Pigeon in a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety and Accidental Glamour

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9781451641349: Pigeon in a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety and Accidental Glamour
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From television producer Jack Gray comes a generational account of finding one’s way at work, at home, and even across the street.

There are a lot of unforgettable characters in these pages: a loveable if possibly alcoholic dog; a set of grandparents who crush on Alex Trebek and obsess about death; Golden Girls and blue bloods, anchormen and Supreme Court justices; divas and wags—but the best character of all is the author himself. To read Jack Gray’s musings is to enter the company of a young man of titanic wit and talent. As he observes and echoes the fixations and neuroses of his generation and our times, he will make you squirm, guffaw, and ultimately marvel.

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About the Author:

Jack Gray is an Emmy Award-winning producer for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he previously worked as a television producer in New Hampshire and Boston. He lives in New York City with his Labrador retriever, Sammy.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FUN WITH A

USED CAMCORDER

The meteorologist was ruining my newscast. She was cranky, unfocused, and, for a seasoned television personality, she spent a lot of time chewing on her barrette. Willard Scott would never pull this shit. It served me right for working with my eight-year-old sister. Even on the rare occasion when she delivered her weather report on cue, she mumbled so much that no one could understand her. She was like Bob Dylan, if Bob Dylan wore saddle shoes and had maternal separation anxiety.

At the time it seemed that my sister, Rose, existed for the sole purpose of driving me crazy. I think I was the only ten-year-old who walked around with a stress ball. She was like a mental patient with an army of Cabbage Patch dolls, just waiting to tattle on me for something minor, like spilling a cup of milk or telling her she was left as an infant on our doorstep in an empty Doritos bag. I remember once she broke her collarbone. It always had to be about her. And the way she monopolized our mother’s time. Surely the woman had more important things to do than to teach my sister how to read. I was waiting for cookies, for fuck’s sake.

As it happens, I was stuck with Rose, as both a sibling and a television colleague. There was a shortage of fake meteorologists willing to be paid in grape Pez. It didn’t matter, though. I was the star of the show, the founder of the entire network. It was called BNN—Barnstead News Network; Barnstead being the name of the lakeside New Hampshire town in which my maternal grandparents—whose living room housed our “studio”—resided. We had a rudimentary set. The sofa doubled as the anchor desk, our tripod was crooked and the reading lamp hardly matched the crisp glow that bathed Jane Pauley on the Today show each morning. But we made do, no doubt thanks to my unflappable leadership. Like any good ten-year-old TV anchor, on the days when my sister refused to provide our viewers with accurate meteorological data, I brought in our backup correspondent, our six-year-old cousin Krista. Granted, she preferred to do her reports while hanging upside down off of the sofa but, still, they had a certain style. A style that has evolved over the subsequent years with an emphasis on makeup and hair extensions, with Krista now exemplifying the downside of what happens when the word “Kardashian” enters the cultural lexicon.

The crucial piece of BNN was, obviously, the video camera itself. A VHS camcorder, it was purchased used by my grandfather Papou. A modern man who passed on to me his love of photography and gadgets, Papou retained his parents’ old-world sensibilities and disregard for U.S. law. “What do you mean,” he asked me when I was eleven, “you don’t know how to drive?”

Equal parts savvy consumer and hearty outdoorsman, he was—and remains—as comfortable shopping for preowned electronics as he was euthanizing a turtle caught in my fishing tackle. Frankly, if his lakeside activities were any indication, I think Papou—a medical doctor—might have harbored some regret over never going the Dr. Kevorkian route. To this day I’ve not met anyone more eager to chloroform marine life.

Then again, I’m not sure I ever quite figured him out. I mean, I once bought him salt and pepper shakers in the shape of toilets and he actually used them. What does that say about him? That he likes to humor his grandchildren? Please. The man is clearly a mess. And if that doesn’t convince you, consider this: He once came home with a remote-controlled flatulence simulator called Le Farteur. “But it’s French!” he protested as my grandmother kicked him into the basement.

One of my most frequent interview subjects on BNN was my great-grandmother. She would come up from Connecticut each summer for a vacation. And by vacation I mean my grandmother and her sisters would take turns passing their mother around among themselves like a plate of baklava. Questionable elder care notwithstanding, I was always glad to see my Yiayia. A Greek immigrant in her nineties, she measured approximately three feet by three feet, never wore anything other than a muumuu, and was obsessed with two things: the soap opera Guiding Light and death. No matter what question I posed, her broken English was always the same: “I don’t understand why The God don’t take me now.” Between the two of us, we were one bottle of ouzo away from a murder-suicide pact. For the better part of twenty-five years I was told on an annual basis, “You’d better make sure you visit Yiayia this summer because this might be the last time you see her.” That she pleaded constantly for death and ended up living to 103 only further confused my already skewed view of mortality.

Yearly interviews with Yiayia aside, our production schedule at BNN was anything but consistent, though we were always on call for breaking news. One summer a particularly nasty thunderstorm blew through town. (I use the word “town” loosely; it was more of a state highway with a gas station.) I tried to capture dramatic footage by pointing the camera outside but, alas, my grandmother’s complex window treatments got in the way. There were blinds, cranks, pulleys, and screens; the windows offered everything except natural light and ventilation.

Without fail, Rose and Krista would tire of my demands and abandon me in the BNN studios. They’d head out to my grandparents’ driveway to play hopscotch or sell drugs, it was such a fine line in those days, while I stayed inside, devoted to my burgeoning craft and talking to myself. I grew skilled at doing my own introductions. “And now, your host, Jack Gray,” I would boom in a deep voice, off-camera. Walking into the shot, I would thank the imaginary audience, sit down, and launch into a rambling monologue. In retrospect, it was probably closer to an al-Qaeda video than a newscast.

As any good anchorman knows, you can’t stay in the studio all the time. You have to get out into the field and talk to folks. I would remove the video camera from the tripod and head into the real world, or my grandmother’s kitchen, whichever I came across first. My grandmother, the daughter of my death-obsessed great-grandmother, and whom I also call Yiayia, is one of those remarkable women who doesn’t sleep more than ninety minutes a night, always has a warm plate of blueberry muffins on the counter, and will cut a bitch if she misses Jeopardy. Look, I’m not saying my grandmother has a crush on Alex Trebek. I’m just saying she used to shout out some pretty filthy answers. Yiayia was camera-shy back then. She wasn’t so much interested in being interviewed by me as she was blasting an Elton John CD on the stereo. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a sixty-year-old woman wearing a New England Patriots t-shirt dance alone to “I’m Still Standing.” I was young; I wasn’t clear about what I was watching. I just knew it was shame-based.

When Yiayia inevitably pushed me out of the kitchen so she could “get dinner ready” (code for make obscene calls to Alex Trebek), I would go in search of the one member of the family I knew would cooperate. Her name was Abby, a beautiful German shepherd. Broad-shouldered, good-humored, with a gorgeous mane of hair, she was a canine Bea Arthur. I would find Abby—usually down in the basement playing solitaire—and turn on the camera. So serene. Nothing you could do would fluster her. I would point the camera at Abby and ask her questions, “How was your day?” “Did you spot any squirrels around the property?” “Do I look fat in these pants?” The usual journalist-dog conversation. She would just kind of nod. One of those slight moves of the head that could have been either a signal of recognition or, as it often was with Bea Arthur, just gas. Then I would lie down next to her and snuggle up for a bit. Granted, that’s kind of an ethical gray area for a reporter. But you can’t tell me that Barbara Walters didn’t do the same thing with Fidel Castro. Abby would sigh and give me a couple licks across the top of my head, and then we would go out and play for a while, leaving the camcorder behind. Just a dog and his anchorman.

The BNN tapes still exist. There’s a trove of VHS cassettes somewhere in my grandparents’ basement, probably near the shoebox full of my grandmother’s unsuccessful horse track betting slips. My grandfather keeps saying he’s going to transfer the tapes to DVDs. Everyone knows that will never happen. His days as a technology pioneer are over. He’d probably transfer the VHS cassettes to silent film reels. When I was young, on the way to my grandparents’ house, I would daydream about what new and exciting electronic gadget Papou would have to show me. Now I realize it’s the other way around. He asks me about my phone and my camera and, when I hand them over to him, he does that maneuver senior citizens do where they take off their glasses and hold an item at arm’s length, examining it suspiciously. I considered buying him an iPad for his birthday, but then I remembered that he’s too old and I’m too cheap.

It’s just as well that those tapes are collecting dust. What would I want to do, watch them? No, thanks. Should I ever want to be embarrassed by what I say or how I look, I have access to clips of my occasional CNN appearances. I wonder if my grandparents ever thought, when I was making those BNN tapes in their house all those years ago, that I would ever make a living in the television business. Probably not. They likely just crossed their fingers that I wouldn’t become a drug addict or get anyone pregnant—a crapshoot in any family. To some extent, Yiayia and Papou still think of me as the little boy with the...

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