BEHIND THE SCENES with Lu Olkowski

You're a New Yorker. What was the genesis for doing a series on the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach?

I happen to live in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn. It used to be a longshore community until the 1960s. When I moved into the neighborhood in 1990, I met a lot of people with stories about working on the waterfront. I didn't make radio then, but those people's stories always stuck with me.

CARGOLAND started while I was looking out my kitchen window, daydreaming. From there, I could see cranes from the last surviving container terminal in Red Hook, Brooklyn and further in the distance many more cranes at the Port of Elizabeth in New Jersey. (The terminals moved to Elizabeth and Newark once the shipping container was introduced). I started researching why the terminals on the East Coast moved and in the process learned that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were the busiest ports the United States. A quick Google search revealed that there were hardly any radio stories about them. I went into this series of stories pretty open-ended. I just wanted to understand how the ports worked, what was important to the people who worked there and how they were changing.

The Pirate seems like it might have been a bear to edit – lots of tape, no clear plotline. How did you think about the structure, your role, and narration style in the piece?

There are lots of people who like to make and listen to pieces using just interviews in a studio-like setting, but I like pieces with scenes. To get scenes, you record a lot because you never know when something good is going to happen. Even so, this was a lot of tape. I think I had over 30 hours of audio. We recorded Johnny singing that whole Roy Orbison album three times... not because I asked him to, but because he was into it! [ Ed. note: take a listen to some outtakes from those recording sessions above!]

After 72 hours with Johnny O I knew I had this incredible character and not a lot of narrative. I also knew I wasn't doing to get him to sit down for a long in-depth interview about anything. Which meant getting that This American Life kind of story – with a beginning, middle and end where someone has a change of heart – was not going to happen. I found a lot of inspiration in Dave Isay's Ghetto Life 101. If you haven't listened to it in a while, I'd recommend it. It is still so good! The way I hear it, Ghetto Life is more of a tour of the boys' lives, than a narrative. LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman introduce you to their neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. As the piece progresses, you go deeper and deeper into their world... you meet LeAlan's sister and grandmother... more and more is revealed through these small glimpses. I just hoped that Johnny O was compelling enough of a character and I was a decent enough tape cutter to hold it together. Originally I didn't want to have any narration but as I started cutting, I knew it would need some. I vowed to myself to keep it as spare as I could. My written narration in the rough cut was too stiff and it placed me too far outside the action. As soon as Brendan Baker heard it, he asked if I'd be willing to throw it away and talk through the narration. I'm incredibly grateful to Brendan for that. He saved the piece. Brendan interviewed me about Johnny O and cut the narration into the piece. He did a beautiful job. He made it sing.

You cross some possible-boundaries here – drinking with Johnny O, interviewing him in his bedroom, staying over at his house. But you also get some incredibly intimate tape. Why did you make these choices?

In doing documentary work, you want to be where the story is, as it's happening.

I've had a subject leave her front door open so I could sneak into her bedroom at 5AM to record as the alarm went off she and her kids woke up. I followed one guy, a homeless man, as he broke into an office building in Midtown Manhattan so he could show me where he slept in a stairwell on the top floor. I've gone out for a celebratory dinner with group of physicians who made a groundbreaking scientific discovery (I paid my own way, but yes, I drank wine and toasted their success). I've recorded a man taking his last breaths in his home in the middle of the night surrounded by family. If the subject is willing to take you there or let you in – and you feel safe – I say, go.

Honestly, I think what you call ‘boundary-crossing' happens a lot in documentary making. You just try to fit in, go with the flow, when in Rome... It's just that in this particular piece, I share my experiences with the audience as part of the story, so you're more aware of how the sound was gathered. Of course, I could have left that all out.

For me, it made sense to sit with Johnny O in his bedroom. It was where he felt most comfortable and when he was home, it's where he spent most of his time hanging out. It made sense to spend the night because I wanted to capture what the morning after a late night of drinking looked like. By being there when he woke up, I could capture that. It would have been very different scene had I arrived a couple hours later.

When I arrived at Johnny O's house – before he agreed to let me turn on the recorder – he asked me to explain how I worked. He said, he wanted to understand my format. I explained, I don't really have a format. That basically, I follow someone around and record as long as someone will let me or until I feel like I've learned something about them. Then I go away and try to edit the audio to something beautiful. For whatever reason, the following-him-around part of my process appealed to Johnny O.

It became very clear that Johnny O was just not the kind of guy who could sit still for an interview. Anything I was going to record, I was going to have to record on the fly. I spent about 72 hours on the move with Johnny O. Which left me with a lot of scene tape and not a lot of interview tape. Any follow up interviews I did – and there were many – were short, like 10-15 minutes short, so those ‘interviews' had to be quite focused. I might follow Johnny for 3 hours just to get 10-15 minutes of quiet time to talk about Joey.

I didn't second guess recording so much or such intimate moments. When there was something Johnny O didn't want to record or if he was tired of being recorded, I stopped. Believe me, Johnny O still has some secrets left.

Did you struggle with how to portray Johnny O's drinking?

Despite the fact that Johnny O was an active participant, often requesting when and when not to record, I felt that he might have revealed more to me than he realized. That's a tough place to be. You want to be fair, you want to be honest and you want to be kind. Before the piece aired, I called Johnny O and walked him through the story beat by beat. I wanted him to know what to expect. He didn't sound surprised or embarrassed by anything I put into the story.

What is your favorite scene in the piece, and why?

One of my favorite moments is when Johnny O enthusiastically hugs his son Joey. You hear Joey say, "Ow, my back!" because Johnny hugs him so hard. There is something about that moment that I love. In it, I hear how much Johnny O loves Joey despite his disabilities. Maybe you hear how unlikely a caregiver Johnny O is. How their life isn't perfect, but in fact, pretty messy.

In the end, what did your time with Johnny O add to your understanding of the waterfront?

Johnny O seems to embody the spirit of San Pedro, the town where the Port of Los Angeles is located. Johnny O's father owned a mackerel canning business and his mother ran a flower shop. Johnny O started out by delivering flowers for his mother and working on fishing boats until the fishing industry in San Pedro dried up. He's fixed boats and ships and cars and planes. He became a mechanic in the longshore union and finally a dispatcher at the Lines Bureau. San Pedro is a pretty macho place. But it's also the kind of place where family matters more than anything else. We get a glimpse into Johnny O's work as a linesman. His personal story only gives us a better idea of what it's like to live and work in San Pedro.