Just Another Night at the Office

This one is a 3:00 a.m. car wreck, DUI probably, a silver Camaro that screamed into an alley just south of the Marina 8 theaters and couldn't dodge a parked flat-bed stacked high with baling wire. The driver of the car survived, leaving behind a forehead-shaped crimson stain on the dashboard and 2000 pounds of force-contorted metal that the television cameraman circles now, trying different angles, switching his light on and off. If it ends up on the news, this crash will look like every other nighttime sequence, a jittery video that sways like a ghost dance, sirens whooping in the background, glossy yellow perimeter tape crisscrossing the foreground. But this clip will never see broadcast time. "No. Nothing happened here," says Marc Siegal as the tow team fits hooks to the mangled Camaro. "The driver survived. I have millions of crash stories I've filmed, and very few of them are worth a thing." He pauses. "Well, I mean, they're tragedies, and they're terrible. But I can't sell them to the news."

Marc Siegal makes it his business to sort late-night tragedies by their market value; his company (Lights, Camera, Action! - "We cover Dade like a blanket!") is the most recent addition to the small corps of local overnight video stringers, free-lance cameramen who film nocturnal news and hawk their wares to local television stations. They are the only source of night news - stations (with the exception of WPLG-10, which is unionized) do not retain camera crews overnight - and from midnight to dawn, they cruise the city's streets, listening for things that go bump in the night. Two other companies, Miami Bureau and Miami TV News, preceded Siegal into the market by almost five years, but whereas the other ventures have grown beyond their infancy and supplemented their overnighting with daytime work, Siegal's fledgling business, which he co-manages with his girlfriend, Sheryl Reid, is almost completely dependent on overnight news. And while he hasn't flourished economically since he began work on August 1, 1990, Siegal has made nearly 100 sales to local news stations, a figure comparable to his more established competition. Those in the industry attribute Siegal's early boom to lower prices and decreased standards, but whatever the reason, he has cut himself a sizable portion of the local free-lance pie.

Some overnight free-lancers stay at home with their equipment, operating from a stationary base, listening to police scanners, waiting for an incident to tempt them onto the road. Siegal drives as he monitors, averaging nearly 100 miles per night. We meet in mid-December at 11:30 p.m., just as the evening news reports are signing off, at the open-all-night Hats Off to Bagels & Donuts on the 79th Street Causeway. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a photographer's vest - mesh in front, a half-dozen snap pockets, back wrinkled like a brown paper bag - the 32-year-old Siegal greets me at the entrance of the coffee shop. He seems far younger than that until he speaks, and then gravity takes hold of his face, revealing his age. He bears a resemblance to Griffin Dunne, the actor. I don't mention this.

We shake hands, and he returns immediately to studying the steam rising from his coffee. He isn't the friendliest person in the world, which is good, because I don't think I could endure riding eight hours through the middle of the night with the friendliest person in the world. "Should we go," Siegal says, and since it is less a question than an announcement, I follow him out to his car, a gold Honda Civic packed fair and square with equipment - car phone, FM scanner, video hardware in the trunk (Siegal's camera costs nearly $10,000; the other overnight companies' equipment runs upwards of $40,000). Then we hit the road, west on 79th, toward Biscayne.

The volume on Siegal's walkie-talkie-size scanner is hiked high, its brays and static filling the Honda, and the night begins to percolate immediately - an unarmed man threatening his ex-girlfriend in Hialeah, a West Miami Farm Stores franchise robbed by bandits with a straight razor, two white teen-agers pinching beer and music cassettes at a South Dade Amoco. But petty thefts are for the radio and newspapers; to tempt the attention of TV, events must be visual and available, the more visceral the better. Because most of Siegal's night is spent waiting for news to break, he has devised a holding pattern, a predetermined route he drives through Miami, complete with food stops and answers to the call of nature. Holding the steering wheel with his left hand and his coffee with his right, he starts through the circuit, making only minimal small talk, concentrating on the scanner. His silences grant me time to take in the terms of the darkness, and I spend the first half-hour of the drive steeped in my own unease, divested of colors in peripheral zones, vision directed forward in a way daytime sight never is, shadows immense on either side.

"Listening to the scanner is an art," Siegal says by way of apology for ignoring me. "It's a very anti-social activity. If you let your concentration lapse, you can miss something." As if to illustrate, he does miss something, a South Dade fire call. "That's okay," he says. "They'll call for it again." When the dispatcher repeats the call for multiple units, Siegal's eyes animate, and then dull when he hears the address, Biscayne Club Apartments, far south on 104th Terrace. "We could go, but usually with fires, I wait until someone's on the scene. First personnel there give a visual report, and more often than not, it's nothing. And I don't want to rush all the way out there for nothing." Sure enough, while we are waiting for the visual, the dispatcher recalls all units.

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