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In a downscale apartment complex off I-5 in Chula Vista, I negotiate the sale: $750 for exclusive shots of a bikini model who’s done her last photo shoot.

These cozy images of the woman and her old boyfriend at Solana Beach may be the last ones taken of her alive.

I’m a freelance TV producer, working for a syndicated entertainment show. In the process of completing the assignment, it’s also been my good fortune to hose a major television network, which has already scored a set of the prints. But they’re being held for a weekly television newsmagazine, which won’t air until tomorrow. Bad mistake.

It gets worse for the competition. The cheap bastards haven’t locked up the photo rights. My syndicated show quickly makes a deal. The images will be broadcast in a few hours, scooping the network.

In Los Angeles, my bureau chief is ecstatic. Over the phone he crows, “We really put the boot up their asses this time.”

Moments like this burnish my reputation as the go-to guy for stories in San Diego. But I’ve also angered the media gods, who have ways of demonstrating displeasure with a lowly day-hire who crosses them.

When a national story breaks in San Diego, and there’s no time to send a crew from L.A., I get a phone call. Or maybe a news outlet needs a door-knock, a document run, or other off-camera chores. This is menial labor in the glamorous media world, but it’s embarrassingly easy. No tapes to log, no scripts to write. Just fax or FedEx the raw material and everybody’s happy.

The overnight jobs are more challenging. Producing a network live shot means arriving with the satellite truck, usually at 2:00 a.m. The morning shows don’t hit on the East Coast for two hours after that, but start times are non-negotiable. Waking up at 1:00 a.m. always hurts. Plus, it’s no fun dealing with some of the staffers for these early shows, who are truly disturbed.

I go to bed early the night before. Fearful that I’ve overslept, I jolt upright several times to look at the clock. When I finally get some decent REMs going, the alarm startles me. I’m instantly awake, thanks to a massive adrenaline dump. I splash water on my face and get dressed quickly. It takes me one second to style my hair. It’s called a ball cap.

Forget about the shower or the makeup. As a freelance producer, I never appear on-camera. There are many others who toil behind the scenes, but a temp like me is an amoeba in the national media’s food chain. As the lowest form of life, I wait for my superiors in New York to scream when something goes wrong on the shoot. The control room keeps a phone line open, waiting for those opportunities.

This morning, I’m at the zoo, where one of the pandas recently gave birth. There’s a major problem just before airtime. Bai Yun, which means White Cloud in Chinese, won’t come out of her enclosure. Across the country, this infuriates a guy named Jim, who’s communicating with the crew in San Diego. He starts yelling at me.

“You just blew through the tease, Kevin. I hope you’re happy.”

“Sorry. We’re doing the best we can.”

“Sorry? Sorry? What good are you? If you can’t handle this job, we’ll find another producer.”

Good luck with that, pal, at fricking 4:30 a.m. He must have forgotten about the time difference. The West Coast is still sleeping. Sadly, this includes Bai Yun.

I hold the phone away from my ear, hoping Jim will punch himself out. I look around the fake jungle, shrouded in darkness. It’s surreal. I tune back into his rant.

“…do something, Kevin. You’re talking to a very upset person in New York.” He’s more like a deranged poodle, frothy and shrill. But I know what he wants. I’m supposed to get angry with the zoo’s PR guy and the panda expert, both of whom are standing right next to me. These poor bastards had to get up in the middle of the night, too.

“Hey!” I say to them, speaking a little louder than usual. Maybe I can trick Jim into thinking I’m furious. “New York wants to know if there’s anything you can do.”

The zoo people look at me like I’m an idiot.

“Well, they’re wild animals,” the panda expert says. “Their behavior is unpredictable.”

I want to debate the primal instincts of any animal named after condensed water vapor. My cat, a serial killer of lizards, rats, and even small cottontails, could take a panda. Jim, who has been monitoring the conversation, is also unimpressed.

“We’ve done wild animals before,” he says. “We’ve never had a problem, Kevin. Do something.”

I can’t recall now if Bai Yun ever came out of her enclosure. What I do remember is speaking to Jim on my cell phone later that morning, following his miraculous recovery from an aneurysm. He doesn’t mention the pandas. It’s as if the blown live shot never happened. Instead, we discuss some procedural nonsense about using different telephone numbers to reach the control room in New York. I take notes. The sad truth is that I will work with this clown again. As I head to my bedroom for a nap, I wonder if Jim is a master at compartmentalizing or just one miserable human being.

When I’m not freelancing, I’m home working on a novel. During breaks, I talk with my neighbor when I see her outside. “Right now, a celebrity is doing something incredibly stupid,” I say. “I just hope it’s in San Diego. That way, I get paid to cover it.”

“I never thought of it that way,” she muses. The poor lady is accustomed to my bottom-feeder cynicism.

I need another Tiger Woods or Jesse James. Both of those bad boys had lovers in San Diego County. Bimbo eruptions are the best, especially if there’s juicy evidence. What, those text messages didn’t get erased? Cha-ching.

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