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Welcome to Kristi’s World

If the Times Union’s Night Cam comes to your favorite bar, run

By Chet Hardin

This story has a moral: When you’re dumb, just face it, you’re dumb.

I’m dumb, and in an ominously cheery mood as I bounce into my regular suds shop, about to make a fool out of myself in a very public, permanent way—and I haven’t even started drinking.

Kristi is a tall blonde. Taller than me by enough to remind me of middle-school dances. She has strong features and a jutting, shovel blade of a jaw; I recognize her immediately, towering over the regulars at the bar. She is wearing a space-agey shirt made of shiny lamé that clings to her chest and reminds me of a large, silver-colored condom.

She has a couple of colleagues with her, one of whom has a video camera that he is thrusting at patrons’ plates and into their faces, while they crane away and contort their mouths in ways that nobody would want captured forever on the Internet.

I try to play it cool, with drink in hand, gawking at the spectacle from a safe distance, but the owner of the restaurant grabs me by the scruff and shoves me toward Kristi: Lookee here, Chet, she’s a journalist. Like you! You’re sorta like a journalist, too. Hot damn!

“You know Kristi Gustafson? She works at the Times Union,” he says. “Chet works at Metroland, but we let him drink here anyway.”

I tell him I know who she is, and I feel myself go flush. I am a bit—and this is hard to admit—starstruck. She isn’t much of a celebrity, even by local-celebrity standards, but she has attained stature in my small, obsessive world. We are introduced as two journalists, sure, but to me Gustafson is more than just a journalist. She is a near-mythic personality, worthy of singular attention: Metroland named her Best Play Journalist of 2007.

As we wrote, “Kristi, a 20-something Capitol Region resident, writes the kind of stories that make schoolchildren cry (mostly because if they wrote the kind of vapid stories Kristi did they would get Fs on their report card, and their teachers might slap them).”

Ouch.

Kristi is out prowling the town tonight with cameraman in tow because of TU’s Night Cam, the new video series from the Capital Region’s maturing gray lady. It is the latest undertaking by that paper to attract the kids through the futuristic realm of the World Wide Web. I stumbled across it a couple of months ago, and was agog. I got a good laugh out of the relentless fluffiness, such a shameless attempt to expand the TU franchise without doing anything at all to expand TU usefulness.

In it, Gustafson attacks bar patrons with heady questions: What are you drinking? Why? Why do you drink here? Why do drink when you drink? How do you make beer? Why do you smell wine? It is not far afield from Gustafson’s other contributions to the TU, including her articles on clothing and dating, her blog, On the Edge, about clothing and dating, and her very popular series called Seen, in which she snaps impromptu portraits of concertgoers and such.

Play journalist, indeed.

And here she is, right in front of me, smiling down on me. She asks me if I’d like to be interviewed for an upcoming segment, just to talk about my favorite bar and my favorite drink, and instead of calling my coworker David King and having a good laugh at her expense, I turn off my brain and say yes.

Yes.

I have no good excuse, but here are a few, anyway:

It’s an olive branch, a chance to bury the hatchet, to mend bridges. Yes, it’s noble!

Her height charms me in person; her shirt hypnotizes me.

I am a ham.

Girls hold a stupid amount of sway over my every action.

“I have long fingers,” Kristi offers. I am not sure why she brings it up, but she does. And she does have long fingers—big hands, too.

“Yes, long fingers,” I say overly loud and insufferably pleasant. “Well, I have stubby fingers! Ha ha!”

“Oh no, you’re done with your drink,” Kristi says, honestly alarmed. The drink is pivotal to my interview, after all.

“We’ll get him another one,” the producer assures. Nice, I think. That’s enough of a reason for any hack to do just about anything. I have my justification. Tequila!

I can live with that.

Kristi runs down some of the questions she is going to ask me, and I immediately start to plot my answers. I am going to crack wise, turn my 30 seconds on video into a session of witty repartee, with highlights of satirical flourishes. Like Oscar Wilde or Bill Hicks. You know, like someone who isn’t awkward and clumsy and a total sellout.

Except that I have forgotten: I’m not witty; I’m clumsy, and neurotic, and totally, absolutely, a sellout. And the camera-mounted light is foisted into my face. Kristi’s microphone is pressed up to my chin. I realize how ridiculous I am about to sound.

Kristi interviews with an awkwardness even I marvel at, but it appears I am trying to out-awkward her. I can’t hold eye contact. I say “um” and “I think” 35 times; I stumble to find the words to elaborate anemically on why I like lime juice mixed with tequila and Cointreau. The “tricky question”—what is agave?—I find actually tricky. I call it a plant. No, a root. “It’s where tequila comes from.”

The interview moves along with all the finesse of a drowning.

“We thought you had gone to the Dark Side,” a friend chides me two margaritas later.

I hadn’t crossed over, I say, just flirted.

We are sitting at a table with friends and near-strangers. I’m nursing a growing sense of shame. “This is no big deal, right?” I panic. “Just a dumb video?” Kristi’s world might be automated and shallow, but it’s titillating and feels possibly well-paid. What’s the harm in flirting?

My friend looks at me with sympathy mixed with pity, and I can tell from the expressions of my companions that none of them would have been dumb enough to do it—even if they had been asked. They have come to a consensus.

“I will be watching to make sure your reporting doesn’t start to suck now,” one of my friends says as he makes to leave. He shakes my hand with a hint of menace, turning my wrist uncomfortably down, smiling, but I know that he is serious. He has seen something in me he doesn’t like.

When you’re dumb, I tell you, you’re dumb. And everyone, everywhere will see the footage when Kristi comes around.

chardin@metroland.net


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