Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Murder of Josh Sweitzer

Josh SweitzerBefore yesterday morning I’d never even heard of Josh Sweitzer. But 24 hours after stepping over puddles of his blood, I’m still trying to figure out why he had to die. It happened less than a mile from El Ocho itself; a burly young man working the counter of his uncle’s convenience store. When a group of rowdy young men crowded the tiny store, he insisted they step outside, with only two at a time remaining inside to buy their items. That obviously didn’t sit well with the young men, for minutes later one of them came back to the store, waited until Josh was alone behind the counter, then stepped inside and executed the 21 year old with a bullet to the brain. Family members say Josh Sweitzer didn’t stop breathing until hours later, but as his blood spread across the floor of the Lucky Mart convenience store, his dreams of becoming a cop - along with every other aspiration the young college graduate ever had - ceased to be...

I, of course, was blissfully unaware of the murder - until I walked into work yesterday morning and found two homicide detectives sitting at my desk. I didn’t know who they were, but their shoulder holsters and sour expressions told me I wouldn’t be turning a story on leftover Halloween candy after all. Instead, I’d spend the day retracing the steps of a most inexplicable act. It started with surveillance photos. The two detectives had them on a disk and together with reporter Caron Myers, were eager to see them disseminated. Still not sure what the suspects were wanted for, I digitized several ATM photos of a young man chuckling as he swiped a stolen bank card. Only after that did Caron interview the cops, and that’s when I learned about the neighborhood slaying that would consume the rest of my day. But even then it didn’t hit home. I’ve covered more murders than I can possibly remember. Rarely do they register as anything but more senseless fodder for the machine. This one, however, did.

Perhaps that’s because I used to frequent the store Josh died in. Or maybe it was because I had the misfortune of stepping inside that very establishment before the crime scene cleaners had arrived. Most probably, my emotional connection was formed when Josh’s uncle stepped before the cameras and told of his young nephew’s thwarted dreams. A big burly guy himself, the uncle’s voiced hitched as tears streamed down his face. A few minutes into the interview, I was breathing heavy myself - even as I reached up to zoom in closer. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t shake the scenario from my mind. Josh’s killers didn’t take anything; they just stepped inside the store and assassinated a young man who was scheduled to meet with an Air Force recruiter a few hours later. If you think it makes no sense on the evening news - ya oughta check it out in 3-D sometime. The only solace is in those surveillance photos. Spreading those across the land won't raise the dead, but hopefully they’ll assist whoever his killers are on their way to the lethal injection lab. I’d kinda like to be there, too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Terror at Twenty Plus

Bald Eagle Trail 2My domicile overrun with 'tween females in period dress, I sought my solace in the woods surrounding Lake Higgins late this afternoon. It was, symphonic. Aside from my late-night keyboard sessions, nothing clears my head like a little singletrack. Hunched over the handlebars in nothing less than a trance, I rocket across root-laden ravines and hiccupping hillocks - my eyes unfocused as I hammer along on instinct and inertia. Late day shadows conspire with freshly fallen leaves to hide stumps and rocks that would surely topple me were I to stop and think about them. But I don't. I don't think about anything as I approach the level of euphoria some folk loiter on street corners to score.

Tree BonesBut a most disturbing thing happened on the way to nirvana. Eerily billowing shapes danced on the periphery; white shapes sticking in the corners of my eye. I ignored it at first, chalking it up to my cyclists' high ... that or some residual brain mirage leftover from one too many late nights spent in the Emerald City. But it stopped just short of hallucination. Instead I was left with a nagging sense of incongruency as roots, wheel and sweat filled my vision. Standing in the saddle, I pumped the pedals and hurtled over the next rise - startling fox and fowl with my sudden appearance. Overhead, a squirrel rolled her eyes at my forty year old physique, before scampering down over a half-chewed skeleton swaying in the breeze.

What The...Skeleton. Half-chewed. In the breeze. The image floated there in my brain-pan for a minute before the implication drifted down to ankle-level. When it did, I picked up even more speed, putting on a display of ass and elbows not seen in these parts since those nudist hippies staged a most unsightly triathalon. Now, I ain't skeered easily. Lackadaisical by nature, I'm quite adept at ignoring politicians, producers and even the paranormal. But something about severed heads and other body parts deep in the woods really stripped my gears and I shot through the forest deep in the grip of a Blair Witch flashback. Only after punching through said foliage did I dare stop and look behind me - at which point I saw the sign advertising the haunted trail starting at dusk...

By the way, does fecal matter wash out of Lycra?

Pimp-Daddy Smoove

'Pookie, Ray-Ray, Pimp-Daddy Smoove, Lil-Bit, Shorty Tim, Slim-Tee and the whole damn hood done lost their frickin' minds. Thugs have been slinging lead like beads off a Mardi Gras float. On Jassamine St., just outside Indian territory in the northern part of the city, we've been to three shootings in three days -- on the same damn corner.'

Thus begins the latest installment from Rick Portier, the Baton Rouge photog who's found a potent voice as Turd Polisher. It's no secret I'm a fan of this guy and it's not just because we live parallel lives. Rick's the real deal - a veteran TV news photog who can shoot, edit, hustle and write. His nightshift missives are always strong, but Turd really shines when he rolls up on a blue light convention and callls a spade a $#&%! shovel. See if you agree...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

But I've Played One on TV...

It was the early 21st century and I was itchin’ to get back on air. Can’t say why exactly; maybe I was just trying to prove I could still pull it off. Whatever the reason, I let it be known to the higher-ups my furry mug was no available to the viewing public. I can’t remember their exact reply but it something along the lines of “Heh…”. Still, I wasn’t discouraged. Neither was I particularly choosy. When the opportunity arose to sub for a morning reporter on vacation, I rose early and drug an iron over some logowear. The resulting television wasn’t memorable to most, but I can’t seem to erase it from my brain, no matter how much therapy I pay for.

There was that frosty morning in front of the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Having read dozens of books on that ugly time, I felt pretty good about my knowledge base - in case I had to riff on the Tet Offensive or something. Of course any and all credibility I may have fostered was downright fragged when the director punched me up before I was ready. All I’ll say is this: It’s tough to be taken seriously on the Fall of Saigon when the audience just listened to you bag on Clay Aiken like a jealous school girl. As far as I know, I’m not allowed back at that park.

Even worse than dishing on a limp-wrested crooner in front of combat veterans is wrapping sixteen minutes of television around the four basic food groups. Still, that was my assignment one morning as I interviewed the world’s most catatonic nutritionist. Shoved up against the white wall of an undersized office, I attempted banter with a young woman who’s only cite proper portion sizes one syllable at a time on. You can imagine my flop sweat as a region of loyal viewers wondered what happened to the regular morning reporter - that cute, willowy chick who made it look so easy. At least I figured out to slow time.

Two years in a row, I drew the dubious honor of fronting our Corporate Challenge live shots. ‘What’s that?’, you didn’t ask. I’ll tell you: it’s a contest between local companies to see which firm can collect the most canned food items for our Holiday Concerts. It sounds simple enough, but each live hit required extensive mention of each and every corporation that took part and now expected their full amount of brand name mollification. Not that it really even mattered what I said, since the corporate partner I was attempting to chortle with all morning was damn near seven feet tall. All anyone ever remembers is that I spent three hours one morning interviewing a belt-buckle.

Bad as that was, it paled in comparison to the way I felt the morning after Hurricane Ophelia brushed the Carolina coast. By then I’d been living out a satellite truck and a musty hotel room for days. I’d forged my way through washed-out sand dunes, dodged flying sheet metal, dined on rock-hard granola bars and generally cursed a lot. By the time the overrated storm finally blew past our encampment, I thought the hard work was done. Then I got a call from my assistant news director, who wanted me to front the next day’s morning live shots. I did and it went okay, but I cannot express what a horrible feeling it is to wake up in a pitch black hotel room with no electricity and know you gotta be on TV in an hour. Kinda like a midnight bowel movement, but with an audience.

I could go on and on, but I’m not sure my self esteem can take it. Instead let me close with one of my favorite live shot memories: It was only a day or two after an ice storm has wiped out power across the Piedmont. Of course my station was in full-on continuous team smotherage mode and staffing was stretched thin. That’s how I found myself parking a live truck on the side of a highway one morning, setting up the camera and stepping in front of it, sans photog. Weirdly enough, I did some of my best live shots that day , probably because I was stoked to pull it all off solo. Sure, no one’s demanded a repeat performance - but I tell you this:

Should either a UFO or Osama Bin Laden crash into Lake Minnetonka in the middle of the night and I'm on call, there will be no waiting for Chet McDimpleChin to arrive. Just sayin'...

Fables of the Reconstruction

Anyone who thinks the California Wildfires were last week's news needs only to peruse the Flickr account of one 104imdirect. From Rancho Bernardo to Barrett Lake, the CNN Newsource photog behind the blog 29.97 FPS is posting powerful evidence of a story that's f-a-r- from over. Along with the pictures you'll find a rather gripping narrative from a young man covering 'the largest evacuation on US soil since the Civil War'. When you put it that way, I feel all the guiltier for letting the West Coast's suffering fall temporarily off my radar. These days, that's pretty much inexcusable -what with all the world's photo albums but a click or two away. Now if you'll excuse me, I have several hundred more galleries to get to...

Monday, October 29, 2007

But I Digress

Ten Years HenceWriting, I find, is the damndest thing. I can neither condone or control it; all I can do is hope it takes me somewhere interesting. Most times it does. When it doesn’t, I tend to mope around and scowl at the wallpaper, a habit my wife can do without. Then again, she has her piano. She’s playing it now, beautifully. Don’t ask me name the song, though. It’s a classical number I’ve only listened to her pound out a million times. One thing I’ve never heard her do however, is sit down to play and not be able to. That would be unthinkable and most unhealthy for the Pittman household. See, that shiny Yamaha is her emotional release - as much as my own coffee-stained keyboard is the key to a good night sleep. When I first began sequestering myself in my upstairs lair to write, I assured my bride all was still well. “Look. I’m not playing Donkey Kong up there,” I’d say - as if chasing pixilated plumbers were any less viable than posting one’s every other thought on the internet. My wife, a wise woman who learned to live with my quirks l-o-n-g ago, only laughs, then threatens to buy me a poster of that damn gorilla. Should I ever get published, I fully expect her to present me with it, whereupon I’ll frame and display it with great pride.

But that day is a long way away - especially since I’m wasting my time riffing on writer’s block, rather than filling holes in my memoir. But therein, lies the rub. No matter how I compartmentalize my time, no matter how many posts I slather on the web, no matter how much fine Guatemalan bean I crush and drain through paper, I still cannot summon the muse whenever I want. I guess that’s why they call it a muse. All I do know is I can schedule whole blocks of time here in my study, only to watch dust motes dance for what feels like hours on end. Other times, I’ll suddenly come to - aware only that I’m totally naked, soaking wet and scribbling rejoinders on the steamed-up shower door (a really bad tactic considering my homeland’s current drought). But I didn’t log in to put that picture in your head; it’s merely what my fingers heard my head say. Most times I pay attention, but there are times I don’t. I’ve learned to just let it go, you see, to allow my hands to dictate that voice in my head and just be glad he’s feeling talkative. Hell, the worst thing that can happen is I’ll refer to myself in third person, something I cringe at every time someone does it in front of my camera.

But I digress, which come to think of it, may be the title of this very post. I’m pretty sure it’ll all be downhill from there - as this is one of those awful stream of consciousness entries my half dozen readers so graciously allow me from time to time. Sorry…and thanks. If you’re still reading this, you either know me or have little else to do. I’m cool with that. In fact, that kind of reader generosity is what keeps blogging possible. If everything I share here had to polished and rewritten, I’d find another hobby and you’d find another website to surf. That would suck, for I am as addicted to your eyeballs as I am hooked on good coffee. How authors of yesteryear produced finished works with no encouragement along the way astounds me. Then again, there’s lots about writing I don’t know. I didn’t study it in the college courses I never attended, didn’t even experiment with in high school (outside of forging a few report cards). I just grew up reading everything I could find, hid my ambition under a cloak of melancholy and figured I’d get around to scribbling down my thoughts someday.

The internet, however, I never saw coming.

Pull Through, Casey...

Anyone who's responded to breaking news knows the utter unpredictability that comes with it. Swirling lights, distracted drivers and a certain tunnel vision can make it treacherous for those with a badge, a fire hose and yes - a TV news camera. It's impossible to know which elements came into play this weekend at Boynton Beach in Florida, but at this point, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that the photog nation - and anyone else who's watched a newscast - keep Casey Lang in their thoughts and prayers. Saturday night the WPEC photojournalist was covering a fatal plane crash outside Quail Ridge Country Club, when a car struck him. The 28 year old was taken to a South Florida hospital, where he's listed in critical but stable condition. Those who know Casey describe him as a 'fighter'. Here's hoping that strength will aid in the quickest of recoveries. Meanwhile, be careful out there...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bliss in the Distance

Whine all you will about this silly gig, it has its moments. Yeah, taxidermists get all the chicks, but what other job's gonna pay you to watch a space shuttle blast off, a landmark implode, or a mayor self-destruct? Best of all, you get to dress like you're on vacation! I'm telling ya, there are worse ways to spend the day. Just ask Andy Atkins, the WFTV photog seen above squinting across the Indian river. He'd tell you it's no walk in the park - but rather a mad dash through broken glass to appease the Local News Gods, a never-ending slog through history and horseshit for an audience made fat, dumb and unimpressed by too many damn Dateline specials. He might speak of crushing deadlines, physical discomfort and numbing repetition. Of course, he might not notice you at all - for the rumble and smoke of the shuttle's ascent may render him positively agog, no matter how many times he's framed it up before. Sure beats stuffin' a woodchuck...