Armchair Peregrinations

Life and Times of a Community Newspaper Reporter

(The following story is based on actual experiences I had while working at three different small-town newspapers in the mid-to-late 1970s.)

Shaking the sleep from my eyes as I stirred the coffee in my mug, the morning began to take shape in the briefly lit confines of my cubicle office. Before me a littered desk beckoned obtrusively to work yet to be done -- a cluttered expanse so characteristic of the top of a newspaper writer's desk.

The sound of stirrings in the hall and in the other offices reminded me once again of my fellow workers, those dedicated compatriots whose united efforts yielded a small city afternoon paper, three times a week, to the unending amazement of us all that it ever came out.

The phones began ringing in a meddlesome cacophony that one was aware of only when deliberately listening.

"Advertising, Line 1, Bookkeeping, Line 3."

The buttons lit up and blipped off. A woman on Line 2 was calling about a paper she didn't receive the night before, and it was not the first time recently that this had happened.

Yes, she was assured, something would be done about it. If she didn't get a paper next time, call the circulation department immediately.

Next, there was a commotion in the hall. An ad salesman had just spotted an accident on York Street, and it looked bad. Aren't we going to cover it, get a photographer (meaning the editor, desk man and reporter all rolled into one) over to the scene? a chorus of excited newshounds chimed in at once.

In my cubicle I groaned silently, hoping what I'd heard would go away. You see, I'm not much on carrying pictures of mangled steel on page one. Every picture tells a story notwithstanding, I make assurances of checking with the highway patrol The excitement dies down.

The other day, I happened upon a small frame house in a poor section of town, smoke barely visible and firemen all around. Not much of a picture, I thought. A more dramatic scene would have been different. I could see it now in a flash: reporter with camera edging through the crowd of curiosity seekers, getting close to the heat, aiming the camera as breathless firemen rushed by with hoses. Dramatic picture wins press association award. Some fantasy. That's what working on a newspaper too long will do to you.

The phone rang again. This time it was a call for me on Line 3. Unceremoniously, I picked up the receiver.


"This is the sheriff."

"Yes, sheriff, how are things?" I inquire. "Weekend pretty quiet, I hope."

"Yeah, not much going on," the sheriff said pleasantly. "Had a little incident Saturday. Thought you might want to get it in the paper."

"Okay," I said, putting pen to paper.

"We received a call from a G.A. Peterson, 31, Rt. 3, Simpkinville. Time about 8 pm Friday. Apparently someone broke into his house while he was out. Entry through the rear. Lock forced open. Taken were: one portable television, black and white, GE, I believe; two rifles, .22 caliber; miscellaneous items and one 1968 Ford Pick-up. Estimated loss $8,000.

I wrote notes furiously, looking occasionally at my watch.

"The incident is still under investigation," the sheriff said.

Next was a report on a convenience store robbed at gunpoint about 1:50 am Friday. Taken were: $225 cash, six frozen pizzas, three six-packs of beer and four cartons of cigarettes, Winston Lights. The incident was still under investigation.

After thanking the sheriff and exchanging a few additional pleasantries, I finished the story I had already started. The rest of the morning passed in a flourish of typing, editing, looking at pictures and checking on copy.

Lunch time arrived, and that meant time to slow down. I headed for my daily rendezvous with the Southpark Motel Restaurant. Home cooked meals, congenial atmosphere. Just what I needed. I'd established a routine, and I even bragged about it.

Looking over a copy of that morning's Charlotte Observer, calm finally descended as I glanced around at the other patrons. Some I recognized for they had routines quite remarkably similar to my own.

In short order I'd eaten, had dessert, and was smoking a cigarette.

As I was sitting there, I caught a glimpse of the older couple sitting two tables away. Each day about 1, they quietly took their places at the same table.

He was meticulously dressed, quiet, with an unspoken air of gentlemanly reserve. His wife, I felt certain, had suffered a stroke. She was aware of only part of her surroundings and sat, fragile and stiff, in her chair. Her milk was brought to her. Hardly a word was spoken.

I am startled sometimes by their presence, for everything is carried out with such an air of normalcy. Delicately, she sipped her milk, and when dinner was brought, she ate each bite of food equally deliberately.

I couldn't help but look over and see her seemingly contented facial expressions, but there was something hollow and lifeless in her appearance. I tried to imagine what, if anything, she was thinking about. People stopping by talked to her as if to a child.

That afternoon was reserved for picture assignments: senior citizens making items for their church bazaar, Cub Scouts at the museum, a painter with her exhibit, a check presentation.

"How to you want us to stand?" my subjects would inquire.

"This way, toward the camera," I said with waning enthusiasm. Mouths attempted flickering half smiles, others remained rigid and terse.

I joked casually, trying to elicit the right expression. Click and flash.

"Two more," I announced. I was looking for candid, at-ease poses. You know in a second when you have it, and then you quickly press the shutter release.

We get all kinds of picture requests, some we just can't get to. I had to turn down some ladies at the Baptist Church 12 miles out of town who were having a cake decorating contest and needed a photographer.

Another time, a man called and said he saw something he thought we'd like to get a picture of. Appears a small dogwood tree had stepped out of nature's calendar and had burst into bloom in the middle of November.

Later, I thought, "What a beautiful thing." At the time, I politely explained that we'd see if we could get a picture. Our caller was quite excited and ernest about the request.

"Might not be there Monday," he had said.

Tramping up the stairs to Apartment #2, I wasn't tired after a day's work because I usually reach my greatest momentum by 4 or 5 pm and have to force myself to unwind.

Opening the door to my room, I sank down on the bed, hands clasped in front of me, and then fidgeted.

Across the room, a wall of books glared soberly at me, as if reminding me that the dust was collecting and they had to be read.

I turned over and read some magazines. I tried to think about the events of the day, but somehow they reminded me of those of the preceding two days, which I had already forgotten. Drifting off to sleep about 11, I next woke up at 1 am, the stillness of a cold, winter night outside palpably present.

Two weeks later, I was standing on the porch of a run-down frame house, a biting winter wind clipping my unprotected ears A college student I was accompanying knocked on the door. A small and very old woman appeared.

"Mamie," the student said. "How've you been? Is it warmer in your house now?"

A group of students from the Christian Fellowship had been weatherizing some of the houses in a poor part of town as part of a service project. Plastic weather stirpping covered the windows in Mamie's house.

Mamie mumbled a few words, barely recognizing who it was she was letting in.

"Yes, feeling better," she offered as we entered the debris-filled front room. Old newspapers plastered the walls. A framed picture of Christ with lambs by his feet hung on one of the walls.

Mamie ambled over to her small fireplace, a fire burning brightly with wood brought by a neighbor that morning. A bare light bulb hung down from the ceiling.

An awkward, unsettling embarassment came over me as I searched for a place to sit. I gripped my camera tightly and checked the settings.

Mamie had settled down in a warm rocking chair by the fire. In the dim glow of the yellow light, I peered at her wrinkled face. A kerchief was wrapped around her head. She tightened her sweater around her and remained quiet.

Her stepson, John Henry, was talking in drunken animation, making no sense at all. A toothless smile was frozon on his face.

"Mamie," the student said, "This is a reporter from the paper and he'd like to take a picutre of you for a story he's writing about the work we've been doing.

Mamie nodded and continued rocking. I got my camera ready while she sat as straight as she could in her chair. I could see just barely the pale white cataracts which covered her eyes behind round glasses.

I fumbled for a moment, then took several pictures, trying to compose a scene consisting of Mamie on the right and the fireplace and mantel on the left.

We thanked Mamie as we left, and John Henry kept saying something about us not noticing the bottle he was holding. It helped his rheumatism.

I never used the picture of Mamie with the story I wrote. I felt it was too personal, private. Nevertheless, I had mixed feelings about not using it in the story.

My story began this way:

"Mamie Potts was sitting warming herself by the one fireplace which is the only source of heat in her small house. Her son, John Henry, was sitting directly in front of the fire as it sputtered and crackled, providing a measure of warmth on a cold Saturday morning last week.

"When members of the Christian Fellowship at the college found out about Mamie, she hadn't had a fire in a couple of days and had been sitting around a gas stove for heat. She had tried to gather wood chips earlier."

I didn't get any reaction to the story, at least none that I heard of. I remember leaving out of the narrative the fact that Mamie was 86 and that this had been the coldest winter in 100 years. I don't know why I didn't use that information.

Sitting at lunch two days later, I was talking about journalism with a friend.

"You come across just about everything working on a small city paper," I was saying reflexively.

"That's what makes the work so interesting," I continued, saying things I seem to recall having said before on such occasions.

"Do you ever get to know the people you interview?" Joe questioned.

"You don't have the opportunity," I said, retreating to an easy out. "Besides, it's the impressions about people and brief facts about them that you concentrate on, trying to get good quotes to add depth to the story," I added, starting to ramble.

"If I had to think long and hard about everything I wrote, I'd never get anything written."

I thought back then to my college English major days when I laboriously crafted complex sentences for papers that were weighted down with wordy mulch like so much linquistic compost.

On newspapers, I'd learned, writing had to be spare and lean. Get to the point. I reserved the last vestiges of my individualistic prose style for the columns I wrote for the opinion page.

Eating a mint on the way out of the restaurant, I glanced at the sky. It was clear, wintry blue. I had an assignment to go to on the way back to work that involved taking picture for a feature on a slimnastics class.

I entered a celler area beneath a huge home to be confronted by an assortment of differently-shaped and sized women lined up at exercise equipment. Unwanted, worrisome rolls of fat shook and rolled beneath exercise tights. There were determined displays of motivation all around. I was impressed looking at all that fat being burned up, but the pictures came out stagey and posed.

"Okay, girls, let's suck in those tummies," I heard the instructor challenge her students.

It reminded me of the time I went to the yoga class to take picutres and was having trouble with the camera flash. Add to this the dimness in the room, and it was difficult to focus as well.

One newcomer to yoga, bless her stamina and patience, remained upright on her head for just a little longer than she had anticipated while I fumbled with the camera and silently cursed the poor lighting.

It was tight there for awhile because I didn't know how long she could hold the position, and I was determined to get at least one good shot.

I bid farewell to the red-faced hostess, apologizing for the length of time it had taken to get her picture.

Arriving back at the ofice, I was greeted with yet more photo assignments. When was I going to get time to write a news story for tomorrow's paper?

The phone was ringing and time was flying by.

After fixing a cup of coffee, I leaned back and propped by feet on the desk. The clutter in the office, was, as usual, oppressive.

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