Read an ExcerptGloss
By Jennifer Oko Mira
Copyright © 2008 Jennifer Oko
All right reserved.
"Thirty seconds to air!" the stage manager skipped over the wires strewn about the floor and jumped behind the row of semirobotic cameras.
"Shit!" The frail makeup artist rushed forward, armed with a powder puff, and dived for Ken Klark's shiny, pert nose. The white dust settled and she was gone, out of the shot.
Klark stroked his chiseled chin, smoothed back what there was to smooth of his ever so trendy, close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, and ran his tongue over his neon-white teeth. Four thousand dollars in caps right there. He had expensed them to the network, which did not contest.
He tugged his dark blue blazer behind him once more and sat up cocksure.
"Three! Two!" On the unspoken count of "One" the stage manager mimed a gunshot at Klark, who smiled, leaned a bit forward, waiting a beat for the zooming camera lens to settle on him. "Good morning, everyone! It's a New Day, USA!" he said.
"Today is April 4th, and this is ZBC News. I'm Ken Klark."
"And I'm Faith Heide." A small, bobbed blonde in a fitted red sweater popped up on the screen, emitting a girl-next-door smile into eight point five million homes.
And I'm fucked,I thought as I ran into the control room behind the set, twenty minutes late.You are supposed to check your graphics and chyrons before the show, not when it's already live on the air.
The eyes of theexecutive producer were illuminated by the wall of monitors at the front of the darkened room, making it particularly intimidating as he turned them toward me for a brief moment, adding pressure to my dangerously undercaffeinated brain.
It was never a good thing to enter the control room without having had at least a sip of morning coffee,because even with the dimmed lights and hushed tones, the place was electrically charged. Figuratively, I mean. Of course it was literally, too. I often thought they turned down the lights not because it was easier for the director to focus on the monitors,since the darkness cuts down on the glare, but because sometimes it seemed the energy emitted by live television was too powerful to face front on.Think about it.For something to have enough energy to hold the attention of someone as far away as,say,Huntsville, Alabama, imagine the energy it has when up close and personal.
I tiptoed over to the row of graphics terminals. "Maria," I whispered to the unionized (and therefore to be treated very nicely) woman whose job it was to hit the button to call up each title as the director asked for it."Can I check my chyron list at the break?"
She didn't respond, but I knew she heard me. So I hovered, counting down the seconds to the commercial interruption, at which point I knew, because we had been through this before, she would wordlessly, if slightly aggressively, punch up the titles on the computer so I could make sure that none of the characters in my piece would have a misspelled name show up underneath them on the screen. I did this because such an error is one of journalism's cardinal sins. No matter how moving, how well-crafted, well-researched, well-written, well-produced your piece, be it an article or a lower-third graphic for a segment of fluff, spelling someone's name wrong was as good for your career as if you got caught sleeping with the big boss's husband. Actually, that's a bad analogy. In network television, most of the big bosses have wives.
"It's P-u-r-n-e-l-l," I said. "Not P-e-r-n-e-l-l."
"That's what you sent us." She didn't turn to look at me when she said this.
"I know. That's why I'm here. We have to fix it." I was talking through my teeth, but trying to sound sweet and sympathetic all the same.
"Whatever," she said, typing in the correction one rigid finger at a time.
I exhaled. It was 7:12. That meant about eighteen more minutes for airing"important"stories,and twenty-three minutes until mine.
I went to the green room to steal some coffee. Technically, that pot was for the guests. But the mud they made for the staff was just plain offensive, and I'm sorry, I worked very hard and was entitled to something that was, at the very least, drinkable.
The green room was not actually green. Green rooms hardly ever are. When I worked at Sunrise America,the walls were blue. Here, our walls were a soothing, creamy yellow. If Franklin, the middle-aged man who considered himself the patron of the room, a man steeped in petty authority and indulgently expensive colognes, wasn't around, it was one of my favorite places to watch the show. The couch and chairs were upholstered in a soft, welcoming tweed, the monitors were tuned to every network, for comparison's sake, and there was an abundant spread of fresh fruit, cheese and pastries.
That day, a B-list movie star was holding court next to the latest reality game show reject, and I knew that Franklin wouldn't dare say anything to me in front of them. And by the time the show was over, he would have forgotten my trespass.
Or he would have if it weren't for the fact that as I turned to exit, carrying my hot, filled-to-the-brim cup of much needed coffee, I walked right into Oh!
"Oh, my God, I am so sorry," I said as I put down my foam cup and grabbed for some paper napkins.
"Don't worry. It's just my shoe."
"No, but " I bent down to mop up the brown liquid that was pooling at the front crease of this guy's tan suede Wallabies.
"It's really okay." And then he bent down just as I was looking up and
"Ow." Shit. My head hit his chin.
"S'okay." And his tongue was bleeding.
This was worse than misspelling a name. I had now ruined the tongue of a man who, I assumed, was supposed to be a guest on our show. A speaking guest.
Franklin was already at the guest's side, ice water in hand, ushering him to the couch, fawning over him as if he were a damaged little bird.
I pulled myself up and started to apologize again. "Wheelly," the guest said, tongue in cup, green eyes on me, "I wasn't wooking either."
Luckily, the B-list star and the reality guest had been too wrapped up in the accolades of their publicity entourages to notice what was going on. And before Franklin could chew me out, a barely postpubescent production intern appeared to say the guest named Mark was needed in makeup.
The tongueless guy stood up. "'At's me."
"Let me show you where to go," I said. "I promise it's safe now."
He laughed and followed me down the hall.
I was never a morning person. I liked to think the fact that the bulk of my career was spent in the trenches of morning television was inexplicable. I'd started out my career assuming that by this point (the moment I spilled the coffee on the show, I mean, not right now, sitting here scribbling behind bars), almost ten years into it, I would be producing world-changing investigative reports and documentary-length profiles of the interesting and important. But aside from the fact that there wasn't much of an audience for such things, it turned out that getting a staff job at one of the few programs (most of them on public television) that did that sort of work required a kind of wakeup-and-smell-the-blood ambition I just didn't have. As already alluded to, when I woke up, I couldn't really do much until I smelled the coffee. And if you didn't wake up smelling blood, the rumor was that the only other way of getting one of those jobs was by waking up and smelling some suit's morning breath, if you know what I mean. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) that opportunity hadn't come my way. Instead, I had developed a talent for turning out perfectly toned feel-good feature stories for the top-ranked national morning show. Wake-up-and-start-your-day-inspired stories. Have-a-good-chuckle-in-the morning stories. Learn-how-to-improve-your-life-with-the-latest-soon-to-be-forgotten-exercise-trend stories. But sometimes, especially since the war, if I was lucky, I was able to sneak in an occasional learn-something-valuable-about-the-world-at-large story, and it was that sort of thing that kept me going. Like this day's story, for example.
"So, what do you do here?"
"You work here, right?" said the man named Mark, tongue clearly improving, honey-brown hair being combed and teased. I was standing on the threshold of the fluorescent lit makeup room, waiting to escort him back to the green room once the face powder set, watching the artists work him up like a diva, slathering cover-up around his eyes as if looking like he was approaching his mid-thirties,which he did,was not entirely acceptable.
"Oh.Yeah." I twisted my ponytail around in my hand. My hair was long then, and I accidentally caught a strand in my mouth. I hated it when I did that.
I pulled it out, hoping he hadn't noticed. "Sorry. No coffee yet, you know? My brain isn't fully functional."
He laughed and playfully suggested I drink some off his shoe. Ha. Ha.
"I usually don't come to the studio," I said, explaining that I only did tape pieces, suggesting by my tone that I was somehow above the 6:00 a.m.call,like I was showing off. Which I suppose Iwas.
"So, why are you here today?"
"I heard one of our guests needed some coffee." He was looking at me via my reflection in the mirror, and I was deeply regretting hitting the snooze button earlier, not allowing myself enough time to put on any makeup. But, looking at my reddening cheeks, I knew I didn't need any blush.
He smiled. Cute dimples, I thought, which made me a little nervous. I glanced at my watch.
"We should get going."
The stylist sprayed Mark's (thick) hair one last time, trying unsuccessfully to tame a small cowlick on the right side of his head. He laughed (look at those dimples) and told her to leave it, that without it no one would know it was really him on TV.
I brought him to the sound check, where a lavaliere microphone was clipped to his tie, and then I left him with another nubile production assistant so I could get to the control room in time to watch my piece.
"Sorry again," I said over my shoulder.
"Don't apologize," he said. "I feel like I should buy you a coffee or something. I was the one who got in your way."
I emitted a shrill giggle (ugh!) and rushed down the hall. By the time I reached the control room, my cheeks were so flushed they hurt.
"What's wrong with you?" my friend Caitlin whispered as I sidled up next to her. Caitlin was another producer on the show, although she only did live bookingspoliticians, pundits and their ilk. We'd worked together for years now, sharing late nights at work and many drinks at the corner bar afterward, and our friendship had long extended beyond the office. She was a friend I could call after a bad date or a bad haircut. I was a friend she would call for the same. Truth be told, for her the bad haircuts were pretty common. She had recently acquired an unflattering bob, streaked in brassy shades of red and yellow that seemed to change with each flicker of the monitor lights. She tried to tone it down by clipping it back with little baby barrettes, and the general visage was far from professional. Certainly, she looked odd as we stood in the control room, hovering in the back row where the segment producers waited to watch their pieces hit the airwaves. Apparently, I looked a little odd myself.
"Annie?" She tried again. "Your cheeks are like a clown's. What's going on?"
"Nothing," I said, my voice still sort of shrill.
"Whatever." She let out a quiet, knowing chuckle. "Thanks for babysitting my guest. I got here late."
"Yeah. He goes on after your segment. Isn't he cute?"
"I didn't really notice."
She gave me a don't bullshit me kind of look. I glanced at the clock: 7:34.
"Excuse me, my piece is up." I went to stand next to the executive producer, the EP, which is what we producers did so we could gauge his reaction when our pieces were on. It was the only time to get feedback. The rest of the day, he was too busy planning for tomorrow. There is no such thing as retrospect in morning television. It's all present tense and tease the future. "Take camera five! Cue music! Dissolve four." The director brought us safely out of commercial. "Take three!"
Faith Heide looked up. "Welcome back to New Day USA," she said with an engaging smile, which quickly morphed into a furrowed, concerned-citizen look. "Later this hour, is the popular eggshell diet safe? And we'll talk to the stars of the hot new reality show Who's Your Mama.But first (pregnant pause), for this week's edition of our American Ideals series, I met a man whose free-market ingenuity is helping to improve the lives of some women who, until recently, didn't know what it meant to be free."
She turned her head to watch the video on the enormous plasma monitor to her left, and then the image went full screen.
I breathed in deeply. I always got a bit of a knot in my stomach when I heard the words I had written come out of an anchor's mouth. I never knew what they were going to do with them. And Faith, of late, had apparently decided she needed to be taken more seriously. Meaning she was constantly lowering her voice a few octaves and interjecting poignancy with perceptible sighs, trying, I suppose, to sound smarter.You could try to tell her to speak normally, but she wasn't one for taking direction. Her agent had recently negotiated to get her the largest salary in television history (with a decade-long job guarantee), so she probably felt that she didn't really need to learn anything new.
"Douglas Purnell might not look like someone who would care much about mascara,"Faith's narration began.I watched my work in the staccato reflections of light the monitor cast upon my boss's face. A flicker of emotion from him would be victorious. Call it compassion fatigue, but most television news professionals are intensely jaded. Once, I had produced a piece about a reunion of people who had grown up in a brutal orphanage. But the show was tight on time and something needed to go. "What do you think?"the director had asked the executive producer.The EP had turned to him and said,as if it was the most obvious thing, "Kill the orphans."
Anyway, the piece I had on that day had nothing to do with orphanages. It was a profile about this guy Doug Purnell who had set up a number of beauty parlors and cosmetics laboratories in Fardish refugee camps at the southern edge of the former Soviet Union, all run by women. We didn't shoot there, of course. There was no budget for international travel anymore, especially if it meant going to upsetting places where we'd once funded wars. All of the interviews were done stateside, in Purnell's D.C. office (an organization called Cosmetic Relief) except for a short pickup bit shot by one of the freelance crews the network retained in the region, and there was some amateur DV footage provided by Purnell himself. But it was clear, from the translated sound bites, that these women were immensely grateful to him. He was helping them become self-sufficient while building self-esteem in the process. And the story was as all-American as a network could ask for because a major American cosmetics company had loaned funds and supplies. It was the best story I had done in a while. The most interesting to me, anyway.
Excerpted from Gloss by Jennifer Oko Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Oko. Excerpted by permission.
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