Even in an era when American print media has plunged into inexorable and perhaps terminal decline, even at a time when tech moguls are buying up venerated news-gathering organizations with their equivalent of couch change, even with the likelihood of career advancement dimmed by the industry's collective implosion, there are benefits to working for a newspaper that cannot be quantified by simple measurements like salary, benefits, or future prospects.
Kook calls are definitely one of them.
We get them all the time — from the drunken, the deranged, the demented — and they come in enough different flavors to keep us constantly entertained.
Some are just mild, low-grade kooks, like the ones who have newspapers confused with talk radio. They'll call up and start ranting about whatever subject is bothering them — the governor's latest cabinet appointment, the confusing signage that led them down the wrong exit ramp of the Garden State Parkway, the deplorable slowness of third-class mail — perhaps believing that if they just convince the reporter they're right, the newspaper will immediately launch a four-part series on the subject, written from the caller's particular point of view.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists, the ones who want us to "do some digging" into whatever fantasies they're harboring at the moment, whether it's that the local Walmart is importing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in a garbage truck or that their town's animal-control officer is more of a dog person than a cat person.
There are also the old people who just want to talk. To someone. About anything. They'll call up with a "news tip," and of course it turns out they are the news, and the tip is that long ago — during, say, the Korean War — they nearly lost three toes to frostbite. And now, particularly on the mornings when they still feel that little tingle in their big toes, they feel the world at large needs to know about it.
Then there are the other standbys: the prisoners who use their phone time to call us, usually collect, and convince us of the gross miscarriage of justice that led to their incarceration; the paranoid schizophrenics who believe their delusions are worthy of front-page headlines; or the poor confused souls who, thinking newspaper reporters must be omniscient, will call and ask the name of the program they were watching on television last night.
As a group, they land somewhere between pitiable — particularly when they're obviously suffering from mental illness — and laughable. Except for the racists. We get a lot of those, too. They're just despicable.
Sure, Internet chat rooms and social networking have siphoned off some of our kooks over the years — there are more outlets for people to express their crazy now than ever before — but we at the Newark Eagle-Examiner, New Jersey's most widely circulated periodical, still get our share. Because the fact is, even with the increasing fragmentation of media, most people, even the nuts, realize a major daily newspaper like ours is still the best way to get serious attention for whatever cause or issue matters most to them.
Plus, we print our phone number in the paper.
Some reporters treat kook calls as nuisances. But most of us learn over the years to look forward to them. There's just nothing like going through an otherwise ordinary day, pecking away at some humdrum story, when suddenly you become aware one of your colleagues is talking to someone who lives off the grid and has found one of the three remaining working pay phones in the state of New Jersey to call and explicate his worldview.
If the reporter who takes the call is in a certain mood, she'll stand up in the middle of the newsroom and, for the benefit of those listening, start repeating key lines and questions in a loud voice, such as: "I realize you think Greta Van Susteren is trying to control your mind, but that doesn't necessarily mean Wolf Blitzer is going to try as well."
Or: "So you want to know if we're going to be writing about the rash of robberies in your neighborhood because someone keeps breaking into your house and moving your broom."
Or: "To make sure I understand this right, you're saying the Battle of Gettysburg didn't happen the way the history books said it did — and you know, because you were there in a previous life?"
The fun just never ends. So I have to admit I was mostly just looking for a good kook call on Monday afternoon when one of our news clerks wandered over to my desk and said, "Hey, I got a woman who says she has a big story for our investigative reporter. You want me to get rid of her?"
"Nah, I'll take it," I said.
I had just been killing time anyway, waiting for edits on my latest piece, a story about cash-strapped municipalities that were considering halting their recycling programs (corrugated waste products have seldom warranted so much attention). So when the forwarded call came through on my desk phone, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation, then answered with my most polite and officious, "Eagle-Examiner, this is Carter Ross."
"Hi, Mr. Ross, my name is Jackie Orr," came the voice on the other end. It was the voice of someone young, black, and determined.
"Hi, Jackie, what can I do for you?"
"Do you ever do stories about people getting sick?"
"That depends," I said. "Who's getting sick?"
"What do you mean 'everyone'?" I asked. So far, so good: kooks often insisted that whatever troubled them also afflicted others.
"Well, first it was just my grandmother. Or we thought it was just my grandmother. But then it turned out to be the whole neighborhood."
"Sounds like you need a lawyer more than you need a newspaper reporter," I said.
"I tried that. I tell them people are sick and they're interested. But once they hear it's not some open-and-shut mesothelioma case, they don't want anything to do with it. I talked to one lawyer who sounded a little interested, but then he wanted a fifty-thousand-dollar retainer. If we had fifty thousand dollars, we wouldn't be bothering with lawsuits. We'd just move. Our case is a little more complicated than anyone seems to want to take on."
I felt myself sitting up in my chair and paying closer attention. There are certain words kooks tend not to use. "Mesothelioma" is one of them. So while that was a little disappointing — no kook call for me today — it was also more promising from a journalistic standpoint. As a newspaper reporter, I have a certain bias toward the disenfranchised, disadvantaged masses that others, not even sleazy lawyers, want to listen to. Maybe it's because, deep down, I fancy myself a good-hearted human being who wants to help the less fortunate. Or maybe it's because the Pulitzer committee shares the same bias.
"You said it's complicated. How so?"
"Well, we don't know what's making anyone sick."
"Okay, so you don't need a lawyer. You need a doctor."
"Everyone is seeing doctors. Or at least the ones who have health insurance are. The doctors just treat the symptoms and send them home. They don't have any answers."
I didn't either. But I was intrigued enough to have Jackie assemble herself and some of her ill neighbors to chat with me that afternoon. The headline MYSTERY ILLNESS STRIKES NEWARK NEIGHBORHOOD had a lot more promise for interesting journalism than MORRISTOWN WEIGHS COSTS AND BENEFITS OF RECYCLING NO. 6 PLASTIC.
Besides, as a reporter, I had learned to trust that little assignment editor in my head to tell me when I might be onto a good story. And my assignment editor was telling me, at the very least, that Jackie Orr was no kook.
* * *
Having gained a modest amount of seniority at the Eagle-Examiner — eight years counted as senior at a newspaper where most of the older reporters had been forced to take buyouts — I had wrangled myself a prime desk location in the corner of the newsroom.
It was strategic, inasmuch as it meant editors couldn't sneak up on me. But more than that, it was panoramic, inasmuch as it afforded me a sweeping view of the magnificent and picturesque vista that was a daily newspaper in action. In a single glance, I could see the anguish of the photo editors who had eleven assignments to shoot and only four photographers to do the shooting; the boredom of the Web site writers who were still repurposing yesterday's news until today gave them something interesting to do; the torment of the education reporter trying to make a story about teacher-pension reform sound interesting. And, okay, maybe it didn't fit conventional standards for beauty — unless you found splendor in forty-year-old office furniture and fifteen-year-old computer terminals — but it was my view and I loved it all the same.
Along the walls were the glass offices, home to the higher editors who sometimes conspired to limit my fun but were otherwise a decent group, albeit sometimes in a cheerless, party-pooping, adjective-hating kind of way.
In the middle were the desks filled with reporters. There were a few duds among them, too, but by and large they were a magnificently contemptuous set of brilliant, irreverent, fascinating folks, the kind of people who almost always had interesting things to say and entertaining ways of saying it. And in a strange way I could never quite explain to outsiders — who didn't necessarily understand how the cruciblelike forge of putting out a daily newspaper could bond people — I considered them my extended, mildly dysfunctional family.
Just beyond them was an area of the room known as the intern pod. If kook calls were one of the immeasurable benefits of life at a newspaper, the joy of working with interns was more quantifiable. Through the years, the newspaper industry had come to rely on an ever-growing collection of young, idealistic, energetic, just-out-of-college flunkies to do much of the news gathering that used to be done by more-hardened souls. And while you had to be careful not to let some of their naïveté get in the paper, they were fun all the same. At the age of thirty-two, I wasn't exactly Father Time. But I had been in the game just long enough that I knew there was a value to seeing the world through the nonjaded eyes of an intern. It helped keep me young.
Some of our interns, like Tommy Hernandez, now our city hall reporter and one of my best friends at the paper, started in this lowly post and quickly graduated to more important beats at the paper. Others had come and gone, leaving only their colorful nicknames — Sweet Thang, Lunky, Ruthie — and a smattering of stories in the archives by which we could remember them.
They were, most of all, cheap labor and eager helpmates. So it was that my eyes wandered toward the intern pod, looking for an enthusiastic aide-de-camp. Jackie Orr had promised me a room full of sick people. Interviewing them one by one, which is what I'd need to do, would take time. Having the assistance of an intern, presuming it was one who had been properly potty trained, would double my efficiency and halve my time. Plus, much like with kook calls, there was always the entertainment factor to consider. Interns were nothing if not amusing.
This being the middle of the afternoon, the pod was only partially populated. Half of them were out being good little interns, chasing stories. As I sized up the half that remained, my gaze immediately fell on Neesha Krishnamurthy, a smart — if a little too smart — young woman who had come to us from somewhere in the Ivy League. Columbia School of Journalism, if memory served. Poor thing.
Neesha's internship had thus far been distinguished only by an incident during the early days of her employment, when she stumbled across one of those only-in-Newark stories: a one-legged homeless man who had taken on a one-legged pigeon as a pet, training the bird to perch on his finger, arm, and shoulder.
Neesha somehow persuaded her editor to let her write a human-interest story about the guy — some kind of misguided effort to tug on the readership's heartstrings with a tale of man and bird, bonded by their shared disability. Unfortunately for her, our Web editors thought it had what they liked to call "viral potential," so they sent along a videographer. And he had the camera rolling during that priceless moment when Neesha got the bird on her shoulder and it confused her for its favorite statue, depositing a salvo of white glop on her arm.
One point three million YouTube hits had guaranteed that, for the rest of her days at the Eagle-Examiner, Neesha would be known as Pigeon.
Hence, I strolled over to the intern pod, sat down across from her, and said, "Hey, Pigeon, what's up?"
She looked stricken. "How long are people going to keep calling me that?
"Well, that all depends on one thing," I said, faux philosophically.
"How long you plan on being alive."
She groaned. "What if I become executive editor someday? That would mean people would have to stop calling me Pigeon, right?"
"No, that would mean we'd have to stop calling you Pigeon to your face."
"It's so unfair!" she whined.
"No, unfair is being a pigeon in Newark, New Jersey with only one leg. What happened to you is just funny."
She pouted. Pigeon could be considered attractive — lots of long, dark hair and long, dark eyelashes surrounded by rather flawless skin — but after a dalliance with the aforementioned Sweet Thang, I had promised myself to swear off interns. Plus, I had enough complications in my romantic life at the moment.
"Anyhow, I was wondering if you wanted to help me report a story," I said.
"It doesn't involve pigeons, does it? Because Buster Hays tried to trick me into a story about a —"
I interrupted her by laughing. Buster Hays was the oldest reporter left, the only septuagenarian in a newsroom whose median age was roughly twenty-four. He hung around mostly because he was far too cantankerous to give us the pleasure of seeing him quit.
"No, no. I'm serious," I assured her. "No pigeons. No birds of any sort. I got a tip about a neighborhood in Newark where apparently a bunch of people are getting sick and no one knows why."
"Oh, cool," she said.
Yes, this was one who belonged in the Fourth Estate: only someone with a reporter's sensibilities would describe mysteriously ill people as "cool."
"Anyhow, there's going to be a group of them gathered at a house this afternoon, and I was hoping you could help me interview them. You busy?"
"Well, sort of. But it can wait. Let me just go tell Matt where I'm going."
Matt was her editor. And he was a decent enough guy, for an editor, but I didn't need Matt knowing about this. There was too great a risk he would tell my editor, Tina Thompson, with whom I had a somewhat complex relationship. The less Tina knew about my activities at the moment, the better.
"Don't do that," I said. She looked confused, so I continued: "Intern lesson number one: when it comes to editors, it's always better to beg forgiveness than ask permission."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Well, that depends. Do you want to be known around here for something other than bird poop?"
She followed me out of the newsroom without another word.
* * *
The address furnished to me by Jackie Orr was on Ridgewood Avenue, and as we made the short drive out there from downtown, I gave Pigeon a quick history lesson. Ridgewood Avenue used to be one of the South Ward's great streets, located in the Weequahic section of the city, one of Newark's great neighborhoods. Then someone got the fine idea to construct Interstate 78 through it in the late 1950s. It tore Ridgewood Avenue roughly in half, destroying the neighborhood and leaving behind a piece of the city that never quite recovered.
The house was located on the section of Ridgewood Avenue that survived just to the north of the highway, an odd wedge of real estate that had long been yearning for revitalization. It was a strange hodgepodge of residential and industrial, with everything from manufacturing and transportation companies to new public housing and old private housing, with some newly paved streets next to ones in such serious need of repaving you could see cobblestones under the asphalt.