Wednesday, June 23, 2010
My most recent assignment for MURL has taught me several valuable lessons. The assignment concerned a woman in North Philadelphia who was being tormented by tenants who paid her no rent and ruined her home by stealing the copper from the walls, effectively destroying her plumbing and electrical systems.
During the videotaping of the interior of the home, the tenants who stayed in the house were angered by our presence in their personal space. These men had been drinking 40 ounce beers all day, the homeowner explained, making them prone to shouting and fits of violence. The homeowner said quietly that we should quickly move the filming to the upper floors of the home to avoid further conflict. The audio of the homeowner from the during the first floor tour was unusable do it the lavaliere microphone picking up all the insults and expletives hurled by the tenants on the porch. Move quickly and take note of what the interviewee said so she can repeat it when we arrived at the more secure and quiet second floor. First lesson learned.
My wife, Kelly, accompanied me this day to help out with moving the equipment and taking notes to use later when writing the article. Feeling that we had left our troubles on the first floor, we began an interview upstairs where I used the notes taken by my wife as guide to what we may have missed during the profanity-laden porch and first floor fiasco.
Moving to the rear of the home we came upon a room that was unremarkable save the cardboard beer container holding cat food and a pile of neatly arranged, but rotting chicken wings. To get a pan shot without the cardboard box, I made my way to the center of the peeling hardwood floors and kicked the box to the side. A cloud of what I thought to be dust quickly rose and then fell. Nothing out of the ordinary given the condition of the house, but the dust would turn out to be much more than I could have ever anticipated.
Kelly then excused herself from the back room so that she could take some more pictures. This confused me being that I was acutely aware that we had photographed the entire building and this room was to be our last stop. To save the embarrassment of the homeowner, Kelly had taken to another room to try and rid herself of the fleas were now biting her ankles and calfs. That innocuous dust could I had kicked up earlier was in fact a cloud of bloodsucking, itch-inducing parasites. That's right, we have fleas, or had fleas to be more accurate. Did I mention that the day we were filming was our 1 year wedding anniversary? Second lesson learned.
If anyone has ever had fleas, you understand the anxiety associated with having them. First and foremost, once you know there are fleas in your home, you cannot stop itching. Most of the itching is psychosomatic, but the very idea of the bugs being present causes fits of scratching. Second, if you have fleas on your clothes they are most likely in your house, on your pets, in your bed and in my case, all over my car and very unhappy wife.
I began by profusely apologizing which worked for a while, but once she had 2 dozen bites amassed on one leg apologizing lost its staying power. No matter the amount of times you say "I am so sorry" nothing can replace unblemished calves and ankles right as summer shorts and sandal season rolls around. Third lesson learned.
Thus began the task of fogging the house, fogging the cars, bathing the dog and washing every stitch of fabric in the house in hot water. Also, they do not make foggers for your car, so I purchased the smallest available size made for apartments. How could replacing an apartment's square footage with that of a Honda Civic go wrong? My car was undrivable for 5 days and still retains the sickly sweet smell of the mist today. Fourth lesson learned.
Our dog, a recently adopted hound mix, was covered by the end of the night. When you thought you picked the last one off, you find 4 more to take its place and the itching starts all over again. The dog would scratch all night and the jingle of her collar would wake you every fifteen or so minutes. Remove dog's collar before heading to your flea-infested bed. Fifth lesson learned.
Here's bit of background about myself to help put this whole situation in context. I grew up without a father for most of my life. After my father's death in 1982, my mother spoiled her children. Trips to Europe, private all-boys high school, lacrosse practices and piano lessons were standard. This is not to say that I am or was a spoiled rich brat, but I had never gone without.
If you had told me 8 years ago that I would be in a modern day flop house in Strawberry Mansion getting fleas, I would have laughed in your face. But there I stood, wife in tow, and fleas feasting on our flesh.
While smoking a cigarette before bed that night, I reflected on the day and jotted down a few ideas on my ever-present notepad. These are the final lessons I have learned that aren't quippy or witty, but lessons I will take with me in my career and, more importantly, my life.
1. "We left the shoot feeling like we had angered her drunken tenants and left her to clean up the mess. Kelly says the feeling is akin to kicking a hornets' nest and running away, only to leave your invalid friend to deal with the ramifications of your rash decisions." Looking back on it now, I feel that covering her story has done more good than if she had no exposure at all. Sometimes you have to divorce yourself from the story so you can keep living without a crushing sense of guilt.
2. "I feel blessed for being the opportunity to leave my comfort zone and learn. The more nervous I felt, the more I had to learn to relax." This was crucial when dealing with the drunken tenants.
3. "There are people out there who struggle harder than I ever have or probably will on a daily basis." Never was I more reminded of this than when we returned home after videotaping that day. Our nicely decorated, air conditioned apartment proves as solace for us, yet there are those among us who have nothing like this. It's one thing to see a documentary on homelessness, another to see its devastation first hand and take home a thousand biting reminders with you.
4. "If people complain that MURL is too hard and too demanding, they are right." I feel that it is only through the struggle and stress that we, as students, are forced to find the will to dig deeper and make a story that is comprehensive and, ultimately, rewarding for both the author and reader/viewer.
By Thomas Dougherty, Group 3, Strawberry Mansion
Posted by Thomas Dougherty at 7:28 PM