Equilla Lawson is a journalist with a sense of priorities. Camels and zebras and elephants are all very exciting, very exotic, but the 8-year-old Lawson knows that a Washington reporter worth his beat covers more than the glamor.
"How does it feel getting elephant stuff on your car?" Lawson asked a Man on the Street whose car had just crossed the rather messy path of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey elephants lumbering their way into town yesterday.
The Man on the Street said he didn't mind, he'd get the car washed. Lawson pressed for something a little more sensational, but no luck. He thanked the Man. End of interview.
Lawson and his 8-year-old colleague, Joy Robinson, were covering the Animal Walk from the Eckington Train Yard to the D.C. Armory for Pyramid Communications Inc., a network of print and broadcast reporters aged 4 to 21. The 4-year-old, described by 19-year-old Pyramid president Derrick Johnson as "very articulate," couldn't make it, so Lawson and Robinson had the big tape recorder and mike to themselves.
The wind was whipping strands of straw into the air as shivering dancers in fish-net stockings, sequins and deep purple eye shadow, clowns in massive shoes and children in expressions ranging from tentative joy to absolute terror clambered onto the backs of the almost two dozen elephants for a city-long ride. The reporters got to work.
"How would you like to answer a few questions?" Lawson said to an elephant in his most serious radio voice. "Looks like they're shy," he commented, but then the elephant waved its trunk toward the inquiring reporter and Lawson darted backward, half-giggling, half-shrieking to Johnson at the tape controls, "Cut it off!"
"How do you feel about wild animals?" Robinson, one of three Pyramid "official youth correspondents" for the circus, asked just about everyone.
It was obviously a question of concern to Robinson, who loves the circus but has reservations about some of its inhabitants.
"There's only one animal I don't want to see again -- the elephants," she said before she set out on her assignment. "They stink. And elephants can go wild."
None of the animals went wild yesterday, but the olfactory problem remained.
"When I get home, I'm going to have to take a bath so I don't smell like an elephant," Robinson said later as she rode the Metro back to the Pyramid offices at the Capital Children's Museum. It seemed impossible that the third grader, in her neat pigtails and black patent-leather shoes, could have anything at all in common with an elephant, but reporters have to think of these things.
Tiny journalists do, however, have more on their minds than the odor of elephants. There's the problem of responding to the curiosity they always arouse (Robinson and Lawson chose to fix their eyes on the microphone as if all those faces watching them didn't exist). There's the thrilling possibility that at any moment, something may go completely wrong and news will be committed ("What if the animals get out?" Lawson laughed hopefully at the train yards. "What if the roof falls in?" Robinson said eagerly in a Metro station.)
And there's the need to remember to say "Thank you for your time," after they're done with an interview.
"We call that part of the training 'development,' " Johnson explains. "It's really social skills, so no matter how awful they are, they're always polite."
Johnson has been involved in the media since he was 9, appearing on radio and TV and getting increasingly frustrated.
"I had problems with a lot of the shows because they were done by people 28, 29, 30," he said. So in 1983 he started Pyramid. There are now 89 kids involved in the program, 70 percent of them minorities, and all of them trained in note taking, interviewing, research and production. Their work has been published in the Washington Afro-American and The Washington Post, broadcast on a variety of local radio stations and syndicated across the country.
Robinson is a regular every Sunday morning at 8:30 on WKYS radio interviewing people like Mayor Barry and offering advice to anyone who writes to "Miss Joy."
"My main customer was Wendy B.," she said. "She wrote to me all the time about her dog, Fido. It messes in her father's chair and she gets in trouble."
When the correspondents aren't on the streets, you can often find them at the museum playing with Tonka Toys or racing through a dark and spooky plaster cave.
"I've been in this business for years, and I've seen that young people can act so snooty," said Johnson. "They act like adults and don't have a childhood. It's just important to me they can enjoy things."
And that they work. For mile after mile, the two small figures ran alongside the parade, talking to the unicyclists and the dwarfs, watching out for the hoofs of horses and camels, staring up at the people who filled the windows of every office building facing the route to the Armory. All along North Capitol Street, all along Massachusetts Avenue, children squealed and adults waved sheepishly and astonished heads poked their way out of buses to stare at the passing parade. And all along those wide streets, the air was momentarily heavy with the rich, dirty, nostalgic smells of the circus.
"Doesn't it smell great here!" Lawson yelled. "Doesn't it smell great!"