Thursday, April 22, 1999

scarred for life

Being a journalist has scarred me for life.

I entered the field as something of a last resort. When I started my first newspaper job, I had been out of college just over four years and already had gone through two teaching jobs and a host of other fulfilling occupations, including pizza delivery and gas station attendant.

I had enjoyed my stint on The Lafayette, the college newspaper where I had been an editor and columnist since my freshman year until I ran afoul of political correctness gone amok my senior year, and at the advice of a friend, I applied for a job in Somerville at the chain of weekly newspapers where he worked.

I worked there as an editor for 18 months, and if the journalism bug didn't get me, I was intrigued enough to apply for a job with The Packet Group and in November 1997, I discovered community journalism. No longer was I a plain and simple Joe; now, by stepping into a phone booth, I could become Clark Kent.

The job often lacks the excitement Hollywood gives it. On TV and in the movies, every episode details a fight against corrupt politicians, a Satan-worshipping board of education, and a cover-up so big that someone's bound to win a Pulitzer and make a mongo-huge book deal.

In the past three years, I've heard the magic phrase "Stop the presses!" only twice, and in neither case had they even started. And book deals on corruption? Don't make me laugh. (I never did investigate the possible occult entanglements of school boards, though.)

So much for "The Newspaper," where Michael Keaton and Glenn Close get into a fistfight over whether to stop the run or not. (I also learned my lesson from that scene, and ever since have never engaged in fisticuffs with my superiors. Glenn Close's line, "You are so fired," has as much power in reality as it does in a movie.)

But there was a rush to knowing that people counted on me in my reporter days for an unbiased account of what happened in their schools, in their municipal government, in their police department, and in their neighborhood.

"Check out last Tuesday's arrest sheet for the next town," a voice mail message told me, and sure enough, I found an arrest some people would rather have go unnoticed. "Someone tried to abduct a little boy yesterday," another person told me, and bam! another story.

Nothing gets the blood of a reporter racing like a news story to cover. One day a friend of mine and I were headed out of the office for a moment to get some cavities in a bottle. An ambulance zoomed up the side street and stopped behind our parking lot.

"I have to check this out," I told my friend, and raced back to the chain link fence behind our lot. Over the past 20 years, these fences have become a lot harder to climb, and I caught my foot on the top. I finally pulled free and made it down the other side of the fence, but my shoe decided to land on the parking lot.

On the next pass over, my pants leg caught on the wires that line the top of the fence. I hung there for a minute, scraping my hands on other wires, before I finally yanked it free, tearing a six-inch gash in my work pants.

I made it to the scene with both shoes, a torn pants, and a left hand that was bleeding profusely where I had cut it on the fence. At home that evening, I found I had another cut on my stomach and more scrapes on my legs. Months later, a quarter-inch white line remains on the palm of my hand where the fence cut it.

Journalism has scarred me for life. But I got my story.

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