I was complaining to one of my World Journalism Institute teachers about the crazy deadline he set for us.
His response: “That’s the press, baby.”
He saw my blank face, so he played this YouTube clip from Deadline U.S.A (1952) for me. “This is just for Sophia,” he said, giving me the eye. Gulp.
That’s the press, baby. Oh Bo. Love that 50s accent. I’m gonna have to watch this whole film one day when I don’t have a gazillion things due.
Anyway. The truth is, even as I complain, I thrive on the high-stress situations. Today was such a day.
We have a reporting assignment almost daily during our three weeks here at WJI’s New York Convergence Course. At noon, my teacher, Les Sillars, gave us that day’s assignment: Go out into the streets. Find someone to interview and write a 500-word feature profile on him or her. It’s due 6 p.m. Sharp.
I didn’t get enough sleep last night, so I went home and napped for two hours first. High priority things out of the way first, right? At a few minutes past 2 p.m., I hopped out of bed and stalked the streets. Quite literally, actually. I was staring at every single person walking down 6th Avenue, sometimes following a particular individual I found sorta interesting.
Problem is, this was New York City. New Yorkers don’t walk. They march, with a purpose and a destination. They don’t really make eye contact, and they all have a determined, hardened face that snaps, “I need to get somewhere. Don’t bother me.” At least, that’s how I interpreted it, so I cowed away after a few seconds of trailing someone.
I entered a famous bagel store and asked to see the owner, but she had to pick up her nephews soon. I chatted up a kind-looking old lady, who turned down my request for an interview because she had to go grocery shopping. I walked up to a guy with a diamond stud earring and tattoos all over his arm, but then he glared at me and I scampered away.
The clock was ticking down. It was past 3 p.m. I was wandering aimlessly around in Chelsea. I still didn’t even get the chance to talk more than a few seconds with someone, and I had to have a 500-word article ready by 6 p.m. I was starting to freak out, just a little bit.
I decided then that I couldn’t interview any person who comes my way. I needed to come up with a strategy.
The wheels in my brain churned. What kind of situation could I manufacture so that a person would just have to talk to me? I sent a quick prayer to God. I was mid-chew on a oatmeal-and-raisin bagel with fig (!!) cream cheese when I spotted a nail salon. Ding, ding, ding.
It so happened that I’ve been in need of getting my nails trimmed. I had never gotten a manicure in my life, and here was a nail salon right in front of me. From what I’ve seen on movies like Legally Blonde, I knew that a manicure consisted of two people sitting across each other in a room, one painting, one being painted. The perfect ground for gossip, and in my case, interviewing. My manicurist would have to talk to me. Ha!
Congratulating myself for my ingenuity, I burst into the nail salon, apologized for not making a reservation, and asked for a basic manicure. I did a quick scan of the salon, and saw that all the workers were Asians. Perfect– Asians respond better to Asians. We have that inherent Asian connection. I’m an Asian. This idea was seeming smarter and smarter. I love the way my brain works, I tee-hee-ed to myself as the nail salon owner led me to my manicurist.
To be honest, I played to the stereotype and expected the nail salon team to be Vietnamese. But then the owner spoke Mandarin to my manicurist, and my ears perked up. Yes!! Peachier and peachier!
“Are you Chinese?” I asked.
My manicurist smiled. “Yes,” she said softly.
“Can you speak English?”
“A little bit,” she said.
Now that she spoke more than one syllable, I realized that her English was choppy. So I spoke to her in Mandarin, and the manicurist’s eyes– her name is Tina– brightened. Boom. Instant bond.
Unfortunately, it turned out that my manicurist wasn’t particularly chatty. During the whole 15 minutes or so she spent buffing and painting my nails, her head was cast down low and she rarely made direct eye contact. I wanted to gossip; I wanted to probe into her personal life and bond over our mutual Asianness (this is the one time I heighten my Asianness to the max). But the interview ended up with me being– you know, that annoying stranger who asks a bazillion questions and the other person just wishes she would shut the hell up.
I asked Tina if most of the customers were white. She said yes. I asked again if she talked to them. She said no.
“I guess they don’t ask you as many questions as I do, huh?” I said.
She nodded. A bit too vigorously, I thought. Aiyah!!
Time to strategize again. When she handed me my bill, I gave her a generous tip. I was dipping my desperate toe into murky journalism ethics waters. But lo and behold, she got a bit chattier after she saw my tip. She even helped me carry my stuff as I got up from my seat, and she actually asked me some questions. It’s true. Money gets you everywhere.
When I left the salon, it was 4:30 p.m. My classroom was about 20 minutes walk away. I still had to walk back and type up the article. Interview done, with just enough time to spare for me to quickly stop by Whole Foods to take advantage of the burger sale.
Sorry, just had to mention that. I get way too happy with a good sale.
So in the end, I did get my interview. It was the perfect of perfect situation– yet I didn’t exactly get the kind of profile I wanted. But at least I got my nails done for the first time.
My professor once told me that usually, the best profile you get is also during the worst situation. And I guess the opposite works too. Sometimes, the best situation doesn’t mean you’ll get the best interview. Because– to quote Humphrey Bogart– that’s the press, baby.