Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From the archives

Here's a piece I wrote last year. I was a television producer for years before going back to school and joining the dark side as a psychologist.

It is my first night on the job. The mesmerizing thrum, thrum, thrum of the generator powering the Jaws of Life fills my consciousness, drugs me. I am thinking that if I ever made a movie of this, that generator sound would provide a hypnotic audio bed. A light rain falls. I stand on the cold pavement of interstate 84, at the mouth of the scenic Columbia Gorge, and I watch a woman die.

If it bleeds, it leads. I had been in the newsroom for an hour or so, trying to fit in and not say anything stupid. I was the new guy, a lowly news department grip. I knew the rudiments of the job -- hooking up the cable that snaked from camera to heavy 3/4 deck, holding a boom mic, crouching down to stay out of the shot, shutting up and staying invisible. Refinement of those skills would eventually take me under massive hydroelectric dams, into the inner sanctums of government, and to front-row vantage points at events for which no amount of money would provide a ticket. For tonight, though, I was the new guy.

If you want to feel safe in your car, it's probably best to never witness the immediate aftermath of a high-speed collision. Glass and metal and plastic and gas and antifreeze and blood and rain, shiny on the pavement, formerly a car and a person. The studied, false calm of an emergency crew. The voyeuristic professionalism of a couple of TV news crews. The last artifacts of a life.

Looking back, the gleeful tone in the news director's voice was a clue to what would eventually drive me from commercial news into public television and eventually away from professional bystanding entirely. "Looks like there might be a fatality!"

I stand in the rain. Long ago, my friend happened across an accident in which a woman was terribly injured. My friend was unable to do anything but hold her hand, and offer her comfort, and provide a human face to gaze upon in her last minutes of life. When I talk about this, I wonder, will I want to remember what it was like to just watch?

A shooter pointed at me, pointed at the gear, and we get ready to leave. I grab batteries, blank tape, microphones, my assigned deck. Simple things, but forget just one and the entire shoot is ruined. I'm jacked up like a fighter entering the ring. The new guy. We throw everything in the van. We race to the scene.

The generator stops suddenly and imbues the scene with an eerie silence. The onboard lights of the tv cameras cast a hard shadow on the dead woman's bloodied face. I find that I'm strangely cut loose from reality in this moment, disembodied, floating above the scene just watching. The sound of the generator was the only thing keeping me attached to the ground, and I no longer have that ballast. I float, wondering if the woman's soul is leaving her body, wondering if she has children. Pieces of shattered windshield give way to an infinite field of stars. Up there, I feel somehow an important part of all of this, there to record her death so it doesn't go unnoticed.

No one talks much on the way back to the station. The reporter is writing his v/o in a little notebook. The shooter calls in with our time of arrival. Back at the station, the news director kills the story in favor of something far more interesting than a single life extinguished on a rainy night in the Gorge. I unpack my gear.

As I lie in my bed later, unable to sleep, a forgiving rain washes away the last of the blood and the antifreeze.

1 comment:

  1. The bridge between business and mortality is sad and fascinating.

    If it bleeds it leads is hard to believe. Yet we have a macabre need to see what the last moment heeds, so we watch the sensational with animate greed.