Lessons in the Dust

The construction dust caked in the cuts on his knuckles said more about him than I could learn following him for a week.  He was a working man, pitting sinew and bone against brick and mortar.

It was supposed to be a quick stop — a drive-by-shooting in desk vernacular — roll up, stick the lens out the window for thirty seconds, and head to the next shoot on the list.  But something told me there was more to the demolition of a city landmark than seven shots of construction debris cut together and served cold on the evening news.  To be sure, I had more pressing matters, but the silhouette of the man in my viewfinder — back bent, to the task of sorting rocks — spoke to me.  What was his story?  I wonder if he ever slept in this once glorious hotel?

I hunted down the job foreman, a big ole boy built like the wrecking ball he might use to take down a taller building.  The seven buildings of the old Belmont Hotel stood only two stories tall.  A backhoe and bulldozer would be all he needed on this job.  He gave me a hard look.  The squint in his eye said he didn’t have much use for my type.  He extended a beefy, calloused hand that swallowed mine.  “Patrick.”  He handed me his business card — Busted Knuckle Demolition Services.  How appropriate.

I introduced myself and prepared to explain my presence and beg for another 30 seconds to finish my seven-shot sequence for the evening news.  Patrick didn’t mind the company, so I trained my lens on a pile of concrete and wood.  “What’s that fella’s story?  Any chance he ever stayed here?”

“Him?  Nah, he’s from Mississippi.  Works for the brick company that’s gonna salvage the bricks.”

Just as well. I didn’t have time to talk to him anyway.  There were two other stories in my back pocket that needed attention.  I didn’t have time to get sentimental over a decaying hotel once home to the elite but now barely suitable for the homeless.  “Neat place.  Shame it’s gotta go.”

“Tell me about it.”  Concrete scraped like gravel under the big man’s feet as he shuffled them back and forth.

“How ’bout you?  You ever stay here?”

A smile as wide as the bucket on his bulldozer broke across his face.  “See that room up there?”  He pointed over his shoulder to broken second-floor window.  The door hung open on busted hinges.  Rotted plywood from the eave sagged low, blocking the entrance.  “Stayed there in 1987.  And that big pile that used to be a building?  My ex-wife and I spent Valentine’s night 1989 in there.  That’s why I tore it down first.”  He chuckled at himself.

For me, the wheels were already turning.  Patrick was the key to telling the Belmont’s story, but I didn’t have time, and I couldn’t let the competition find him.  “Patrick, I’ve gotta run right now, but I want to come back and sit and talk to you about this place.”

“Like I told the other TV station, anytime.  I’m gonna be here for a month.  They been here twice already.”

A sick feeling began to rise in my gut.  The other guys were walking around with my story in their camera.  “You didn’t happen to tell them about your ex-wife, did you?”

“Nah, they were only interested in the facts.  How long it was gonna take.  How much it was gonna cost.  Stuff like that.  They didn’t care nothing about me.”

And in that one moment, as the demolition dust clung heavy to the smell of decay on the site of Baton Rouge’s oldest standing hotel, Patrick the Demo man reminded me of a lesson I’d learned long ago, but rarely thought about.

Producers and news directors may want facts, but viewers care about people.

That 30 second conversation led to one day’s worth of phone calls, two full days shooting, and scraping together every extra minute over the following week to produce a story that I hope folks who remember The old Bellemont Hotel in her heyday will appreciate.

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About Rick

Writer, photographer, thinker of deep thought . . . too bad I only write about shallow ones.
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5 Responses to Lessons in the Dust

  1. ukcameraman says:

    Rick, that is one great lesson in journalism. Whether you are a cameraman or journo, asking the right questions of the right people gets you a bigger story with more warmth, detail and history than any news item with ‘just the facts’… i loved it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wendy says:

    great story Rick! I remember going to the Great Hall for Mardi Gras balls and a few wedding receptions. So sad to see it gone.

  3. cyndygreen says:

    Went to a nothing fire once…in a bad part of town. Just a crowd of young thugs standing around and firefighters rolling up hoses with as slight odor of smoke. I sprayed it and asked one of the thugs what had happened…he replied, nothing really. There was a small fire in the apartment and the old lady carried out the naked man. Beginning of story.

  4. Pingback: The Dope Sheet » » Specializing in the “little stories”

  5. Northernphotog says:

    Great Story Rick! It’s one to share

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