Just Another Night at the Office

Part 2

For Siegal, overnighting - with its off-peak hours, long patches of downtime, and short adrenaline bursts - is not just a business, but a pleasure. As a teen-ager, he had a penchant for night driving, as well as a flair for devising less conventional antidotes for adolescent anomie. "I just recently read a magazine article about first dates," he says, "and there was a woman who said that her date took her to the airport. I gulped - it could have been me. I used to ride down to the airport and hang out for the better part of the night. It fascinated me that it was in operation all the time." Even now he keeps a box at Miami International's post office, and often includes an airport visit in his route.

We hit the road with renewed energy, or at least replenished caffeine, but the scanner lets us down, just a convenience-store quick hit and a BOLO (be-on-the-lookout alert) for a suspicious male, probably armed. It's a good night for Miami and a bad night for video free-lance. As we pull up to a dropped railroad crossing, Siegal issues a driving caveat. "Never get stuck at one of these crossings. If a car pulls up behind you, you're trapped. A sitting target." He is noticeably agitated when a car does pull up behind us, and we idle, unable to move. The passing train sounds like reggae.

Here the question of the hazards of the job, lurking in the background all night, makes itself conspicuous. "If you ask my mother, there's great danger," says Siegal with a laugh. "The truth be known," he continues after a short delay, "I'm kind of wimpy. I know we're supposed to be gung-ho news and all that, but I have so much money invested in this equipment, not to mention my own health and life, that there are places I just won't go." His code of self-preservation has spawned its own driving rules. Only stop at gas stations when police cars are present. Stay on well-lighted main streets whenever possible. Do not come to a halt at intersections; hang back until red lights turn green, then drive through at a brisk clip.

In this business, as in any, there are superstitions - overnighters succumb to the uniquely human impulse to rationalize systems of explanation. Apart from the trite full-moon myth, they'll suggest that county paydays are high-crime watermarks, that the ends of the months are especially quiet. "One fire-rescue guy told me that Sunday night there's a lot of domestic violence," says Siegal. "Families spend the whole day together, they're not used to it. That and the prospect of going back to work Monday morning. And you hear that days when the county hands out paychecks are bad. But the truth is there's no pattern. It's like fishing. Waiting for a tip, using skill to turn that tip into a catch. There are long stretches of waiting, but you have to be careful not to let them dull your senses, and when there's a bite, you have to fight to bring it in." As he details the similarities between night-crawling and fishing, he tugs on the bottom of his photographer's vest. And it's an angler's vest, one of those weather-beaten ones that comes complete with hip waders and a hat with hooks and lures stuck in it. He's dressed for the metaphor.

The first nibble we get is the Camaro wreck at the Marina 8, and it seems to energize Siegal, who speeds away from the scene full of enthusiasm for explaining the little ironies and comedies that enrich his life as an overnighter. How his worst enemy is not automatic gunfire, or raging flames, but rain, because he owns his own equipment and cannot risk water damage. How he creates mental pictures of the various dispatchers. The most interesting bit of trivia is the false alarm window, the sliver of the morning between 3:30 and 3:45 a.m., where "3-32" might be a time check rather than a code-three assault.

Soon the thrill of the wreck has evaporated, and with it the last traces of Siegal's perseverance. It's nearly four and there's no sign of calamity. When we find ourselves back at the 79th Street coffee shop, Siegal proposes calling it a night, which it is. We go for a drink, Tobacco Road, open until 5:00 a.m., always happy to serve the discouraged late-night news videographer, and as we step out of the car, a call comes across the scanner, fire units dispatched, address sounds like Hialeah. Siegal debates whether to answer the call and decides it's too far to chase, especially without a good sense of its severity. Sitting at the bar, though, he keeps the hand-held scanner pressed tightly to his ear. "When I go home and go to bed early on an especially slow night, I sleep like this," he says. "The dispatch tones wake me up." Over the sound of the jukebox, he supplies updates. "First patrol is just arriving.... Heavy smoke visible.... Code 2, possible fatality. Let's go." He is up and to the door before the money hits the bar.

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