Sunday, October 29, 2006

once upon a moon

Joe Niekro died.

I met Joe Niekro, once. When they named a highway after Phil Niekro. I was there. I talked to them both.

I remember it, sort of. It was a sunny day. September 29, 1997. Warm. One of those assignments where I was more or less winging it; what do I know about baseball? Not much.

I'd gone to a few Oakland A's games, when I lived in San Francisco. Sometimes the Writers and the Artists in our circle had a baseball game against each other in Golden Gate Park. I didn't play for either side. I sat on a blanket and bounced my baby son on my knee and talked to him about the trees and the flowers.

So no, not a baseball expert. Certainly no one with a rabid enthusiasm for the game. And going to the highway dedication was like being at someone else's family reunion: everyone's real excited to be there, lots of warm welcomes and inside jokes, and you're just trying to keep up with it all. People were very pleasant, and I tried not to let my ignorance show too much.

The story made the front page. Not for the quality of anything I wrote, certainly. It was just news and I happened to be the one to pick it up.

Still, reading the headlines in the Sunday paper this morning I started thinking about all those articles I wrote, once upon a moon.

So then I had to go down to the basement and start looking through the old articles, the archives, which is just an elaborate word for a laundry basket bowing out at the sides with the weight of folded papers I threw into a stack when we moved, too tired to consider cutting each article out to file somewhere. When the pile on my lap got tall I gave up and took a sheaf back upstairs with me to read over more closely.

Yes, I was a journalist once. Yes, it appears that I wrote quite a lot. Among others, there's an article on teen pregnancy ("The girls in national teen pregnancy statistics are growing up in our neighborhoods. And the teens who end up as parents are ironically the ones who needed their own the most."), and education ("I think a community gets the quality of schools that it deserves," said a school superintendent). An article for The Gabriel Project (one of my better moments, I thought).

Yet I kept sighing. The longer I looked the more sadness I felt. Lots of crime stories in there. That was my beat too -- the courts. Lots of times I'd see other reporters cry at sentencings, confessions while I would keep writing, woodenly. Some of those reporters would ask me, later: how can you hear that and not get teary?

I don't know, I'd say. I just can't let it in.

Which was, and was not, true. Of course it gets in. Some more than others, of course. And then another of my articles fell into my hand: Judge Rules Rape Suspect Must Face Grand Jury.

I remember that morning too. A little girl on the witness stand, little, younger than ten, pale-faced and her back rigidly straight as the suspect's lawyer badgered her mercilessly. The courtroom was packed: the air was hot, uncomfortable. You had the feeling everyone else in the room was much too close to you.

"Do you think someone could tell you to say something and it's not the truth?" the lawyer put it to her -- too bluntly, I thought. "...Did anyone tell you what to say?"

"No," she said.

"You were a little weak on that," the lawyer shot back, with an accusatory heat that struck me as ridiculous.

Rage shot through me. My pen shook so hard I could barely write the words. A grown man picking on a little girl in front of all these people, a little girl who's surely, surely suffered enough.

Those are the stories that started killing my desire to do my job. I'd open my eyes at 3 a.m., three hours before I had to get up and start getting ready for work, and I'd think, Ah, God, help me; I don't want to do this anymore. Maybe if I quit this gig, I could start sleeping again. Stop thinking about what kind of world it is we're living in.

Then I thought, if I could just write about good things, write to put love into the world; maybe that would make the difference.

Or maybe it just got too hard to figure out what the good things are, or I just felt too depressed to try. Or I got tired of trying to beat the TV news for breaking stories, rushing to make deadline. What's the point, really? How much do people really need to know? Maybe there's some things they'd be better off not.

You'd go to the police stations, do the rounds, and it started to all seem so predictable. But then, something would come up that wasn't predictable, and then that was even worse.

So I shouldn't have been suprised when they made the decision to pull me off reporting and put me back on the copy desk for a while, a place I'd spent some time in the beginning. I'd always preferred reporting -- I had to write, or so I thought -- so it was an easy out and I took it. I quit.

Compounding the irony of all these reflections: an extra section in today's Sunday paper on Women in Business. Women in various fields intelligently discussing their careers. And all I could think of -- flipping through pages of overblown, professional photos of women in tailored suits and looking commanding -- was: I used to be this.

And now I'm barely recognizable, so that when I turn in a professional article people react with suprise: hey! Didn't know you could do that! Way to go!

Well. After a while there came a day when I woke up and found that writing wasn't as easy as it used to be.

It's not easy now, either.