Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's a Dirty Job

"Well, ya best tuck them jeans into ya socks if ya don't want vermin to get up them pants," the Moss Point Police detective rolls out in his long southern drawl,  as he adjusted his breathing apparatus over his mouth.  For me, a cub reporter, with maybe six months worth of experience, it is the most daunting piece of instruction I have ever received, and I quickly and nervously do the same as my teacher.

It is my first job in television, at WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1995.  I am technically the bureau chief, of the station's Jackson County office.  I am in charge (by default) of the two-man operation, that includes myself and another, just as green, photographer/reporter.  Together we are eager, but not very experienced.  The two of us are stationed in a tiny little office in Pascagoula, the space is about the size of the guest room in your home.
Shipbuilding in Pascagoula.

Pascagoula/Moss Point/Gautier.  Those are the primary towns we cover.  It is a tough little community, weathered and shaped by the muggy summers, and perched on the rock of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  At one point the stubborn, blue collar towns prospered, because of a strong shipbuilding culture, that helped families build homes, buy modest boats, and make weekend trips to Bozo's Fish Market for a bag of Crawfish, seasoned in a secret Cajun concoction, but those boom days are over, and Jackson County is forced to limp along.

Pascagoula is built for functionality, not beauty.  The city has weathered too many hurricanes in the past to waste time building expensive, ornate structures.  The tallest building in town in a bank, it is five stories tall, of which the top two floors are utilized for storage. The Gulf Coast economy, is usually at the mercy of government spending of warships and aircraft carriers, making this a boom or bust environment.

The place is run, literally, by tough, good ol' boys.  The Sheriff, DB, "Pete," Pope, was a portly power broker, and he was more politician than lawman.
Former Jackson County Sheriff Pete Pope

 His piercing, blue reptilian eyes framed by his stark mop of white hair, and his checkered sports coat accented with a pair of hand-made cowboy boots was terrifying for me, as he would summon me into his office-lair, either schmooze me or more likely, excoriate me for a story I wrote that angered, a man whose soul was born mad.  He was one part southern gent, 2 parts Boss Hogg.

He once warned me that he had a machine in his office, that alerted him whenever a recording device was operating in his presence, his ominous pronouncement told the kid reporter, that I better never think of trying to tape any of his rangy rants.  It wasn't until later that I learned that, "machine," never existed.

He was sheriff  but his political power was immense because, to borrow a cliche, he knew where all the bodies were buried and so did the body buriers, and that made him more like the king of his own tiny sovereign, southern nation, than the bureaucrat in a county department.

County Commissioner Tommy Brodnax, wasn't a power broker,  he was more like the people he represented, a former shipyard worker and a stout fireplug of a man, with stubby limbs punctuated by thick, brawny forearms, and round, beefy fingers, weather worn and streaked with scratches, scars, and finernails caked with soil from his garden, and grease from his tractor.  He was quick to pick a verbal fight with fellow commissioners, and physical ones with just about anyone else.  He was once arrested for punching a man in the face during a dispute over fallen tree branches.
Jackson County Commissioner, Tommy Brodnax

He relished in harassing me about my green reporting skills and unseasoned on-air presence, that included a terrified face accented by no expression, what-so-ever.   Whenever I'd fumble into a county meeting, awkwardly juggling a camera and tri-pod, he'd interrupt the proceedings, no matter how important, to announce, in his high pitched southern accent, reminiscent of billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, "hey everyone, here comes stone face!"

As a young reporter you do as you're told, and that means you are on call, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.   On this muggy August night, my station issued beeper buzzes abruptly alive at 1 am, waking me starkly with a gasp back to consciousness.

I am ordered to the end of a desolate  dead end street, in Moss Point, a small town just north of Pascagoula.

Moss Point isn't exactly the best run town in Mississippi, in fact it's the opposite. At one point the Moss Point Chief of Police, out of sheer incompetence, had his permit to carry a gun revoked by the state's top police agency.

One cost saving measure enacted by the city council, led to a state of utter calamity.   In an effort to save money on the restoration of weathered, dulling street signs, the city concocted a scheme that may have literally lead to houses burning to the ground, and residents dying while waiting for an ambulance.

The town leaders decided NOT to buy new street signs, but rather to pull all the old signs down, then repaint them. Unfortunately , instead of repainting, for example the "Oak Street" sign with the words "Oak street," the parks and rec. department  stenciled, without much thought, over that sign, with the words , "Main Street." instead of Oak.   They did this all over town, all the signs. That was fine for a while, but  after a few months battered by the blazing Southern Mississippi sun, the cheap store bought paint faded, and the signs began to read a mish-mashed combination of the two, think "OaMakin Street."

The fire department, and ambulance service found themselves racing around the city searching in vain for a burning house or man in cardiac arrest, only to get garbled, maddening guidance from the disastrous Scrabble-like street grid.

Somehow, no thanks to Moss Points, illegible signs, I fumbled my way to a modest home surrounded by Moss Point officers, blazing flood lights, and a cacophony of critter wranglers.

After a welfare call from a resident of a house nearby, concerned for the safety of an ailing, immobile woman inside, police force open the door, only to find it barricaded by rotting garbage, cat feces, and carelessly discarded soda bottles.  It was a clean freaks nightmare, and a hoarders dream.

after rescuing the sick woman, and arresting her daughter for neglect, police had the unenviable task of removing dozens of feral cats from the home, collected over years by the two women.  The pair only took in a third of that, but the wild animals spent the next few years breeding with each other, creating a inbred cat version of "Lord of The Flies."

The cops, totally unaware, or unconcerned with protocol or the law, invite me to come in , "Hey there Jonesy, ya wanna check this out, brother, git yur camera and follow us in!"  The boys outfit me with a breathing apparatus and duck tape to strap my loose clothing to my body.  "Why am I doing this?" I ask as I peel long strips of tape off the giant, metal roll, "Roaches, boy!" one officer belts out with a laugh as he blows a wet, brown mouthful of spitting tobacco onto the city sidewalk, "roaches!"

As he scoot the rotting door open, I recall the sucking in and out of air through our masks belting out a Darth Vader-like pant.  The house doesn't have electricity, hasn't for months I'm told, and is lighted by flashlights and a flood light only.

The putrid stench of ammonia is overpowering, and I take it all in despite the protective gear over my face.  disintegrating garbage is 2 feet high and blankets the entire ground below me, I crunch and crack over the foul flooring, shuffling through waste, as tin cans crush, and tumble away as I push, like a canal boat icebreaker through the ocean of cardboard, food, and animal waste.

The garbage is everywhere, the floor, the shelves, inexplicable even the ceilings.  It is stacked in structurally defying mountains that line the halls.

The black insides of the house are revealed only in pieces when the darkness is broken by the faint flashlights, fumbled by disgusted police officers.

The flood lights reveal a tired, pea-green sofa, that appears to be made of wax, as the left side breaks down into what looks  like a melted mess of mushy fabric.  The sight defies my eyes, "what the hell?" I say with mouth agape.  "The cats have been peeing there for years," chirps the lead investigator  "Looks like they just went and melted the thing."

A dirty farm hand, in overalls, and a dingy CAT Diesel hat, called by police to help with the wild felines, stops the army of police officers and reporters, and warns, "Ok, this is where it gets bad," "Oh," I belt, "now it gets bad."

He wrestles the bedroom door open, and 4 or 5 of us shoe-horn ourselves into the back living space, someone closes the door behind us, and I find myself, squeezed on all sides, mountains of muck to my back, sweaty cops to my left, and the low guttural hum, of hidden cats echoing throughout pitch black room.

"Yall, ready?" he screams as he slaps his gloved hand to the left side of a stained mattress laying on the floor, "NO!" I yelp in pleading tones.  I remember the word just jump out of me, unprovoked, like a frog off a lily-pad, startled by a rock tumbling into his pond.

"Too late!" he hollers, as he overturns the bed, jerking it up on its side, revealing the wooden underbelly of the box springs. In the chaos, I see something, but the darkness makes it hard to make out.  It appears to be a sea of life is pulsating inside the box springs, and as the lights are directed to the bed, I see a wall of undulating cock-roaches, thousands of them, crawling and racing for safety as they are shocked into movement by the first light they have experienced in months, maybe years.

I have little time to catch my breath, because a dozen wild cats, who also inhabited the darkness under that bed are springing from their black, musty home.  They hiss and shriek as they bound up the walls, their claws scraping and propelling them higher up the grimy surfaces towards the ceiling of the room.  As they hit the acoustical tile, they rebound, like mangy, infected, overfilled basketballs towards our heads.

I feel like I am storming Utah Beach, as German soldiers try to repel me with gunfire and cannon fodder.

The farm boy, and police trip and stumble over one another, half of them desperately dodging the airborne cats, the other half trying in vane to catch them, clawing at the frightened, feral animals.  The chaos is more than my mind can handle, I jab at the door knob, my hands slipping and fumbling with it as I try to escape.  I finally jerk the door open, and fall out the portal, I'm darting my way out of the surreal disaster, when I notice the flood lights cast a sickly light on the homes living room, and catches a roach perched proudly on that melted couch, he appears to have his head lifted high, and smugly watches me as I scamper, terrified out of his home, the light casts his shadow against the dirty wall, and his dark outline makes him appear 3 feet tall, and for a young reporter struggling to learn the ropes, that roach and that job seems to be just a little to big for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment