Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Los Dos Davids -- Holy Mackerel!

(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.)

Duane Reider’s photography studio was not at all what I expected. Several months before we took off for Nicaragua, I had been asked to meet Larkin and Doug down at an old firehouse on the far edge of the Strip District to shoot photos for the RMU campaign. When I parked at the address they gave me, I found myself staring up at a three story stone building that resembled a fire station. It was a fire station, in fact, and a beautiful one at that. It had not housed fire trucks under its roof for many years, having been decommissioned in the 1970s after the fire chief of Pittsburgh purchased new trucks without measuring their dimensions. When the rigs arrived, it was discovered that they could not fit in the garage. So the city had to build new firehouses, leaving some of the city’s most historic buildings in Pittsburgh abandoned. Many years passed before Duane Reider, an up-and-coming photographer, saw the potential for investment and decided to purchase the Lawrenceville property. Not only would it be a wonderful place for a giant studio, he thought, but also the ideal spot for a much larger endeavor: the Robert Clemente Museum. I didn’t even know the museum existed until that day in April.

I had to ring the front door buzzer to be let in. The d├ęcor of the engine house I walked into really surprised me. The entire bottom floor, where the trucks used to be parked, was filled with Roberto Clemente memorabilia. Walls were covered with jerseys, baseballs, bats, photos, paintings, letters, autographs – an entire life displayed across the walls. There was even an exact replica of the old Forbes Field scoreboard, along with an actual home plate used during one of the Pirates’ World Series victories. I spent several minutes gawking at the display. The inner Pirates fan stirred within me, reminded of the days when our hometown team was one of the most respected and feared teams in all of baseball. Those days have been non-existent in my lifetime though. Just the night before, the team had set the all-time record for the worst single loss in baseball history against the Brewers. “20-0!”was the humiliating headline across town that morning.

Soon, it was time to get down to business. Our photographer, Duane, was upstairs in the studio loft finishing up his session with Kristin Graziano, another RMU student being featured in the Change A Life campaign. Kristin also went through the nursing program, and I’d had the chance to talk with her several times during my schooling. Her commercial was to be shot in Washington D.C. where her experience at a homeless shelter had made a profound impact on her and others. Doug and Larkin came down from the loft to finalize my wardrobe.

“Are these the outfits you brought with you?” Doug asked me, pointing toward the suitcase I wheeled behind me.

“Yup,” I said, “I brought every possible thing I might wear while in Nicaragua.” Larkin and Doug had instructed me to bring along scrubs, nursing tshirts, and any other clothing I would wear on a normal day in the barrio. After discussing the options for several minutes, they settled on my full set of navy blue clinical scrubs, oddly enough the only apparel I would not normally wear. It’s simply too hot for scrubs in the barrio. But since they are instantly related to nursing, they chose to stick with the scrubs, along with my stethoscope. I was sent to change, then into a back room where the makeup artist Catherine touched up my facial blemishes. Duane would be shooting close-ups of my head with a 24-megapixel camera, so the fewer pores that popped up, the better.

After a quick introduction to Duane, we got started with the shoot. I was placed in front of the hallmark symbol of the campaign, the big red square, and adjusted into a dozen different poses. Duane kept me on my toes. He shot me standing and sitting, smiling and not smiling, with arms crossed and arms relaxed. Meanwhile, Larkin and Doug stood with Duane’s assistant, Rob, and stared at the images that popped up immediately on the two widescreen computer monitors several feet away from me.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, don’t smile with your teeth,” Larkin suggested.

“Yeah, maybe not so much of a smirk,” Doug added. “Just a slight smile.” I quickly became self conscious about my smiling abilities. Is this how my own photography clients feel? I thought to myself. Every couple flashes, Catherine stepped in to make minute adjustments to my scrubs and dab my nose. I felt very strange. I supposed that this was, if nothing else, wonderful confirmation that nursing was a better fit for me than modeling. Half an hour passed before Duane wheeled his stool over to the art guys.

“Think we have enough to work with, fellas?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” Larkin nodded. “We have plenty.” I walked over to join the group by the computers. Rob dragged the mouse over the image of my face and magnified it so that my nose filled the whole screen.

“That’s disgusting!” I shouted, horrified. The guys thought it was hilarious.

“That’s what we’ll use for all the brochures, just your nose,” Larkin joked.

“Very funny, Larkin. So who all will be going on the big trip in July, if it happens?” I said, expecting Larkin and perhaps Doug to be the only ones. Duane heard my question.

“Oh, we’re all going,” he replied.

“No kidding? Wow, we get photographers too? And how much of this stuff are you’re going to bring?”

“Oh, it’s all going. We have to do this same exact shoot with David down there. You two are the stars of this thing. You think this kid David will be easy to work with?”he asked. I laughed at the thought of David being in a situation like this.

“Oh, he will be beyond excited, trust me.”

Leaving the studio that day, though, I remained very skeptical that the whole crazy idea would ever get that far.


“Ahhh, Lee! Buenos dias! You’re late!” Donna Auraruth says, wagging her finger at me scoldingly. The assistant dean of UPOLI’s nursing school gives me a hug and then steps back. “You were supposed to be here an hour ago!”

“I know, I know! I’m sorry. We tried, but you know how it is.” She laughs. Everyone knows how plans often work out in Nicaragua. Forty-five minutes late translates to ten minutes early. It takes some adjusting, but after a while, you get used to being perpetually behind schedule. We’ve just arrived at RMU’s sister university, UPOLI, where we will be spending most of our Tuesday here for the photography and interview shoot with David. Dr. Ross has already explained our whole project to the faculty, and they’ve graciously offered our crew their primary nursing classroom for the day to set up a makeshift studio. Duane and Rob are on duty this morning for their part of the task. Jeff and the film guys will arrive after lunch to conduct the interview with David.

Our first job, once all the gear has been carried in, is to clear the classroom of its desks so that Duane and Rob can reconstruct the red scrim, along with their lighting equipment. David walks into the room to find the guys hard at work setting up equipment.

“What do you think, pal?” I ask. “All of this just to take your picture! Wild, huh?”

“Wow!” he says, wide-eyed. “My goodness! How do you say it? Holy mackerel?” I laugh.

“Yeah, you said it all right. Holy mackerel!”

Don Pedro needs to take David to the market with Larkin and Doug to buy a shirt for the shoot. At his house earlier, David showed the team what he owned, and they decided he needed something with more contrast against the red background. An hour later, David and his new friends have return from the market with a gray polo shirt. Duane is ready to start his work and calls him over to the scrim. “All right, David, front and center, buddy!”

After meeting him for the first time yesterday, the crew is already immensely pleased to be working with David. Using the same disarmingly innocent charm that has won over the hearts of dozens of RMU nursing students, he has already gone to work proving to the film crew that he is the perfect kid to be receiving this kind of notoriety. The crew has remained adamant the whole trip about treating me like some sort of celebrity, and the only thing more exciting than that is watching them treat David like one, too.

Duane asks David to go get his trumpet. He carefully removes the instrument from its case and walks to the spot where Duane points. Surprisingly, David soon shows us how remarkably comfortable he is with being photographed. Ray and Doc watch from the corner of the room, and they can’t help but smile.

“Look at that smile,” Ray says, shaking his head. “So genuine. This kid’s a natural!”

Thinking back on my portrait session with Duane in Pittsburgh, I remember one of his strongest qualities was his ability to make his subjects feel relaxed while he worked. Here at UPOLI, he stays just as jovial, joking with David as he clicks away, encouraging him to goof off. He even picks up on David’s liking for English catch phrases. Soon, their new countdown to the shutter becomes “1….2….3….holy mackerel!”

“Holy mackerel!” David laughs, showing off his wide, contagious grin as Duane’s flash pops. The rest of the stills shoot goes off without a hitch. Around noon, the door to the classroom opens and the film guys begin lugging in cases of video equipment. I notice out of the corner of my eye that Ray has pulled David off to the side to prep him for the interview he plans to conduct this afternoon. David is nodding his head slowly with that puzzled expression that tells me he doesn’t fully understand the conversation. I wait for Ray to finish, then walk over to take a seat in the desk next to David. The poor guy has gone from having the time of his life to being scared to death.

“What’s up, David. How ya feeling?”

“Ah, my friend, I am nervous!”he says, shaking his head.

“You don’t have to be nervous. Ray just wants to have a conversation with you,” I tell him. “There aren’t any wrong answers to these questions. You can say whatever you want!” He still appears unconvinced.

“Yes, but my English, when I have become nervous, I cannot speak my English as well.”

“David, your English is way better than it was a year ago. It’s great.”

“He wants me to talk about how I feel, about my….how do you say….my emotions? He wants me to talk about my emotions.”

“Oh, that just means he wants you to tell us what it felt like when we gave you the trumpet.”

“Yes, but I don’t know how. I’ve never tried to talk about my emotions.” I’m beginning to feel really sorry for the poor kid, and guilty for putting him in this situation. Having his photo taken comes naturally, but sitting through an Oprah-style interview will be way outside his comfort zone.

It’s time for lunch. We pile into the van and make a quick trip to the local Pollo Estrella restaurant. When David and I arrive back at the university, we find that our classroom has transformed once again, this time into a television studio. Jeff and his team have constructed a film set right in the middle of the room, complete with backdrop, dropcloths, lighting stands, sound booms, monitors, and cameras. David’s eyes grow huge again. I was not expecting this either. This time it’s my turn to use David’s phrase. Holy mackerel. Dr. Ross has been watching Adam wrap the lights in tinted cellophane to change the hue that will appear on camera. He looks over at me, also clearly amazed.

“This is just crazy,” he says. “I’m so out of my element here. I’m used to living in the field of nursing. I know nothing about this stuff. I have no idea how these guys do all of this!”

Ray comes over to collect David, leading him to a chair placed in the center of the fort-like interview set. He kneels down next to the teenager and goes through the plan with him yet again. Meanwhile, Anita is busy making final preparations. “Okay, I need everyone out!”she shouts. “Everyone who doesn’t have something to do, please clear the room!” Larkin and Dough grab wireless headsets and step outside to listen. Dr. Ross and I are pulled behind the scrim with instructions to be quiet while tape is rolling. Anita sees me taking photos of the final prep. “No photos once we start rolling, okay, Lee?” My wide-eyed friend looks up at me with an overwhelmed expression, and I take his picture one last time, then turn my camera off. Adam sets up a monitor for us to watch during the interview. On the small screen, I can see Dino taping a microphone to David’s chest.

“He looks scared to death, Doc,” I whisper. Oddly enough, at that moment, David looks over at me and tries to offer me some reassurance.

“My friend, do not be nervous!” he says bravely. “There is nothing to worry about!” He’s simply repeating the encouragement that we’ve been giving him, and that makes me laugh.

“Okay, we’re set to go,” Jeff tells Anita.

“All right, quiet on the set!” The humming AC units have been turned off to achieve the best possible audio feed. Dino waits for UPOLI students walking outside to move past the door, then gives Jeff the thumbs up. The red light goes on. Jeff nods to Ray. Ray turns to David.

“What is that, David? In your hands – tell me what that is.” David grins broadly.

“It’s my trumpet!” he says.

“Tell me about it. How did you lose your first trumpet? And how did you get another one?” David seems to take a deep breath, and then begins a rambling, sincere explanation.

“Well, my friend Lee, he knew that my trumpet had been taken from me, and I was despaired about it, but Lee, who is my American friend, in the United States, he got me this trumpet and when he gave it to me, I could not even believe my eyes. My eyes…yes, I even cried from my eyes! And this feeling of surprise went deep into my soul and I could not believe it!” Dr. Ross and I start to chuckle. This crew wanted to capture the essence of David, and this is it: bubby, energetic, and tremendously entertaining.

The kid wasn’t kidding about nerves hijacking his English. He struggles to find words at various point, but bravely, he stays determined and fields Ray’s questions as best as his English allows. After he’s finished, Edgar asks him to respond to a few more questions in Spanish. These he answers much more fluently, and Dr. Ross nods to me as he listens. “These responses sound much more natural,” he whispers. Jeff then asks me to take Ray’s seat by the camera and pitch him a few more. David’s relaxed by now, and switches back to English. He talks vibrantly about all the girls who have become his friends since meeting him at the clinic, and how special it was for him to have our team surprise him with the trumpet back in November.

I am still in disbelief watching this scene unfold. The image quality on the monitor is so remarkable, David truly does look like a Nicaraguan celebrity being interviewed in a studio. After half an hour of taping, Jeff looks up from the camera. “Okay, that’s it! Great job David.” The kid heaves a huge sigh of relief and reaches for his cup of water.

“You did it, man!” I tell him. “See? I knew it wouldn’t be hard for you!”

“Yes, but I was nervous,” he laughs. “Holy mackerel!”

What a trooper this young man has turned out to be. Sitting in front of a camera, no matter what kind, can be a frightening experience for anyone, let alone being asked to answer questions from people you have just met in a language you have not yet mastered. But David made it look easy. I know he never expected to be living this crazy moment. I never expected anything like this, either. We’re both a bit scared of the whole thing. We’re both very excited, too. Being treated like TV stars is a thrill for both of us. And the strangest part? We haven’t even shot the actual commercial yet.

Holy mackerel indeed.

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