On the Street Where You Live

On The Street Where You Live

May I ask you a question?

I miss talking to people on the street..well, the sidewalk actually. A couple of years ago I produced a one hour television special on the art of eliciting spontaneous verbal response. And it is an art. What’s going through a reporter’s head when they suddenly step up to you and ask a question?  Much more..after the more.

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The man/woman-in-the-street interview can be the bane of every television reporter.

It’s probably the very first thing you did in your broadcast career and, undoubtedly, you were scared as hell.

When I was working deep in the belly of the general assignment beat I used to dread being sent out to do streeters because the questions I had to ask were rarely mine.

I once worked in a newsroom that demanded one of these ad hoc verbal population surveys every day and more often than not the question to be posed came from the sadistic mind of some producer.

If you hit the sidewalk with a question like; ‘Do you think the government’s efforts to claw back the terms of qualifications for semi-monthly benefits as applied to single mothers in the smelting trade are fair? You’re dead. Dead in the water. You might stop a thousand people and get two usable responses. This does not mean people are dumb but a question that takes longer to ask than answer is generally going to get you nothing but a series of vacuous stares.

There is a true art to engaging people spontaneously on the sidewalk of life and it took me a good twenty years to get the hang of it.

First of all, understand, despite what you have come to expect from reality tv, most people do not want to be on television. There may be fewer of them than there used to be but I think the majority of the populace still prefers its privacy.

And private people will offer you a grab bag of excuses to avoid the camera:

I don’t speak English ‘(often delivered with a foreign accent in perfect English).

I don’t have time’(accompanied by a skip and a jump to indicate they’re in a hurry).

'I'm not from here.'I’m not from here.’ (I got this when I was asking someone if they’d be watching the solar  eclipse).

“You’re not from here?”, I asked. “ What do you mean…this planet?”

Often you will get a cursory wave of the hand and a simple ‘No, thanks’.

And frequently passers-by will ignore the reporter altogether, as if he or she did not really exist.

I often felt like a phantasm.

There is a lot of rejection in this type of reporting and, believe me, it can beat you down.

One less-than-glorious summer of my youth was spent working as a Fuller Brush salesman. For weeks I went door to door to see if anyone wanted anything from that month’s catalogue.

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Where was this woman?

There was a small part of my hormonally saturated, adolescent brain that held out hope I might possibly be greeted on the porch by a lonely divorcee in a diaphanous robe (which might suddenly fall open)  but, sadly, this never happened.

I did however get a lot of doors slammed in my face, and I mean SLAMMED.

So I knew all about rejection and I suppose, years later, it helped prepare me for some of those sidewalk television sessions that went nowhere fast.

The streeter scenario evolved for me. Eventually, because I was now working in equal measures as a humourist and reporter, I turned it into a semi-editorial rant.

I’d establish some sort of premise on camera and then head out to see if people agreed or disagreed with my point of view.

And I realized, with this approach, I would only get out of this encounter what I was prepared to put in. If my energy was low the streeter would invariably fall flat. If I could infuse the questioning and the encounter with energy, I tended to get equally enthusiastic responses. And , though I clearly couldn’t collar everyone who passed by on the sidewalk, I did begin to adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude.

I would literally chase people who snubbed me. Often it was a kind of goofy Groucho Marx-like loping pursuit. If someone truly didn’t want to be bothered I’d let them go but I had a lot of confidence in my powers of persuasion.

Some people, though, didn’t like it. They thought it bordered on public harassment.

Who is this obnoxious guy?

All I can say is that, fortunately perhaps, I was never left,  beaten to a fleshy pulp, in the gutter and the technique more often than not worked. In the hands of an artful video editor it could work spectacularly well.

And I welcomed a good challenge. If someone turned on me and gave me a verbal lashing I thought it was all grist for the mill.

Unless, of course, they were clearly unhinged.

There’s a sea of humanity walking around out there. Not everyone responds with well-measured civility.

When you do hundreds of these tête-à-têtes you can almost predict the situations that might pose a threat…and you steer clear of them.

I find that tourists are really a lot of fun to play with.

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Easy pickins

First of all, it’s been my experience that they rarely snub the camera.

They’re on vacation, after all. More often than not they wind up videotaping you with a handi-cam while you’re interviewing them. There’s a nice reciprocity there.

I also liked taking the camera to conventions, the more specialized the profession, the better.

There was an international meeting of coroners one year in Vancouver so I was off to see if the people who were up to their elbows in death had much of a sense of humour.

They do.

Granted, it can be a particularly dark shade of laughter and it’s not necessarily suitable for the supper hour news, but I quickly discovered that coroners can be among the funniest people on earth.

Dentists are also an interesting lot. Dentists suffer from a kind of ‘occupational avoidance trauma’.

They’re lovely people but nobody really wants to visit them…unless they have to.

I went to a massive dental convention with two thousand delegates to ask why dentists never use the word ‘pain’. Dentists don’t even like to discuss the word ‘pain’.

The go-to description of what you experience in a dental chair is invariably discomfort. I’m not sure when discomfort makes the leap to pain but we all know it when we feel it.

At any given moment there can be thousands of conventioneers in a city the size of Vancouver. They provide the life blood for a lot of businesses, certainly hotels and restaurants, in the downtown core. And conventioneers are very easy to pick out of the crowd because they almost always forget to remove their convention nametags.

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What's in a name?

They walk around all day with these plastic envelopes pinned to their chest and it’s probably not until they stumble into their hotel room late in the evening that the nametags come off.

I did a story on this. Wouldn’t the world be a nicer, more cordial place, I theorized, if we all wore nametags?

We stood in front of Vancouver’s convention centre and greeted people as if they were long lost friends…based purely on reading their nametags. Someone would pass me, I’d covertly glance at the name on their tag and let them walk a few steps before I’d spin on my heel and scream,  “Betty? Betty Johnson?!” .And I’d rush towards the baffled Betty, arms extended for the inevitable embrace. People in the area would turn to witness the reunion of old friends, perhaps even lovers.

And poor Betty Johnson, in these few fleeting seconds, is desperately trying to figure out who the hell I am. How does he know me? Did we have some sort of illicit rendezvous in a Boca Raton motel? Were we bashing back boilermakers all night in some seedy bar?

Betty is so flummoxed that she doesn’t even see the cameraman following close on my heels. And it never occurs to her that I got her name from the badge on her blouse.

How strange is that?

It’s amazing how familiar you can get with people on the spur of the moment.

Vancouver was having a debate about what to do with squeegee kids, the young people who walk up to your car and offer to clean your windshield for some spare change.

Seemed like an odd service to me, although I understood the motive. But everyone driving a car already has washer fluid and wipers available at the flick of a switch. Why not offer something a little more practical, something like personal grooming?

So I hit the sidewalk with a lint brush and offered to make a clean sweep.

And people stopped. Clearly there was a lot of lint out there.

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A whole lotta lint

At one point I found that women were bending over at major intersections to allow me to brush their behinds. This was getting crazy.

The lint brush segment was just one of those serendipitous moments where the right idea came together with the right people at exactly the right time. And a good editor made the strong material really bounce. It went on to win a national editorial award.

My urinal story was another eye opener. The urinal is a subject that clearly divides the sexes. There is chasm of ignorance for women on what really happens at a urinal, I mean, besides urination.

I first became aware of this while producing a segment on janitorial supplies.

There was a trade show in which a new line of urinal pucks was being promoted.

It had something to do with their longevity in the bottom of the bowl. These new pucks, in addition to being non-toxic, lasted twice as long.

I discovered that every time I used the term ‘urinal puck’ women looked at me with furrowed brows. They had no idea what it was. They thought it was, perhaps, a hockey term. And who could blame them?

When does the average woman concern herself with the sanitation and deodorization of a urinal?

Years later I did a piece on urinal protocol which was triggered by some research I’d read on human behaviour in elevators. An empty elevator becomes occupied in a very specific sequence.

The first person into the elevator always moves to the front corner by the buttons. The second person stands at the front on the other side. The third person walks in to a back corner..and so it goes. I was convinced the same automatic patterns of placement must occur in a mens washroom.

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What's the protocol?

I drew a diagram showing a bank of five urinals and asked men which of those they would walk up to. It was completely dependent upon where the other men were.

Every man I asked ideally wanted at least one empty urinal space between him and the next guy. One man told me that if there was only a single empty urinal available in the bank of five he would rather wait until two opened up before he did his business.

Another fellow told me he found the whole scenario so intimidating that he’d just as soon “go in the sink”!

Most women I tried to explain this to were not particularly sympathetic.

After all they’ve had their own problems for years with all those line-ups and stalls and toilet seats.

On a more fragrant note I had a lot of fun on the subject of perfume. Jennifer Lopez had just released a new scent. Elizabeth Taylor had been hugely successful for years at marketing a line of fragrances. It looked like anyone with any kind of public profile could dump something in a bottle and put it on a store shelf. So I grabbed an empty cologne container from my own bathroom and topped it up with the most innocuous liquid I could find.

I used windshield washer fluid.

Then I hit street with my new scent which I evocatively called  ‘Dahveed’.

perfume Dahveed

Dahveed!

People liked Dahveed. They really did. Nobody who gave it a sniff said it smelled like windshield washer fluid. It was described as being ‘fresh’ and ‘subtle’.

In fact I had to stop one man from splashing it all over himself lest he break out in some sort of diabolical rash. Women, particularly, seemed drawn to Dahveed.

It may have spoken to them on some sort of salubrious ,streak-free level.

One woman who was ready to shell out cash and take a bottle home told me it reminded her of a “clean smellin’ man”.

I’m sure I don’t have to point out that there was no pretence of serious journalism here.

This material was designed to elicit a smile or a laugh at the end of a newscast.

If nothing else it provided a chuckle at some obscure aspect of the human condition.

Some of it, when the stars were right, flew purely on the wacky wings of what can only be described as spontaneous street theatre.

One season Ballet BC brought out a beautiful promotional poster showing two dancers locked in a striking embrace. The organization had done a good job plastering the advertisement all over town. In the pose the male dancer was down on one knee and the ballerina was balanced on his shoulder, her back arched, one leg and both arms reaching evocatively for the sky.

It was an attention-getting image but looked painfully precarious.

I set out to see if any random couple I stopped might be able to replicate it.

People tried. God love ‘em, they tried. I was there to lend a helping hand, to get the arms and legs in the right positions. Most of my willing subjects were laughing so hard they could barely keep from collapsing.

And then I found an older couple walking hand in hand along the beach at English Bay.

Damned if they weren’t going to go for it! As they struggled to assume the positions I didn’t know if I should feel exhilarated or concerned.  What if this goofy stunt put them both in the hospital? I didn’t think the television station was insured for this.

It was a noble effort and it took some coaching but they did it. They did it better than some of the couples a third of their age. They were so proud. I was so proud. People passing by stopped to gape and then suddenly broke into applause.

When they disentangled and she slid down from his shoulder the man turned to me and said, “Not bad for a couple of 75 year olds!”.

And for one brief shining moment they were bigger posers than the two anchors on that night’s six o’clock  News.

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6 Responses to “On the Street Where You Live”

  1. Mike Hutchison Says:

    This is one of your most humorous postings yet! Lint brush kid? Urinal puck research? Windshield washer cologne? Hahaha! I wish I had seen those!

    Your remark about infusing your interviews with energy made me realize why it’s so enjoyable to witness your work – you have a great and amiable energy, one can’t help but be drawn in to see where you take them next – much like a skilled storyteller. Thank you for that, Dave 🙂

  2. Grant Bowen Says:

    Fuller Brush? I sold Encyclopedias… (younger folk can look that up on the monster that killed them, the internet) and I only sold one set, after which I promptly quit the business

    • The summer I sold Fuller Brush there didn’t seem to be any other jobs. So I went out training with a guy who was the quintessential Willy Loman…from the tips of his Florsheims to the top of his fedora. What an education!

  3. Chris (Chilliwack Airport Lunch Guy) Says:

    Excellent! I remember all of these classic vignettes, Dave. Of course you missed my favorite, the clothing store that had to sand the nipples off the mannequins, save for some innocent, virginal eyes to possibly see HARD FIBERGLASS NIPPLES THROUGH CLOTHING.

    Anyway, just curious if you personally hold the rights to any of your street sessions. If they could be posted online (youtube, etc.), I am sure your passionate fan base could start sending the links around vie email and social networking, ensuring least a few of them to go viral. Just a thought.

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