The sad world of Frank Pangallo and Verity Kate Edwards
A formerly homeless man remembers his encounter with the Today/Tonight television program
The team at Today/Tonight are fuming. Tara Brown from Channel Nine beat them to the Norm Barber interview. So they’re digging in for the long haul and assign Verity Kate Edwards, Iron Man contestant and Seven’s dogs-body, to maintain friendly contact until they’re ready to pounce. Verity, a killer python addict, lives in a Protected Community back of the Wakefield Private Hospital.
“Just touching ground,” she says, in occasional emails, feigning interest in my organ transplant research. “Where do you live?” ask other emails, under other names.
“I’m not interested in an interview,” I reply, after twelve months of Verity et el. Channel Seven’s response is to send a camera crew into the Adelaide Hills, knocking on my ex-neighbours’ doors: “Have you seen Norm?” they ask.Friends warn me.
“I told you: no interview,” I message Verity. “Stop sending people looking for me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replies, “Please explain.”
I catch Verity trailing me a month later as I exit from the Southern Centre For Bio-Ethics. Her 52kg body, bulked up in thick coats, can barely fit into her Festiva. Her accomplice is the man who faked the Dole Army interview scenes. He disguised a shed then claimed it was a secret tunnel where the Dole Army emerged from at night to scavenge supermarket rubbish bins. He follows me in a black BMW with a secret dashboard camera. He sweats it out in the Findon shopping centre car park, hiding across the front bucket seats while operating the camera. But the heat is too much and he shamefacedly rises up and slinks away.
They fall in behind as I drive to the Job Network, following so closely as if trying to stage a crash.
I lose him near the empty wool sheds, but at Port Adelaide Verity stands in front of Centrelink, chatting comfortably with people at the bus stop.I climb the stairs to the first floor self-service computer area where another man waits, smiling. “Contact made,” he says into his phone then hides behind a cubicle, pretending to type.Then like creatures beholden to some mysterious circadian rhythm they abandon the chase.
I live in my car, sleeping on a rolled back seat or underneath trees in dry weather. Channel Seven knows my Post Box and plants spies outside. They email me claiming to be an organ donor posting research material. Their spy identifies me by their parcel I carry from the post office, and follows me to the Kensington Road lookout that overlooks the Adelaide Plains. He phones the camera crew.
“Still living in your car,” shouts Frank Pangalo, a Today/Tonight jock, trying to stop me closing my door.The chase is on. It ends twelve minutes later – the time it takes for my leaky radiator to empty. We’re at Hindmarsh Square in the CBD.
They rush my car. I stay inside. The cameraman presses his lens against the windscreen above which the boom operator dangles a microphone.
“We just want to talk to you,” says Frank, smoothly, but within minutes he’s thumping the roof and tapping my side window. He rhythmically rocks the car by thrusting his body against the door. “Norm, Norm,” he moans and cajoles like a used-car dealer then tries different psychological buttons: “Leech, bludger, anarchist,” (he has trouble pronouncing the last word). His phone rings, “Yeah, yeah, assassin, yeah…in his car” – his voice is for people in the street; his message for me: public humiliation.
My heart races; I need to urinate, my mouth is dry; I want to ask for mercy, but stay silent, motionless.
Pangalo says Channel Seven might offer me a job, “Just for a week.” He implies they’ll use that week to film me: if I don’t, they’ll tell Centrelink who will stop payments.
He finishes his script then repeats himself like a movie playing a second time. Our faces are close, separated by my driver-side window: we appear conspirators on a dark night. An evening rain sets in and he’s getting wet. He thrusts his pelvis against the car body and I pity him.
But he’ll look good on Today/Tonight; the editors will portray me as a scumbag: “Mr Barber prefers to play dumb with us,” Frank’s voiceover will describe this scene. But here we both know the score. I’ve become indifferent to this shock jock.
My heart slows to a healthy beat and my mouth moistens. Relief flows through my blood stream like when you bang your “funny bone”, and the excruciating pain triggers a flood of endorphins, those bodily opiates that ease pain. Sitting in the cocoon of my car, my panic becomes elation. They’ve done their worst and I’m still here, feeling good. Frank calls it a night and they return to the station.
I camp that night at Norton Summit on a slippery track littered with dozens of computers, lounge suites, a household of 1950s crockery, (individually wrapped in newspaper), and garbage bags of discarded hydroponic dope.
They see me at the bulk-billing skin cancer clinic three days later. People living outside over-absorb UV light; causing lesions that can be zapped off with frozen carbon dioxide.
At a shopping centre the cameraman gets a few seconds of my wobbly eyes. They slow down the re-play speed during editing making me look even more weird. They feature this doctored-up sequence in program promos across Australia during the weekend football games. “Australia’s Biggest Dole Bludger” they quote, from Leon Byner, an Adelaide shock jock. This fearless investigator later experiences an absence from radio after being caught offering protection from investigators, like him, for $10,000.
The final edit has an obese Amanda Vandstone saying, “…encouraging people to lie is a dreadful thing to do.” They obtain an art resume I wrote during the Adelaide Festival and beat it up as a real resume. They get a recruitment advisor, bathing his image in gold, to analyse it.They colour my leaflet, How To Avoid Work for the Dole, in an eerie gunmetal blue, and play subliminal classical music behind it – the music used to portray someone going psychotic.
They broadcast the eight and a half-minute segment on Today/Tonight. Then it’s over. I’ve passed through another test of fire, or, in this case, a trough of mud, and survive to become stronger.