Most of the time I take what I do for granted.
I think it comes with the job, or at least eventually it does. In the beginning, I used to get high off the fact that people told me things for no good reason other than I was a reporter and they were being asked questions. I won’t get into the psychosis behind why people feel compelled to reveal so much to a complete stranger because journalist-turned-egomaniac Chuck Klosterman did a pretty good job of exploring the subject in the first chapter of his latest pop culture manifesto, Eating the Dinosaur.
I’ve been interviewing people since I was 16 years old, documenting their triumphs and tragedies and the minutia in between, trying each time to make it seem as if I wasn’t a reporter but a fly on the wall. Hopelessly unobtrusive.
The goal of a feature writer (most of the the time) is to render a story from the advantage of having observed a person in their natural environment, which to be honest, is an advantage few journalists have. The construct of the natural environment is perverted by the mere presence of a journalist, so unless you’re reporting undercover (or an amazingly gifted reporter freelancing for Esquire and best friends with your subject) the people you interview are usually hyper-aware of the fact that what they’re saying will be quoted, misquoted, interpreted and misinterpreted.
For some people, being interviewed and written about is the ultimate validation. For others, it’s painful. Some people would rather retake their high school SATS than sit down with a reporter and answer questions. Other people can’t avoid it. It comes with their job. They’re in positions that people want to know about. They do things that are interesting. They create things that are clever or participate in things that are entertaining.
Mostly, these are the people I talk to.
A few weeks ago, I started my day in Sarasota on an empty tank of gas. I met a French-Canadian prop master with a local theater company at a dingy warehouse behind an airport. While I intended to interview her for a future story, my agenda that day was to pick up old suitcases and trunks for a photo shoot in front of the Sarasota Opera House.
The prop master and I rummaged through the warehouse, which was dark and dusty and smelled like a cellar and an attic at the same time. We pushed aside old mannequins, claw-foot stools, wooden chests with big brass clasps, full-length mirrors, vases, blankets and heavy flower pots, scrambling for the appropriate pieces among piles of used furniture and stuff. As a thrift store junkie, I was in heaven.
Eventually we found four perfect Prohibition-era chests, hefted them into my old Honda and then climbed a set of medieval stairs to the second story of the warehouse, where we pulled two wooden stools from a stash of chairs and then sent them down an elevator shaft that was too loud and rundown to be trusted with human passengers.
Next, I interviewed high-wire daredevil Nik Wallenda in a backyard rigged with more circus equipment than a big top tent.
Sarasota is a circus mecca. It was the winter home of John Ringling, which means hundreds of circus performers trained in Sarasota, bought houses in Sarasota, raised babies in Sarasota. As a result, it’s not uncommon to drive past an otherwise ordinary one-story house crowded with trapeze ropes and pulleys, high-wires and and sway poles. There are so many people in Sarasota with circus blood pumping through their veins that even the town’s former mayor was once a performer, a fact that she still likes to celebrate by dropping into handstands at local events at the age of 70.
It’s how I imagine L.A. is, except instead of randomly spotting Leonardo DiCaprio holding hands with a supermodel, you randomly spot chimpanzees and miniature ponies poking around someone’s driveway.
There was, of course, a miniature pony in the yard where Nik Wallenda was rehearsing for this month’s Circus Sarasota appearance. When I arrived, Wallenda was up on the high-wire with his sister, brother-in-law and various members of his family troupe. His 8-year-old son, a shy kid with a tousled mop of hair, was sitting at a picnic table under the wire, watching his dad teeter 11 feet above.
When Wallenda, a 7th generation circus performer, came down, we talked about everything from his obsession with walking across the Grand Canyon to his great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death in 1978 while attempting a high-wire stunt in Puerto Rico. We talked about Wallenda’s friendship with David Blaine, why Blaine gets TV specials and circus performers do not. We talked about the limitations of having a two-year contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and about McDonalds hamburgers and how wire shoes are made from elk skin, all the while Wallenda pelted a football at his troupe wobbling across the practice wire.
It was late in the day and they had been practicing for hours. Even the miniature pony seemed tired.
As soon as the Wallenda interview wrapped I headed to the opera to help set up the photo shoot, using the various trunks and stools I borrowed from the prop master earlier that day. I was not the photographer, nor the photographer’s assistant. Just a helper, prop-gatherer and model-wrangler for what turned out to be a stellar shoot during my favorite time of the day – the witching hour. As soon as the photo publishes, I’ll post a behind-the-scenes glimpse of it here. It was a tremendous learning experience.
I headed home for St. Petersburg around 7 p.m., my car packed so full of dusty trunks I could barely breathe without sneezing. I was exhausted, starving and digesting too much information. My head was throbbing like a heart right above my eyes, so I turned off the radio and drove in silence.
About 45 minutes into my hour-long commute, I realized I’d taken the wrong exit off the Interstate and driven for at least 20 minutes in the wrong direction in a complete daze. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I daydream so fiercely sometimes that I lose track of my surroundings. I literally forget where I am. Sometimes I think I’m back in Buffalo. It’s like I slip into a kind of fugue state.
I snapped out of it and turned off a road that I assumed would have some fast-food joints and a gas station. I pulled into Sonic, a greasy throwback to 1950s drive-in diners, and ordered french fries and a bucket of popcorn chicken, something I haven’t eaten in YEARS. Since I still had no clue where I was, I asked the carhop when she skated up to my window carrying a tray of chicken and fries.
“How do I get to St. Pete?”
“St. Pete? Um. I’m not sure exactly,” she said. “You’ll probably want to get back on the Interstate and head for Sarasota.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Naw. I’m pretty sure you need to turn around.”
“Alright,” I sighed, surveying the young carhop – 16, skinny, long ponytail, Rollerblades, Olive Oyl ankles.
I signed my name on the debit card receipt and she handed me my bag of food.
“Hey, nice trunks,” she chirped.
“Thanks,” I replied, forgetting at first that I was surrounded by mildewy chests. “They were for a photo shoot.”
I smiled and offered no further explanation. The girl spun around in the parking lot, the empty tray hanging from her hands and skated back into the restaurant. I pulled out of Sonic, popcorn chicken in my cheeks and turned onto the Interstate in the direction of Sarasota.
PS. I took the top photo in June at a folk concert at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. It was never published and had I not (by chance) uploaded it to Flickr, I would have lost it when my computer was stolen.
PPS. A week after I interviewed Nik Wallenda, he walked 600 feet across a high-wire strung between the Ritz-Carlton and a downtown Sarasota condominium. So many people turned out for the spectacle it took me 15 minutes to find an illegal parking spot a mile from the Ritz.