Dana Bate shares a fabulous extract from her latest release about an aspiring food journalist.
Just when I think this morning can’t get any weirder, I spot Charles Griffin skiing down 17th Street. Skiing, like we’re in Aspen. Or Vermont. But we’re in Washington, DC, and unlike the rest of the residents of this city, who are drinking hot cocoa and snuggling beneath their fleecy blankets on this snowed-in December morning, Charles and I must subject ourselves to the vagaries of Mother Nature and the incompetence of the city’s Department of Transportation.
‘Hey, there!’ Charles shouts, as he glides through the mounds of snow, stabbing haphazardly at the ground with his ski poles. Even muffled by his scarf, his voice resonates with the deep gravitas of a TV news correspondent.
I wave and stumble towards the corner, ploughing through a waist-high snowdrift as I clutch my notebook to my chest. Charles presses his knees together and manages to bring himself to a stop next to me.
‘How about this weather?’ he says, dabbing his forehead with his gloved hand. ‘When’s the last time we got this much snow in December?’
‘Someone at the Chronicle said 1932. They’re calling it Snowzilla.’
He laughs. ‘Where’s Tony?’
‘Grabbing the gear upstairs. He’ll be down in a minute.’
I pull my grey fleece hat tighter over my head as I glance down 17th Street. Normally, at this time of morning, cars would barrel southwards towards the bustle of K Street, that infamous east–west thoroughfare known for its lobbying firms and major office buildings. But today, instead of a thick flow of cars and taxis and buses, all I see is snow. As someone who once dreamed of penning articles about soufflés and famous chefs, I have to wonder how I ended up here, half frozen and clad in snow boots, producing a live shot for a TV news correspondent in skis.
‘I can’t get over how quiet the city is,’ I say. ‘I’ve never seen the streets so empty.’
Charles taps on his skis with the tip of a pole. ‘More people need to invest in a pair of these bad boys.’
I roll my eyes. ‘How about we get you out of those bad boys and into position?’
Charles raises his arm to prevent me coming any closer. ‘The skis aren’t going anywhere.’
‘Charles . . .’
‘No – listen. I thought we could start with a tight shot of me skiing down Seventeenth, and then Tony could pull out to a wide as I approach the camera. To give people a sense of how much snow there is.’
‘Have you cleared this with New York?’
‘I don’t need to clear it with New York.’
I raise an eyebrow. ‘I do.’
‘No, you don’t. It’ll be fine. Trust me. I do stuff like this all the time.’
This is true. Charles is basically The Morning Show’s resident jackass, though officially he is a general-assignment reporter. He possesses an uncanny ability to make himself the centre of every story, and as his producer, my job involves, among other things, bailing him out of the binds that result from his asinine pranks. I’d say this behaviour is part of his midlife crisis, but from what I gather, he has been acting like an idiot for years. Last year, when we visited a farm in Loudoun County to report on farm subsidies, Charles decided to do his stand-up while driving a combine harvester – a machine he had never driven before and that was probably bigger than my first apartment. Charles also happens to be a terrible driver. I begged him to choose another stand-up location (there is a reason he calls me ‘Square Sydney’), but when Charles gets an idea in his head, it’s impossible to reason with him. He mounted the combine harvester, and the shot ended with him crashing through the poor farmer’s fence. It was not one of my more enjoyable afternoons.
As Charles shuffles his skis back and forth, Tony trudges down the sidewalk from our bureau, gripping his camera gear with his big bear paws. Tony is built like a tank, with broad shoulders, a thick neck and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He regularly lugs multiple pounds of equipment from shoot to shoot, setting up and breaking down in record speed, lifting boxes filled with lights and batteries as if they were filled with feathers.
Tony sets up Charles for his live shot, snapping the camera into the tripod and looping the wireless microphone through Charles’s jacket. I tug the scarf away from Charles’s face and apply a thick coat of foundation to his weathered skin, trying to smooth the peach-coloured gunk out of the creases around his eyes and mouth. Not much of his face shows, framed as it is in fleece and wool, but his distinctive wide eyes peer out beneath his woollen hat, and a few tufts of his greying chestnut hair stick out around the edges.
‘Up for a test run?’ Tony asks.
Charles adjusts his hat. ‘I skied all the way from my apartment in Kalorama. I don’t need a test run.’
‘Okay, man. Suit yourself.’
Tony’s attitude, always so laid-back and calm, must be a requirement for his job. If reporters like Charles aren’t complaining about their appearance on camera, producers like me are yelling at him for not getting enough video. But somehow Tony manages to take it all in his stride, never raising his voice or saying a mean word. I don’t know how he does it.
‘What’s our hit time?’ Charles asks.
‘The first is at seven twenty-five, then every thirty minutes until ten. Unless there’s breaking news.’
Charles waves his ski poles in the air. ‘What could be more important than this?’
That pretty much sums up Charles’s attitude to life: if he isn’t involved in something, how important could it be? An intergalactic explosion, the defection of a political leader, the extinction of the human race – irrelevant when compared to the prospect of watching Charles slog through the snow in an old pair of cross-country skis.
At the top of the hour, Charles treks up 17th Street, using the narrow tracks from his descent as his guide, and turns around when he reaches his self-proclaimed starting point. I call into the bridge in New York, where I hear Bridget, The Morning Show’s co-ordinating producer, moan at the sight of Charles on her preview screen.
‘Is Charles really wearing skis?’ she asks.
I sigh into the phone. ‘Yes. Unfortunately.’
‘Sydney . . .’
‘It wasn’t my idea – I told him not to do it.’
Bridget clicks her tongue and doesn’t say anything. She knows it wasn’t my idea. I’m Square Sydney. Skiing live shots are not part of my vocabulary.
I hold my phone to my chest and yell up to Charles. ‘Five minutes!’
Tony finishes adjusting the camera. ‘Can you believe this guy? What a clown.’
Thirty seconds before we go live, Charles rubs his skis back and forth into the ground, as if he’s Bode Miller, preparing for the downhill race of his life. Every Olympic season, Charles catches Olympic fever something fierce, and this past year was worse than most. For years, he has been angling to travel to the main event as part of the network team, and for years, including the last one, he has been passed over in favour of another reporter. I’m sure these skis are his way, however small, of throwing up a symbolic middle finger at the network executives for having left him in Washington.
‘That’s right, Diana,’ Charles says, staring into the camera as he pushes off from his perch just below M Street. ‘This was how I got into work today – pushing my way through the snowdrifts that have brought the city to a crippling standstill.’
As Charles speaks to the camera and, by default, our anchor Diana Humphrey, he picks up speed as his skis lock into the tracks made by his prior descent and ascent. He builds up momentum until, much to the surprise of both him and our viewers, he is moving at quite a clip, flying towards the camera, his eyes wild with terror. He stabs at the ground with his ski poles, but the mountains of snow lining the sidewalk rip them from his hands and he loses them.
‘Please fucking tell me he knows how to stop,’ Bridget yells into the phone, which is pressed tightly against my ear.
I wish I had an answer for her, but I’m too busy watching Charles panic as he realizes he’s heading straight for the camera.
‘. . . and as you can see, it’s pretty treacherous out here . . .’
He is fifteen feet away from the camera now and shows no sign of stopping. He continues to fly towards Tony, his arms flailing at his sides as he tries to keep his balance, his knees turned inwards as he tries to bring himself to a halt. It worked earlier, but it isn’t working now, not when his skis are stuck in the grooves of his track marks and he’s coming at us like a freight train. When he is only a few feet from me and Tony, he surrenders and throws his arms over his face in a brace position.
‘Oh, Jeez!’ he yells, as he crashes full-force into the camera. Tony and the tripod go tumbling to the ground, and Charles lands on top of them.
It’s just the sort of jackassery I’ve come to expect from Charles, and if past is precedent – and I believe it is – this will all be my fault.
The Stall of Second Chances (aka A Second Bite at the Apple) is a story about love, choices, and second chances in the internet era, at a time when our past is written in ink, not pencil, and when the decisions we make today can ripple far into the future.
Sydney Strauss is obsessed with food. Not just with eating it – though she loves that too – but with writing about it as an aspiring cookery reporter. But food journalism jobs are more coveted than cupcakes, and so Sydney is stuck working for one of TV’s biggest egomaniacs – until she’s left scrambling for shifts at the local farmers’ market.
Selling muffins at the Wild Yeast Bakery is hardly going to make her the next Nigella. But soon Sydney is writing the market’s weekly newsletter, and her quirky stories gain attention from a prominent food columnist. After years of being left on the shelf, she’s even dating again. And then Sydney gets a shot atthe story, one that could either make her career or burn it to a cinder – along with her relationship and her reputation…
Dana Bate is an award-winning journalist and author of the novels A Second Bite at the Apple (published in the UK as The Stall of Second Chances) and The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs (published in the UK as The Secret Supper Club). She hopes her third book will have only one title. She likes to dream big. Her writing has appeared in numerous outlets, including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Culinate, Table Matters, and Smithsonian.com. Dana has worked as a Washington, DC-based field producer and on-air reporter for the PBS Nightly Business Report, where she won the prestigious Gerald Loeb Award for a series she produced on the Indian economy. As an undergraduate, she studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. When she isn’t writing, she can usually be found in her kitchen, whipping up a new recipe from her extensive cookbook collection. She currently lives outside Philadelphia with her family.