Getting the Story

I became a journalist in ninth grade.

I’m not sure how it got started; I loved reading and writing and somehow my mother and a couple of English teachers probably got in cahoots and wheedled me into proposing that our school’s moribund newspaper needed reviving.  I Citizen Kaned my way through a meeting with the school principal and promised my class time would not be impinged as I told the stories of my people with integrity, impassioned adjectives, and not a little censorship. In return I received permission to print two double-sided legal size pages per month at the school’s expense and circulate the results to the student body of about six hundred.

Admittedly, the rag was light on hard-hitting commentary. The principal had veto power over any article. We did pretty well as a feature page though, and reported on sports factually enough. I typed each article on a typewriter, counted the spaces at the end of each line, and distributed the spaces evenly in the final draft. This was called “justifying”, that thing you do now with a mouse click. I used a razor knife and rubber cement to move articles into place in the layout, and my headlines came from press-on letters which came in a font sheet. Yes, I literally CTRL-Xed and CTRL-Ved. After our first purple-inked mimeographed issue, we were allowed to use the school’s brand new photocopier.

The paper gave me considerable street cred. People love to see their name in print, and my position as editor-in-chief and ace star reporter lifted me from the ranks of the geeks, dorks, and nerds to something like, I don’t know, Duke of Dork or Nerdomancer. Everyone had ideas for stories, usually involving themselves, and I was no exception. I decided the best way to get the story was to be the story.

I started in an understated way, with articles on things I was already doing. The chess club was delighted to pose dramatically for an endgame photograph. The distance runners discussed how not to get cramps. The musical massacre known as band class couldn’t understand why anyone would want to publicize our concert. Good stuff all, but insufficient for my Pulitzer. I needed more.

I convinced the lacrosse coach that the best way for my readers to relate to the midfielder experience was for me to become one. Neatly brushing aside the tryouts I hadn’t attended and the practices I’d missed, I asked how soon my jersey might be ready. I endured a few vicious stick-checks that may or may not have been suggested by the coach, but the resulting column-inches were a breathtaking account of “The Fastest Game on Two Feet”, and I stayed on the team.

My curiosity expanded. I wrote a long feature about a strange concrete structure downtown which turned out to be the foundation of an abandoned railroad trestle. I weaseled my way into a local theater piece and turned out a paean to the stage. I even join a square dancing club that rented our auditorium on Wednesday nights. Nothing was too strange. Nothing was out of bounds, except of course for politics.

School funding was being cut all over our city, and the classes known as “Industrial Arts” were on the chopping block. All the shop classes were doomed. School newspapers, even ones like mine that weren’t part of a class, would be sidelined. Someone organized a rally at a school board meeting, and it was we student journalists that carried the brightest torches. A city beat reporter was so impressed by the speech I delivered that she reprinted it in the local edition the next day, in its entirety. Maybe she just had column inches to fill, but I was pretty ecstatic. I got noticed, and though the shop class teachers got laid off, the high school newspaper at my new school was preserved. The teacher gave me first preference for beat and stories, and I actually started learning the craft. My ledes got denser, my detail less visceral and more concrete.  I took that class every year and wrote sixty-four stories, a school record.

The city paper hired me straight out of high school and sent me out on feature assignments, the cub reporter with a gift for opening people up. My technique was always the same: ask the questions, try to live the answers. I wanted to know how people felt, how they lived, what their answers were to the problems they faced. I was a compassionate teenager, and so very curious. I got ride-alongs on fire trucks and in police cars and fell in love with the crime beat. I did what it took to get the story, and my editors knew that.

Crime overwhelmed my senses and made all of my earlier reporting irrelevant. I begged to get attached permanently to the police department, even offering to work for free. I had some idea that I could be like Truman Capote, writing the non-fiction novel on the side while investigating the case. It would sell billions and I would travel the world, writing at leisure. My editor agreed with the idea for me to work for free, but sternly warned me about staying objective. I agreed in word but not in thought, and anyway, my first murder scene ruined any pretense of dispassionate reporting. Seeing that bloated corpse, the rust-stained carpet, the insect life… I had to tell it all and bring the experience home to my readers. My column was rejected; too graphic, too light on facts, too opinionated, I still had a lot to learn, they said.

How could I make my reporting better? I did what I had always done. I dove in, pursued the story, tried to participate more intensely and understand. I talked to friends of the victim and, after promising confidentiality, was introduced to some people even the police hadn’t interviewed yet. They liked me. We laughed a little to throw off the awkwardness, and while I wouldn’t smoke the drugs they offered me, I established trust by drinking their alcohol. I got some good-natured ribbing about never providing the booze myself, but they accepted my reasoning that because of my age, I couldn’t buy it. Over a couple of weeks, everyone started to relax. Facts started to come out.

It seems the victim had not been a very nice person, something the police had glossed over in my interviews with them. He had owed a lot of people a lot of money, and hadn’t been shy about telling his story all over the city. Everybody warned him there could be consequences. He hadn’t listened. My sources told me I had to meet Roy to get the real story. Roy had been the consequences. I agreed and broke out a fresh notepad.

They told me it wouldn’t be safe to take me to Roy in plain view, so one night I got in the trunk of a car and waited while we drove for what seemed like hours. It smelled of gasoline and hairspray in the trunk, and I worried I would be overcome, but I’ve always been strong like that so I persevered. I occupied my mind with thoughts of my scoop. Finally the car stopped and after a few minutes the trunk opened.

My source was there, riffing through a wad of bills, methodically ticking off numbers. There was someone else there, but I couldn’t really make out his face. Mostly because when I looked up, he bashed in my teeth with the butt of a shotgun.

It’s been fourteen years now, and I can’t say my life with Roy has been super happy. It’s hard work. Some days I only get dog food to eat. But I’m doing what I have to do to get the story, and when I finish the manuscript, it will definitely be Pulitzer material.

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About ernestwhile

I live in New York City. I built a world of Lego bricks, colorful and simple and foreign. I've been picking it apart ever since.
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8 Responses to Getting the Story

  1. This is really a great piece. I faced these same challenge with school and my innate desire to be heard in some creative way

  2. TheOthers1 says:

    Great telling. I’m a known skimmer, but I read the whole thing. You had me, like I was into the story, until the end and I was like, “whaaaa.” Nice job. 🙂

  3. Brilliant. I can’t separate your truth (if there is any) from your fiction (if there is any) and LOVE that.

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