Category Archives: Notebook sketches

When the news drove away

It was raining when the Channel 2 van drove by the house.

It was raining and the baby (and he’s not even 3 weeks old yet) had just fallen asleep in his bed and the toddler was sinking deeper into my side as her eyelids grew heavier with every page in her book but the television station from Pittsburgh sent a van up my dead-end street.

I couldn’t follow. Before, when the girl and the boy were still waiting to come to me, I’d have grabbed pen and notebook and umbrella and followed up the street. I did that once, when fire trucks passed in a hurry (for what turned out to be a gas leak, nothing exciting).

My mind followed though, running through scenarios. No emergency vehicles had passed that I knew of, definitely not a fire or a working crime scene. A feature story of some sort? Would they really send a van all the way out here for a feature?

I couldn’t follow but I could call, trying to reach someone – anyone – in the newsroom. Are you aware? Are you on top of whatever it is Pittsburgh news is covering?

But a newsroom after deadline, during lunch, is a dead place and no one was picking up. The toddler flipped pages in her book, voice petulant. “Read,” she said. Then “read!” again when I dialed another number.
I gave up and we finished the book, rocked and sang and settled her into her crib. The baby slept on and I saw the van leave our quiet neighborhood and wondered.

Turns out my old coworkers were indeed aware of and on top of the situation. A neighbor, whose name and I know and who I see now and again in church – who has 2 kids but drives up and down our street too fast, engines revving as if a 16-year-old boy was behind the wheel – had been arrested on charges of attempted homicide. Police said she stabbed a man during an argument in the early morning hours.

And now it’s my turn to sleep but I can’t. I’m thinking of her kids, tow-headed and tan all summer long. Their dad faced jail time not too long ago, now it’s their mom in trouble. I’m thinking of her mother, who often cries when she shares a passage in church.

But there’s something else keeping me awake. I saw news happening on my street, felt the pull of a developing story again, and watched it drive away as my babies slept.

I guess you never lose the adrenaline that comes with breaking news, even if you can’t follow.

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When worlds collide

I looked for it when we walked in, and it was still there: a framed copy of the article I wrote when the Mexican restaurant opened across town.

It wasn’t a particularly good article – not a lot to say about a new restaurant – but I guess any press is good for a new establishment and they’d framed it.

This evening it was a friend and the baby and I and our waiter didn’t understand when I asked for crackers for the baby; she spent the evening twisting around in her seat trying to see the people behind her.

And it was a strange collision of my worlds; the physical reminder of what I used to be, and the loud presence of my daughter to remind me what I am now.

I still notice the wail of fire engines. Every big storm I think about the weather story I am not writing. When I pick up the paper in the afternoon I notice the headlines that would have topped my stories, only I didn’t write them. Sometimes I’m glad (election coverage stinks). Others I’m sorry.

And I still notice signs of stories that ought to be written, walking through town with the stroller and the dog and a pack of graham crackers for the inevitable “nack, nack” refrain she’ll pick up about a block into our walk.

I’m not a reporter anymore, not in job title anymore. But I’m not sure I’ll every completely stop being one.

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Filed under Charlotte, Notebook sketches

Endings

The first week I started working for the newspaper, they sent me out to a buildings and grounds committee meeting for a school board far from us.

It was long. I was lost.

The next week was a voting meeting for that same school district. It went on for five hours in a crowded gym. I sat on bleachers on the side of the room, ate lemon heads between desperate note-taking, wished for more comfortable shoes and doubted my job choice.

Over the next three years I drove out there countless times, for regular meetings and special meetings and committee meetings and court cases, oh the court cases. One summer it seemed there was another hearing every week.

Most meetings security guards roamed the halls, mostly old men or very young ones who, I think, were there more for show than anything else. One group of residents always sat in the front, at first, then moved to the back, and – though they wouldn’t call it this themselves – they heckled everyone they disagreed with.

Once a fist fight nearly broke out between two taxpayers. The younger man didn’t like my coverage of the incident, said he was the victim and never participated in the confrontation, but I’ve always wondered what he said to make the old man’s blood boil. Another time – but I didn’t see this one – a board member and a tax payer nearly got into their own confrontation, or other reporters said so anyway.

But slowly the fight died out. Meetings got shorter. Decisions were made that couldn’t be undone and people stopped coming, stopped arguing and pleading and heckling.

“I want to see the district unified,” an incoming board member told me once, and while that’s years away, it doesn’t look as impossible as it did when I started. But things are lost, too. Schools are closed, children uprooted, older graduates without a place to call their home school.

I thought of that as I drove home last night, a light rain starting to fall and mist rising from corn fields in the valleys. I remembered driving that way so many times before, watching for deer grazing by the side of the highway under summer moons, creeping around snow-covered curves in the winter. I remember driving down toward the river and suddenly crossing a sort of wall into a fog bank, the sunlight extinguished just like that.

I had friends on both sides – amazing, really, when you think of it. It helped that I did live so far away. I clearly didn’t have anything to gain from any outcome. I talked about cattle with an old farmer who sat in on ever court hearing, dressed always in a green work suit.

I talked about tractors and summer plans with the couple from the other side, who faithfully attended every meeting and made snide (and funny) remarks under their breaths.

Once, the building locked when I arrived, I sat in the back seat of a pickup truck with another couple and talked about my baby, their grandbaby, until the building was unlocked.

That was the last time I’ll cover a meeting out there, I think. They asked me to finish out the budget season and then it will pass to someone else.

I won’t miss the drive. I won’t miss waiting an hour for the meeting to start because an executive session got out of control (and does so every time). I won’t miss the anger that boils under the surface, that made me cry on occasion because the bitterness is so toxic, it burns everything it touches.

But – and isn’t it always this way? – when you get any of them by themselves, they’re nice people. The people I will miss.

And it’s strange that something that was so much part of my life for three years is suddenly not there.

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Vows mean something

She seemed unsure when I asked to what she attributed the success of her marriage, of her three sisters’ marriages, all of them marking 50 years this summer.

“I don’t know, we just didn’t have any thoughts, I guess,” she said, not even saying thoughts about what.

If divorce wasn’t something that crossed her mind, it didn’t cross her tongue, either.

Neither of her sisters had much to say either. How do you explain how your marriage survives if it has never occurred to you that it might not?

“Our faith, I guess, and our lifestyles,” one said, pointing to the health they all carry into their sunset years. One sister’s a farmer, running a dairy farm with her husband. Two taught elementary school until they retired.

All three were married the summer of 1963 and all three were celebrating their 50 years of marriage and I was given the story, making calls while the baby slept. Weddings weren’t big affairs then, not like today, they all told me. Simple weddings, cake and mints and punch receptions at the church. One sewed all the bridesmaids’ dresses, her own wedding dress and her twin sister’s, too.

They all met their husbands in the same 4-H extension group, the twin sisters started dating their men at the same university dance.

Now they can’t tell me how they reached 50 years, not when I phrase it that way. But then I ask for advice for young couples starting their own marriages, and the first question receives its answer.

“It’s not 50-50,” one tells me. Sometimes you have to give more, other times the other will.

“Make sure you share common interests and goals,” another says. Farming is hard work but both of them love watching calves be born and crops break through the dirt.

“Remember your vows, you’re going to need them,” the third says. “Life isn’t simple.”

None of them talk about the hard times, the ones where they had to give more than their share to make the marriage work or the times they clung to their vows because the love just wasn’t there.

But if you look around the edges of their answers you can see glimpses. And you can see what made those marriages last.

“Vows mean something to us,” one sister explained, almost a shrug in her voice, because is that really the secret to 50 years?

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Meeting people

From the start it was a bad meeting.

I was late, for one, driving right past the meeting place thanks to faulty directions that sent me out on winding roads to the middle of nowhere. So when I slipped into my seat the superintendent was giving his year-end report and I was lost. I’d missed the agendas and the sign-in sheet, too, so I had no way of catching up.

I tried to sneak glances over the shoulder of the women in front of me, but she was taking notes and mostly kept the paper where I couldn’t see it.

I’d never covered this meeting before so I didn’t know anyone’s names, but I could only read half the name plates in front of them. I attributed quotes to people like “lady who isn’t the one whose name starts with S.” I figured I could find the names later (which I did).

I  knew that this particular district had controversies over closing schools before (what school district doesn’t, now?), but that the school in question was closed and sold and the dust settled and the meetings quieter now.

But five minutes after the report ended and two board members were quibbling over times posted on the door for administrative hours I realized that the anger, the bitterness, is still there. One would raise an issue (any issue, really, with administration), and the other chimed in, and after arguments that went on too long the board chairman would call the question, and they’d be the only two voting against whatever had been proposed.

The others were quiet, mostly, waiting for them to finish, like this was something that is part of life there.

It shouldn’t have been that long of  a meeting but the man from the radio told me it was short, before continuing on a long story about car wrecks and deer. I’d passed a doe and her fawn bounding across four lanes of rural highway on the way out and I wasn’t surprised.

An administrator was coming behind us and I was in his way as he neared his car, so I hurried my steps and turned to apologize.

“Aren’t you my neighbor?” he asked. “Weren’t you at my garage sale last weekend?”

And so it goes. I have seen but not actually met these neighbors countless times over the past few years. They have several boys and now a girl, and the mother walked often in the evenings with the infant strapped to her chest. Sometimes they all walk past our house, stroller and a straggling line of boys in tow. I chased the dog through their yard once; we commiserated once on a neighbor’s children who always played in the road, who we were so afraid we would watch die on the black asphalt.

On Saturday I bought a dress for the baby from their garage sale; their girl is just months older than mine.

But I have never known their names.

“Are you the one with all the boys?” I asked him that night and yes, he said, he was.

And so at a meeting I never cover miles from our quiet neighborhood, I finally met another neighbor, whose children I will hear hitting home runs down the block in their own front yard while I weed in mine.

Strange how it works that way.

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Filed under Home, Notebook sketches

Working from home

There’s cereal on the stack of criminal complaints on my dining room table.

The phone is on a high chair.

There’s cereal on her eye and on my upper arm and how did it even get there? And the woman returns my phone call perfectly in the 20-minute nap that gave me just long enough to grab lunch and conduct a short interview.

I worked from home this afternoon, bowing to a cold that’s left her nose practically useless, mealtimes a chore, and her breathing loud. I always think working from home will be easier than it is.

It works great in theory. I get work done while she naps, take a break to change and feed her when she wakes up, then she plays on the floor while I go back to typing up criminal records or turning my notes into a story for the weekend papers.

Of course, it never works that way in practice.

So I type those records between scooping bites of cereal into her baby-bird mouth and I read them out loud as I type for amusement.

It’s a strange sort of litany to read to an infant: “Charged March 28 with DUI on this street in this town, his BAC was 0.225. Charged April 10 by state police with indecent assault.” And so on.

Luckily she’s not old enough to ask what any of it means. And luckily she finds my voice and the cup of water on her highchair tray interesting.

We get the reports typed before she loses interest.

And of course we do get the story written too, it just takes a little longer and I work a little later than I usually do, taking advantage of a second nap that’s so much longer than the first.

It’s just not quite as simple as I always think it will be.

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Writing about friends

You’re not supposed to write about your friends.

It’s a pretty straight forward rule in theory. If you could be or if it appears that you could be unduly influenced by the person, you hand off the story to someone else.

But it’s a small town and it’s a small newsroom and sometimes there’s no way around it. Sometimes your friends are newsworthy and you’re the only one to write about it.

Saturday night I was the only reporter on shift with a skeleton staff for Sunday’s paper. The night before, a filmmaker I know had been on CNN to talk about a trial underway in Philadelphia for a doctor accused of murder and how his abortion clinic had been allowed to operate for so long.

It’s always news when a local person has his or her 15 seconds of national fame, but mostly they have minor parts, brief snippets on one show or another.

The filmmaker was brought on to join a panel of experts, due to a documentary he wrote and directed. It was front page news, here. But it had happened on Friday. To wait so someone else could write it would mean it wouldn’t run until  Tuesday, too long to matter anymore.

So I called my friend and wrote the story that night, between the crime lists and obituaries and a late-night run to the ice cream store down the road.

“I’m working tonight,” I told him when I called, and we both knew it meant that for the next 10 minutes we’re not friends. For the next 10 minutes we leave out our spouses and children and life outside of the newsroom behind and I am just a reporter and he is just someone I’m interviewing.

Really this particular story isn’t a big deal – there’s nothing controversial about being on national television, so there’s no way I could be unduly influenced.

But it’s still odd when the rules of journalism are so completely broken.

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