by Steve Shay
(Swans - May 31, 2010) In my line of work I do over 50 interviews a week. Last week I interviewed Bill Gates, Sr., or, as some in Seattle refer to him, "the real one's father." He was lecturing other flush folks about the obligation of the very rich to pay higher estate taxes, this, in the pleasant home of a friend of mine perched above Elliott Bay, anchored in my neighborhood newspaper's readership area.
Before I continue, I don't want to "over-exaggerate," a word I am borrowing from an expert economist I heard last week on National Public Radio. About 40 interviews per week are simple nuts-and-bolts exchanges for my captions like, "How do you spell 'Susie?' Is it 'S-u-s-i-e?'" and the inevitable response with a dab of a stink-eye-leer, "Not even close. It's 'S-i-o-u-x-s-i-e.' Duh."
"Is that thing on?" asked Gates, the 84-year-old lawyer-turned-philanthropist whose monetary generosity I would not turn down if offered, and whose pale, 6-foot something skeleton must jolt the local natives in rural Africa, particularly those unfortunates he visits who are hunched over, afflicted with polio.
The "thing" he referred to is my VN-6200CP Digital Voice Recorder, by Olympus. It's a fifty-dollar gadget I found on sale at Radio Shack that I carry in my hand for every interview, my accurate alternative to jotting down notes with stubborn pens hard-pressed for ink and mis-lead dull pencils onto countless 3-ring binders that would make the cluttered back seat of my car, as well as my confined office area, a 3-ring circus of unreadable jots.
(The "thing" was on when I asked if he would consider coming over to my apartment to fix my Mac and he said, "Even my son couldn't do that.")
I also get the "Is that thing on?" routine from homeless folks I interview. Understandable, considering much of their paranoia stems from getting continuously hassled by authorities as it is illegal to be homeless in progressive Seattle. When an officer scowls at them to "move on" he means to Portland, Oregon, not to Nordstrom around the corner nor their apartment which exists around no corner.
Regardless of their station in life, my victims become put off by the tiny red "on light" indicator my VN-6200PC emits. This makes no sense. If I take notes rather than record electronically, is this a guarantee that their quotes will be more trusted in my hands? When they see my recorder turned off, do my interviewees assume this is code for "Now what I tell you is off the record"?
The irony, of course, is that the juicy stuff often leaks out when my VN-6200CP is not turned on. The absence of the tiny on-light seems to loosen the tongue as effectively as a couple of stiff drinks. I can sense a doozy coming when I am asked, "Is that thing turned OFF?"
Like when an overbooked county councilmember speaks to a group of 60 concerned citizens with its own, rag-tag hierarchy -- the ubiquitous front row clique wearing those floppy gray hats pierced with pins that offer "Re-elect Gore," "Fathers for Choice," and "I'm a Vegan and I Vote." The front-rowers always bring well-organized, thick folders of notes and petitions with signatures that rest anxiously on their laps as they sit in rows of scuffed, chocolate brown folding chairs under the dreary fluorescence of a dark-paneled Unitarian or UCC church basement on a rainy Wednesday evening.
The well-paid bureaucrat swiftly enters, adjusts his tie in a hazy mirror that leans against the floor, greets the usual suspects with a joke, and then assures them that the new shiny ferry pier will be built nearby, an additional bus route will scoop citizens from their under-populated intersections, and an unsightly empty paved lot currently used for open-air drug-dealing is right on schedule to become a green "pocket park" teaming with public art and puppies.
And, after the show, I make my move, and I ask him, "When is this all going to happen?" He spots my recorder.
Had he asked, "Is that thing turned on?" the councilmember would then lean into where he is guessing the device's speaker is placed and would say, "King County is the fourteenth largest county by population in America, and with our identified funding sources we will now be moving forward with these proposed improvements immediately."
Instead, he asks, "Is that thing turned off?" and what follows promises to be a juicy, unusable quote, a truth the public can't handle. It will be off the record because if I choose to print what follows, based on memory, then these will be his last words ever spoken to me. And it's a small town.
My "thing" is now turned off. He does not look into my VN-6200CP, but instead into my eyes, and says, "The county is broke. We have no fucking money for anything." Then he winks at me, shakes my hand, grabs a few store-bought cookies and a cup of stale coffee that sit patiently on a folding table before he quickly exits with his aid as the citizens left behind begin to cluster with smug optimism and funny hats to discuss their next Wednesday night meeting and agenda of new neighborhood needs.
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About the Author
Steve Shay was born in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1959. He is a full time photographer and reporter for Robinson News, Seattle, Washington. He lives in West Seattle with his girlfriend, Laura Wold, and their 9-year-old golden retriever Alice. Steve is the son of Swans contributor Art Shay and the rare-book dealer Florence Shay. (back)