Since I became a journalist 10 years ago, I’ve had three dozen needles poked into my arm over two days, lived homeless for a year, stolen cars, hopped freight trains, panhandled and had the crap beaten out of me more than once. Through dumb luck and willfulness, I’ve wrung stories out of murderers, drug dealers, politicians, movie stars and thieves. The best preparation for this rough reporting: my training as an actor and a hard-earned ability to hold my alcohol.
Gay Talese, the godfather of immersion journalism, calls what he does better than anyone “the art of hanging out.” Rather than interviewing people who do stuff, get to know them and do the stuff they do. But if you’re going to immerse yourself, forget the line between subjective and objective. You’re going to become subjective. The important thing is to be as non-judgmental as possible. This will allow you to hang out with anyone, get the story, then write it to the best of your ability.
Contrary to logic and what you may have learned, preliminary research is not always an asset. When I moved into Tent City (an area of Toronto inhabited by squatters) in 2001–’02 to write a book, I knew nothing about the place. This was foolish, but no amount of reading or interviewing could have prepared me for a spot populated by con men, drug addicts, fugitives and brilliantly brave vagabonds — an anarchistic community where the rules changed nightly and your life depended on knowing them. In fact, my ignorance was an asset: I was less scared than I should have been, and the need to figure things out fast became an integral part of the story. Also, my missteps led to discoveries. When I showed up in the freezing November rain with a tent on my back, a large woman named Jackie, with a huge smile and giant rottweiler, took mercy on me and invited me into her wood stove-heated shack. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be women and dogs, but not a single tent in Tent City. I abandoned the tough-guy act I’d sharpened, and started building a shack instead.
When I gave myself carbon monoxide poisoning from the kerosene heater I’d scrounged and put in the tiny, airless home I’d built, it was Jackie who pulled me out. And when I got beaten up by guys with two-by-fours on Christmas Eve after bringing pizzas I’d acquired to the wrong shack at the wrong moment, it was a pregnant woman named Karen who saved me and took a hit to the belly at the same time. The next day, a car thief recruited me as his partner in exchange for watching my back. In this messy way, I figured out how to get close to people, who I could trust, when to resurrect the tough-guy act, and how to collect stories among the rats, drugs and mud.
But there’s no need to be quite as foolish as I was to get the scoop. Mostly what it takes is adaptability and endurance. Roll with what’s happening, and stick it out as long as it takes. But know that sometimes the story is in your screw-ups. Which brings me to a tale I’ve always wanted to tell, the fruit of immersion journalism.
A few years ago the fifth estate asked me to go into Toronto homeless shelters with a hidden camera. They were doing a documentary on homelessness and I was the obvious choice; I had already spent time in shelters.
Hidden cameras are not as state-of-the-art as one might think. I tucked a large tape recorder into a fanny pack (de rigueur for small-time dope dealers the world over), out of which sprouted a number of wires winding up my torso to a camera the size of a large cigarette pack. The camera was taped to my chest underneath a cheap hoodie. The sweatshirt had been chosen for its emblazoned logo on the front, which would both support the weight of the camera and distract from the cigarette-burned camera eye hole in the sweatshirt (singed in the offices of the fifth estate with the end of a cigarette which I then smoked the rest of). The trickiest part: the batteries only lasted a few hours and the tapes had to be flipped over every 40 minutes. My fanny pack was bursting and I had to inconspicuously coordinate tape and battery refreshments.
All of this came to a head during the first snowstorm of the year when I was hanging out in the Fort York Armoury, a very temporary and particularly disconcerting shelter for the homeless. The interior of Fort York is like an enormous airplane hanger, divided in two by a camouflage curtain; on one side Canadian soldiers were doing basic training, marching with machine guns and rifles, while on the other, several hundred homeless were hunkered down on blue plastic mats. It was a less than stable environment — crackheads getting itchy and loud beside baffled soldiers jumping to attention.
The only bathrooms were down two flights of stairs, and by midnight I’d gone there twice to switch tapes and check my batteries. I was ready to change my recording equipment when two cops strode in with snow on their shoulders and a real sense of purpose. The guys I’d been talking to made themselves small on their blue mats and I felt like something was going to happen. I waited a moment, then got up slowly to proceed to the bathroom. There were plenty of other people standing around. I walked towards the stairs that led down to the bathrooms and had nearly made it when a voice called out. The sound of boots thundering across the floor followed and I ducked into the stairwell.
Flying down the stairs, fumbling with the tapes, I could hear them yelling for me. “Stop!” But all I could think was Tape, tape! I took the next stairwell, ran into someone coming out of the bathroom, and as the cops tackled me I stuffed the fanny pack down my sweatpants.
They dragged me back up, but instead of pulling me into the light of the armoury, they pushed open another door, and suddenly we were outside, alone in the dark, snow coming down. They seemed mad. Considering my running and fumbling with the tapes, this was understandable. But as they pinned me against the wall, one of them started barking about a guy who’d been grabbing people in the subway — a guy who looked a lot like me.
“So why you *&^$*&$ running?”
In response I was babbling; all I could think about was the impending anecdote to be repeated for years in newsrooms and press clubs: Did you hear about that idiot in Toronto? Shaugany or something — a freelancer. Got beat up by the cops while wearing a hidden camera and there wasn’t any film in it!
As one of them grilled me, the other started to pat me down so I figured I was safe: my cover would be blown and I’d explain it all.
But just like that, he was done.
“Where were you tonight!?” the other said for the 10th time. I didn’t know what to do. Reveal my chest, wrapped with tape and wires like a bomb? Cry journalism and give it all up?
“Why’d you %$*@*&^ run?”
“Uh….” And as I gasped for something to say, a message came through on their radios: the subway grabber had been grabbed.
The cops escorted me back into the fort and left me there, blinking under the bright lights. Sure there was no tape in the camera, but I still had my cover — and also a great anecdote: Did you hear about the cops who searched that idiot journalist wearing eight pounds of camera, recorder, wires and tapes — and they didn’t find a thing? I just had to find someone to tell it to.
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s work has appeared in Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Saturday Night, Toro, the National Post and The Utne Reader. His book Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big City Shantytown (Random House) was just published in Australia and New Zealand.