Monday, April 16, 2012

My TV Pitch to Help People

My mom, holding my hand and smiling, said "Funny about life, isn't it?"  I smiled back.  A couple of tears rolled down my face.  Mom was right.  Did you see Will Smith give one of his best film performances as the poverty-stricken dad in The Pursuit of Happyness?  I was so moved by that performance.  Here was a guy who was doing well -- a black man with a white collar job.  Then things fell apart.  He marriage crumbles.  He's out of work.  He's a single father who can't find a job.  He's flat broke and homeless in San Francisco.
 I reviewed this movie when it came out.  At the time, I was a film critic and entertainment contributor on Premiere Radio in New York City.  I was a member of the Whoopi Goldberg on-air team for her weekday morning syndicated show, "Wake Up with Whoopi."  I saw Will Smith's movie in a Manhattan screening room with other film critics and entertainment contributors.  Did I have any idea back then that I would lose my apartment and also wind up flat broke in San Francisco?  No.  If I saw The Pursuit of Happyness today, I'd see a part of my soul in Will Smith's real-life character.
I know his emotions.  Heck, now I know some of those streets.  All those hardships will enable me to give better auditions one day, I'm sure.  They can also help me help others.  My situation is one that became sadly common in this Recession.  With the cancellation of Whoopi's radio show, there went the full time employment for some of us staffers.  That broke my heart.  Not just because I was performing with an Oscar-winning show biz icon.  I loved that job.  It wasn't big money but I loved the work.  I got a severance package in my lay-off.  In 2010, work opportunities dried up.  From TV & radio to clerical and retail, I could not land anything full time.  It was harder to pay the rent on my once-affordable studio apartment in New York City.  For the record, I lived modestly, as friends can attest.  I never made huge money in my network & local TV career.  Honestly, since 1999, I could've earned more as a full time dental hygienist or electrician in New York but I was doing the work I loved.  And I helped family members with my 5-figure income from that work over the years.  A college buddy offered me a free spare room in his San Francisco apartment.  My fabulous cousin, a flight attendant, hooked me up with a free one-way ticket. Two charity organizations got most of my belongings. I was forced to give up my humble little apartment.  That's how I wound up in San Francisco last year, flat broke and determined to start over.  Just like Will Smith in that film.

From my rough period in New York City to my time in San Francisco, I was constantly surprised at how many other people I knew, middle-aged and older, had been in a similar situation.  People who, like myself, were not rich but were getting by.  Getting by and had tried to do the right thing by helping loved ones.  Then they wound up not being able to help themselves.  Some of your co-workers, friends, neighbors -- maybe even some of your relatives -- know the soul-numbing experiences of bankruptcy, eviction, housing courts and needing food stamps.  I talked to people about this.  I think they opened up to me because they recognized me from TV.  They felt comfortable with me.  We were on common ground trying to find a road to recovery from the Recession.

Helping others find recovery from the Recession -- that's what I've pitched for a regular TV show segment.  I pitched to news stations in San Francisco, to a network morning news show in New York (via email), and to a famous daytime TV talk show host/producer.  In the segments, I could briefly share my story, share what I learned and hear stories from others.  Most of my previous work came about through auditions. Now, like millions of others, I was applying for work online.  But I wasn't content to just click and send a resumé for, say, a customer service job.  I wanted the people to see me and meet me.  I had to get beyond technology and make a human contact.  The news execs in San Francisco didn't greenlight my idea but I did to pitch them in person.

I met professional women who were now out of work and struggling.  Some of them didn't know about organizations that supply clothing for unemployed women to wear to job interviews.  One woman, once a white collar worker, was unemployed for two years.  She told me that a neighborhood friend made her feel extremely rejuvenated and significant with a simple act.  The friend work at a neighborhood beauty parlor.  She gave the unemployed 50-something woman a free shampoo and haircut for her job interviews.  The woman told me that made her feel "like gold."

Across the board, all the folks I talked to felt shame because of their economic hardship and tended to draw in, keep it a secret.  I learned it's better to let folks now.  Let folks now you need work.  Let them know specifically what kind of work you can do.  Ask for ideas on how your skills can be applied to other areas.  That's how I tried to market my on-camera skills into the customer service sector.

Here's a main thing: When I listened to those folks and acknowledged what they'd gone through, I could feel them spiritually lighten a bit.  They'd been noticed.  A connection had been made.  That can often give someone that extra will to get up, not give up and put one foot in front of the other.  They need to know they're not alone and they are still significant.  I think you get the idea for the kind of TV segment I'm pitching.  From job applications, wardrobe, getting over the shame of getting public assistance, dealing with eviction and housing court, dealing with friends and family -- information on stuff like that is still needed by many, I feel. What do you think?

I'm now temporarily living with relatives outside of Sacramento.  We watched Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life together in December. We remarked that, now more than ever, many Americans had a deeper emotional attachment to George Bailey, the broke and middle-aged family man who spent years trying to do the right thing.
But good came about in George Bailey's desperation.  For me?  I keep the faith, move on and managed to get a couple of fabulous recent opportunities to guest co-host on KVIE Public Television in Sacramento.  Best of all, my relationship with my mother, frayed and fractured for years, has healed.  We almost lost Mom the day after Christmas.  She's recuperating.  Around Easter, she called me and had me laughing on the phone.  And told me not to give up.  I don't have a lot right now, but I'm still counting my blessings.  And there you have it.

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