Friday, February 4, 2011

Why Do Reporters Always Interview People with No Teeth?

    The office was dull and dark and bore an early1970s look.  The wood paneling that adorned its walls made the room feel much smaller than it actually was.  The inside of the building told far more about its age than the outside did. 
     It was a gorgeous spring Friday morning in 2004 and I was a bit uneasy as I sat in front of the desk, facing a rather robust woman with what, to me, was clearly a bottle-blond color job.  She was nice enough but the clock is always working against reporters and I knew I needed to get to work and start chasing  my story for the day.  I had stopped here on my way to work - with my bosses permission - to change my auto insurance policy. 

     The bottle blond was somewhat attentive to my presence but was focused on the task at hand.  She asked all the standard questions:  "Name?  Address? Make and Model of your car?" 

     She rattled them off in rapid-fire succession, faster than I could fire back.  I could tell she knew the insurance industry backward, forward and sideways.  "But she's not much of a conversationalist," I thought to myself. 

     That changed when I responed to her next question. 

     "Who's your employer?"

     "ABC 33/40," I quipped. 

     ABC 33/40 is a highly acclaimed television station in Birmingham, Alabama and I was proud for people to know I worked there.

     "Oh really! What do you do there?" 

     I sensed she was impressed and immediately my ego kicked into overdrive.

     "I'm a reporer," I said.

     "Really?  Did you cover that tornado that touched down in the White Plains community a couple of weeks ago?"  

     White Plains is a tiny town about an hour east of Birmingham.

     "Yes mam, I sure did."  I was beaming.

      I suppose now would be a good time to tell you that there are certain questions people always ask reporters when they meet them.  The most popular is... well, you'll see in a moment.

      "Can I just ask you one question?" 

     I was sure I knew where this was going.  The tornado story was still fresh in my mind and I remembered the rough looking woman I had interviewed whose mobile home had been destroyed.

     "Let me guess," I interrupted her. "You want to know why we always interview women with no teeth after a tornado."  I was prepared to answer that question.  I was not prepared for her reply.

     "Actually, that was my sister," she explained, a bit embarrassed now.  "I was just wandering how we could get a copy of y'all's story."

     "Oh shit!"  I blurted out before I could stop myself.. 

     I wanted to laugh but felt closer to crying.  I had been asked the question about people with no teeth so many times.  "Floor,open up and swallow me," I quickly and quiety wished.

     I had imbedded my foot so deeply in my mouth I thought I would choke on toe jam. To her credit, the bottle blond was gracious about it.   I apologized.  She accepted.  I left her office a little humbled that day.

     Of course that only lasted until I got to work.  Boy did I have one hell of a story to tell!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Meeting Over Coffee

     “Damnit!” snapped the lady in blue.
     “Miss, can you help me here?” called a male voice, the body from which I came I could not determine.
     On and on it went as I stood in the grocery store’s self check-out line with my two items.  “These scanners are not that hard to operate," I considered shouting aloud but smartly, didn't.

     There were four self check-outs at this particular store and someone was using each of them.  A long line was starting to form and I was about sixth or seventh deep in it.  In front of me, one woman had a full – no, a very full – shopping cart.   Clearly my mad dash to the store to get coffee and creamer–  essentials to starting my day – wasn’t going to be quick.  In fact, my day was now getting off to an annoying start without a drop of caffeine in my system to calm me. 

     I first looked about the area for any sign that might limit the number of items one should bring through the self check-out and was prepared to point it out to that woman with the shopping cart.  “Damn,” I mumbled to myself when I didn’t see one.    I then scanned the front of the store in search of a shorter, cashier check-out line.   The two that were open also had long lines.   But what really stood out to me was that out of what looked like 8 or 10 of those regular check-outs, ONLY two were staffed with a cashier.  That sure enough chaffed my yet-to-be-caffeinated ass.

    “Aw shit!” bellowed a deep voice from behind me.  I turned to see a well dressed man just as he rounded the corner and I assumed that groan of frustration had come from him.  He also had coffee in hand – Maxwell House French Roast – and a big bottle of Hazelnut creamer.  Yep,  he and I were on the same morning  hunt  and were both now snared in the same trap.  He spotted me and we immediately started a conversation. 

     “What the hell’s going on here,” he asked.

     “Hardly any check outs open.”

     “Have you noticed how bad customer service has gotten, everywhere?

     No, I really hadn’t.  It was early 2010 and the economy had been souring for a while.  But as I quickly surveyed my mind for a response to his question I realized… “Yes!”  I blurted out.  “Customer service sucks, these days.”

     “You should do a story about it,” he suggested.  “This store is saving a lot of money by operating with a skeleton crew and yet the price of groceries is going up.  You don’t see them sharing those savings with us.”

     I knew he was right.  I began to think of other inconveniences I had endured in recent months;  About how there’s nothing fast about fast food anymore; how even service at a nice restaurant is seldom what it used to be;  how when managers minimally staff their businesses, especially busy ones like grocery stores and restaurants, it puts more pressure on their poorly paid workers.  Those workers get stressed and customers who feel inconvenienced often take their frustrations out on them, making them cranky toward all customers.  I suddenly felt sorry for them.

     I turned to the man with whom I’d been chatting.  “You know what I think?”

     “What’s that?”

     “I think this store doesn’t deserve my business.  Not today, anyway.”

     He agreed.

     “There’s a coffee shop right up the street and I really need a quick fix.  Wanna join me?”


     We both sat our coffee and creamer atop the display at the front of the store and walked out.  I would estimate our combined purchases wouldn’t have netted more than $7 for the store’s coffers.   That small shortage certainly wouldn’t put them of business.

     But on that cold February morning it felt like a victory; like two ordinary people took on a giant corporation and won. 

     Looking back, we DIDN’T make any difference in how companies treat their customers.   But one year ago today, we DID each make a new friend. 

     Thanks Mike!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Real, Raw, Human Emotion - The Sweetest Thing on Earth

    To me, there is nothing more beautiful that real, raw human emotion.  When we strip off all the layers of self righteousness and image-concious crap we adorn ourselves with - all the garbage that hides who we really are - we find we're really all the same.  We all cry; worry; fear; hurt; bleed...  That's humanity in it simplest form.  I'm ashamed to admit that I once forgot what it meant to share that human connection.

    But a few years ago, I fell on hard times for a while.  Things got bad enough I thought I might need some government assistance to survive.  As it turned out, I didn't even qualify for assistance.  What I did qualify for was a change of heart.  And unknowingly, some other people who had also fallen on hard times, gave me one.

    I deal with things by writing about them.  Seldom does it come out as poetry.  This time it did.  Here's a rare glimpse of me raw; real; human.

The Least of These
(A Lesson from the Welfare Line)
By: Chris Tatum

I stood in line with my lay-off letter
In my Calvin Kleins and a J-Crew sweater
And made up my mind that I was better than the best of these.

Then I saw a man:
He hadn’t combed his hair in a day or two
And his breath clung to him like a case of brew.
Masking tape and a paper sack, it
Covered the holes in his leather jacket.
As he walked away in his tattered clothes
I held my breath and pinched my nose
Thinking he’s exactly what I thought I’d find
Waiting here in the welfare line.

Then I saw a mom:
In a pink sweat suit, a Hispanic lady
Hummed a lullaby to her brown-skinned baby.
I stared at her  - hoped she wouldn’t notice.
Her  smile said ‘hi’ but her eyes said hopeless.
It  wasn’t  long til my imagination
Started sizing up her situation.
The father must have been a one night stand.
Her poor baby doesn’t stand a chance.

All around that room where no curtains hung,
People talked of better times to come;
About the President’s economic plan
I was sure none of them could understand.
No wonder, I figured, these folks are in need.
Most prob’ly never got their GED
These loser men and their loser wives
No, I can’t relate to their loser lives.

Then in a lonely corner I saw a lonely man
A phone to his ear, a letter in hand
Trying hard to look like he didn’t belong,
Like his life was perfect, like nothing was wrong.
As I looked a little closer I could clearly see
That lonely man was a lonely me
In a room full of angels sent from above;
God’s messengers of mercy to show me His love.

And as I stood in line with my lay-off letter
In my Calvin Kleins and a J-Crew Sweater
I realized that I’m NO better than the least of these…
For I am the least of these.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Legend of Lea Morningwood (An Intern Tail)

      The first time I laid eyes on her, I heard voices… well really just one voice.  It was strong and authoritative with a soft, soothing undertone.  It told me to steer clear of her.
     I was a reporter at a Birmingham, Alabama television station.  She was a college student who had joined our team for a few weeks as an intern.  To this day I can’t concretely say why I didn’t like her.  I suppose it could be that she rubbed me the wrong way by rubbing against everybody but me. But looking  back, I think I would rather have made love to a sheet of sandpaper than to have felt any friction from her.  Whatever the reason for my dislike of her, it was genuine.
     Sure she was pretty.  And it was obvious to me she thought her good looks would swing wide the very doors it had taken me years of hard work to barely crack.  She seemed smart until she batted her eyelashes at me.  She batted them at every male reporter at the station and a few of them quickly took a likening to her.  Perhaps you can now see why this story is more An Intern Tail, than a tale.

     I had seen her type before.  She thought the concepts of hard work and “paying dues” applied to everyone else.  Success would come easy to her.  She would ascend to a big time TV reporter gig on the backs of all who taught her the ropes. 
      I can only recall one time when I saw her display any skill remotely related to reporting.  I overheard her recounting details to her fellow female interns about some quality time she had spent with another reporter outside of work.
     “Oh my gosh,” she giggled to them.  “It’s like we connected spiritually.”
     I took that to mean they laid hands on each other and spoke in tongues. 
     You should know that when TV reporters look for jobs, in addition to our resume we also send demonstration tapes of work we’ve done.  Potential bosses don’t want to just read about where we’ve worked and what we’ve done.  That tape lets them see how well we do it.  The purpose of an internship is to give college students an up close look at our business and to provide them an opportunity to put their first resume tape together to help them land that first job.  I sensed this intern planned to convince – no, connive -  someone to help with her tape.  Sure she planned to pay them… with nature’s credit card.
    I managed to avoid directly working with her for nearly her entire internship.  Then one day she cornered me for conversation.  “Oh shit!” I thought as I plastered on a plastic smile and prepared to fake enthusiasm.
     “Chris, I heard a rumor (that’s never a good way to start a conversation) that Tatum is not your real last name… that you changed your name for TV.”
     “Was this a question or a statement?” I wondered, determined not to confirm or deny anything from the rumor mill.

     “So I was wondering if you think I should change my name.”

     “Uh-oh!” I thought, as my mind scanned millions of megabytes of memory trying to remember her name.  “Well, um… what is your name?” I finally had to ask.

     “Lea Wood.”

     At that moment, face to face and eye to eye with her I again heard voices.  The first one was kind and familiar.  I recognized it as the same voice that had warned me to steer clear of her when we’d first met. 

     “Don’t do it!” the voice cautioned, almost to the point of alarm.

     But the other voice was much deeper; much darker; much more sinister.  It had a devilishly delicious tone to it.  Before I could stop myself I had fallen under its spell.

     “Lea Wood,” I repeated back to her, then sounded it out slowly.  “Lea Wooood.” 

     I could tell she felt a bit cocky that she had broken my ability to avoid her any longer.   I was still under the spell of that sinister voice.

     “I think Lea Wood is a great base name,” I told her, already laughing on the inside at what I was about to do.  “No, you shouldn’t change it.  Just enhance it a bit.”

     “What do you mean?

      “I don’t know,” I said,  acting like I was in serious thought.   “You want to make it  memorable.  You know… something like… Lea Morningwood.”  

     Surely she could see through such a thinly veiled reference to a hard dick.

     “Lea Mornngwood.  Lea.  Morning.  Wood.”   She kept sounding it aloud.  “I like it!”

     In my defense, I figured she would  eventually tell the other interns about her new TV name  and I was counting one of them to explain the meaning of “Morningwood.”  I didn’t think about it again until I was leaving work one evening and my boss stopped me.   

     “Mr. Tatum, let’s talk for a minute,” he called down the hall.

     I stepped into his office and sat down in the chair that faced his desk.   I had endured many an ass chewing in this chair over the years and now couldn’t help but notice how comfortably it cradled the contour of my ass.
     My boss handed me a VHS tape and I gasped as I read the name emblazoned in red, capital letters across its spine:  LEA MORNINGWOOD. 
     I won’t bore you with details of that particular ass-chewing although I must say that as ass-chewings go, it was monumental.   I admit I felt a little bad when my boss told me this poor girl had sent tapes bearing the name Lea Morningwood  to TV stations all over the country and that there was even a TV industry chat room that had been abuzz about her nasty name. 

      The fact remains that Lea Wood had set out to make a name for herself in TV news.  I like to think that with my help she sort of did:  Lea Morningwood.

     As fate would ultimately have it, Lea Wood married money and now lives the kind of life most reporters can only dream of.  She never worked a day in TV news.

     But the legendary story of the rise and fall of Lea Morningwood lives on at that Birmingham TV station.  And always will, knock wood.