Sunday, July 22, 2007

24 hours at a small newspaper

I covered the Harry Potter release at our local bookstore Friday night. The party started at 10 p.m. and was very corny and a lot of fun. They probably had 300 people there. I know that they ended up selling about 225 books, and there were a lot of families who put the kids to bed at their regular times and then got them back up for this -- so you'd have a couple of parents and a couple of kids, but they were only leaving with one book. 300 is a conservative estimate, then.

The doors were locked until 10, but, just as they were about to open, a group of witches and warlocks from the Ministry of Magic came striding down the street, loudly announcing that there was to be no release and that everyone was to disperse. The store owner, dressed in robes, came out and negotiated and argued, and eventually the MoM people left furiously and the store opened.

They had stations both in the store and on the sidewalk where you could solve various riddles, test your magical vocabulary, decode runes and so forth -- a botany professor from the college dressed up and brought a collection of truly strange plants for young Hogwarts students to identify. There were, admittedly, more than a few moments when I was thinking that it was the most fun you could have without learning Klingon, but everyone really was having a good time.

Well, except me, because the room was crowded and dark, and all I really wanted was a photo for the front page. But between the cramped shooting space and the bad lighting it was tough to get anything, and every shot that seemed half decent had someone in the crowd picking his nose or just wandering into the middle of things.

I decided to try for a shot of the books being passed out. I ran into the local arts critic and he introduced me to a local doctor. So we're chatting away and then it was 10 minutes before midnight and they threw us all out of the store so they could set up the book distribution. (The owner had the sense to pre-sell throughout the evening so there was nothing left to do but check off names and hand them out.)

The problem was, there had been half the people in the store and half the people out on the street at any given time, but now everyone was at the door and I suddenly realized that I wasn't going to be able to get back in -- I should have used my status as press to stay in the store and be ready. Oh well, something would come about.

And it did. As I'm standing in the group funnelling slowly towards the door, people start coming back out, and this girl comes out, sees a friend in the crowd and shouts excitedly, "I can't believe it! I got the first one!"

And I said, "Oh, come here, darlin', bless your heart, you have just rescued my job."

That's her.

So I got home about 12:45 and into bed about 1:15. The dogs let me sleep in an extra half hour, so I didn't get up until 4:30, whereupon I fed them and would have gone back to bed except that Saturday was Kingfield Days and the festivities began at 9 a.m. So I stayed up, did a few things, walked the dogs, went to the dump and drove the half hour up to Kingfield.

Kingfield is an interesting little crossroads town, because it's part mill town and part resort. Oh, and the Stanley Steamer was invented there, because it's the kind of town where most people know how to tinker with stuff, but the Stanleys knew how more than most.

These young people I took to be brother and sister, but in fact they aren't related -- they know each other because she used to babysit him when he was much younger. They had teamed up for a day-long contest that paid $100 to the winner. This was the portion of the day that involved eating worms, and he is telling her that, having eaten two of the three required worms, he expects her to take on some of the responsibility. It was a very funny series of pictures, though the fact that they were under the tent made the lighting problematic.

What was interesting was that, when they took off to do whatever they had to do next, I just turned to someone and asked for names. Now, it happened to be her mother, but afterwards, I realized that I could have asked anyone. It's that kind of small town -- very much the size and feel of Star Lake or Cranberry.

This is the bike parade. The "parade" itself was only about a block long and a bit more like a dog show -- they have everyone just ride down and back in a big circle so the judges can have a look. Only the dogs in a dog show are on leashes and each has a handler making that trot right alongside. In this case, there was a certain "cat herding" quality to the affair that had people on the sidelines in stitches. Of course, since everyone is related to a couple of the riders, it's good spirited and everyone tries to stifle themselves, but, as Dave Barry once wrote of a school play, "There wasn't a pair of dry underpants in the house."

There were also several craft booths. The woman in blue was collecting money for AIDS in South Africa on behalf of her church. She had with her a four-month-old cairn terrier, and this little 23-month old girl wanted to pet it. It was a little hard to tell which of the two puppies was more excited -- the four-legged one or the two-legged one, but if dogs could giggle, they'd have both been giggling.

The Stanley Museum was going to be open that afternoon, and I would have loved to have gone and had a look, but I had to get back down to Farmington because there was a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament going on. I didn't really have space for it in the paper, but this fellow (the one officiating above) has sent me a couple of releases and I wanted to have a look and maybe get a few pictures for future use, for instance, if we did a story on his school. It's better to have some serious competitive shots than the usual shots of nine-year-olds flailing around.

So I go into the gym (and immediately see those yellow lights that make photography such a nightmare) and this voice calls out, "Mike!" and it turns out that the guy's wife is a woman I'd met before because she had been doing publicity for a drama that a women's group was presenting a few months ago. So here I am suddenly very well oriented, because she's one of the organizers of the tournament (which drew competitors from throughout New England). And it doesn't matter that I didn't get any really useable shots -- that one above is a little dodgy, and it's the best -- because Melissa said she'd get me some, not to worry.

But the day wasn't over.

That's my boss, making a small speech about 9:30 that night, at a going-away party. He's headed to take up a similar position about six hours from where he and his wife grew up in Oklahoma, which is understandable since their parents are not in the best of health and this is a long way from there. The crown and wings were added earlier in the evening by the head of the United Way, and there were also several other indignities heaped upon him by state legislators and various other folks.

So while we're at the bar before the shindig begins, I'm talking about the Harry Potter party, and said I had a shot of this young girl for the cover of Tuesday's paper, and someone says, "Who was it?" I happened to remember her name and the response was, "Oh, good! She's such a nice girl -- and so bright!"

And later in the evening, I'm sitting at the table with my camera out, and I am showing one of our state legislators some of the pictures from Kingfield and we get to the picture of the puppy and the baby and he says, "Oh, that's Anne!" and begins to tell me more about this woman who had the dog.

It is a very small town we have here, and I am fast becoming fond of it. Which is probably a good thing, since (A) I am going to be filling in for the publisher until a new one is hired, (B) the editor of our weekly newspaper in the next town just quit, so I'll be filling in for him, too, and (C) I toddled home at 10 p.m. Saturday, just 24 hours after the beginning of the Harry Potter release party.

Thing is, small-town life is not as slow-paced as the stereotypes suggest. It's a matter, rather, of priorities and preferences. One of the things we talked about at the party was the number of writers and artists you find up in the woods around Kingfield and throughout this area, and yet it's not an artsy sort of place. The artists who come here come to be part of what's going on, not to transform it into something else. And that's the way this place is -- people really value a certain type of small-town life and are quite conscious of what they've got.

In short, the people-who-know-people here know 15 year old girls who love Harry Potter and women with puppies and kids who like to decorate their bikes and guys who teach judo.

Which made last night's bash a whole lot more fun than the White House Correspondents Dinner. It just naturally attracts a better class of people.


Brian Fies said...

...and then you got back into your DeLorean and set the flux capacitor for 50 years into the future, hit the accelerator to 88 mph, and returned to the year 2007!

I envy you.

uncle jed said...

I really liked this post...I was thinking it would be cool to have this as a regular installment, as I grew that idea out, however, I pretty much re-invented the newspaper...

I agree with Brian, very enviable...

Anonymous said...

Wow. That boss of yours must have been a helluva guy. And handsome, too. Sure wish I was more like him. Wonder if he liked Woody Guthrie music?

Mike said...

I dunno -- I think he really took the new job because it was a chance to sit back and do nothing but surf the web all day.