I headed for the Bayonne Bridge the minute I heard Steven Spielberg intended to film his War of the Worlds movie there.
I had no clue as to why he had come to Bayonne or why he had picked that neighborhood to film. But rumors said he intended to build a gas station near the foot of the bridge and use a string of houses along a stretch leading up to the foot of the bridge. Rumors also promised a dramatic explosion that would wreck the very gas station he intended to build.
As with all stories, I hoped to capture the symbolic image that would best represent the story of the filming - some theme in the landscape that would give clue to what the master filmmaker saw here that he could not get elsewhere.
As the reporter for a giveaway weekly newspaper, I am always searching for some new angle that the more prominent and prestigious dailies had not uncovered. With huge events, such as several train crashes I covered in Secaucus, this was often difficult. After one wreck in the 1996, I rushed to a location across the meadows where I knew I could - with a telephoto lens - get a clear image of the wreckage. I reached the spot to find Dith Pran of the New York Times already there. More recently, I climbed over a small cliff to reach the site of derailment, and smugly walked out the only access road to the point where the other press - including the New York Times - had been held back by the police - one officer warning me to get the smug look off my face for fear of media riot.
While taking a picture three months ahead of the intended shooting, might have given me a scoop, but it left me with no clue as to what I might take a picture of.
How did someone like me without Spielberg's genius expect to get into his head and see out his eyes in order to produce an image that technically didn't yet exist?
The landscape hardly helped. Except for the massive arches of the bridge that dominated this part of Bayonne, a ball field and the string of houses Spielberg wanted to use, this section was devoid of significance, a vast wasteland of waiting to be redeveloped real estate that had once served as the heart of Bayonne's industrial complex, but had with the great social changes over the last several decades, fallen into disuse.
While some structures still existed, and some of these still operated as successful commercial enterprises, most of the land had fallen back into a kind of meadow with patches of grass growing up from between the cracks of concrete where once mighty oil tanks had previously stood.
There is a strange beauty in decay, a stripping down of complex items into their basic elements. This sets the stage for rebirth.
So that I wandered along the mostly deserted even alien landscape, stumbling over mostly cracked sidewalk, falling into pothole-filled asphalt streets, blinking up at the concrete sides of buildings dripping tears of rust - each giving me a strange sense of hope. This was the kind of hope a man gets when he finally discovers humanity might again be able to start over after we mismanaged previous opportunities.
The city fathers of Bayonne had similar hopes.
I must have circled that block a dozen times, stumbling over the broken landscape while snapping pictures of anything I thought might serve as the symbol of the movie Spielberg intended to make.
What had Spielberg seen when he came to this part of this world that made want to film here?
Why did he need this place as a backdrop for an invasion from outer space?
In retrospect, few things were so obvious - though I was so bent on finding it, I bumbled and stumbled, seeking every possible angle to anything that might serve as such a symbol. If the landscape stood still long enough, I snapped its picture.
I circled the block, always passing beneath the great aches that held up the bridge, those huge concrete piles that supported the elevated curvature of the steel bridge above - a curvature so unique it seemed to have become the soul of the city itself.
I did not take a picture of the bridge, but kept staring out at the line of houses from under those arches, snapping pictures of their backs, fronts, even when I could get an angle, from their sides. I even took the long walk up four blocks to where a stair led up onto the bridge itself, and the narrow walkway pedestrians used to get from the tip of Bayonne into Staten Island. I hoped to be able to lean over its side and snap a shot of the houses and their backyards from that angle. To my disappointment, the walkway was on the wrong side so that my view looked out over Newark Bay and the unused grass lands of former oil refineries, not the line of houses.
I snapped pictures of the scenery anyway, thinking I could use the photos for some future story if not for the one at hand. In my focus to find the appropriate photo for the Spielberg story, I neglected to notice the signs which warned against photo-taking, one of the sad consequences of another more painful attack on Sept. 11, 2001, which would have been completely visible from where I stood.
Not until I came off the bridge and circled the block one more time did I run into trouble.
I stuck my lens through a gap in the fence to catch a shot of the rear yards of the houses Spielberg would use, when someone shouted from a guard house across the street.
"Hey you!" a security guard yelled, stepping out of his booth to glare at me. "What do you think you're doing?"
My whole 1960s upbringing roared into my head, full of outrage over my violated rights.
How dare this guard question my activities, denying me the simple act of snapping a picture?
Unfortunately, I am of a temperament of which any thought that passed through my mind inevitably dribbles out my mouth and in this case did so with volume.
A whip could not have left welts so great on that poor guard's face. It was an expression of hurt that I carried away with me even as I stormed off with great indignity. It was a look at wore on me for my whole walk back to my car, churning up equally great waves of shame. I had hurt a man for his simply doing his job.
Later, I learned a lesson about the quality of such people when I had dealings with Spielberg's security people whose duty it was to keep the fans far away from the actually areas of shooting. None of those I encountered acted unkind. None bullied people or pretended they were superior, or even acted as if they were special because they happened to be on one side of the barriers and the rest of us stuck on the other. In every case, such guards acted kindly toward the fans, offering bits of information, even sometimes posing for pictures that people would treasure for a life time. Yet they managed to accomplish their jobs in maintaining order without harsh words or bad attitudes.
But on this particular day, months before any camera came to this site, months before there was anything of value to see, I turned back, dragging my deflated ego across the broken landscape to where the guard had settled back into his booth beneath the arches of the great bridge.
I told him how sorry I was and how out of line I was in speaking to any human being in that manner.
Had our positions been reversed, I might have called the police.
He only nodded, even accepting my hand in a gesture of friendship, and told me not to worry about it - which oddly, made me feel even worse.
Needless to say I was in a foul mood when I finally reached my office again, carrying a camera loaded with images I knew did not capture the essence of Spielberg's vision.
I kept thinking about that guard and the lonely vigil he had to keep under the shadow of those mighty arches, a man on guard like a troll under a bridge.
Of course, that's what Spielberg had seen.
I nearly knocked over everyone in my rush out of the office and my hurry to go get a picture of that bridge.