When I was 19 years old I got a job at the local newspaper in Essex County, Massachusetts. Our office was right near the banks of the Merrimack River, where the old mills still stand in Lawrence, just down the road from Lowell, where Jack Kerouac grew up. The mills are all dead now; they’re trying to turn them into artists’ spaces and loft living. The cities are slowly turning around. The mills are getting there. Well, some of them. Most of them still look like giant tombs.
I was supposed to be a summer intern at the paper but times were (and still are) tough in the newspaper business and the paper was criminally understaffed, so within 48 hours of my arrival I became a staff reporter.
Mostly I covered small stuff. School board meetings. 10k races.
The best story I wrote was about the opening of a public pond for swimming, where I met a little kid named Todd, who was five, I think, and who was convinced there were sharks in the water. I interviewed him straight, and wrote a report about the opening of the pond, and that the town should not fear because Todd was monitoring the shark situation. It was cute, and the next day my grizzled old editor with the thick Boston accent came over and told me I’d done a wicked good job on that pond story, kid.
I was always good at the lighter stuff. The feature stories. But after a month, the editors needed writers, and they liked me enough to start giving me some hard-hitting stuff. I sat in on the deposition of a drunk driver who’d killed a 17-year-old boy. The driver had been seriously injured, so they conducted the deposition in his hospital room. The room was about nine feet by ten feet and held the man, hooked up to his beeping machines, the judge, a nurse, a lady from the Boston Globe, and me. I stood in the corner. The driver, the murderer, was so stoned on painkillers I imagine it must have all seemed like a bad dream to him.
The biggest story I wrote, a three-page feature, was on a local drug program where addicts who had committed crimes were given counseling and rehab instead of jail time. I interviewed an Oxycontin addict who was in the program, trying to get himself clean. We talked for an hour. He was the centerpiece of the story. When it ran, everyone said I did a great job. I felt good. I’d done my job. Written my story.
The day after the story ran the addict’s parole officer called and told me that the kid had gone off the map. Apparently he didn’t understand what “on the record” meant, or maybe he just felt regret after seeing his photo in the paper with the words “Oxycontin addict” next to his face, but he bolted. The parole officer was pissed, I guess, and wanted someone to feel shitty about this, so he called me and told me it was my fault. Said I took advantage of the kid “to sell papers.” Then he hung up.
I was a wreck. I frantically checked my tape recorder to make sure I hadn’t botched any facts. I tore through my notebook. It was all good. My editor came over and told me to forget about it, kid’s a drug addict, looking to blame someone else. The editor in chief of the entire paper came by, the first and only time he ever spoke to me, and told me I did my work properly, and not to think twice about it. By every standard of journalism, I’d done a good job. You couldn’t blame me for what happened.
I quit a couple weeks later. I couldn’t handle it. I saw the guy, the addict, everywhere. On the street. In my sleep. He was only a year or two older than me at the time. I didn’t want to think about where he was now, but it was all I could think about.
I knew I’d done my job fine. I had my tape recorder on, for god’s sake. The kid knew it was on the record. I had checked with him before I left that I could use his name.
That didn’t mean that I wanted to do it anymore. I still loved writing, but I gave up on being a reporter. I didn’t have the stomach for it.
And over these past few days, watching the journalists try and cover this…this horror…I mean, hell. How could you do your job? How could you wake up in the morning and head to that crime scene?
It’s one thing to ask a young kid like Todd about his search for imaginary sharks. It’s another to stick a camera in his face and ask him how he feels when a real shark actually comes, and kills all of his friends.