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Monday, February 28, 2005

My own personal burglar

I stood tried to figure out who had switched my looking glass for a bay window. Standing outside was a 30-something guy who looked like he hadn't shaved in a week. He had something on his shirt that looked like smudged cottage cheese. His hair was sticking out in three or four directions.

Though I wasn't sure if he could hear me through the window, I felt obligated to inform him, "It's the middle of the damned workday, man. Look at yourself. get away form my home."

Perhaps, not surprisingly, he offered the same instruction to me. I looked down. I was wearing a pair of three-day-old blue jeans with an A-1 steak sauce stain on the thigh. My t-shirt (something from a Mexican bar I don't remembeer ever visiting) was rumpled and bore the stains of a six-month-old child who can't control his formula. I hadn't shaved since the morning of the final table in Deauville. And my hair was a mess.

"But I have been working my ass off," I said out loud. I'm allowed to look like this.

In fact, while I was allowed, I didn't look too good. After nearly ten years of wearing suits five days a week and shaving every morning, my psyche had staged some sort of rebellion. I'd turned into a slob. It only took a week.

So, late in the week I decided to clean up. I shaved, put on some clean clothes, and ventured out into the world. I went to Circuit City and picked up a new TV and DVD player to replace the 15 year old equipment we'd been watching from bed for the past several years. I went out to eat and to the grocery store. I cooked dinner for my wife and watched a perfectly depressing movie about infidelity and kidnapping.

And then we made wild monkey love (that's me and the wife, not me and the TV).

About once a day, somebody new calls and says, "So, what's it like working from home?"

My standard answer is: "It's odd."

And it is. When I'm on the road, it's not a lot different froom when I was working in TV. It's constant action. I work from the time I wake up until the time I finally find my way to bed (or, on the rare occasion, into a bar). I write until the faux carpal tunnel sets in. I drink European Coke Light until I think I need a bed pan at my work station. I meet new people every day and find myself growing my and more comfortable with my new vocation.

Home is different, though. While I work 8-10 hours a day, I set my own schedule. I sleep a little later than I used to. I work in the late morning and all afternoon. In the early evening, I eat and let the kid vomit on me until he smiles. And then I work for another hour or two before finding a book to get my eyes off the screen. Right now, it's "Be Cool."

Still, it's odd. I can't quite say how. I'm not working any less than I used to, but it's different. I sense I'm finally getting a taste of how real people live. TV is such a screwed up world that you lose all perspective on what's real and what isn't. I thought that when I left TV that I would have a great sense of nostalgia about the old days. In fact, due to some unexpected events, I've developed an even greater sense of contempt for the business. I hate that's happened, but it has.

And so, here I sit. I showered today. I'm wearing a clean shirt and that's a plus.

What's a little funny is that I'm not even going to get a chance to get used to this. By the end of this week, I'll be in Miami. I can't comment on why yet, but it should be a funny story. Then, I head to Austria and Monte Carlo for two weeks.

Odd, indeed.

I'm going to look out that window again and see if that stranger has left. If he hasn't, I'm going to buy a security system for the house.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Walking in Deauville

I smelled salt in the air and thought for a moment. Sure, the English Channel is made up of saltwater, but I never really thought of it as so. Waves crashed in on the beach an eighth of a mile from where I stood and I found myself alone on the street. It was nearing five in the morning and the streets of Deauville France were decidedly empty.

This was a summer town, I knew. It had to be, what with its boardwalk and harbor full of expensive sailboats. It was the kind of place Hollywood stars came to get away from everything.

And Deauville is quite away from anything. It's a two-hour train ride north from Paris. When a traveler finally reaches St. Lazare Station, he's almost happy to pay to go to the restroom. The Charles De Gaulle airport had been harrowing enough. My plane had tried to touch down on the runway, but at the last second, pulled violently skyward. I watched the ground slip away again, like we might be taking off and flying back to Atlanta. Instead, the pilot came on the intercom and said had we landed we would've crashed into another plane.

"It happens sometimes," he said.

Once we found a runway that wasn't full of lost planes, I made what seemed to be much-too-quick trip though passport control. Given, I'd sneaked into a line meant specifically for Swedes, but the guy at the counter seemed to pay curious little attention to my passport, immigration slip, or baggage. Once through the line, I changed some dollars for euros and started looking for the train station. I would've made it there much quicker, but a bomb scare had shut down the walkway leading to the trains.

I sat and bobbed my head to the music on my iPod, a Valentines gift from Mrs. Otis. I watched a happy French policeman hit on two American girls who had climbed atop their luggage to wai out the scare. Suddenly, a crossing guard-style whistle blew and I figured it to be the all-clear signal. What made it all the more odd was that the happy, horny French policeman shoved his fingers in his ears like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Half a second later, an explosion rattled off the marble floors.

So, this is what the French mean by bomb scare. They bring in a bomb and they scare you with it. As the bomb squad and girls with M-16s wrapped up their gear, I wandered by the remains of the suspicous package. It looked like someone had unrolled a case of toilet paper on the floor and charred half of it.

Now, it's almost a week later and I'm back in this infernal place. I got here early because I'm excited to go home. What I've found is a Delta/Air France terminal with metal seats, no hot food restaurants,and some of the ugliest people I've seen since I've been in this country. Right now, the Asian girl across from me is gnawing on a cold sandwich and trying to keep her fat legs pressed together so I don't look up her skirt.

Indeed, I hate this airport more than just about any I've seen. And somehow, I've found that I like France quite a bit. And truly, I didn't spend 15 euro for Wi-Fi access to ramble on about this place where fat girls eat cold sandwiches and wear those fur-topped boots that seem to be cominig back into style.

I came here to talk about Deauville. Actually, not Deauville as much as that morning in Deauville.

I walked out of the casino, because the security staff had locked the door between the gaming area and my hotel room. I wasn't overly eager to get back to the room. Most of the TV channels were in French and I'd had a few beers and felt like going out, but knew I had a long day ahead of me. And it was nearing sun-up. I knew when I got back to my room I'd find the wallpaper that was same pattern as the bed comforter that was the same pattern as the high-backed chairs. It was a little spooky. A lot like the bidet in the bathroom that I never got the courage to use.

Still, the room had heated towel racks and the promise of two chocolate-covered almonds on my pillow when I arrived. I'd have a king-sized beds and motorized window shutter to block out the sun. Of course, I didn't know that when I got back to the room I'd be faced with the only grumpy Frenchman I'd confront all week. He would answer the room service phone and when I asked for au jambon, he would say, "No jambon, only club sandwich." I would say, "That's fine." And he would hang up on me. I would eventually lay in bed for thirty minutes figuring the odds on whether the club sandwich would actually come or the room service guy took my "fine" as some sort of latin-root word for "nevermind." The sandwich would never come and I would get less sleep and less nutrtion as a result.

Funny thing about the club sandwiches in Europe. If you order a traditional club sandwich, it comes with egg on it. In Denmark, it was a fried egg. In France it was hard-boiled. I didn't know the Old World had such a great tradition in eggs, but I'm never one to shirk the community standard. And because I rarely found time to eat at reasonable hours, I ate more club sandwiches than I care to admit. Frankly, I don't want to see eggs again for some time.

But, that would all happen after I took my little walk.

After all this build-up, you might think something interesting happened on the five minute walk around the Hotel Normandy. You might presume some great sea creature crawled out of the English Channel, crept along the boardwalk, worked its way through the fog and tried to gobble me up on the little fairy tale streets. Of course, you'd be wrong.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all.

I stepped off the sidewalk and a wind hit me with the force of a Midwestern spring and the cold of many winters I know personally. It smelled like a thunderstorm, but I knew different. There would be no lightning in this storm. It was a windstorm with much bark but no tree.

I rounded the corner and the wind caught my lapels, turning them up like I might if I were playing James Dean or Count Dracula. The force whipped around me, pushing me down the street, shaking the street lamps and howling like the train the brought me there in the fist place. Up and down the street, most of the little shops were closed up for the winter. The places that didn't shut down for the season were closed up too, waiting until the next day to charge a willing buyer $30 for a beer. I was alone and so far from home it didn't even feel real anymore.

When I started on this journey, my cousin told me to keep track of all the moments in which I asked myself, "How in the hell did I get here?"

This was one of those moments.

It would not be the only one. I would feel the same way again when I walked out the next morning--buzzing on celebratory champagne and the wild, sex-soaked discotheque that I visited--and saw snow sliding out of the sky where the wind had been the night before. I would feel the same way when people went out of their way to tell me they think my work is "simply brilliant." I would feel the same way when I found myself in poker games with some of Europe's most well-known pros, playing silly games for low stakes and keeping the poker room open later than it wanted to be. I'd feel the same way when I found myself on the train back to Paris with four guys (one of whom had won about $50,000 the day before in a poker tournament) playing Chinese Poker for a euro a point. I didn't play that one. I just sat back and tried to learn the game by watching. Learning was hard, though, for that earlier snow had painted the French countryside in white and it was impossible to ignore for very long.

No, that first moment is the one I'll likely remember. Alone on a Deauville street, beaten by the wind, hands stuffed in my pockets, shirt collars turned up. It was about as alone as a guy can be. It's the first time being alone ever really felt interesting.

Of course, the moment waned shortly after I pushed through the revolving door of the 100 year-old hotel and the old black gentleman said, "Bon soir." By the time the room service operator was hanging up on me, I'd forgotten about how nice it felt to be walking down that street.

The wind wouldn't die down for some time and I fell asleep later to the sound of it pushing against my old, wooden windows.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

I guess it had to happen

My desk here at work is a mess of memories and the mundane. Pictures dating back five years line the little cube. There's one of me and JB standing in front of a tank in the desert. There's me and Mrs. Otis at the altar. There's Fries comforting me after the Clemson Tigers embarrased Mizzou in Death Valley. Mug shots of some of the most important criminals in my life are taped around my computer monitor. The high school principal who lost his job after I reported about his perscription drug crimes. The dermatologist who lost his medical license after I spent a year digging into his background of child molestation. Oh, yeah, and the bankrobber who made "Your mom" jokes at me when the cops pulled him out of his spider hole.

Just above one of the mugshots is a quote from D.C. Mayor Marion Barry: "First, it was not a strip bar, it was an erotic club. And second, what can I say? I'm a night owl."

Lt. Death Head, the skull pez dispenser, sits upright on the edge of the cube, looking over the mess. I never really know what I meant for him to symbolize, but the sometimes ugly nature of my job seemed to fit in with his persona. I can't decide if I want to take him with me when I leave here on Friday.

I picked up some boxes this afternoon with the intention of beginning the task of clearing out six years of notes, tapes, and memories. Although I had a couple of hours to kill at the end of the day, for some reason I couldn't bring myself to do it. I told myself it was because I wanted to keep listening to Yahoo! Launchcast on my earphones, but I think I'm just avoiding in the inevitable nostalgia that will go with boxing everything up and carrying it out to the parking lot.

And so I sat here listening to music and checking my e-mail every few minutes. Somehow I've established about a half dozen active e-mail accounts and it's all I can do to keep up with the inboxes. The Steve Goodman song "Would You Like to Learn to Dance" came on. It's not really a sad song, but it always sort of makes me misty.

And then it happened.

I started getting sad.

My cousin and a columnist from my hometown newspaper have both spent some time recently writing about the death of one of their former newspaper editors. The reverence in their writing makes me believe I would've been happy working under the guy.

It's the same respect I have for my bosses. For all the crap that goes on in TV news and the occasional shame that corporate ownership brings on local news, my bosses, Andy and Lee, still have a passion that makes me sad to leave. Deep down, I know they rage against the dying of the the picture tube light. I honestly believe they would've paid me more if they could. I honestly believe they'd rather I stay here. But I also know they are happy for me to be chasing this little dream of mine.

That is...this leaving thing would be a lot easier if I hated them like a lot of people hate their bosses.

There's a lot of stuff I'm not going to miss about this job. I'm not going to miss making up the news on the day when there is none. I'm not going to miss standing out in the cold because a pellet of ice fell from the sky. I'm not going to miss standing in the dark at 6pm because "viewers feel a live report makes the story more significant."

But I am going to miss the people and the much-too-rare surge of adrenaline that comes from being in the firing line of a crazed psycho with a gun or sitting face to face with a killer as he confesses his crimes.

I've done a lot of things in this job that I otherwise might not have done. I've ridden in a blimp. I've ridden along with fugitive squads as they jumped out of unmarked vans and pounced on their prey. I've seen enough dead bodies to know I don't really care to see any more. I've shot automatic weapons. I've been tazed. I've bit hit on by a transvestite hooker.

Most importantly, I've told stories nobody had ever heard.

Now Bob Dylan is on Launchcast Talkin' World War III. My desk looks just like it did a few minutes ago when I started this post. I still have three more days before they take my security key fob and send me on my way.

Around here, when we are having a hard time finishing a story, we call it the "Last Line Blues."

I guess that's something I'll be packing up to take home with me, too.

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Rapid Eye Reality is the personal blog of writer Brad Willis, aka Otis.
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