(Updates: “Breakfast Special” airs July 14 at 8 p.m. on OPB. There’s no Portland viewing party. I didn’t get it together, and I’ll be at a private viewing with my sweetie anyway. And the second edition is due in October)
Here’s a little story about my brush with the world of television.
I got this email on Monday from a guy named Rick Sebak:
I’m a TV Producer at WQED, the public TV station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I’m working on a national PBS documentary about breakfast that I think will be called BREAKFAST SPECIAL. It will air on PBS stations across the country probably sometime this summer (no air date yet but probably July.) We are funded by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and you can read a bit about the project on our website: www.wqed.org/breakfast
In recent years, we’ve made documentaries for PBS on such subjects as hot dogs, ice cream, flea markets, amusement parks, cemeteries and the Lincoln Highway. We celebrate parts of American culture that I think sometimes get taken for granted.
While doing some research on breakfast in Portland, I read some of your blog and am interested in your book BREAKFAST IN BRIDGETOWN, and I wonder if you’d be available to be interviewed about the morning meal, your book, and maybe a favorite Portland spot or two? We expect to be in Portland this Friday and Saturday (sorry for the short notice) and I’m just trying to see if we might make this work. We’d need you for an hour or two on Friday or Saturday, and if you had a suggestion or two for a favorite spot, I’d set up the shoot.
This, by the way, is classic TV: last-minute, exciting, chaotic, might not even happen. Of course, it took me about .003 seconds to clear out my schedule and jump right in. Doctor appointments? Networking? Markets? Work? Who needs ‘em? A few emails later, we settled on a plan: Let’s go up to Alberta Street and check out Helser’s and the Tin Shed.
So it was that on Friday I met Rick, his camera guy Bob, and his sound guy Glenn at Helser’s. I invited my friend Amaren, a fine photographer, to document the experience for me. Now, Helser’s is not a big place, so for three people, one with a camera and one holding a microphone over everyone’s head, to be looming over a table in the corner while a family tries to eat … well, it makes an impression. That was going on when I arrived, so with Amaren there as well, we made five.
Well, they interviewed those folks, then they interviewed some other folks, then they interviewed me at a table – with the business end of a high-definition camera about one foot from my face. This is when I started thinking things like, “Did I get all the nose hairs” and “Man, I should have made that appointment for the teeth cleaning.” Then the food came, and Amaren and I tried to eat French toast and a salmon scramble while doing the whole “pretend there’s no film crew here” thing. Right.
It makes me giddy when this kind of thing happens.
The interview part, for me – no worries. I talk about breakfast, Portland, my book, and … well, myself, all the time. The camera took some getting used to, but whenever I said something that worked, Rick would get this big happy grin on his face, and I’d just go for it. I do like to hear myself. Sometimes I’d have to say something over because a battery died or something, and some lines and material worked better than others, and of course of the eight hours they spent shooting in Portland, they’ll use maybe five minutes of it.
(For a taste of what Rick does, check out this video about a place in Columbus, Ohio. And here is a sample from Helser’s, with me and Amaren appearing briefly at a table.)
Then they needed a shot of me walking into the place and sitting down – actually a composition of three different shots. You’ll see one in the Columbus clip, in fact. And we decided to add Amaren to it – not that she had any idea this was going to happen, but I don’t mind America thinking that I go to breakfast with nice-looking young women all the time. So we set up this shot where she and I walk down the street and into the restaurant. We did that three times, each time trying to act like there isn’t a camera aimed at us and lots of people looking at us, thinking, “Who are those two?”
(A) you get rock-star treatment, table of your choice, and (B) you can just walk right up and ask people any damn thing.
After the third take, I was standing outside the door, right in everybody’s way, with Bob fidgeting with his camera a few feet away, when a couple approached, and I opened the door for them. And as they walked by, I saw in her hand … a copy of my book! Seriously! This has never, ever happened, in the 18 months since it was published. And it happened with a documentary filmmaker following me with a high-definition camera. What are the odds of this? (And no, it was not a set-up!)
So I blurted out, “Hey, I wrote that book!” And instantly two things happened: the couple spun around and looked at me slack-jawed, and Bob raised the camera back to his shoulder.
Turns out they had bought it the day before at Powell’s and decided to try Helser’s, since I said it’s one of my favorites. So we talked about this, and I signed their book, and it was all a good laugh. And filmed.
Now, imagine this from their perspective! You buy a book, pick a place to try, go there the next day, and the person who opens the door for you when you arrive is the author of the book – with a camera there to document the whole thing. It makes me giddy when this kind of thing happens.
Today much of this scene was repeated at Tin Shed, which typically is about the busiest place in town, even without a film crew hanging around. But the great things about being part of this are that (A) you get rock-star treatment, table of your choice, and (B) you can just walk right up and ask people any damn thing. We met people from St. Louis visiting their daughter, an English woman just off a plane from India and looking for a Mimosa, some hungover hipsters, somebody from Pittsburgh who knew Rick and used to date a guy at the station, a couple that takes their dog out to brunch, all kinds of folks.
So it was a fascinating time. I got so wrapped up in the excitement at one place that I even asked out a waitress I’ve always had a crush on – going on the theory that if I am ever going to have any momentum on my side, it’s when I’m in Famous Author Mode with a TV crew following me around. We’ll see how that comes out.
(Update: It didn’t.)
All in all, a typically crazy TV gig, and it came out of nowhere. Now the crew is off to San Francisco to do a thing on congi and then to Hilo, Hawaii. You can track their progress on Rick’s blog. Supposedly, “Breakfast Special” will air on PBS stations on July, and be available on DVD after that. And yes, there will be a Portland viewing party – hopefully coinciding with the release of my second edition, speaking of chaos. I don’t even want to think about how quickly I’d have to write the thing to make that deadline!