Just Another Night at the Office

It's possible, Siegal confesses, to go the entire night without a call, and not rare at all to wait until 2:00 or 4:00 a.m. for something to break. And though he says confidently that "the odds are that something newsworthy will happen in Dade County tonight," for a while, as we motor uneventfully through the loop, down Biscayne, onto I-95, across main downtown thoroughfares, it looks as if we'll beat the odds. We pass the Miami Arena twice, roll down NE Second Avenue past Churchill's Hideaway, catch the eyes of a stray cat in our headlights alongside the Queen of Meats on NW 27th Avenue.

I try to concentrate on the dispatches, but it's difficult to decipher the crackling tangle, and more difficult still to make sense of the Metro-Dade Police communications signal codes. "It took me a while to get comfortable," Siegal says, "but you learn the codes, and at some point you start thinking in number lingo." He nods toward the scanner. "Dispatcher just called a 22. That's a stolen car. There are about ten of those per night. Then, twenties are stealing shit, thirties are dirty shit, forties are medical conditions. Seventeen is an accident, 31 is a big one - homicide - and 45 is DOA. That's a home run, stationary body." In more serious calls, he explains, the two-digit code is preceded by a "two," and a "three" prefix indicates a matter of the greatest gravity; "three-seventeen," for example, would signify an urgent car wreck, prime picking for the free-lance news videographer.

As he drives, Siegal offers me a cartography of Miami based on past crimes, a mayhem map littered with 31s and 45s and 22s. At the intersection of NW Seventh Avenue and 79th Street, he gestures toward Franco's Pizza. "A delivery man was shot in August, barely made it back to this store," he says. "I got footage of the undelivered pizza on the car seat. Sold it to Channel 4." We will pass the ghosts of many incidents - Puerto Rican man loses game of Russian roulette, Siegal gets footage of mourning family and sells to four stations; Hialeah cop dies in car wreck, tragedy results in five more sales. Two of Siegal's pieces have sold to all six local stations (Channels 4, 6, 7, 10, 23, and 51), one about an off-duty cop who shot a robber at an automatic teller machine, the other a freighter crew who swam to shore when their ship went down. Siegal, who keeps a library of all his footage regardless of whether it sells, says that although he has developed better news instincts since he began, the erratic purchase patterns of local stations still confound him. "I've learned that some stories aren't worth chasing. For fires you usually need flames. For accidents, either fatalities or something interesting, like pulling out an injured passenger with the Jaws of Life. But those are just guidelines, and the rules get broken and broken back. Some nights I've shot footage I was sure would sell, and no one would touch it. Other nights, Channel 7 will buy up accidents with injuries. It's a real unpredictable business."

As if suddenly reminded of the unpredictability, he reaches for his car phone and dials up Miami's only two all-night news producers - Mark Angotti at WTVJ-TV Channel 4 and Cathy Johnson at WSVN-TV Channel 7, asking them about the slow pace of the night, requesting that they call or beep him if any tips come in. Then we head back to Bagels & Donuts for more coffee. Cruising east on 79th Street, Siegal points out the young male prostitutes, some wearing sweat shirts with the names of prestigious Eastern universities. As we come around a wide corner, we see a burly, balding policeman admonishing a prostitute, thrusting his department-issue flashlight deep down the front of her dress. "He'll say he was checking for weapons," Siegal says wearily. "Some of the people out here at this time are real sleazy."

Sitting in the car in the coffee shop lot, I throw the question of late-night sleaziness back to Siegal. "Are you asking me why I drive alone in the dark for eight hours? People ask that a lot. They wonder what kind of person could do this." An aimless one, perhaps. After graduating from Palmer High School in 1977, Siegal entered Florida State, and quit after a year, the first bailout in what would become an eight-year, on-again, off-again undergraduate career. When he wasn't in school, which was about half the time, he was working as a busboy, or a waiter, or a bartender, or playing in a punk band, or traveling to Europe to pick apples.

Finally earning a degree in broadcasting from the University of Maryland in 1984, Siegal sampled magazine television, landing a job at America's Most Wanted in Washington, D.C., and eventually moving back to Miami to work for Channel 7's Inside Story newsmagazine. "The stories I did weren't the usual type of story; they reflected my own obsessions," he says of his time at the show. "I worked on a story about [author] John Kennedy Toole, hints of incest between him and his mother, and another on the film Mondo New York. I got a reputation for being the perverted-features guy." After leaving Inside Story in the spring of 1990, Siegal weathered a brief employment with Miami Bureau, another overnighting service, and then, in July, founded his own company. "I originally had the idea in 1976," he says. "I must have read about overnight still photographers somewhere. But by the time I was able to do anything about it, there were two companies already, and I became the third."

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