older would arrive - a farmer, a mechanic or any one of the dozens of no-nonsense men who fancied themselves first responders. If we were lucky, my brother and I could stow-away on one of the trucks as church leaders in turn-out gear cranked their antiquated keys. What followed was a screaming blast of adrenaline, a mad dash across Saulston proper that ended in smoke, crumpled automobiles and always, intrigue. For a couple of outcast kids doin’ time in the sticks, it was as close to adventure as we ever got.

Collateral DamageBut that’s how it was when I was young. A bastion of good ole boys and good intentions, the volunteer fire department was as much about socializing as it was saving lives. Whenever the whistle blew, an impromptu town square formed around the conflagration in question. Hoses were pulled, water was summoned and grown men gossiped under the sweat of their helmets as they matter-of-factly extinguished the blaze. I was just a kid of course, scampering around the edges of these gruff assemblies with my buddies and always, always watching. I wasn’t alone. Everyone too old, young or (then too) female to join the fire-fighting force would amble up, loiter and chat - giving the emergency at hand the air of a church picnic. Those endless roadside scenarios held me enraptured for years. Eventually, I graduated from voyeur to participant. Following in the fotsteps of my older brother, who was embarking on a lifetime of emergency response, I joined the department as a junior firefighter of sorts. It was all my 15 year old buddies and I could do to 'can the grab-ass' and listen to our elders as they indocrinated us into the world of blaze containment. I may not have been the greatest firefighter in the world, but I got one hell of a kick suiting up.

Neoprene DreamsAs I leaned on my tripod yesterday and watched Wallburg's Bravest roll up their hoses and sweat under their protective clothing, I realized little had changed in rural North Carolina. Blazes still break out in unwanted places, taciturn men still race to the scene and the community at large still turns out to watch. In my broef time along Highway 109, I saw pretty girls hanging out of pick-up truck windows, neighbors with dirt under their fingernails comforting the distraught and young boys and girls in oversized firecoats staring mesmerized into the sooty abyss. One fireman with a walrus moustache approached my camera, curious to know what the guy with the fancy-cam and the loud shirt was up to. We chatted for a moment, talked about scanners and weather bunnies and kids in the department. When a helmeted figure on the horizon beckoned him, my new found friend walked away with a weariness that can only be earned. I stayed and stared at the gutted structure, wondering how much longer I'll surf on the edge of inferno.

Quite a while, I'm guessing....

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Victims in the Periphery

The Duke rape case is a salacious cocktail of cable news excess and I for one want no part of it. Already the 24 hour news beast has swallowed this dirty morsel whole, churning out a fetid buffet of steamy details for the Great Unwashed to feast on. And to think it's just an hour or so down the road. Luckily I've avoided that particular bivouac thus far; the soft news outfit I find myself embedded in keeps me off the front lines for the most part. Others who share my logo haven't been so lucky. As a media event, the electronic nucleus swirling around Durham is of proportions unthinkable a dozen years ago. Now, however the slightest combination of sex, lies and race can spark a sat truck summit faster than you can say "Camp O.J."

If you can't tell, these vulture fests ain't my scene. I'm all for extended team smotherage, but when sordid accusations are the coin of the realm, I tend to wanna go wash my hands. Blame it on my early years. I was barely competent behind a camera when I found myself sitting ringside at a hideous display of accusation, hysteria and questionable evidence. Covering the Little Rascals Day Care trials were surreal experiences for the grizzliest of TV vets. To a young news punk like myself, it was a lid-blowing lesson in handcuff charisma, depraved testimony and bent justice. I've been chasing harmless fluff ever since, even though I still get sucked into the hard news skeev-a-thon more often than I wish. In fact, I wouldn't even be talking to you about this broadcast blight were it not for something I want you to read.

David Hoggard, a local blogger and world-class raconteur, found himself in the Durham County Courthouse and files a bracing report of electronic interlopers gone askew:
"About fifteen minutes into my stay, a rustle of activity began as videographers started shouldering their cameras and reporters pulled out their stenopads. They all started heading for the elevators inside the courthouse, so I did what any self respecting blogger would do...I followed them."
What he witnessed on the other side of that elevator ride had little to do with strippers or lacrosse, but it stayed with him all day until he forged a first-person narrative worthy of its own documentary. In it, he tells of a mother and daughter seeking justice against an abusive father, while the chattering classes loitered and scratched.
"The mother told of the many years of desparation and suspicion leading up to the day when she finally asked one of her daughters if what she suspected was true. She recounted, in great detail, all of the verbal and physical abuse that she endured until she finally mustered the nerve to call the police. Then the daughter spoke as my heart broke into little pieces."
Go read the whole incredible thing, then do me a favor: The next time you see the cable TV ghouls picking apart the Duke rape case carcass, turn off the blasted set and go hang out with your kids. The world, will be a better place.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Destination Unknown

DSCF0382Once upon a time I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of a news unit - not to just burn someone else’s gas, but to roll up on scene with a purpose. It’s the same strand of DNA that drove my older brother to become a career firefighter - then later, a kick-ass paramedic. But whereas Richard helps people, I just put ‘em on tee-vee, and rarely in the way they envisioned. But this post is less about straining for nobility and more about my growing disdain for all that mobility. It’s not that I want to drive a desk - far from it . I’d just like to know where all these mad dashes, fruitless pursuits and exasperating excursions are taking me. I’m guessing, it ain’t easy street. Most likely, I’ll end up a stooped old man with chronic pain in one shoulder and a bad attitude in every other extremity. If that sounds overly bleak, you obviously ain’t logged enough miles in the name of news. Tearful goodbyes and gauzy retrospectives are reserved for the anchor set. We road warriors are lucky to end our careers with new logo-wear and our vision intact. Oh yeah, we also get stories.

DSCF0370Those stories, along with the access to other people’s lives, fueled my desire to chase deadlines for far longer than logic dictated. But an un-funny thing happened on the way to newsgathering glory. I got bored. Lulled to complacency by the numbing repetition of a thousand newscasts, I began looking around a few years ago for a different way to spend my day. Alas, the world did not beat a path to my feet. Instead, I continued my drudgery, shuffling from one semi-scintillating news scene to another, with lots of windshield meditation in between. Stand-offs, sit-downs, stalemates: assignments that used to render me breathless now strike me as monumentally inconvenient. So I did the only thing I knew to do; I began to scribble about the job I used to find so damned interesting. And it worked! Nowadays I’d much rather write about electronic newsgathering than actually saddle up and do it. Too bad my station won’t pay me cash money for half-baked diatribes. Yet.

DSCF0260So now that we’ve established my overall dislike for the nature of the chase, know that I regularly find myself crisscrossing the region for the oddest of reasons. Ribbon-cuttings, racial slurs, reality shows, I’ve raced to and zeroed in on more than I even pretend to remember. But just as I grow comfortable in my lifelong role as a calloused burnout, someone catches my attention through the open window of my own bored existence. Sometimes it’s a kid impressed by the logos, other times it’s a full grown adult enamored with my call letters. Yesterday, it was three happy cats on a nearby bench, who felt it necessary to cheer when I passed by their lunchtime post. Their enthusiasm washed over me from across midtown traffic. Gripping the wheel with a vigor renewed, I smiled to myself and once again felt proud of my profession - even if I was on a three hour quest for all the storm damage I could cram into thirty seconds of air-time. Now if only I could convince my bosses to let me scrub these logos off the doors. Then perhaps, I’d get some peace in the cockpit. On second thought, I’d have to park like a mere mortal again.

Forget what I said...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Schmuck Alert: Mike Truman

DSCF0385Meet Mike Truman, security coordinator for the Travis County sheriff's department. Now, normally you don't hear much about such public servants in obscure positions, but this guy's a real charmer. When this ornery Texan isn't helping his wife fend off charges of animal cruelty, he likes to grapple expensive lenses from the hard-working hands of female photojournalists. At least that's what the pudgy thug pulled last week in Austin when, after finding no kittens to kick outside a Williamson County Courthouse, promptly went all Kenny Rogers on KXAN news shooter Julie Karam.

"I'm thinking, 'This guy's going to hurt me.' That's how frightened I was. I didn't do anything to deserve it."

DSCF0387Now hang on a second, Julie. You were standing on a city street, pointing a privately-owned news camera at a public official as he skulked out of a tense court proceeding. Mr. Truman had every right to wrestle that delicate camera from your guilty fingers and attempt to berate you into submission. He's upset, see. He and the Missus just haven't been the same since the county took eleven dogs and three cats from their home. If you pesky TV people would simply keep your lenses to yourselves, we wouldn't have these problems. Just ask O.J.

But I digress. What happened last week in Austin was simply this. Apoplexy got the better of Deputy Dawg here; his parking lot tantrum was simply an effort to protect his peeps from any more unwanted publicity. Too bad his intended victim kept rolling. Now, what would have been a fleeting few seconds on the evening news is forever enshrined on the internet, where a universe of busy-bodies can cue up his stupidity whenever the notion strikes them. Schmuck!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Body and the Beauty Queen

G. Lee, load up in Live Six! Some kids founds another body out by the airport! Take Jani!”

Garrett shot the assignment editor a theatric scowl before rising from his hiding spot and strolling toward the newsroom exit. He’d almost made it when a stunning young brunette in a bright yellow business suit popped out of her cubicle and momentarily stunned him with her exotic perfume.

“G. Lee, is it?” she said flashing a megawatt smile and extending an impossibly manicured hand. “I‘m Jani Avery.”

“G-Garrett.” he said, taking her hand in his. It felt perfectly smooth, deliciously different from his own tripod-tortured pawss. She grinned deeper, revealing secondary dimples to go along with the perfect teeth. For a second he marveled at how good she smelled before abruptly breaking her velvet grip, lest she feel his pulse race through his calloused fingertips. “Lemme load up and we’ll go” he mumbled uncomfortably before shuffling off toward the live trucks. As he left WSLP's newest weekend anchor to gather her designer things, G. Lee fumbled with his cell phone.

“Lloyd, you seen the new weekend chick? She looks like a toothpaste model!”

“Yeah,” Lloyd’s voice came through the cell phone speaker, “She was Miss South Carolina or somethin’. I ain’t seen her on-air but I can report she looks damn fine on a billboard.”

Garrett hit the cell phone's end button as Jani opened the door and placed her makeup kit on the live truck‘s passenger seat. Wiggling upward in her tight yellow skirt, the pageant veteran maneuvered past a bag of half-eaten Cheetos before reluctantly buckling in to Live Six. When she did, Garrett dropped the van into reverse and gunned it. Seconds later they were on the interstate, hurtling toward his three hundredth cop car convention and her very first. As Garrett piloted the cumbersome news van through midday traffic, he stole glances at his glossy partner’s drop-dead profile.

“So, where is it you’re joining us from, Miss Avery?”

“Savannah, I was the weekend anchor. Plus I had a cooking show and a fashion segment…”

As the highly photogenic young woman recounted the highlights of her sixteen month TV career, Garrett glanced at his watch, the speedometer and the rear view mirror. As the words poured out, a touch of the low country twang she’d fought so hard to lose crept in. G made a mental note to ask about that later but for the moment pretended to be interested in her stint as Savannah’s Newscast Sweetheart. She was a local spokesmodel when he drifted into the lane for the airport exit. By the time he’d piloted the rolling billboard to the terminal turn-off, she’d beamed her way onto her last station’s weekend news desk. As they closed in on a cluster of flashing blue lights in the distance, she’d grown tired of reading small-time teleprompters. Before he picked a level piece of grass to park on, her agent shopped her tape around and quickly scored her an anchor-reporter gig in a larger market. Which is how she’d come to be riding shotgun on body-watch this muggy August morning. Throughout her tale of promo shoots and makeovers, the perfectly coiffed hostess never mentioned committing any journalism. When Garrett asked if she’d ever reported, her chirpy reply chilled him to the photog bone.

“No, but I’ve done tons of shopping mall remotes.”

Garrett examined her every gorgeous feature for signs of deceit. She was either putting him on, or the beauty queen to his right was about to get her expertly groomed head scrambled. Either way, he thought as he looked at his watch, it’s gonna be an interesting half hour. Before he climbed out of the van, he pointed to a group of detectives gathering under a grove of nearby trees. They’d barely looked up when Garrett parked the live truck, but he was betting his passenger could get their attention. Flipping the generator switch on the dashboard, he yanked on the door handle and gave Jani the first in a series of directions.

“Go see how close they’ll let you get. I’m gonna set up. We’re live in twenty five minutes.

With that Garrett rolled out of the news car and very nearly gagged. A sickeningly sweet odor wafted from the grove, blending with a most pungent funk to invade his every pore. The late summer humidity made the foul smell thick and soupy, like a cobweb of rot draped over all five senses. Instinctively, he buried his nose into his chest and opened the live truck’s brightly logo’d rear door. Flipping the switches needed to send the truck's mast poking skyward, he watched the on-board hottie exit the van. She was looking for a place to set her bright yellow shoes when the smell hit her. Her crystalline features scrunched inward as she tried to repell the smell from her sinuses. In the moment it took Garrett to glance at a transmitter dial, the 23 year old princess wiggled back into the cab and slammed the door.

“What’s up?” he asked without a trace of a smile, fighting to appear normal as the odor threatened to melt the protective coating on his prescription sunglasses.

“The…smell! I’ve - never… “Four words into the sentence, she found the silky handkerchief she was looking for and buried her pretty face in it.

As his company’s newest hire began to dry-heave into expensive silk, Garrett thought about the slowly rising mast, the quickly ticking second hand on his battered watch, the room full of impatient experts back at the shop.

“Look,” he said, searching for his gentlest tone. “in about twenty two minutes, a fat guy named Carl’s gonna punch a button that’ll put your face in a whole lot of living rooms around here. You’re gonna want some details to share with all those housewives.”

Her dark eyes flashed from behind the floral silk. At first Garrett thought she might curse or cry, but instead she muttered something in sorority-ese and got out of the live truck. As she stomped off, her expensive shoes all but disappeared in the field’s soft mud. He couldn’t help but enjoy the view as she strove for dignity as she shook cow shit form her designer heels. Only then did the detectives in the distance look up - if only to get a better look at the voluptuous news bunny headed their way. Garrett could have watched the young woman walk all day but he had a mobile TV studio to put together and under twenty minutes to do it.

Eight minutes later he was all but done. With the truck’s mast extended to its full height of fifty feet, Garrett had positioned the transmitter mast so that it faced the receive site miles away. When the engineer back at the station deemed the color bars acceptable, he hung up the phone and began plugging cables into the back of his Sony XDCam. After that he tested his wireless microphone and tweaked the light he’d erected. Looking up, he saw his new reporter talking to the tallest detective, her handkerchief still covering her face. Every couple of seconds she took her hand away from her face to scribble in her notebook. That familiar journalistic sight made Garrett feel better, a sensation that lasted a good five seconds before the yellow suited figure in the distance bent at the waist and began to wretch. ’You gotta be kidding me,’ he thought as he swung his lens in the direction of the gagging tiara-ciurcuit vet. On the tiny screen, he watched a woman who would soon grace the region’s billboard circuit spill what looked to be bacon and eggs all over her shoes. For the first time all morning, he wasn’t entranced by her beauty and the fleeting lucidity pushed him into action.

Bounding across the muddy field, Garrett met Jani and her new detective friend about halfway to the prone figure underneath the trees. Jani looked gray, then green, then gray again. The cop said nothing; he only gave Garrett a half-amused look as he handed the shaken pageant diva over to her shaggy partner. Garrett mumbled thanks and took Jani’s elbow but she jerked it out of his grip, using her pedicured hand to wipe away a string of spittle from her glossy lips. Normally, Garrett may have doubled over in laughter or shrunk back in disgust, but the only thing he could think about as they trudged back to the truck was a certain fat guy named Carl. That slob would punch up a picture of his own mother taking a dump if a producer told him to. A heaving news queen wouldn’t stand a chance in the wither of his bank of monitors’ collective gaze. Which is why Garrett punched the station’s phone number in his cell phone. But before he could tell the control room to kill the shot, Jani pantomimed madly for his attention.

“What are you doing?” she hissed.

“I was gonna call off the live hit.”

“Why?” she shrieked, as if a little pre-shot vomit were a normal part of the newsgathering process.

Garrett lowered the phone and looked at her. Hair no longer quite as coiffed as before and lipstick smeared, she looked like a stewardess after a bar fight. Fighting the urge to laugh, Garrett looked at his watch and saw the big hand sweep the 11.

“Can you be ready in five minutes?”

“You damn skippy,” she muttered as she lunged for her make-up kit. From the abyss of the case, she extracted the tools of her trade: brush, hairspray, lipstick and toothbrush. As she surveyed her instruments, Garrett framed up a background shot of the distant detectives and handed the disheveled diva his wireless microphone. Without returning his gaze she took the mic and pinned it to her still rumpled lapel. Not knowing exactly was about to happen, Garrett panned the lens over to her and tweaked the focus. Sing, shout or spew, Jani Avery was about to make her midday debut. He only hoped she didn’t get any on him. But the beauty queen wasn’t about to yak on screen. In fact, as the control room voices counted backwards in her earpiece, Jani’s appearance slowly coalesced. By the time Carl fat fingered that fat glowing button, she radiated glamour, credibility and not a hint of upchuck.

“That’s right, Glenn. Two kids walking their dogs made the grisly discovery just about a half hour ago. From what detectives tell me, it is the badly decomposed body of a full grown male. Now they wouldn’t say much more than that, they did allude to the fact that this could be related to the other bodies found in the tri-county region this month…”

As she tied today’s events into the marquee hysteria of the past few weeks, Garrett stared at the one inch screen inside his camera’s eyepiece. Nothing he saw betrayed the fact that the object of his lens had just tossed her cookies - a pungent feat quickly being shadowed by her incredible recovery. When she brought her sixty second report to a logical close, Carl punched another button and cleared their shot. Garrett was about to congratulate his new partner when the phone on his hip rang.

“Da-yumn! The new chick’s hot! Why don’t you guys meet us at Leonard’s for some bar b cue?”

“I dunno,” Garrett said as he watched Jani rake the dry toothpaste across her tongue. “We gotta go interview the cops now.”

Garrett hung up without waiting for a reply. As the beautiful woman jabbed the toothbrush in her mouth, he unplugged cables and flipped off switches, surprised at just how much he liked the new girl.