I'm still sometimes astounded by the behavior of people at crime-scenes. From the inner city ghetto to the upscale gated-community, the sudden appearance of emergency vehicles are often cause for instant fellowship, no matter what brought the flashing lights there in the first place. Be it a simple drug bust or a triple homicide - the immediate area comes alive with macabre excitement. A swarm of citizenry gather at the perimeter, as people who might not normally talk to each other trade whispers over sudden trouble. It's simply human nature to stop and gawk. Hell, it's what I do for a living.
But in neighborhoods where crime and tragedy occur more frequently, the assembled masses just outside the crime tape can be downright freaky. I was reminded of this the other week when I spent a couple of hours at a rural trailer park south of Burlington, just hours after a disabled woman burned to death in her modest mobile home.
It happened around three in the morning but my reporter and I didn¹t roll up on scene until nine a.m. The fire was well out by then but the charred remnants of the run-down trailer still hissed and simmered in the distance. Sweaty firemen in turn-out gear milled about and talked shop with a crew-cut fellow from the SBI Arson Team. A dozen neighbors clustered and preened at the far end of the hastily-strung black and yellow tape.
"This should be easy", Erik the reporter said - and without a word we got out of brightly-logo'ed Ford Explorer. As we unpacked our gear we continued our idle office gossip from the ride over, but as we turned to walk toward the trailer and crowd, we both quieted and took on far flatter expressions. Unsaid, yet understood - it was simply the decent way to act around victims of tragedy. Of course, different reporters take different approaches to this kind of thing, from the wide-eyed drama queen to the over-empathizing advocate to squinty seen-it-all cynic. Lucky for me, Erik was a pro. His casual stride and 'just-the facts' demeanor told me we'd be able to handle the whole thing with calm and dignity and still be hitting the Chinese buffet by noon.
As we neared the scene, a rumpled newspaper photographer whom I'd never met approached. Jostling his many lenses, he looked up with a knowing smirk.
"Careful, fellas. They ALL wanna be on Tay-Vay..." Over my shoulder I could hear him chuckling - then suddenly a shout from ahead...
"Yo! News crew in the hizzle Fo' SHIZZLE! Ova here dawg, I tell you wha'chu wanna know!"
Several of the neighbors motioned wildly at us, the largest one waving with both hands. Erik rolled his eyes before turning to walk toward them. Meanwhile, I stopped to shoot the twisted metal that someone recently called home. Through my viewfinder I scanned and recorded eight second shots - a wide perspective of the trailer and yard - a medium shot of the blackened door, a tight shot of a charred flower pot sitting on the front step. Nothing brilliant, just the perfunctory angles destined to become file footage one day. Walking to the far side of the lot, I perched on my tripod and zoomed in on the crowd. Erik was talking to the big one so I cropped him out of the picture and centered on a young woman in a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt. Sucking on a cigarette for all it was worth she quickly spotted me and threw what looked like a gang-sign at me. So much for grief stricken neighbor shot, I thought as I stopped recording.
Erik walked up, his dapper suit and sculpted hair looking out of place in the dusty trailer park yard. "Old lady, epileptic - they think she he had a seizure while smoking a cigarette. Two neighbors ran in to save her but they couldn¹t get to the back room. One of 'em was transported for smoke inhalation. Let's get some sound."
With that, I followed back to the crowd. The first choice was obvious; the massive young chap who dominated our view. Decked out in oversized sweat pants and too-tight Dale Earnhart Jr. t-shirt, he topped it all off with a healthy assortment of pawn-shop bling-bling around his neck. As I rolled tape, I saw he was furiously chewing on a drinking straw, the crumpled plastic tube bent every which-away inside his grinning mouth.
"Okay", said Erik when he saw that I was rolling. "what's your name?"
"They call me Biggie."
"Biggie? You got a last name, Biggie?"
"Biggie, just Biggie."
I looked up, wondering how long Erik would give this clown. As he asked Biggie to recount the events of the previous hours I stared at the one inch black and white screen inside my view piece, and silently debated whether his thousand yard junkie stare was real or not.
"..yeah I know Miss Alice. She get her check EVERY month. See her a lot walkin' to the mailbox or smoking on her back porch...Iz is gon' be on TV?"
"Probably", Eric dead-panned. "I understand you tried to go in to get her out?"
"Man, we tried - but it was too damn hot. Smoke pourin' out of ever where. Yo, what time's dis gon be on?"
As Biggie enjoyed his moment of glory, his squirrely pack of buddies pushed in around him, entranced by the lens of my battered betacam. Scanning the crowd, I thought of my own youthful days wallowing in the muck and redneckery of manufactured housing. Seems unfortunate teeth, free t-shirts and frizzy mullets are still the uniform of the day in certain mobile home courts. Take away the ghetto fabulous flourishes and it could have been any of countless southern fried trailer parks I frequented in the late seventies. To that end, I wasn¹t particularly surprised to discover the sound of the engine idling nearby was coming from a thirty year old Camaro Rally Sport sporting patches of primer gray.
But I was a little taken aback by Biggie's overall giddiness. If what he said was true he just witnessed the horrible death of a friendly neighbor lady. But he was strutting and preening like he¹d just won the lottery. Though I had no emotional ties to the elderly victim, I felt more bummed out about the whole thing than he was. And I¹ve had the misfortune of covering more fatal trailer fires than I can honestly count.
As the camera rolled, I noticed Biggie was playing more to his crowd of buddies than the lens. Turn down the sound and it looked as if he was auditioning for some kind of white boy Def Comedy Jam reality show. Every few seconds he¹s glance nervously at the cops and firefighters gathered just yards away. But he wasn¹t gonna let their presence rob him of any glory. As he chewed his straw and grinned crazily at the camera , Erik went for broke.
"Sounds pretty grim. What's going through your mind now?"
"Man, you know I'm sad and shit. But...we did all we could do, youknowwhatI'msayin, dawg...hey, how much dat camera cawst?"
It was time to move on and we did. We grabbed a quick interview with the Sheriff, who backed up Biggie's theory of epilepsy and cigarettes. I took more shots of the scorched remainder of Miss Alice's trailer, noting how the smell of a structure fire on a chilly morning brought back a flood of news scene memories (I been at this too long). We were packing up when the fire trucks began pulling away. Even the SBI guy was packing up, no doubt late for a firefighter rendezvous at the nearest country-fried diner. They must have wanted to beat the lunch crowd, because they took off in a hurry. We quickly shot a stand-up, a handheld shot panning from the a blackened windowsill to Erik walking past the rubble.
"Fire fighters aren¹t sure the exact cause of the blaze but they say Alice Floyd¹s epilepsy and smoking habit played a major part in her untimely death"
Minutes later we were all packed up and began slowly driving out of the trailer park. As we passed by the trailer with the idling Camaro parked in front, I noticed Biggie and his pals sharing a cigarette under a distant tree.
"Yo dawg, twenty dollahs and I'll get ya inside that trailer!" he roared, sparking an outburst of hysterical laughter amid his set - all of whom looked healthy enough to be find more suitable employment on this fine Tuesday morning than scavenging through some dead old lady's few burned possessions.
"That's okay man, we don't need to go in there" Erik yelled as he rolled up the window. "Geez, that guy's missing a few chromosomes..."
Still, Biggie found his way into our story that night. His ghetto-redneck savoir-faire spiced up a pretty typical trailer-park tragedy. But I had a devil of a time finding footage of the neighbors that didn¹t look like it came from the parking lot of a Monster Truck Show. Especially Biggie. Thr burly young thug grabbed his crotch, spit loogies and issued high-fives all through my tape. What I would have given for a shot of him looking pensive. But this ain't Cinema - It's News, and reality rules the day. Biggie had his moment in the sun.
But at what price to poor dead Miss Alice?