Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Stupid and the Doomed

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?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Jasmine at the Tragic Factory

Whenever someone sees me coming with camera and questions in hand, they invariably ask ‘Where’s the Reporter?”

“Oh, it’s just me today,” I say while setting up my gear. I rarely tell them I most always work alone. It would take far too long to explain how years of babysitting rookie reporters drove me to go solo. They wouldn’t understand, anyway. And though I never do, I’m sometimes yearn to tell them about a young lady who pushed me over the professional edge - a diva in-the-making who oozed arrogance, incompetence and success. We'll call her Jasmine.

From the moment Jasmine arrived at my station, she pioneered new ways to piss people off. Though not technically a rookie, she'd spent a year or two as resident morning anchor bunny out west before making a sizable jump to my shop - where she was erringly heralded by management as 'the next Katie Couric'.

To her credit she wasn't half-bad on the set. With her stylish hair-do and reasonably good looks, she could melt the Windex off a teleprompter at fifty paces. Trouble was, she was hired to report - and after only a day or two it became glaringly obvious to our journeyman group of veteran photographers that this chick couldn't write a grocery list without a six person support staff.

This of course made her exceedingly unpopular with the lens-toting set. Every morning we'd slink in to see what unfortunate sap got 'the bullet'. Grown men would tremble in their photog vests as they watched the assignment editor chalk up their name beside hers. I know, I was one of them.

It wasn't just her lack of experience that made working with her such a traumatic experience. Jasmine seemed to regard anyone off-camera as a lower life-form and wouldn't listen to even the most well-intended advice. Never burdened with tact or charm, she had a preternatural ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Once we were in the home of a b-list NASCAR driver, doing morning live shots with a bunch of racing wives as they hawked an upcoming tour of homes. Jasmine simply didn't 'get' NASCAR and went on and on to the assembled trophy wives how stock car racing was 'a bunch of hillbillies riding in circles'. Silence fell over the kitchen we were huddled in and I fought the urge to low-crawl out of the room as the clueless news queen endlessly disparaged the industry that paid for all those palatial homes. The NASCAR wives threw silent daggers with their eyes but my vapid partner-for-the-day never got the hint. I even agreed with much of what she said, but as she prattled on about 'the idiocy of all motor-sports', all I could do was stare at my tripod and fight the urge to bludgeon her to death with it. She was quite simply, the most unlikable person I have ever met. That's saying a lot, considering the business I’m in.

For awhile her fate seemed delightfully shaky as she butchered a series of high-profile live shots. Not used to working outside the cushy confines of the studio, the little anchor princess repeatedly short-circuited on camera, prompting low-key high-fives from the control room to the photog's lounge. If this world-class vixen was going to crash and burn LIVE every night, her co-workers were more than eager to make popcorn and roll tape.

Sadly, I was the poor schlub saddled to her star the day she halfway redeemed herself. It was an impossibly muggy summer afternoon when she and I rushed to the scene of a fatal house fire. Deep in the barrio of an outlying county, a run-down house had burnt to the ground, killing three small children of an extended migrant family, and whipping the surrounding community into a frenzy.

It was bedlam when we rolled up. Grim-faced paramedics and firefighters milled about as a growing crowd of shocked neighbors whispered and wailed outside the smoking rubble of the gutted home. To make matters infinitely worse, the crowd of shrieking family members and looky-loo's spoke only Spanish. "No problem", Jasmine declared, "so do I". But I had my doubts as she grabbed my wireless microphone and delved into the crowd of grief-stricken Hispanics.
My suspicions were right when, after using the three Spanish words she knew, she stared blankly at the rush of foreign words her questions sparked. As she spun around helplessly with microphone in hand, I did my best to hide behind a light pole.

Eventually she gave up, resigned to the fact we'd have to rely on sound from the fire chief . Even that was painful, as she repeatedly asked the chief WHY he didn't yet know what started the blaze. He shot me questioning looks and I did my best to pantomime an apology. When she finally ran out of yes/no questions, I managed to lock her in our recently-arrived satellite truck. I was doing my best to soothe the fire chief's feathers when Jasmine escaped from the truck and bounded up to me with the joyous glee of a showcase showdown winner...

"We got the 911 tape! We got the 911 tape!", she bellowed through her perfect grin. Glancing at the aggrieved family (who understood enough English to know this vile women was doing back-flips over the bodies of their dead children), I herded her back into the truck and considered throttling her with an orange drop-cord.

Instead I sat with her as she stared at her empty reporter's pad. Despite the fact I wanted to see her fail spectacularly, I listened to myself give her an idea of where to start the story. After about a half hour we were ready to track audio, most of the words coming out of her mouth my very own. When it came time to go live she got through the three line intro and close with barely a hitch, much to my chagrin (and relief).

On the way back to the station, she basked in the after-glow of her first successful live shot in weeks, as I tried not to bite a hole in my lip. She was obviously aware of her precarious position with the bosses and now oozed self-absorbed relief.

"Ya know, I really think it was fate", she said as she checked her look in the mirror, "it was God's way of rewarding me for working so hard. I just needed the chance to show them what I can do..."

I stared at the stretch of two-lane blacktop in front of us and tried to process what I was hearing.

"Let me get this straight", I asked, "God killed three Mexican kids so YOU could have a good live shot?"

The rest of the trip was in silence.


‘Jasmine' held on to her gig a little while longer before being unceremoniously dismissed and replaced. I'm not sure where she landed but I'm certain she hoodwinked some other news executive and is no doubt out-earning me as I write this. Which, in the world of TV news, makes perfect sense.