I start to ask him a question and pause, hoping he realizes that I’m quoting him, not just chatting after a meeting.
I don’t usually worry about that. I’m a reporter, pen and notebook in hand; if I ask you a question, you should presume I’ll write your answer down.
But on Thursday, it was my husband’s uncle I was quoting. He might have reason to think I was just making small talk.
In a small town, that line between personal and professional blurs almost into oblivion. And it feels strange, and uncomfortable.
I read and re-read the story. If everyone reading it knew I was related to him, would they still find my coverage fair?
I warn editors. But there’s not much we can do. The regular IUP reporter is out, it’s the quarterly Board of Trustees meeting, and I have to cover it. Even if that means I have to quote someone I see at every extended-family gathering in Butler (and those happen with impressive regularity).
Sunday morning I find myself sitting in the row behind the police officer I hounded with questions a week or so ago. I probably called him 10 times over two days, trying to understand what exactly I could and couldn’t say with accuracy about heroin overdoses.
Clarity came after deadline, when the pages were gone, so I’m not sure he’s happy with what I ended up printing. I chat with his wife after the service ends, and hope he either isn’t mad or doesn’t recognize the girl in church as the reporter who clogged up his voice mail with 15 million questions. He’s picking up kids from Sunday School, so I don’t know.
And since I’m the only female reporter, and since we’ve watched the same houses burn, there’s really no way he doesn’t recognize me.
This is something new to me, this putting on and off of selves. The worlds rarely – or never – crossed when I worked in Annapolis. Maybe I simply didn’t connect enough for that to happen. Or maybe, more likely, there are just so many people there, it was easy to keep people I’m friends with and people I write about separate.
It’s not so easy here.
“This is the reporter talking,” I tell the uncle Thursday afternoon, my words coming faster and my pen scratching, and he understands.
I chat with the policeman’s wife, about the youngest son so full of life who spent the entire worship time putting his hat on various sisters’ heads, taking it off again. I don’t mention fires, or heroin.
And it’s just the start. I’ve been here a year and I’m starting to see people I know everywhere – the man who sold us our house in the Walmart produce section; church acquaintances at Saturday morning garage sales; co-workers outside BiLo.
I know I’ll be writing about them at some point. And it makes me incredibly nervous. I’m supposed to be outside of whatever it is I’m writing, uninvolved, interested only from an external point of view. But when those lines blur…
I guess it comes with the territory of small town reporting. And it’s just something I’ll have to learn as I go.
But it still feels awfully strange.