Sandy, That Bitch: Part 1

WARNING: These next few posts are incredibly dark. Read at your own risk.

To commemorate the one year anniversary of Sandy, I thought I’d tell my own story of what I saw that night and how I felt.

I could probably write a hundred posts about the stuff I experienced during Sandy. I could write a book about the PTSD I experienced after…the fears, the horrors, the nightmares (which I still occasionally have). I’ve never told the full story, not really. I’ve told it in pieces, but I’ll do my best to recreate it here (not hard, since it’s still so fresh in my mind)

But I’ll start like this: I’ve never looked death in the eye until October 29, 2012.

And I didn’t blink.

Now, that makes me sound like a hero or something. I’m not. I’m not even particularly brave. But when faced with the prospect of dying–while just doing your job–you have to be brave.

So here’s my story, as much as I can remember it from that night, almost a year ago.

We were stationed out by the boardwalk, right next to the Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier. I was the 4pm-4am shift, but for these purposes, all you really need to know is that during that time the storm hit.

And boy, did it hit.

I got to the boardwalk to meet the news truck, which was already at the pier. I took my camera out of my work car, but left my tripod in the trunk. I never realized that was the last time I’d ever drive that car again.

I got in the news truck and began talking to the driver and reporter. All of the sudden, I felt the truck shaking. It kind of freaked me out, but I knew this wasn’t the worst it would get.

The truck operator told us that the truck was shaking too hard to put up the satellite dish. So we had to find a place where it would be sheltered by a building.

We decided to drive down along the boardwalk to find a better spot. The truck op and the reporter told me to leave my car in the parking lot, and that we’d come back for it later.

That was my first mistake, listening to them.

We drove down along a road that’s typically only used by pedestrians and Parks Department vehicles. Finally, we found a building that would shelter the satellite dish. We set up shop there, putting the camera on the boardwalk behind the building.

The wind was starting to pick up. There were people walking the boardwalk, some with their kids and dogs. At the time, I thought they were stupid–and how I wouldn’t be there at all if I had the choice.

Now I know we were all taking our lives in our hands.

We interviewed some people, but then the crowd thinned out a bit. The reporter and the truck op went back to the truck. I was supposed to watch the camera to make sure nothing happened to it.

Here’s the thing…I work with a small camera. I had only worked with the big camera they use for live shots once before–during Hurricane Irene. And the truck op had helped me out a lot. So I barely had any idea how to use the camera, let alone get it off and on the gigantic tripod.

So when the wind started picking up even more, I couldn’t take the camera down. Instead, I held onto it for dear life.

I also started yelling for the truck op, but because he was inside the truck several yards away, he couldn’t hear me.

Finally, the reporter and truck op came back out. By this time, the waves had picked up too. I pointed this out to them while the truck op took down the camera.

“We should get that on camera,” the reporter said, pointing to the gigantic waves, which were cresting nearer and nearer to where we were standing.

Thankfully, they let me use the small camera. But I had to do it handheld. So of course, being the spaz I am, I almost fell into the ocean.

But as I neared them, I noticed something. The water was coming up so close that soon it would be below us.

That was when we decided to move. We packed up the truck and headed to a nearby parking lot. By this point, the waves were spewing out under the boardwalk, into the lot.

It soon became clear that if we didn’t move, we were going to be stuck there indefinitely. So the truck op gunned the gas and sped through the water, down Father Capodanno Boulevard, which runs parallel to the beach.

Along the way, we passed by the fishing pier parking lot, where my car was parked. The water had risen so quickly, it was already up to the bumper.

“There’s nothing we can do,” the truck op said as we drove by. “The water is probably already in the exhaust pipe. You probably won’t be able to start it.”

I couldn’t believe it. It wouldn’t end up like that, I thought. We’d go back tomorrow, and the car would start. I was sure of it.

But as we turned onto a street heading inland, I wondered if I could really believe in anything anymore.

What I’ve learned

Here are some things that I’ve found out from working here:

  • Flash flooding sucks.
  • A lot of people think tv stations can “write up a story” without any accompanying video. They can’t.
  • Press conferences are never exciting.
  • You can never just “grab” a story quickly.
  • Even if you tell someone not to touch the mic, they will try to grab it anyway.
  • Very few people notice a camera, even if it’s in plain sight.
  • More men will volunteer to be on camera than women (and old men will almost always agree to do an interview).
  • There is no such thing as a “lazy news assistant.”

 

No, I’m not an intern

I constantly get asked if I’m an intern. As if my company would let an intern go out by herself and use a camera.

Today a guy at one of my shoots asked if I was in college. I said that I had graduated (2 years ago). Then he asked if this was what I wanted to do for my career.

I almost laughed. Because this already is my career.

The funny thing is that no one ever asks my actual interns if they are interns. They assume they are my crew or reporters. One time I let an intern ask questions in an interview, and the interviewee thought my intern was in charge and that I was the intern. Which didn’t make any sense, since I had asked for the interview and told her where to stand and was working the camera.

It’s probably because I have the face of a 14 year old. People are always asking if I’m doing a project for school–and they mean high school.

So no, I’m not an intern, or a student. I’m a full-time employee. Deal with it, world.

The Chicken Lady

A few days ago, I was working with an intern. We had a really hectic day (4 shoots–ugh!) and she asked if this was as crazy as it got for me.

I laughed. Because yes, it was intense, but not even a little bit as crazy as some of my past events.

It was at that moment that I remembered one of my craziest days. A day I refer to in my mind as “The Day of the Chicken Lady.”

I will now retell the story, as much as I can remember, from over a year ago.

It was a summer day, at around 4pm. I had already done a couple stories and was mentally ready to go home.

One of the anchors called me to tell me to check out a weird story. He had seen something about shots fired in a Bay Terrace home and then got a bunch of calls from a tipster about it. According to the tipster, one of her neighbors had shot at another neighbor’s child.

Without knowing the ridiculousness of the scenario I was about to behold, my intern and I got in the car and headed to Bay Terrace.

We pulled up to a crowd forming in front of a house. These were the people who had called–they were expecting us. The main tipster was a woman who my intern called “Blonde Big Ang,” although to me the only commonality between the two of them was chest size. Blonde Big Ang was wearing a leopard print bathing suit that left almost nothing to the imagination. You couldn’t help looking at her boobs, and it didn’t help that whenever she got excited, she began touching them erratically.

“I’m so glad you came!” she exclaimed, hands on her chest, “You’ll never believe what happened here!”

And so, she began to tell us. Her neighbor (the one who allegedly fired the gun) was crazy. She had threatened every single one of the neighbors. Every neighbor seemed to have their own horror story about this woman, which they told us loudly, with crazy gleams in their eyes.

Also, they kept telling us, she kept over a dozen chickens in her backyard.

The altercation in question had occurred when a neighbor whose backyard was attached to the Chicken Lady’s was sitting outside with her 11-year-old daughter. The daughter decided to throw pieces of chalk at the chickens. This set the Chicken Lady off. She began screaming and cursing at them about harming her beloved chickens.

Later that day, the daughter’s bike was vandalized. They believed the Chicken Lady was the culprit.

But the fight didn’t end there. That night, when the daughter was outside on the porch, Chicken Lady opened her window, took out a gun, and shot at her.

Blonde Big Ang told the story so animatedly that it seemed unreal. I’m still not sure I believe it.

The daughter hadn’t been hurt, but the neighbor called the police. They found an illegal gun and ammunition inside the Chicken Lady’s house, but she was nowhere to be found. They took the chickens inside and informed animal control of the situation.

By this point in the story, one of the neighbors was sobbing. Turned out it was the woman whose daughter had been fired at. She told me she had sent her kids away with a family member to keep them safe until Chicken Lady was arrested.

I asked to interview her, since she was the only person there who saw the whole incident. She said she was too distraught to be interviewed, and her sister offered to talk. But her sister wasn’t a firsthand witness. I needed the neighbor to go on camera.

After I begged for about 20 minutes, she agreed. But she wouldn’t do the interview in front of her neighbors, so she offered to take me to her backyard, where the shooting had occurred, to do a one-on-one interview.

I began to follow her, my intern trailing dutifully behind me. But when the neighbor saw him following us, she told me she would not be able to talk if he was there. It had to be just us.

I’m not sure why, since she didn’t know me any better than she knew him. I wasn’t sure if she was insane or just really distressed about the situation. Against my better judgment, I instructed my intern to wait behind with Blonde Big Ang and the rest of the crazy neighborhood. I took him aside and told him that if I didn’t come back in 20 minutes, he should go into the house and make sure I hadn’t become the victim of some kind of crazy ritual sacrifice or something.

The lady took me through her house to the backyard, where she showed me what may have been bullet holes in her deck. I began interviewing her, but she was half crying the entire time and her answers were fairly erratic. I wasn’t even entirely sure that she was telling the same story as Blonde Big Ang.

I did notice that Chicken Lady’s yard, which you could see from the porch I was on, was a hot mess. Furniture everywhere, overgrown weeds, a kiddie pool half-filled with murky water. I could believe that the woman was crazy, but then again, so were her neighbors.

After a while, I suggested we go back outside. As I walked out, my intern looked relieved. I don’t think he had it in him to break down a door and save me from a voodoo mating ritual.

The neighbors continued to talk to me, even though I had told them that we were leaving. We had been there about two hours at this point. Finally we lied and said that the anchor had told us that we absolutely needed to get back to the station.

As we got in the car, my intern turned to me and said, “Those people were crazy!”

I nodded and gunned it out of there.

A few weeks later, I got an email about a hazmat incident at the same address. The assignment desk wanted me to go. I told them no.

I never found out if they charged the Chicken Lady with anything more than illegal weapons charges. But I do think of her every time I drive through Bay Terrace.

Mostly I wonder what happened to the chickens.

Police Tape

A quick post of something odd I experienced today:

I was at a car accident scene, which happened to be in the parking lot of a ShopRite. Half of the parking lot was closed off while police investigated the area where a pedestrian had been struck. The store was still open, and this caused a bit of mayhem.

I should note there was a lot of police tape, as well as a lot of cops.

Part of the area that was closed off had items in it, such as pumpkins, juice, and bottled water.

I didn’t even notice this–I was too busy filming.

But as I was standing by the entrance, I saw a woman duck under the police tape.

I wasn’t the only one that saw–a cop did too.

“Ma’am, you can’t go there,” he yelled.

Instead of apologizing and backtracking, she turned to him and said, “I’m getting bottled water.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but this is an active crime scene. You can’t walk there.”

She was undeterred, “I need to buy this bottled water.”

“You can’t have the water from here right now!”

At this point, the cop actually grabbed her arm and escorted her back to the store’s entrance.

But the woman looked mad. She must have really wanted that bottled water. I think she would have fought him on it more if he hadn’t physically made her leave the scene.

Here’s my advice: if there’s police tape, don’t cross it. There’s more trouble on the other side that you want to get into. Even if you think it’s worth it to break the law in order to get bottled water.

Stupid rules

This post isn’t necessarily about journalism, but just about media jobs in general.

A couple years ago I interned for a network show. You’d probably know the name if I wrote it, which is why I’m not going to say which one it is. But it was a longform news(ish) program.

The thing about this network show was that interns there had a lot of rules that they were expected to follow: Don’t leave the office unless you’re on your lunch break (I broke that one). Don’t prowl around the studios looking for celebrities (I broke that one too). And the weirdest rule was an unspoken one–don’t get too friendly anyone, because they’re your competition (I broke that one big time).

It’s such a contrast to my current job, where there are, by comparison, almost no rules.

But back to the network internship. Every so often they would force us to work the phones at the main desk. I’m no stranger to being a secretary. I worked almost every summer as a kid answering phones in my dad’s law office, so I was used to talking to complete wackos about almost anything.

But at the network, things were a little different than at the law office. I was instructed on my first day at the desk that I absolutely must pick up the phone on the first ring.

What???

I thought they were kidding. Because who really cares about whether someone picks up immediately or not (unless it’s an emergency, of course).

I learned that they were serious the hard way. I didn’t pick up the call on the first ring, and by the second ring someone else had picked it up. Then I was promptly yelled at for making some “very important person” wait .05 seconds to have their call picked up.

Another “fun” rule was that you were expected to know who all of the important people were. They gave you a sheet that you were supposed to memorize with names of presidents and vice presidents and other network hotshots. Of course, being the spaz I am, I was unable to remember most of the names. This caused problems.

One time a woman who I didn’t recognize called and I asked who she was. She got all huffy and informed me that she was a vice president of something or other. And then she got all snappy and asked to be transferred to some other higher up. Which I did, after apologizing. She didn’t seem to forgive me.

I still don’t really understand why she got mad at me. She had to know I was an intern, and who really cares if I know your job title? I make it my policy to treat everyone the same, whether you’re the president of the company or a random caller pitching a story idea.

But rules are rules. And because of that, I’ve made my own rule–I’ll never work at a show like that ever again.

Fashion and Journalism

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.”

And while in some professions, this is great advice, in mine, it’s fairly stupid.

So here, I have laid out all the rules for journalists who work in the field (and are not on camera, because then you should ignore some of these things):

1. Dress for comfort.

In my internship at NBC, we were expected to dress nicely. This meant nice sweaters and khakis on the more casual end, with blazers and tailored pants being the norm.

When I got to my next internship, at my current company, we had orientation. The attire was “business casual,” so I wore a button down and khakis. All the other girls looked like they were going to a sorority mixer–one even had pearls!

The intern coordinator looked at them and said, “You’re probably not going to want to wear that when you’re out in the field. Jeans and a t-shirt are fine.”

They balked. I did too, though I was glad they got yelled at for wearing sundresses to their first day at work (because really, it’s not appropriate). But I wasn’t about to wear jeans and a t-shirt. I was going to dress to impress!

This all changed when I actually got the job a year later. Because I found out I’d be heading anywhere from a murder scene to a fire. And who wants to be all dressed up at a fire? So yeah, I’m the t-shirt and jeans girl. But I pull it off at nice events (a cameraman can get away with anything) and it’s great when I’m filming outside in the elements as well.

2. Avoid Dry Clean Only.

Last year I was training one of our new hires out in the field. She was wearing a really cute floral dress with a fitted blazer on top.

“I love your blazer,” I said.

“Thanks!” she said, beaming.

“Never wear that to work again.”

Her face dropped, “What do you mean? I used to work in fashion. We wore things like this all the time.”

I shook my head, “You’re not going to want to wear that out in the field, unless you’re okay with it getting ruined.”

She brushed off the comment and looked at me like I was crazy.

But a few weeks later, I ran into her and realized she had gotten the message. She was wearing an oversized sweater and jeans. She looked comfortable and appropriate.

The reason I told her not to wear the outfit is because unless you have unlimited funds to pay for dry cleaning, you should always wear things you don’t really care about.

Because they will get ruined. You will sweat in them, or get them dirty, or even make them smell like fire permanently by standing to close to a blaze. They’ll get marks from where the camera bag strap touches them–or when the camera bag hits your side as you’re walking.

So don’t wear things you can’t wash or throw away.

3. Never wear shoes you haven’t already broken in.

This is probably a good rule of thumb for everyone in any profession. But you do a lot of walking as a journalist, and you don’t want blisters.

4. Don’t wear flip flops.

I broke my own rule on this for a whole summer. But since you never know what you’ll be facing, it’s a good rule. I personally recommend always wearing closed toe shoes. Because sometimes you end up wading through sewage (so gross, I know) or filming in the mud.

I personally stopped wearing flip flops when one fell off my foot in the lobby of a police precinct. My bare foot touched the floor–the one that countless criminals have walked on. Someone who got a DUI probably once threw up on that floor. It looked like it hadn’t been washed in about twenty years. And because of that incident, I’ve never worn anything that wasn’t firmly attached to my foot since.

5. Even if you’re only supposed to be in the office, wear things you would be comfortable working in the field in.

You’re going to work in-house, they said. Don’t worry, they said.

Well, they lied.

Because something bad happened–maybe a shooting or a car pileup–and now you have to go outside and shoot it in your designer dress.

So always be prepared.

6. Be prepared for any conditions you might be faced with.

You have to dress for the occasion. And if the occasion is a hurricane, or a snowstorm, or a heatwave, then you can’t be embarrassed dressing for that. During Sandy, I walked around my office in sweatshirts, and yeah, I got dirty looks from the people who don’t work for the news. But it was more important to be warm and comfortable during that time.

On the other end, I used to think it was a heinous crime to wear shorts to work, until I worked through a weeklong heatwave in jeans. After that, I was more than happy to show a little leg.

It’s always good to prepare for the unknown as well. I keep my raincoat and boots in my car, just in case. When it gets colder, I also bring along a scarf, hat and gloves. And sometimes during hotter months, it’s good to pack a sweater in case the A/C is blasting inside somewhere.

7. If you’re covering something nice or unique, you’re allowed to break these rules.

I went to a Fashion Week event last year, so of course I ignored all these rules and dressed up. Because sometimes you have to look your best–or at least a little better than a t-shirt and jeans.

I’m sure there are more rules I could think up, but for now, that’s all I’ve got!

Crazies

There are several types of crazy people. And in this business, you get to deal with all of them.

There are intense crazies. People who insist their story is super important, even though it’s not. People who call you repeatedly, begging you to cover their event.

There are angry crazies, who scream and yell until they get their way. Sometimes these people are also intense crazies.

And then there are just crazy crazies. I encounter these people alarmingly often.

Yesterday, I was walking to a shoot, holding my camera and tripod. A man walked by me, looked at me, and growled like a dog.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

In one of my earliest assignments, I was sent to a really bad neighborhood right around dusk. Half the cars I drove by had flat or slashed tires and broken windows. It was so bad that I had to make the uncomfortable decision of whether to take my valuables with me, because I thought if I left them in the car, the car might be stolen or broken into. If I took them with me, I might get mugged. I decided to lock them in the trunk but take my cell phone to call for help if needed.

As I was walking to my shoot, a man walked past me. Suddenly, he turned and started barking at me. I wasn’t sure if it was some type of mating call or possibly a warning that he was about to attack. In case of the latter, I held my tripod out as if it were a weapon. That’s really one of the few upsides to having to carry it around everywhere–it serves well as a defense mechanism.

He finally continued down the street, deciding not to pursue me. I dashed off to my shoot, feeling grateful that I had not been attacked by a crazy person.

Besides menacing crazies, there are also friendly crazies. One time I was getting interviews and this woman who I asked for an interview spent 20 minutes talking to me (while holding my hand in a death grip) about how she was homeless, but god had a plan for her. Also she had started an Indiegogo campaign to get herself out of poverty, and she wanted me to put it on the news. She also went on a rant for about 10 minutes about how even though we had different skin colors, we were all of one blood, and that I was her sister.

After a while, it got pretty old. But at least she didn’t growl or bark at me, so I appreciated that.

That Time Anthony Weiner Touched Me

You’re probably scared reading the title. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Now that primaries are over, I thought I’d share the craziness that I experienced when Anthony Weiner held a press conference at a house in Tottenville.

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(All pictures in this post were taken by my lovely former intern, Ricky)

To set the stage, let me explain when this happened. It was late July, a few days after the Carlos Danger allegations had come out. Anthony Weiner was everywhere–in the news, on late night tv, in my family dinner conversations. So when I got assigned to cover him, my intern and I of course made off color jokes the whole day leading up to the press conference.

When I first arrived at the house, I could tell it would be crazy. There were so many people there, from all different news organizations. We all set up, waiting diligently for the mayoral hopeful to arrive.

A black SUV pulled up. We all turned, assuming it would be Weiner. But it was only his press person, who introduced herself by screaming at us (without being provoked) about how she was in charge, and how dare we have all set up our cameras and microphones near the podium before she had a chance to move it.

A few days later when I heard one of his key staff members quit, I assumed it was her. You could tell she was not in a good place, emotionally.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t rattled. Yes, there were all these people there. But there was a podium, which was a good sign. We would all just have to stand here and get what we could get. Things would be civilized.

Boy, was I wrong.

A few minutes later, another SUV pulled up. This time, you could tell it was the real deal. Everyone crowded around, trying to get a shot of him walking up to the podium.

We were told that since the house he was touring had been severely damaged in Sandy, it wasn’t safe for all of us to follow him around inside. CNN would go and then give us the feed later. I was grateful, thinking that I had been spared getting elbowed out of the way trying to follow him.

Because journalists can be aggressive. Really aggressive.

He soon came back out and began to answer questions from us. The reporter from my station was the only one who asked about the actual reason he was there–to help a family that had gotten a crappy insurance settlement post-Sandy. Everyone else wanted to know about Carlos Danger.

Weiner was clearly annoyed. At that point, I didn’t really blame him. Who would want to continually answer questions about their sexting and infidelity? But one thing kept bothering me about what he was saying. As much as he said he had apologized to his wife, he never actually seemed sorry. Like he didn’t really think what he did was wrong, even though by all accounts of decency, it really was.

This only got worse when he spoke to one of the women who lived in the neighborhood. She noted that she had been a teacher, and that if she had done what he did, she would have been fired. How could he presume to run a city–where he would oversee all the heads of city agencies–when he had done something that any normal professional would be sacked for?

Instead of saying that he was sorry that she felt that way, he merely said, “I guess you’re not voting for me.”

And by his tone, you could clearly tell he was pretty annoyed. And not really remorseful.

I should add that by this point, he was no longer speaking at the podium. Instead, he had decided to talk one-on-one with voters. Which meant that all hell had broken loose for us media types. We diligently followed him as he walked around the property, talking to local homeowners. Luckily, I was working with one of our reporters. Since she’s a lot taller than I am, she offered to take the camera and do overhead shots while I stuck the microphone close to him.

At one point, the media had completely surrounded him in a circle. I stuck my hand in, holding the microphone, right next to someone’s ear. It was completely, utterly gross.

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Then, he started to move. Suddenly, everything was just a sea of people. People were grabbing onto each other to steady themselves in the crowd. I felt a hand on my arm. I looked up, and saw the hand was attached to none other than Mr. Carlos Danger himself.

I’m not gonna lie, I was kind of grossed out.

Then we stopped again. I stood back a little while the reporter got shots of Weiner talking to more voters.

But he moved again. As I was about to follow him, the man standing in front of me–who was about 6’3 and 400 pounds–turned around and pushed me with both hands.

I stumbled backwards, nearly falling. I looked up and saw in the man’s face that he hadn’t realized the person who was standing behind him was a small girl. I had just been a body in the way to him, until he looked down and realized that I was a young woman.

But instead of saying sorry–just like Weiner–he tried to twist it around.

“You…you’ve gotta move!” he said, fumbling over his words.

If he had said that in the first place, I would have moved. But of course, actions speak louder than words.

Finally, Weiner decided he’d had enough of facing public scrutiny. He went back to the black SUV, got in, and drove away, cameras flashing in his wake.

A few minutes later, a man came up to me, looking confused. He asked, “What’s going on here?”

I looked at him gravely and said, “Weinsanity.”

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So I’m sure you’re all not surprised that I was thrilled when Weiner lost his lead in the polls and eventually lost the primary. Not because of any policy stuff, or even because it would be kind of embarrassing to have a mayor who is famous for sexting. But because I’m just not into being pushed, shoved, or touched by people I don’t know all so I can get another soundbite about Carlos Danger.

Maybe that makes me a bad journalist. But you know what? I don’t care.

Using Your Own Judgment

Yesterday, I was on the phone with our HR rep about my eye.

“I want you to know your health comes first. Don’t do anything to endanger your health.”

I assured her that my eye had pretty much recovered and that I would be perfectly fine to go back to work.

So today, I’m back at work. And guess what I’m covering?

A bomb threat. That’s right, you read that correctly. So much for protecting my health.

I’m stationed right across the street from the area, where a bunch of police cars have blocked the street.

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A reporter from another news agency asked why I didn’t go closer. And then he looked at me like I was crazy when I said I was worried that it might actually be a bomb and I wanted to stay safe.

To me, it seems perfectly logical to not want to die covering a bomb threat. It’s not like anyone would let me close enough to see the supposed bomb anyway.

So I’m staying what seems like a safe distance away. Although it might not be. Who knows.

But my point is, sometimes you need to use your own judgment in these situations. Because as the HR rep said, my health comes first.