This Great Society - Nonfiction



Illustration: Joel Bentley

Cassie Hay: These Are Their Stories
Illustration: Joel Bentley

            I'd gotten the job with no qualifications whatsoever, other than the fact that I asked for it repeatedly over the course of seven months. Giddy like a fool, I had shown up for my first day of work with a gigantic Canon Rebel camera and a notepad, with a pen tucked in my purse's outer pocket like some sort of girl reporter I'd seen in the movies. There was no real reason I should have been hired as a location scout in the meanest city in America: petite, too apologetic, with bad eyesight, no sense of direction, and a phobia of phone calls. I was not an obvious choice, but in retrospect I think that is precisely the reason why Moe, the location manager, thought I would work. I would be a stealth weapon—a professional decoy.

            Moe rescued me from the accounting department of the show we both worked for, a crime drama that I cannot legally name here but which (hint, hint) marks its plot points with a simple sound effect: chung-chung. In the accounting office, I'd spent my days filing, copying, and auditing invoices for things like “Snickers for Poop”—melting Snickers in a microwave for 30 seconds is how we in the "biz" make fake feces, by the way. So when Moe offered me the scouting gig I took it without hesitation. As fun as accounting for poop sounds on paper, it wasn't.

            I didn't know exactly how to be a scout, but I figured it most likely entailed finding things, and so I was excited. Then I was given my first assignment: to find a men's public restroom, in a park, with a pond, near a playground. I don't know what I thought my first assignment was going to require but I'd dressed entirely wrong for this one. I was wearing a bright red shirt with a frilly collar and hot pink pleather ballet flats; this was not exactly the most inconspicuous ensemble, and all the more so because the first place they sent me was Crotona Park, in the Bronx. While I drove north up the West Side Highway, I realized that this was the first time since I'd moved to the city eight years before that I'd ever stepped foot in the borough, and though I wanted to have balls of steel, admittedly, I had some trepidation about the task. Even after all the gentrification of the past 20 years, when Times Square has been Disneyfied and the Lower East Side transformed into a hipster's paradise, the Bronx maintains a healthy, lasting reputation as being big, bad, and just plain dangerous.

            I pulled up next to Crotona Park at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It was August and the sun was still high in the sky and the streets were empty. I parallel parked in the middle of a row of rusty Cadillacs with their hoods chained shut and realized as I stood at the edge of a wide-open field with dried, dead grasses that I was all alone (which in New York is always scarier than being surrounded by people as there are no witnesses to your demise). In my aloneness, my heart started racing and I tried to walk as quickly as possible across the field to the children's playground on the other side, but the heat was making my feet sweaty and every few steps the pleather ballet flats would slip off. I continued this way, flip-flopping across the dirt, until I reached the playground where a young mother stood, pushing her son on the swing set. They eyed me, my camera, and my hot pink shoes warily as I approached, and they stopped their swinging altogether as I veered towards the bathrooms. I scuffled softly over the dirt to the door marked "Men" and tried my best to knock boldly.

            "Mommy, why is that girl going in the boys' room?" I heard the child ask.

            "Hello? Is anyone in here? I'm a location scout and I just need to take pictures!" I said loudly for the mom's sake and for the sake of anyone taking care of business inside, though my voice sounded timid.

            The woman at the swing set said something low and harsh in Spanish to her son and I hunkered closer to the door.

            "Hello? Is anyone in here?" There was no answer, so I opened the door and to my relief, found it empty. All things considered, it was actually kind of nice: the stall walls were freshly painted and the tile floors newly mopped, without even a stench lingering. I took my pictures quickly and decided that the Bronx wasn't bad at all.

            I waved to the mother and her child as I walked back to my car. She smiled back. Well, I'll be damned if scouting isn't actually quite pleasant, I thought to myself. I drove back through neighbourhoods lined with tightly packed houses and shining metal gates, and as I traveled I was surprised at how benign most of the Bronx was. Sure, there were the apartment stoops with clusters of hollow-eyed men who stared at me as I drove by and that guy in the alleyway slapping his girlfriend, but that was no different than any other part of the Tri-State area. Even with my inappropriate outfit, scouting had been easy—so easy in fact that I couldn't quite believe that I was getting paid to do it.

            The next stop was to be Dewitt Clinton Park, located between 52nd and 54th Streets and 11th Avenue, just around the corner from where they film The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I was glad to be back in familiar Manhattan and the sun was just starting to slip behind the buildings so that the park, located as it was near the Hudson River, had a beautiful rosy glow. A gaggle of children played noisily, shrieking and roughhousing among the sprinklers near the men's restroom. The whole thing was rather picturesque in a Kramer vs. Kramer kind of way. I strutted past them confidently and knocked on the door.

            "Hello? Anybody there?"

            There was no answer. I knocked again for good measure.

            "Hello? Anybody in there?"

            The silence continued so I opened the door and, propping it open with my right shoulder, began to snap a panoramic photograph of the bathroom. I managed to shoot three pictures before the man fell out of the middle stall.

            He was an older man with wild matted hair that dwarfed his gaunt face. His black gummy teeth parted to emit a loud moan. He blinked at me with a confused expression on his face, and though I shared his confusion, his had an element of anger to it. He lost his balance in all the excitement and teetered, stiff like an oak being felled, and tumbled into the wall and then towards me. It was then that I noticed his pants were around his ankles, his hands around his penis, and that the moans were continuing.

            This time, I did not stroll out of the bathroom. I got the hell out.

            "You got the picture, right?" my assistant manager, Charlie, asked me later when I told him the story.

            I did not get the picture.

            "Epic fail, Cass," Charlie said. "Epic fail."

            I suppose there should have been a lesson or two in there—something to the effect of paying my dues, preparedness, research, perhaps self-defense. But at the time, I learned nothing other than an irrational fear of public bathrooms.

            The real lesson hit me years in the future. The show had been cancelled and I was back working in accounting. My career had risen precipitously and then fallen flat, and as I traced the successes and failures back to that sunny day in a park in Manhattan, I looked at my email and wished I had something to send to the editor with this story. That's when I learned, when I really learned, what it was all about: television is storytelling, and storytelling is a package, and when in doubt, always always get the picture.


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