Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Los Dos Davids -- Among Storytellers

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU's nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee's previous trips there, click here and here.)

The first person who came to mind when I met Ray Werner was Gordon the Fisherman. In setting up our first meeting, he had told me to look for “the old guy with the white beard.” Sure enough, on a brisk October morning last year, I walked into the Nicholsen Center at RMU and found him standing at the café – trimmed white beard, a wide smile, and very happy eyes. With the weather-worn face of an old sea captain, he appeared to be the street clothes version of Gordon the Fisherman, for sure. His vice grip handshake didn’t let go until he had thoroughly studied my face. I could tell he was an old-fashioned type, a man who cherishes opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Mr. Werner had wanted to meet me for coffee for several weeks. Though I had heard his name tossed around before by Dr. Ross, I had never seen him until we met that morning, I wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted from me, other than an interview about my RMU experience. I was curious to find out more as we sat down on the patio outside with our coffee.

“So what do you think of Robert Morris so far?” Ray began, settling back into his chair. He pulled out a pad of paper as I pondered his question.

“Well, I really enjoy going to school here,” I answered. “I’ve had a wonderful experience so far with the nursing program, and certainly with my trip this past summer to Nicaragua.” This was my standard response to a very common question. Most people just wanted to know that I was still enrolled and still studying, not much else. I drifted off as I noticed Ray setting a voice recorder on the patio table. “Wait, we’re recording this?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t mind the recorder. It’s just for my own notes.” Ray redirected the conversation. “Tell me more about Nicaragua. Tell me about this friend of yours, David. He sounds like a pretty remarkable young man.” I nodded. Indeed, David was remarkable. Since I had returned home in July, my short stories from Managua about David and other friends in the barrio had slowly moved their way up the ladder at RMU, finally ending up on the desk of Ray Werner, a man who had remained faceless t before now. I was beginning to wonder what exactly Mr. Werner did for the university. I finished up my comments on David and waited for Ray to speak. He nodded, tapped his pen a few times on his pad, measuring his reaction, stalling as if about to reveal a really great hand of poker.

“Well, I have a really special job here, Lee,” he said after a long moment. “In addition to teaching here, I’ve had the privilege of working with some really great people, including President Dell’Omo and his staff, to develop a new advertising campaign for Robert Morris.” Ray sipped his coffee and looked around. He lowered his voice a bit. “A new way for the university to present itself to the region and the world.” I nodded, but I wasn’t quite following him. “We think you have a remarkable story in the making here, Lee, and we want to follow it closely, particularly with you and David.”

“I don’t really know what you mean,” I replied.

“Well, I’m not able to tell you everything now because it is still very much in the developmental stages. But what you need to know right now is that we are very interested in capturing the moment when you give David his trumpet next month. Do you think you can make sure that happens?”

“I will do my best, sure.” We began to talk more about the details of my upcoming trip in November. I was not sure at all what Ray Warner had in mind, but it was clear he wasn’t planning on tipping his hand just yet.


“Take a look at this, Lee, and tell us what you think.”

It was now January, and I was sitting in the Pittsburgh office of Wall-To-Wall Studios on the North Side. Riding the elevator to the fourth story loft space of the advertising firm, one could enjoy an impressive panorama of the city, frozen in its midwinter pose. I had been summoned once again to a meeting with Ray Werner, this time joined by his oldest son and Wall-to-Wall executive, Larkin, and one of his employees, Doug.

After the introductions had been made, Ray brought us around to the purpose of our gathering. He began by sliding a piece of paper across the boardroom table in my direction. There were several blocks of text on the page, and as I began to read them to myself, I became acutely aware of the stares of the other three men in the room. I was already aware that big changes were ahead for the public image of Robert Morris University, and I had suspicions that my stories from Nicaragua would somehow be playing a role. The rest was a mystery, though. Now, after several months of waiting, here was the pitch. And it felt like there was intense expectation for my reaction.

“Well,” I said, after a moment of reading over the paper. “This looks like a script of some kind.”

“It is indeed a script,” Mr. Werner responded, nodding eagerly. “It’s your script.”

“My script for what, exactly?” I said, looking up.

“Well, that script is a script for a commercial we want to produce about your story.”

“My story?”

“The story of you and David and the trumpet.” Mr. Werner was visibly excited, wringing his hands as he talked. “It’s a wonderful story.”

“You must be joking,” I responded, chuckling now. “You’re serious? A television commercial?”

“Yes! We want to produce it with you this summer! How does your schedule look for July?” I was more than a bit shocked.

“Well, I uh, um….I haven’t given much thought to the summer yet.” Mr. Werner’s son, Larkin, leaned over the conference table to join in the conversation.

“We want to make your story with David as true to life as we can, Lee,” he said. “Do you think David is the type of person who would be interested in making this commercial happen?”

“Well, what do you mean exactly?” I asked. “I mean, the way this script reads, it seems like David is actually in the commercial with me.” My next question seemed so ludicrous to even ask. “Does that mean we’d be flying him here to Pittsburgh?” Larkin looked over to his dad before responding.

“Well, actually, it would mean we all would be flying down there.” The comment struck me completely caught off guard.

“To Nicaragua? You want to shoot the commercial in Nicaragua?” I asked.

“Hopefully,” replied Larkin. “That’s the plan. We still need final approval on everything. But this is a colossal project we are undertaking, and it’s going to be a giant investment by RMU.” That was no understatement. Mobilizing a film crew to set up and film a TV spot in the barrio of a third world country seemed like an incredibly ridiculous proposition to even suggest. But Ray and Larkin and Doug had obviously given this a lot of thought, and they didn’t seem to think so.

“So what do you think?” Ray asked eagerly, obviously caught up in the inspiration of a big idea. It took a moment for me to respond.

“Honestly,” I responded finally, “If think you’re all a bit nuts.”


It’s raining in Belize tonight.

I know this because of the text message that lit up half a dozen cell phones just minutes ago on Continental Flight 1774. The majority of our film crew operates constantly on the iPhone, and after the pilot had given passengers the okay, most of them had been turned on for the sake of playing music. A random text message arrived in the plane, welcoming us all to Belize airspace and informing us of the roaming charges that would apply if we decided to use our phones. Glancing out the window, I can see thunderstorms from the plane, lit from up from within by lightning every few seconds. It’s an incredible sight as we continue to fly through the twilight of a tropical sunset. The sky above us is slowly morphing from orange to pink as the sun sinks lower. Meanwhile, a canopy of flickering storms dots the landscape between us and the ground.

From my seat by the window, I can see the other members of the team spread throughout the cabin. Some are reading. Some are sleeping. A few are just enjoying the sunset. I’m on the plane to Managua with the eleven people it will require to pull off a project of this scope. Throughout our travelling today, I’ve been able to piece together the names and faces of the film crew. Along with the RMU representation of Kyle Fisher and Dr. Ross , there are three art producers, two still photographers, a sound technician, camera technician, director, and producer. I do not have all of their names straightened out yet, but I am almost there. Seated behind me is Anita, our producer. She has been all over the world working for Longfellow Productions. Beside her is Adam, our camera grip. He will be the guy following the director around with spare batteries and lenses.

Our two photographers are sitting behind me as well. Duane Reider is the premier portrait photographer in Pittsburgh. He has worked numerous times with the popular personalities of Mario Lemeiux, Hines Ward, Sydney Crosby, and Troy Polamalu. He also happens to be the owner of the world’s largest collection of Roberto Clemente memorabilia. Clemente never made it to Nicaragua, dying in a tragic plane crash to the country in 1972. Flying to the country that Clemente cared so much about is an important moment for Duane, one of the legend’s biggest fans. His assistant Rob will be working the still shots with him, as well.

Jeff Garton, the director, is sitting by the window on the wing. I haven’t talked too much with him yet, but he seems to be a very interesting character. When he has his ball cap on, he resembles a gaunt Steven Speilberg. Through our group email thread, I know he just finished filming a movie called The Riddle in Pittsburgh with Val Kilmer. On the tram in Houston, I overheard a conversation between him and Dino, our sound guy. Jeff was describing the challenges of filming Shaquille O’Neal, who he recently produced a music video with. I turned around on the tram so he wouldn’t see my jaw drop. Fantastic, I thought to myself. This guy has directed Shaq. No pressure. Dino is a man of vast experience as well, having traveled with National Geographic production crews all over the world. Most of these guys are pretty much freelancers, from what I’ve gathered. They wait for a phone call from their production house, they gather their gear, and they go wherever the script sends them. And tonight, they are all on assignment to Nicaragua to film some college kid from RMU.

Across the aisle from me are the three art gurus who first pitched the idea to me. Ray is reading intently. Larkin is lost in a magazine as well. Doug, on the other hand, seems to just be passing the flight on his iPod. Since meeting him at Wall-to-Wall, I’ve learned that Doug is the freshest talent out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where he graduated at the very top of his class. This is his first long trip away from his new wife, Sarah. A couple months ago, Larkin and Doug were able to give me a preview of the campaign that they’ve spent months working on for Robert Morris. Under the supervision of Ray, these two creative minds have created something really eye-catching. The whole rebranding of the university will be based on the following slogan, Change Someone’s Life and It Changes Yours Forever. It’s not only a compelling idea, but also a massive undertaking.

When we all made it safely through security at Pittsburgh International, Ray had gathered the group to share a few words about the meaning of the campaign. “All of us here are storytellers,” he told the group. “We’re all here because of a story that is worth capturing and worth sharing. The mission here is to be the best storytellers we can be. Let’s go do our best work.” Not wanting to forget what he said, I pull down my tray table and start to jot down some notes on the day’s events. Dr. Ross, seated next to me, takes notice and pulls out his ear buds.

“Are you really writing already? We just left a couple hours ago. Can’t you wait?” he teases.

“Kyle told me she wanted me to be the official blogger of the trip. At least I’m doing my job and not sleeping away all of my time.” Doc chuckles. The friendly abuse is now tradition between us. He leans back over.

“So have you thought about what you’re going to name the stories this time?”

“I have actually, a little bit,” I reply. “What do you think about this – Two Kids Named David. Yes? No?” Dr. Ross nods.

“Or how about in Spanish?” he says. “You could call it Los Dos Davids. The Two Davids.” The title strikes an even better tone.

“That’s great! We’ll go with that!” I jot down Los Dos Davids at the top of the notebook page, then glance out the window. The plane is descending through the flickering canopy now, causing the wing to visibly shake in the turbulence. Managua’s runway is short and bumpy, which makes for an armrest gripping experience. It’s time to pray for a safe landing.

We land in the midst of a torrential downpour. However, as it so often does, the precipitation has tapered off by the time we roll up to the gate. Steam is rising from the wings of the aircraft when the cabin lights come on. Within a few minutes, we are all standing in line at customs. Watching the Nicaraguans on the tarmac carting baggage away from the plane, that peculiar feeling of being a little fish in a big pond begins to sink in once more. Spanish is the new sound, sweating the new norm.

We are very fortunate to have all our equipment cases make it through to the other side of customs. Medical supplies never cause an issue here. However, upon seeing thousands of dollars of camera equipment pass under the eyes of luggage X-ray, security personnel stops the belt and demands an official explanation. It takes some artful negotiating from Dr. Ross and Anita, but eventually the guards are satisfied and we are permitted to leave. Outside the doors of the Sandino International, the chaos of airport traffic greets us along with the wall of humidity. A truck has been sent from UPOLI to pick us up, but we still have to figure out which of the many parked-in vehicles is chartered for us.

This situation at the airport can get crazy very quickly, so I position myself on the curb with my duffel bag clutched to my chest and keep my eyes on Dr. Ross. A moment later, I feel something tugging at my shirt. I look down beside me to see a girl, six or seven years old, pulling at my clothes and asking for change. I smile at her. Inwardly, my heart melts for this place all over again. This is how this whole crazy ride began, I think to myself. A little girl tugging at my clothes, one just like her, rejected often, yet somehow relentless in her hope for a helping hand. In fact, it’s been a year to the day since I wrote that story about Ruthia and her grasshopper and sent it off to my mom back home. Now I’m standing here at the airport again, this time with a film crew. You never know what can happen in one year.

I pull out twenty cordobas leftover from my last trip and hand it to the girl. Her face lights up for a brief moment, and then she is gone, vanished into the maze of traffic. Ray was right. I am not among nursing students this time. I am among storytellers. And here in this city, in this largely forgotten corner of Latin America, there are plenty of stories that need to be told.

Two hours later, I am sitting out on the patio at Hippos, the traditional hangout spot for the Robert Morris groups that Dr. Ross brings with him twice a year. The sports grille is just a short walk from our bed-and-breakfast hotel, Sol y Luna, and the atmosphere provided here by the hospitable wait staff makes it a very memorable place for many nursing students. The crew has all crowded around several tables. We seem to be the only customers in the place this late on a Sunday night. The rain has blown away, carried off by a steady breeze that brings with it the soundtrack of the Managuan night. Honking taxis and rasping insects and the passing crackle of a peddler’s loudspeaker: all of it blending into the crazy rhythm of Latin ambiance. A conversation I had with my friend George comes to mind as I watch the activity in the street. I remember talking with him one night about the feeling of being an American in a foreign land. George has been to France more times than he can remember, and he describes the experience well. “I’ve been going over to France for decades,” he said, “But still, every time we land in Paris, I walk down to the local café and sit out on the avenue with a drink and I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m really not dreaming.” That’s exactly the feeling I have right now.

Having passed my NCLEX exam just 48 hours ago, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Glasses are raised in celebration of my new R.N. status. After four years of hard work, my classmates and I are finally achieving our goal of becoming nurses. Ray Werner leans over to me, thrusting out his hand for his tenth handshake of the day. I’ve noticed that whenever Ray wants to say something to you, he almost always must be shaking your hand to do it. I take his hand and he squeezes, then speaks. “You know, Lee, I noticed something while sitting here.”

“Oh? What’s that, Ray?”

“You really look like you feel at home here,” he says. I have to laugh. At the end of this trip, I will have spent one month out of the past twelve in this country. It still feels worlds away from home, but I do admit to him, it sure feels good to be back. And just to make sure all of it is really happening again, I lay my wrist out on the table for a moment, and pinch.

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