Cover photo by Josh Edelson.
The cops are waiting when he steps, blinking, out of the confines of Gunter's Family Restaurant and into the sizzling parking lot. They lean on the black-and-white cruiser, arms crossed in front of their oversize, flak-jacketed chests. The older of the two uncurls himself at a leisurely pace and ambles over at an even more leisurely pace before, with a touch of the showman, whipping off his sunglasses.
The words ooze out of his mouth: “Staaaaaaaaaanley Robertsssssssss.”
And then he smiles. A bouncy, even goofy energy overtakes him: “At last! I get to meet you!” He bounds over to shake the hand of the stocky cameraman in the red flannel shirt. “I heard 'KRON' on the dispatch. I just knew it had to be you.”
It turns out the aggrieved manager of the adjacent Pacific Market on El Camino Real wasn't merely phoning a heated complaint to the South San Francisco Police Department. He was making dreams come true. Any Bay Area police officer harboring a desire to meet Stanley Roberts need only pine away by the radio and await the inevitable.
Per the complaint, Roberts, creator of the five-time-a-week Channel 4 news segment People Behaving Badly, “refused to leave the premises.” This was untrue, but a somewhat milder variant of the standard dubious report relayed to police when Roberts inserts himself where he's not wanted: A suspicious black man with a camera is filming children! Or: A suspicious black man with a camera is casing our store!
Roberts, however, is anything but suspicious. He makes no effort to hide his presence or his intentions. He is not a subtle man.
On this day, Roberts is dropping in on restaurants and markets, camera in tow, to ensure they are, per the letter of the law, posting their most recent health report in plain view. Demanding to be presented with this form, Roberts insists, is your right as a citizen. When proprietors ask why he wishes to review the documents they invariably squirrel away in back rooms and hidden folders, he calmly replies, “Because I can.”
On KRON that night, viewers will tune in to observe a procession of slightly bewildered shopkeepers and restaurateurs affixing yellow health reports onto walls and windows with long strips of masking tape. “I don't want a ticket for something like this!” one blurts out. “I never read the rules! I didn't know!”
The voice behind the camera remains monotone: “I'm just trying to help.”
Yet people Roberts films behaving badly often don't desire help. He's been assaulted on numerous occasions. (Once, memorably, with ski poles.) Three separate attackers have made off with his press credentials. A flamboyant BMW-driving carpool cheat wearing an Elmo T-shirt elevated Roberts to late-night fodder and meme status two years ago following an extended profane rant about the cameraman's oversize girth and undersize worth.
Thus, Roberts is on a first-name basis with an ever-expanding retinue of law-enforcement officials summoned by those who can do without his kind of help.
That's what happened at the Pacific Market 20 minutes before the rendezvous with the South City cops: After producing his store's health report (a lackluster “Fair” grade) from a private back room, the grocer assured Roberts the necessary paperwork was properly posted on the exterior doors.
It wasn't. And, once outside, he declared the interview to be over: “You need my permission to film me.”
Roberts let the camera roll. “We are in a public place,” he said. “I do not need your permission.”
“You need my permission!”
“I do not need your permission.”
“I'm calling the police!”
“Okay, so call the police.”
The police were called. When they arrived, they informed the manager that, no, Roberts did not need his permission. Then they waited for Roberts outside Gunter's Family Restaurant.
They wanted to take a picture with him.
Carpool cheating. Urinating in public. Cycling through a stop sign. Drinking Rainer Ale in the park. Failure to post a health report — a satisfactory health report, mind you — in a prominent place. These aren't crimes befitting a criminal mastermind. They aren't exactly crimes at all. “I don't do crime,” Roberts says. “I do the quality-of-life issues that affect us all.”
He refers to the misbehavior he's been seeking out for nearly eight years as “minutiae … there are always more important things.” But this, for his own reasons, is what he's compelled to film. And, God help us, it's what we're compelled to watch. Footage of city workers dozing on the job or men hurling buckets of human filth onto one another on Seventh and Market are wildly popular, even in far-off lands where, perhaps, this may qualify as normal behavior.
Roberts' inbox is constantly full. KRON established a hotline just for his segment. When he's on BART, fellow riders monopolize his commute with People Behaving Badly pitches; his minor adventures have earned him celebrity status. In a moment of unintended irony, Roberts was asked, “So, is someone behaving badly here?” by a tone-deaf guest at a funeral both were attending.
He receives missives from viewers in Asia, Europe, Australia, even Greenland. A Scottish man told him that weekly People Behaving Badly parties are held there, in which the three-minute, jauntily narrated clips of societal misconduct are consumed in marathon sessions. One aficionado matter-of-factly informed Roberts that he watched every People Behaving Badly segment on YouTube. He did this in alphabetical order, from “AC Transit vs. Stop Signs” to “You Should Never Grab a Reporter!” — and all the 1,197 videos in between.
Clearly Roberts is on to something. His 5 o'clock news segments have garnered some 10 million online views from folks who have, all but certainly, fudged the carpool lane, texted while driving, or pissed in the bushes. The appeal of his show isn't watching lurid crimes, but observing people behaving in a way we're capable of, if not guilty of. These people are recognizably us, caught doing what we try to get away with doing.
Better them than us. Reveling in their guilt is our guilty pleasure.
But Roberts has invested even less thought into what spurred him to become the Bruce Wayne of the jaywalking set than why viewers would care to watch such a thing, five days a week and millions of times over.
He resists self-analysis and rejects the “analysis” of anonymous online haters who, he says, don't know the first thing about him. That's a safe bet. Roberts' close friends of 30 years also don't seem to know the first thing about him. To a man, they profess a near-total ignorance of his life prior to his arrival in California three decades back. “That's a good point: What's up with Stan?” concedes longtime pal Lionel Mosely. “Did he just hatch here in California?”
He did not. The origin story for Stanley Roberts begins far from here. It's a place where no one was just trying to help.
Back in 1990, Paul Miller had to hire 30 people on the fly and convert a former Spanish-language TV station in Salinas into a Fox affiliate. And he had to do it quickly.
“I made some great decisions and I made some bad decisions,” Miller says. Certainly the most curious decision was to hire a rail-thin 27-year-old with no TV experience, who shed the sterile “bunny suit” he wore as a semiconductor technician to wander across the street and ask for a job at KCBA. “I must have liked him,” says Miller. “He must have seemed smart.”
Stanley Roberts was not an intuitive hire. His only degree was in cosmetology. (The Jehovah's Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall dominating his family's life were convinced the world would soon cease to be, so they declared college a waste of time.) He was ostensibly applying for a meteorologist position, which requires academic degrees and working knowledge of matters far removed from hair and nails. The ad said no walk-ins, and no candidates without video clips. Roberts walked in without a video.
He walked out with a fool's errand from Miller: Watch the news for two weeks and return with copious notes on how he'd have improved things. It was the last Miller expected to see of Roberts. But Roberts was back two weeks later, carrying a sheaf of papers.
He was hired on the spot.
His duties entailed sweeping floors, changing light bulbs, and lugging around the studio cameras — “a job,” as Miller puts it, “any hard-working, intelligent person can learn to do.”
It's also a job in which hard-working, intelligent people can be replaced by automated cameras. So, Roberts holed up in an editing room overnight with a manual. He was, in short order, made an editor. Roberts surreptitiously toyed with any camera left in his vicinity. When a colleague was injured, he was elevated to “shooter,” toting a camera out into the field.
A few years removed from shedding his bunny suit in Salinas, Roberts was in Los Angeles, being slapped across the face by the actor Michael Madsen. This, Roberts says, was a standard, if annoying, greeting on movie sets, where he picked up side work behind the camera. His entire family tuned in to an Arnold Schwarzenegger fitness program just to view Roberts' first credit at the end.
That was memorable, but not in the manner Roberts had hoped for. He was, inexplicably, billed as “Stanley Turrentine.”
Toting a camera as a freelancer for practically every news station in L.A. instead of Salinas earned Roberts a raise from $9 to $25 an hour. It also got him a nickname from his Los Angeles colleagues, and one that stuck: “The Shit Magnet.” Something about his presence seemed to bring out the crazy in people — but always in a photogenic way. When cops and robbers blasted holes in one another during the infamous North Hollywood Shootout of 1997, Roberts, naturally, found himself in the cross fire.
Roberts' reputation as the Shit Magnet followed him north from L.A. to KRON in 1998. So, when station higher-ups asked him to go out and shoot straightforward, point-of-view footage for a recurring segment, Roberts countered. “I'd had another idea in my head for a long time, but I never acted on it,” he recalls.
“I wanted to go show people doing stuff they probably shouldn't be doing.” Absent a better title, he suggested People Behaving Badly. For the Bay Area's toll cheats, litterers, and cellphone-yapping drivers, there was a new sheriff in town. And for viewers incensed by such behavior — but loath to actually do anything about it — a hero had emerged.
The KRON SUV with the license plate frame reading “HANG UP AND QUIT BEHAVING BADLY” gently shifts lanes as Roberts prepares to exit Interstate 280. As ever, he handles the car impeccably. And, along the way, he points out all the features of the road — “I'll bet you don't know what those dots are called,” he says, nodding toward the white dashes on the off-ramp.
That's a safe bet. It turns out they're called “elephant tracks” — and, technically, you're not supposed to cross them. We don't. The black and white signs? Those are “regulatory signs.” And “you have to obey those.” We do. The yellow signs? “Those are advisory. You might want to slow down.” We do that, too.
Roberts has never taken a DMV course. In fact, he's a self-taught driver. He needed to be — because of people behaving badly.
Or, rather, a person.
“At 12 years old, I had to learn how to drive,” he says as we negotiate traffic. “Twelve years old and driving a huge Buick Deuce-and-a-Quarter.” He takes a deep breath. “My mother's husband was a drunk. He would be so totally drunk he could not drive. He used to wreck all the time. So, at 12, I had to get him home.”
He'd wander into the streets of Camden, N.J., and slide into the massive car. He'd slowly navigate the behemoth back to 713 Chestnut St., driving carefully even then. He kept an eye on his drunk stepfather in the passenger's seat, a man who'd demanded Roberts' mother put him in a foster home before he'd marry her. (She refused.) There were no thank-yous. Arriving home, there was no joy.
“Mom would always be crying,” Roberts says. “She knew he was drunk. Again.”
We're suddenly in a very different neighborhood than a traffic-signage lecture.
“He beat her. All the time. I used to watch her get whooped. Growing up seeing that kind of stuff, seeing him chasing her, grabbing her by the hair and dragging her back into the house …” his voice trails off. “He beat the crap out of me, too. I wish someone had noticed. I wish someone had noticed.”
Roberts coasts to a stop in front of a restaurant. A restaurant that, as it turns out, isn't displaying its health report in a manner prescribed by county ordinance.
Rules are rules.
He hoists his camera out of the back seat. “When I was growing up, no one would listen to me,” he says.
“Now I have a million people listening to every word I say.”
It's 1 p.m. on a Monday, and Roberts has no idea what he's going to do.
But that's how he rolls. Many's the day he'll wander into KRON studios on Van Ness with utterly no clue what facet of San Francisco misbehavior he'll be broadcasting in seven hours. But this city never lets him down. “There is always low-hanging fruit here,” he says. It doesn't need to be picked. It needs to be shoveled. “There is a level of entitlement here that I just can't believe.”
On this day, Roberts is traipsing through Golden Gate Park in search of the detritus left by homeless campers sleeping in the bushes. It's low-hanging detritus: Discarded orange syringe-tops serve the role of tiny traffic pylons, alerting one to the presence of a dirty needle nearby. Zippo fluid and halved aluminum cans, the aftermath of heroin-cooking, complete the tableau. “You see that?” Roberts says with a wave of his hand. “Rolling Rock, King Cobra, KFC — these are the remnants of someone living here in the park and just not giving a fuck.” The odor of human feces envelops us. “Oh man. I'm not looking for it. I'm good.”
We emerge into a clearing not so far from the impromptu shooting gallery and lavatory. It's an idyllic day and a father is hitting a baseball to his young son.
Stanley Roberts is 50 years old and stands just under 6 feet tall. He has the build of an aging high school linebacker and the sartorial sense of a tugboat hand. Though he narrates his television segments with a sing-song intonation, his speaking voice off-camera is soft and unassuming. Roberts smiles rarely and, when he does, it appears his teeth are still tightly clenched.
He asks the dad if he can take a swing and is quickly approved. Roberts sets his camera on the grass, flashes a clench-toothed smile, and gives it a mighty cut. The ball dribbles off his bat; the young boy drifts in and fields it with the bare hand.
Roberts shakes his head and hands the bat back to the dad. Baseball isn't his game. Never was. Couldn't be. If Roberts came home and heard the Phillies on the TV or radio, that meant he was home, too.
They called her “Mama-Too-Tight.”
Patricia Roberts' five kids didn't always listen to their mother. But they listened to her younger sister, Diane “Mama-Too-Tight” Collins. Well, that's not necessarily so. The oldest boy, Stanley — he listened to everyone. “He was quiet. He kept to hisself,” recalls Collins, 62. “He was a good boy. His mother…” she sighs. “She did the best she could.” Her husband, Roberts' stepfather, “wasn't good. He drank. I don't think he treated them very well. You just kind of feel things.”
But no one asked. Certainly, no one did anything.
We'll never know if the neighbors noticed when Patricia Roberts' husband emerged from the front door onto Chestnut Street, dragging her by the hair with one hand and clutching a shotgun in the other.
They'd have to be pretty oblivious not to notice the shotgun going off. No one was hit, but everyone must have heard.
“I immediately thought my mother was killed,” recalls Sharyel Perry, Roberts' younger half-sister. The man with the shotgun was her father; she was his biological child and so, as much as possible, he kept her from seeing his violent behavior. But a shotgun blast from the other side of a stucco wall — on a block of rowhouses — is hardly subtle.
Roberts was provided no such niceties. He saw it all.
“Stanley tried so many times to be a protector of my mother. He was always that way. He had guns pointed at him so many times,” recalls Perry. “Nobody did anything. It was right under their noses. But nobody ever did anything.
“My father,” she continues, “got away with things.” Her maternal grandfather, she adds, beat her grandmother to death. “My grandfather got away with things. My father got away with things.
“Stanley doesn't like it when people get away with things.”
We're slowly motoring around Golden Gate Park, but Roberts is in a faraway place. An oversize couple in matching spandex frolics outside the window — this is hard to miss, and Roberts is an unusually observant man — but his mind is elsewhere.
Roberts is fascinating company; spending the day with him is a bit like mingling with Cliff Clavin, the mailman from Cheers! He recalls damn near anything he's told and everything he reads. So if you ever wanted to know the flashpoint for grass (700 degrees Fahrenheit); the tally of Eucalyptus species (upwards of 700); why that homeless woman sleeping in the bushes has grossly swollen hands (likely an infection stemming from shooting up into her wrists); or whether there are laws against washing your car with soiled underwear (there are) — he's your man.
Those are the things he's learned over a lifetime. And then there are the things he can't unlearn.
An ass-whooping, he says, is a peculiarly formal affair. For years, they were proceeded by his stepfather's earnest declaration: “I'm gonna whoop your ass.”
Roberts, a spindly child, who would later be nicknamed “J.J.” after the equally spindly character from Good Times, was made to ritualistically disrobe. He would shed his shirt, shoes, pants, his underwear.
When finally completely nude, Roberts' stepfather whipped him, vigorously, with an extension cord. Roberts would go to school covered in welts. Then, as now, Camden was one of the nation's roughest towns. Bullies would layer bruises on top of his bruises. At one point, Roberts was jumped, beaten unconscious, and awoke in a graveyard. He spent three days in the hospital struggling to remember his name.
Even when Roberts was robbed at knifepoint — by a minister in his church — nobody listened. The robber didn't even bother to hide his identity. “This was Camden,” he says.
And then, one day, Roberts' life changed — and, for once, for the better.
Roberts, then a young teenager, arrived home to discover his mother had stuffed her five children's clothes into trash bags. They were getting out. They were doing something. Years of welfare living and government cheese would ensue. They'd be under the thumbs of the Elders at the Kingdom Hall who'd dissuade him out of college. He would eventually decamp, abruptly, to an uncle's place in Salinas — and be disappointed when he discovered that, no, not everyone in California is rich.
But, now, Roberts smiles — a real, truly beatific smile.
And you could cry from such a smile, because what he says next is undoubtedly true: “That was the happiest day of my life.”
On Oct. 28, 2011, a man driving a swanky BMW SUV and, incongruously, sporting an Elmo T-shirt, drove solo up the Sterling Street Bay Bridge on-ramp. If telegenic behavior is measured by outsize levels of both ignorance and outspokenness, KRON viewers that night watched the minting of a star.
Elmo Shirt Guy wasn't pleased to be handed a $500 carpool violation ticket by Highway Patrol officers. But he was apoplectic about being filmed by a portly guy.
“All you can afford is food with your fat, lazy ass. That's why they have you out here videotaping; you ain't even on a real job,” he shouted into the camera. “Why don't they have you down there filming what's going on down in Oakland? All the riots and shit? They got your fat, lazy, non-relevant, nonfactor ass here filming Highway Patrol shit. That tells you how much you're worth.”
From humble KRON, this footage matriculated to Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Tosh.0, Anderson Cooper 360, and, of course, dotted the bowels of the Internet like tiny, viral polyps.
While Elmo Shirt Guy proved to be a pompous, self-righteous ass — and his indignation regarding unwanted publicity didn't keep him from making the rounds of TV and radio shows — he brings up some salient points.
With the Occupy movement transforming swaths of Oakland into a national flashpoint, and hardship of the sort Roberts experienced much of his life visible around so many barren corners, why would he focus on self-described “minutiae?” And why do millions of viewers choose to tune in, even when incensed scofflaws don't throw reality TV tantrums?
Those answers may be connected.
“People saw what was going on. But they ignored us,” answers Perry when asked why her brother does what he does. “You gotta start somewhere,” says Roberts' aunt, “Mama-Too-Tight” Collins, when asked the same question. “Here in Camden, I cross the street and the cars don't stop. I always think, 'I wish Stanley was here!'”
Roberts, who grew up in a chaotic home in a chaotic town, is a disciple of order — and a devotee to the rules. Following them, come what may, is his raison d'être: “Rules are here for a reason. If we ignore them, everything gets out of control. It's like the engine light on your car. If you ignore it long enough — there's a bigger problem.”
When viewers suggest he do shows about people behaving stupidly or ignorantly — but not necessarily badly — he patiently tells them that this isn't what his segment is called. He is loath even to transgress the rules of his own making. When they suggest he cover hard crime or “the stock market crashing and people ripping off people,” he replies he's “not a sheepie” who'll cover the things everyone else does. Cameras already show up when people are shot, he notes.
And if his stepfather had shot his mother that night in front of 713 Chestnut, cameras would likely have shown up. But then they'd decamp and the misery would persist. Cameras don't document the hopelessness and abuse of hardscrabble life in poverty-stricken America when blood isn't spilled. Hardly anyone does — as Roberts knows all too well.
Trudging through Golden Gate Park, Roberts comes across a discarded pasta jar, then a rubber ducky. And, finally, a syringe. “I'm not here to solve the world's problems,” he says in a near-whisper. “I can't do that.”
That's not in the job description of a local TV reporter — and certainly not one with only a few hours to conceive, film, edit, narrate, and broadcast a segment. By honing in on the “quality-of-life issues that affect us all,” Roberts can conceivably help more people. Just because fruit is low-hanging doesn't mean it's no good.
Roberts' fans would agree. He's the blunt East Coast guy unafraid to call Bay Area people on their shit — something locals, a tolerant bunch, can't seem to do. He's the man who breaks down the world into a convenient dichotomy: Those who follow the rules and those who behave badly.
In other words: All of us, periodically.
People Behaving Badly is an exceedingly watchable three minutes of television. Viewing 1,200 shows in alphabetical order requires a special touch of insanity — but, segments produced years ago remain every bit as compelling as the ones airing tonight. As such, it's a formulaic program. But all the most successful ones are. It's hard to watch just one; they're as addictive as potato chips.
KRON-TV can't be displeased with that. They need product — and Roberts produces. The station that pioneered the cost-cutting move of sending camera-toting reporters out to do it all is a natural fit for Roberts, the bunny-suited technician who trained himself to do it all. Like so many modern journalistic entities, KRON is essentially a news factory, run by a sparse staff, and operating on a tight budget. Lengthy, in-depth analyses of society's iniquities and large-scale wrongdoing may play well for PBS, but KRON needs someone to stoke the daily furnace.
And Roberts shovels a lot of coal.
In the end, he's not a cop. He's not a social worker. He's not Bruce Wayne. He's not even Errol Morris. He's the adult version of the boy who grew up with the KYW-Philadelphia news as his babysitter and pushed a camera through the halls in the high school A.V. club. “I haven't changed in 50 years,” Roberts says. “I am the exact same person I have always been.”
His aspirations remain earthbound. He wants to pay off the 12-year-old Jag he bought for eight grand. He wants to be able to afford an apartment with in-complex laundry, so he isn't shivved by a disgruntled viewer while sitting in the laundromat. He wants to do right by his daughters, ages 9 and 16; he hopes to be able to afford to take them on decent trips, go to decent restaurants, and make the monthly child-support payments to their mothers.
In Camden, he played the numbers. Now he just plays the Lotto at the deli around the corner from KRON. “I can't be poor for the rest of my life!” he says, pushing the money across the counter.
Stanley Roberts is having a good day.
“Oh, you shoulda been out there with me,” he nearly shouts into his cellphone. He'd taken his camera to Dolores Park in search of lowlifes passing date-rape drugs to unsuspecting women. That didn't happen. But there were plenty of other people behaving badly: day-drinkers, smokers, crosswalk double-parkers, and, that San Francisco standby: sketchy nudists.
“So, the guy's buck naked. He ties up his junk with a bandana. And, I didn't get this on tape, but he scratched his ass and sniffed his fingers.” Roberts giggles. He can barely contain himself now.
“So, he goes to piss in the bushes. And, on the way back, he steps in a big pile of dog shit.”
Maniacal laughter. “That's poetic justice.”
And poetic justice is something that resonates with Stanley Roberts. He could tell you all about it.
After all, he's just trying to help.
In a class-action lawsuit, workers alleged the Burmese food empire violated labor laws.