Is That a Pipe Bomb in Your Pocket or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

When people hear I’m a former travel writer, they often ask if ever I feared for my personal safety while abroad. Sometimes I nod my head yes, somberly exhibiting a burn scar on my left hand that I actually earned as a toddler reaching into the oven for a grilled cheese sandwich. In truth, I was not one of those flak jacket-wearing Wolfe Blitzer types reporting in a fetal position from some Baghdad bunker, but rather a pampered feature writer contributing to any number of breathless travel magazines you might leaf through then not buy at Barnes & Noble. I wrote about honeymoon hotspots for a bridal magazine and island life for one about pleasure boating. I compared cruises and tours for a sponsored publication mailed free of charge to travel agents; updated hotel reviews and restaurant listings in best-selling travel guidebooks; published sweeping personal reports, complete with original photography, for Sunday newspaper travel sections.

From time to time, though, I would in fact find myself covering an area that could best be described as, well, totally unstable. Following the bad press surrounding a civil war, political coup or loosely organized uprising, whatever regime left standing will quickly invite in the travel media in hopes of restoring foreign tourism. If the host committee were to jump the gun, so to speak, the first sign of trouble would be my reception at the airport by a heavily armed “Tour Guide” with a waxed black moustache and a nervous laugh bearing the news that the treaty hadn’t technically been signed yet. “Not to worry,” he’d assure me, reaching across my lap to lock my side of the armored Jeep after muttering something indecipherable into his wrist watch. “We dance on their graves tonight!”

Reviewing a string of falafel stands in Jerusalem, I dodged a pipe lobbed by a Palestinian kid of no more than twelve. At a Santiago naval station, the cutest little Chilean sailor you ever saw knocked the camera out of my hand with the butt of a machine gun when I tried to take his picture. On my own in gang-infested Kingston, Jamaica, I was advised never to publicly wear purple and red—or was it green and yellow? I do recall sleeping with my dresser barricaded in front of my hotel room door against a staffer wearing a hateful look and a passkey around his neck.

Perhaps I best remember the Balkan Mystery Girl who cornered me in the ladies’ room of a Dubrovnik restaurant to tell me she had incontrovertible proof that the recent local plane crash death of then U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown hadn’t been an accident. “This is big story, very big,” she whispered off my blank look. “You are reporter, yes?”

“But I’m here writing about your potato pancakes.”

Though I never pursued her claims, the encounter changed my life forever as the catalyst for my becoming a screenwriter. I could no longer fight the desire to make up stories about people and places far more interesting than those I’d been chasing around the world. Within the ancient walls of the Old City, I actually found Syd Field at an English language bookstore. Taking this as a sign, I got down to work right there on my first feature script—about an embittered correspondent and a beautiful refugee fighting over a Miami home each believe she’d inherited from a dead photographer who owed them both.

After nearly ten years of fighting my own uphill battles here in town, this morning my Showrunner Friend Who Wants More e-mailed me that a Big Producer Pal of hers is looking for an assistant. Call me a prima donna, but not in the farthest reaches of my imagination can I picture opening someone else’s screening invitations and free CD offers all day while tethered to their desk by a headset. Knowing that plenty of people spend their days tending to the minutia of others doesn’t make it seem any less impossible to someone who once had to overnight her passport to Washington so extra pages could be installed. As for my personal work ethic, the reason I can write fourteen, sixteen hours at a clip is because I don’t even hear interruptions. At this kind of place, I’d finally look up from my computer screen and be like, “I’m sorry, what was all that noise about your coffee?”

While my friend feels certain this job would endear me to people who might eventually offer more meaningful work, knowing very well how hard I’d suck at it I’d have better survival chances combining red with purple in Jamaica. Though my screenwriting would surely suffer were I to return to the demands of journalism—especially if it meant being constantly on the road, or leaving town altogether—on days like this it all seems so inevitable. Another thing they won’t tell you in film school is if you can’t do something you love, at least do something you’re good at. -- Originally published October 13, 2005