Friday, September 28, 2012

Sheeka Rising

I liked Sheeka Strickland the moment I heard her cellphone's ringtone. It was Coltrane, which told me that, if nothing else, El Ocho's newest reporter had great taste in music. I told Sheeka as much, then began avoiding her like the plague. Nothing personal, it just behooves me to work alone. But a funny thing happened on the way to exile. The News Gods thrust us together in a flurry of assignments: ludicrous jaunts into the unknown, forged by her determination, my lead foot and the shared belief that you can ALWAYS get lunch. Other shooters took note and soon the scuttlebutt around the damp places that attract photogs was thus: The tall news reporter isn't just capable; she's also pretty chill. "Chill": that's slinger-ese for "This lady won't escalate a bad situation with theatrics or stagecraft." It may sound like feint praise, but when you've worked with the kind of unabashed nut-bags I have, a little rationale is highly valued.

Still, I had my doubts until one day Sheeka and I were dispatched post haste to the scene of a fatal fire. We filled the interior of Unit 4 with small talk all the way there, but that chatter subsided when he pulled up to a smoldering mobile home. The night before, a woman had succumbed to smoke and flames. As we got out of the car, her teenage son looked up from where he was burying the family dog to take in the strangers in the plain white station wagon. Other young relatives were rifling through the dead woman's possessions and the tension was as thick as the smoke that ended her life hours earlier. It was then I noticed the butt of a handgun sticking out of one the boy's waistband. I locked eyes with Sheeka, gestured to the weapon and silently implored her to tread lightly. She nodded acknowledgment, then proceeded to work a difficult scene with compassion and grace. When we left ninety minutes earlier, a few of the family members hugged us and I never again worried about Sheeka Strickland's bedside manner.

That was nearly four years ago - a lifetime in a medium market newsroom. In that epoch, Sheeka proved herself the kind of partner you wanted along, whether the story was certified trophy bait or just some smelly turd. Either way, Sheeka could be counted on to dispose of it properly. Not only that, she smelled fabulous in the process. But despite the high heels and perfume, Sheeka soon became one of the guys. That's a tall order, even for a lady of her height. TV news photogs are a famously bitchy lot. We slay, pray and rage in Hi-Def. That kind of energy and angst can drive many reporters mad, but Sheeka never once let our despondency or histrionics derail her from the deadline looming in the middle distance. She also learned to look the other way whenever I passed out in a parked live truck. I cannot tell you how many times I've woken up from some tortured, contorted drivers seat nap only to see Sheeka next to me, hammering on a laptop and totally ignoring the fact that I'd been drooling, murmuring to myself or, on occasion, weeping. Hey, what are friends for?

Don't bother answering. Just know that I'm really gonna miss this Georgia native. See, Sheeka's about to peace out. After four solid years of knocking down every kind of news story there is, a certain Miss Strickland is fixin' to get her learn on. That is, she's leaving the fold to pursue a Masters of Science and Leadership at Northwestern University in Illinois. On a scholarship, no less! So join me, won't you, in wishing my friend the best of luck her new endeavor. Sheeka's long been a reliable presence in a sea of uncertainty. I know Weaver joins me in treasuring the memories we made while covering Hurricane Irene. After all, we three shared a religious experience over a bucket of freshly fried chicken (first hot meal in three days) and nearly walked out of a Waffle House when the waitress warned us against swallowing anything 'chunky' we might find in our drinks. And then there was the John Edwards trial, a six week ordeal in which Sheeka and I faced every kind of conundrum there was and, usually, came out on top.

Sheeka Scrum 2 
So, there you have it: glowing words about a local TV news reporter. It's not the kind of thing you'll read much of around here and I wouldn't share it now if I didn't mean every syllable. I just hope Sheeka will use that new sheepskin wisely and stay the hell away from this disintegrating end of the business. Otherwise, she's slummin' and she's just too smart for THAT. Besides, I got the market on charming underachievement locked up. It's a skeevy disease, one that no amount of Coltrane can fully cure. Thanks for trying, anyway, Sheeka.

Go Ahead ... Make My Day!

Much has been made about the RNC attendees who threw peanuts at a CNN camerawoman and rightly so. Hurling legume fruits at any photog is wrong and worthy of a nationwide Schmuck Alert -- were it not so effing stupid. But I didn't log in to get political. That ain't my bag. However, as one of a half million lenslingers headed for Charlotte next week, I feel a warning is due: Toss a single nut my way and I will...

    Zoom in on said projectile and follow focus so tightly that NFL Films will demand I overnight them my resumé tape.

    Feign horrible pain upon impact, dropping to my knees and shrieking so theatrically that even that stoner running the C-SPAN camera will pan over my way.

    Caterwaul so completely that every bomb-sniffing dog on the premises will cover their ears and join me in mid howl. I'm serious: I'll make Nancy Kerrigan sound like a lumberjack.

    Shake off any assistance, limp away and then collapse until my fellow photogs throw a cloak over me and drag my crumpled form out of sight. Then I'll do it again, until the corpse of James Brown rolls what's left of his eyes.

    Grant extensive interviews to any and all news crews, offering (between sobs) to recount the cruel act using finger-puppets, that is until the first network completes their computerized reenactment.

     Fly overnight to New York and tell my stories to the stars. I'll hug up on Savannah Guthrie, trade man-scaping plans with Anderson Cooper and, if given the chance, bitch-slap Wolf Blitzer (Hey, why NOT?)

    Score a reality show detailing my long recovery. I'm not sure how much control I'll have over it but I envision a mix of 'Intervention', and 'Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo Child'. At long last I'll get to show the world my tiara collection.

    Pen a six hundred page tome detailing my slow rise to obscurity, brush with airborne peanut infamy and inevitable descent into 'Nutella' induced stupor.

    Turn that book into a passable screenplay, sell it to the highest-bidding studio, campaign to play myself, then begrudgingly agree to let Bradley Cooper take over the starring role.

          I just hope he can capture the real me. a

Through a Lens, Darkly

"Ya ever go to like, murders and stuff?, the high school senior asked. "Sure," I said, "but they’re never as interesting as they are on CSI." The line got a laugh and a groan, so I moved on to another subject. Later that night though, I realized just how much I’d lied to the curious teen.

It was well below zero the day I saw my first body. In fact, the cold was what killed the old man found in the woods that January morning. The scanner led me there - to a vacant lot behind a bank, where a cop buddy let me in close for an unauthorized glance. Camera by my side, I approached the prone figure on the forest floor. Knees bent as if sleeping, the old man in the brown coat and gray beard lay on his side. A wind-blown mound of dead winter leaves covered half his face - the one visible eye open and unfocused. As I bathed in his blank stare, a bank teller’s metallic voice wafted in the distance. Looking around, I noticed the stacked cardboard, the tied-off garbage bag, the worn laundry draped over scraggly pine saplings. Only then did I realize I was standing in the homeless man’s bedroom.

A year or two later, I already considered myself a veteran. With growing skills and too much swagger, I wandered from one random calamity to the next. One warm morning, I followed the voices on the law enforcer’s frequency to a rundown house at the bottom of a hill, where chance and circumstance had claimed another victim. At first glance, the primer-gray Nova sitting cockeyed on the porch was downright laughable, until a familiar officer dropped the F-Bomb. Fatal. Suddenly I noticed a cop unfolding a large white sheet. By the time he draped it over the front of the car, I had him in my camera’s crosshairs. The fleeting shot led the noon that day - the forty second tale of a freak accident involving a speeding Chevy and an unlucky resident -a well-regarded grandfather who liked to sit on his front porch in the morning, sip coffee and wave at the motorists he knew.

Not long after that, I found myself on the edge of another violent demise. An early morning delivery man had sounded the first claxon, dialing 9-1-1 moments after finding a 24 hour convenience store clerk congealing in a pool of his own blood. I joined a fellow photog at the fluttering crime tape and fired up my lens. Behind us, a bloated summer sun peeked over the trees, bathing the store front in warm morning light. The bright orange shafts pierced the windows and lit up the store’s interior, lighting up the scene like some tragic diorama. A heavy detective in a too-tight shirt held his flashlight high, pointing his own beam to the floor as a second detective stepped into frame and snapped a few shots with an oversized camera ‘Bingo’ I said softly, observing the cinematic moment. For several hours I felt good about that shot - until I interviewed the victim’s mother and zoomed in on the tears running down her face.

For months the veteran nurse had mailed letters to anyone who would read them, swearing her ex-husband was going to kill her. When he finally did, I was there. To be fair the unhappy couple were already dead by the time I rolled up to the hospital parking lot. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, only that a double shooting call over the scanner had interrupted my pork chop dinner. The cops were everywhere, their blue lights swirling amid the flash of red ambulance lamps. I panned my lens around a bit, trying to decide what to capture first. In the distance two cops stood over a covered body - the husband who’d followed his first murder with a last suicide attempt. Much closer to my tripod spot, a second sheet lay draped over a crumpled form. I rolled tape on both, before pointing my camera at a pair of woman’s blood-smeared eyeglasses. When I did, blue strobe lights danced in the scratched lenses of the broken frames. My heart raced, knowing the image would soon blanket the airwaves, leaving pain and outrage in its wake.

To say these victims haunt my thoughts would be an overstatement. In fact, I can’t even remember any of their names. But the visual touchstones that surrounded their deaths, the pictures that impacted a region and caused it to recoil, are still very much with me. Sometimes, in the pre-dawn hours of my suburban bedroom, these images splay out on the darkened wall, bringing to mind broadcasted tragedies past and causing me to wonder about the kind of karma I’m collecting. 

Schmuck Alert: Unrequested Beverage!

Screen shot 2012-09-17 at 8.54.04 PM 
ATTENTION: We here at The Lenslinger Institute do not condone the use of physical violence toward assailants of the Fourth Estate. We DO, however, reserve the right to watch, mock and propagate any found footage of such unfortunate instances - especially when they feature flying fluids, saturated accents and one scary-ass skullet. Let's get started, shall we?

Dateline: Down Under... At least, that's where we think this clip comes from. Truth is, we thought the speakers in the Institute's trophy room were shot, until that guy from Accounts Receivable noticed the WIN Television logo on the photog's back. Australia, huh? THAT'S why they talk so funny! Good thing the plot's not lost in translation, for true whup-ass transcends dialect. For example, listen to the news shooter when said inbred serves him the unrequested beverage. The P-Word I get, but the rest is all pops and clicks. Perhaps the soda-spraying naysayer felt the same, for he turns around seeking clarification. Bad move, Riff-Raff. The 'cammo' in question is all out of pejoratives and instead chooses to express himself with his two beefy mitts. What follows is predictable enough. Mr. Refreshment chucks his can in anger, forcing the photog to show the man to his seat - which in this case is a particular piece of pavement between two parked cars. That's when it happens: a sound so sweet it reminds of us a summer rain. (Listen for yourself at :26.) Impact... exasperation... flatulence? Whatever the case, it is deeply satisfying. You know, if we approved of such a thing...