In the summer of 2001, acting on a whim, I sent a letter and a portfolio of my best writing clips to the nearest New York Times bureau office in Seattle. I had no expectation of ever hearing anything back from them, but a couple days later the Seattle bureau chief, Sam Verhovek, gave me a call.
Sam told me that while he wasn't calling to offer any writing assignments, he could from time to time use some help when a story of national significance broke in the Portland area. If I were willing to help collect data or conduct interviews on short notice for another reporter's story, it might eventually be a way to get my foot in the door with the Times in hopes of writing my own articles for the paper down the road.
To me the Times has always been the undisputed greatest newspaper in the country, if not the world. I don't remember my exact words to Sam, but the spirit of my response was that I'd be happy just to clean toilets for the Times, let alone be one of their journalists. Nevermind, of course, that I had never worked as a straightforward news reporter for any publication in my life.
In July of that year, I got my first call to assist on a story. It involved covering Ralph Nader's first major public speech after the infamous 2000 election. The upcoming speech was going to be in Portland, one of the cities where Nader enjoyed his biggest support. Would he repent for splitting the vote and costing Al Gore victory? I sure hoped the motherfucker would do just that, but of course I had to be impartial. As it happens, neither Nader nor his staff members, a couple of whom I interviewed, were willing to budge an inch from their assertion that Nader didn't bring down Gore, but rather Gore brought down himself.
A few months later in December 2001 came a story about how immigrants were being arrested without access to an attorney as part of attorney general John Ashcroft's anti-terrorism efforts. I particularly remember interviewing Portland mayor Vera Katz over the phone about her city being the first one to take issue with the Justice Department's actions. In the years since, Portland has come to be known by right-leaning feds as "Little Beirut", and I think this is where it began.
A few days later a call went out from the National desk in New York to all its stringers to find ordinary people who had been adversely affected by the recession, now at one of its worst points. I wound up interviewing a tech industry worker who had been unemployed for months after previously earning a six-figure salary.
In January of 2002 came what I'll always remember as one of my biggest moments professionally. A bizarre scene had occurred in Portland that typified the nation's anxiety about terrorism: At a tiny airport in rural Scappoose, Oregon, a man had jokingly said he was going to crash his Cessna plane into the tallest skyscraper in Portland. A few hours later, long after he had safely landed, the Air Force sent two F-15 fighters into the air to find the culprit and potentially shoot him down. (I had heard them flying very low over our area near downtown--a thunderous roar--and wondered what was up.) To my astonishment, the Times wanted me to write a story about it for the Sunday edition. It became my first published article in the paper, with the headline, "A Terrorism Comment In Oregon Prompts A Comedy of Errors".
I remember having my old college roommate in New York go out to get a copy of the Sunday paper the Saturday night before to verify the article was there. It was a little disappointing because my name wasn't on the article, as per Times policy that only staff writers or 'contracted stringers' get attribution in the National section. But still, I could say that I had written for the New York Times. Valarie bought me dinner to celebrate.
Over time there were a variety of additional assignments, mostly work for other people's stories but a couple articles of my own as well. One morning Valarie woke me early to say New York was on the phone. They wanted me to drive up to Tacoma because the DC sniper, still on the loose at the time, was discovered to have roots there. I remember talking to a saleswoman outside the sniper's former home who kept saying, 'Oh my God, we sold him a Kirby!'
Another time a military rescue helicopter crashed at Mt. Hood trying to save some trapped climbers. I interviewed a handful of climbers who had been trapped in a deep cravasse, one of which had seen his close friends die. I didn't have a cell phone at the time, so I also remember sitting beside a payphone for seemingly hours playing phone tag with an editor in New York after I gathered the interviews. Initially I was to write that story too (ultimately a guy in Denver rewrote it and put his name on it), which I composed it on the back of a piece of scratch paper between calls and then read over the phone to New York as a staffer transcribed.
On my 30th birthday the following Spring in 2002, after being up all night with heart palpitations, I worked on a story about Enron and the Portland utility they owned -- Portland General Electric. A couple of former Enron energy traders based here had been subpoenaed to testify before Congress, and I had to go knocking on their doors.
Probably the weirdest and most emotional story I wrote involved a murder-suicide in my home town of McMinnville. A husband/father named Robert Bryant, whose family had been excommunicated by their Jehovah's Witness sect in California, had shot his wife and kids and then himself. My friend Paul, a teacher at our high school, even had one of the kids in his class and was among the first to suspect something was wrong when the student didn't show up at school. And weirdly enough, this was the second such murder I had covered within the course of that year; earlier in Newport Christian Longo (also an exiled JW, by the way) had killed his family, only Longo tried to run afterward. He was later caught in Cancun.
I worked on the so-called "Portland Seven" case, in which a group of local Muslims had planned to fly to Afghanistan and fight against the United States. I remember being at a court hearing, sitting in the jury box (often that's where they let press sit when a jury isn't present), a few feet away from the defendents and their lawyers. They later pled guilty.
Working on these stories was always exciting. Not only were they serious, nationally significant subjects, but the reporting almost always had to be completed within a few hours. But part of me never felt right about doing this kind of work. Although I've written about all kinds of subjects - film, architecture, sports, business, food, science, travel - I never considered myself a news reporter. It's just different. I never wanted to let down the Times, but I always dreaded the prospect of them calling.
Which brings me to the voice mail I received a few days ago, from an assistant to the current Seattle bureau chief. Was I still willing to act as a stringer for the paper on news stories? I finally gave them the answer that had been building for at least the last year or so: "No."
On one hand it feels ludicrous to get a call from the New York Times offering me work and to turn it down. But at the same time, it feels good knowing that I feel confident enough about what kind of writer I am to be able to be honest about what kind of writer I'm not. I don't want to talk to people at the most difficult and tragic moments of their lives. I don't want to be one of the horde knocking on people's doors or surrounding them on the street. I don't want to write important stories with just a few minutes to spare. (My sister Sara is infinitely more cut out for this than I am, incidentally.)
I also think I held out for as long as I did - nearly four years - in part out vanity. I liked the idea of reporting for the Times more than the reality. Corny as it sounds, I want to be in this for the right reasons. And the foot in the door I got seems to still be open; I'm actually working on two science stories right now.
I hope I don't regret turning my back on this work someday, and I hope this decision will go down as gutsy more than gutless. But it's not a decision I arrived at hastily, even as the further I get away from it, the more obvious it all seems in retrospect. After all, I'm a deliberator, and you can't deliberate with a deadline in two hours.