Adam Strong talks about what it was like working for a public television studio in the ’90s. In this piece, he works at the National Black Family Summit, with Gus.
One of the best/worst gigs was the National Black Family Summit. It was just you and a videographer, Gus, but to some he was known as “the Guvnah.” Long frizzy hair pulled back into a mostly gray ponytail, a ballcap, sweats, and a cardigan. Long face, flip-up spectacles that doubled as sunglasses. Menthol smoke all over him and all over the inside of his car, a mint tang to go with the smoke. Gus loves nickel slots and old movies, Gus has a mini bottle of schnapps in his left coat pocket, and Gus loves smoking weed, so, you two have no trouble hitting it off.
The National Black Family Summit is the biggest thing you have ever covered, it’s three full days, with panels about all that is relevant in today’s black America.
“Hey,” you keep waiting for someone to say, “who sent the white boy along?”
You don’t mind, you believe in black people, you show people how much you care by the look on your face. Try as you might, there is no way you are not going to be an outsider.
You are the only white person in a room of thousands. So many organizations: NAACP, representatives from black colleges, Howard University, panels on multiethnic couples, and the progress made, there are people who speak for and against Louis Farrakhan, there are people who speak for and against Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton.
What you are there for is to get wide-angle shots where nothing happens. Gus handles the moving camera stuff, the more delicate camera moves, he also falls asleep while trying to get a good angle at the guest speaker. He was supposed to be the roaming camera. He ended up falling asleep on the chair he was only temporarily supposed to sit in. After that, you take over the camera duties, and the logging tapes duties. By the last day, it’s just you rushing between two shots. Making sure there is enough battery life in the roving camera, making sure there’s enough DV tape. You have grown accustomed to being the only white person. In a room full of thousands, there are so many things to learn.
Like, the next guest, the head speaker, the Surgeon General of the United States, David Satcher. He’s about to walk to the podium where you have a full shot of him. But his head is bare and shiny and will totally reflect in the worst way, a burn mark, an exposure blip, the zebra stripes on the camera setting. This is, after all, the Surgeon General of the United States.
He said, “What’s that?” at the giant powder puff in your hand.
“It’s for your head,” you say to him, “right now there’s a reflection we don’t want on camera.”
You take that giant puff and use it to apply powder to his forehead.
“Not too much, I don’t want to look …” he looks like he is not sure he trusts you, the way his eyes follow the application of your hand on the powder puff, “gay,” he finally says.
Gus loves nickel slots and old movies, Gus has a mini bottle of schnapps in his left coat pocket, and Gus loves smoking weed, so, you two have no trouble hitting it off.
“Not too much,” Bonnie, the queen of all production coordinators, taught you on your first day, the one whose bug-eyed sunglasses were in the old photos around the building. “If you are a woman, it’s fine, but if you are a man, they think it’s going to make them queer.”
The Surgeon General of the United States goes up to the podium, his head is under control, not too much, not too little, but there was a moment when the Surgeon General’s forehead was in your hands, and you were with it enough to make it happen, you didn’t screw it up.
You call the Guvnah, like you have to use his name, Gus, not Guvnah, one syllable not two, you need close up shots, and he moves around a lot when he first starts talking, but then he slows down, gets comfortable.
You see him coming from the other side of the room, he is stoned, and stumbling. You ask him to watch the wide shot. His mouth is opened, he’s conked out, leaning against the wall.
You remember what your boss said to you, “I’ve got a mission for you. He’s not our most reliable shooter director, hardly anyone wants to work with him, we were wondering how you felt about trying out some new skills?”
Which is why you were sent. To the National Black Family Summit. Our shooter/director is Gus. “Oh, you mean the Guvnah?” you say.
You hear his name bandied about by the loading dock where you go to smoke a few times a day. You hear his name in hushed tones, there is this wall of stuff you don’t know about him.
“He used to be one of our better shooters, then, I don’t know, he just got old. We don’t send him on big things, and we need a black person for this thing, and all of our other black directors are busy.”
So, he’s not our brightest, but he will do.
“But you have to look after him. Make sure he stays focused. After the day’s over, fine, just make sure he wakes up on time, and, the most important thing, keep him away from those godforsaken nickel slots. Last year, he tried to charge them on the company credit card.”
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You know how you are going to handle this. You’ve been here before. You know that you can try to influence the proceedings, but when people do what they are going to do, you are going to enjoy it and place a report at the end of it all, as you do for everyone because you are the rule-following NARC, you will say, “Hey, I tried,” while you shared a fatty with him in his room, you enjoyed the laid back attitude, until it got too laid back and, by the end, you would be in charge, and both of you have a good time.
At the National Black Family Summit, you are called on to babysit a grown-ass man. Well, this had all the makings of an awkward situation. Let’s send the white boy to look after a grown-ass black man. And let’s do it all at the backdrop of the largest gathering of black families in the United States.
But here’s another side to this, one a little more serious than nickel slots and doobies.
The other things you’ve heard about in the hushed tones when you are stabbing out your cigarette so you can hightail it back to Studio A for the Spanish class that is about to start and you are logging tapes and you know it’s going to be hours until your next smoke because director Steve is obsessive in his takes, even when it comes to Elementary Spanish. The stuff you hear whispered about is how the Guvnah tried to make a pass at a co-worker, not female.
You see how they talk about this, the men with their beer bellies, the engineers huddled up at the back end of the loading dock, the way they look at each other, like, to even bring up the concept of homosexuality just might make them homo too.
This idea that an old man would make a pass at a younger man is something that is too awful for some of these boys to reckon with.
You could tell he was a fuck up, but what else could you do but smoke a jay with him and listen. After all, you are kind of a fuck up too.
“We’ll put a little music on first,” the Guvnah said. “I’ve always been partial to a certain mister Stevie Wonder.”
He’s a magician with his fingers because the joint in his fingers rolls back like he had it hidden in a secret compartment underneath his finger. A trick box, maybe, the big reveal, big chunks in this fatty, a stuffed pillow with the case on crooked.
He passes it to you and, on the third toke, the lights in his room start breathing. The music starts to eddy in your mind, crawling to the front, then sinks to the back, your thoughts of Gus, and why you are here, and why he is here with you, and how his life is one giant drift from the lane you are in, to the lane you are not.
… on the third toke, the lights in his room start breathing. The music starts to eddy in your mind, crawling to the front, then sinks to the back …
Guvnah flips his glasses down to sunglasses. “I know you know,” he said. “They want to take that thing I did and make it the rest of my career.” You drift off, trip out on a Fulfillingness First Finale cloud of keys and drums. “Why would I care about the way they treated me? Did they want to hear my side of the story? How it was like with me and you but not me and you?”
He is starting to make sense, this Guvnah, the sounds of words you heard are coming together in bunches.
“He was beautiful. And I wasn’t going to say anything but I hit that schnapps, and you know me and what happens when I get too much in me, it’s like those damn nickel slots, you get in a good groove and you want to stay there and I reached out and put my hand on his leg, and I put the jump in him and I tried to apologize, I could tell his whole posture had changed, and he was outta there.”
That guy, his job, a production coordinator, he’s the guy who got moved up to director. He was on the floor crew when you first started, he’s a fast mover. You know Christian, he’s the guy with the clean nose, works all the time, perfectionist, Type A personality, he’d probably be dead by 50 at the rate he was going.
The Guvnah—of what I never knew, I think he lost whatever municipality was under his domain a long time ago—he was still going on about Christian and how beautiful he was, even though he turned him down. “He let me do the rest of the work. He went home early, and I didn’t think much of it.”
There it is, the thing that’s been whispered is now out there for all of your brain cells to track, whichever ones you haven’t slaughtered in legions.
“But when I got back to work, they all knew I’d been dipped in shit. Nobody ever said anything, but my gigs started changing. I wasn’t a director anymore, well, by title but not by job.”
“Well, I know, and I don’t care,” you said. You hit him on the shoulder a little, took one last hit off the mostly depleted joint, and hit the sack.
In your report, you mention how Gus let you run the main camera, that it was his decision. You also included that Gus acted as well as any professional could.
“Gus’s doing great,” you say to your boss when you come back. It’s the last assignment you will ever do for South Carolina Educational Television.