"The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances," true to its name, was a pain in the ass. My long-time editor and, I imagined, friend, went our separate ways because of it. The 1996 collection of 26 essays about the frustrations of life only received a few, largely dismissive reviews. It didn't sell that well, though "F is for Fat" was excerpted in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, which was a consolation prize. The chapters I most enjoyed were those panning Disney, Elvis and UFO fanatics, but the beginning of the "J is for Journalism" chapter resonates, particularly given my post last week on trying to do a story about the Chicago Public Schools. It never ends.
Maya Angelou is filled with joie de vivre. She strides onto the podium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and begins to sing. "I shall not be moved. I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the water, I shall not be moved."
Her voice is deep and strong. She then begins to talk, telling stories, reciting her poetry. You are powerful, she tells her audience. You are beautiful.
The crowd eats it up. They roar, these two thousand women attending a national women's conference. They applaud.
Sitting in the back, hunched in a dark corner of the huge ballroom, I scribble a few of Angelou's more succinct comments onto a narrow pad. I didn't want to come here—had felt that sinking sensation I get when given an assignment I consider to be a dog. But now that she's up there, singing, reading, speaking, laughing, the whole process is so skilled, so entertaining and, yes, so uplifting, that I am having a good time.
Maya Angelou is finished. She is escorted from the stage. The two thousand women finish clapping and make for the exists. I have one more task. Journalism has conventions as strict as kabuki, and a story of this sort, the "Famous poet speaks here" story, must end with a blurt of audience reaction: "It was great," said Jane Doe, dabbing a tear form her eye. "I greatly enjoyed the greatness of the great Maya Angelou."
I pick a women at random—somebody pausing, a straggler from the herd. "Hi, I'm Neil Steinberg," I say. "I'm a reporter from the Sun-Times. I'm writing a story about Maya Angelou's speech and I wonder what you thought of it?"
She flees without a word, just turns and rushes away, as if I'm a panhandler. So does the second woman I ask. This leaves me frustrated and a little angry. There is an inverse law in reporting—the more benign the information you are seeking, the more difficult it will be to get. When I stopped hookers on Cicero Avenue, every single one, without exception, told me anything I wanted to know—about their neglected kids, their raging drug habits, how much money they charge for sex.
But these professional women at the Hyatt don't want to talk. I have no idea why. Overeducation? They know what happened to outspoken people during McCarthyism. Prudence? They see the villains who unwisely consent to be grilled like burgers by Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" every Sunday, indicting themselves, babbling, ruined. Professionalism? They are trained not to speak to the media—"Call public affairs, they'll answer your questions."
Or maybe they're just struck dumb by Maya Angelou's eloquence. The third woman I approach and ask about the speech doesn't run away, but she doesn't answer either. She just stares at me, with the startled expression a frog must give a swooping raptor. So much for Angelou's brave words about romance and beauty and power.
There is a pause, the woman and I looking at each other. Then I do something I haven't done before or since in my entire professional career. I raise my hand into the gap between us and snap my fingers three times in front of her face.
"Hel-lo!" I say, and she unfreezes, utters a syllable or two, then runs away.
That's it. I figure, I'll do without the quote, or use the woman's monosyllable. I tried, which is the important thing in journalism.
Outside, a lovely autumn day. I stroll west on Wacker Drive, toward the newspaper. On a corner I encounter a knot of three women, talking to each other, still holding programs from the conference. Okay, I decide, the full Boy Scout try I whip out my notebook, uncap a pen, present myself to the group and utter my burning question. There is a pause.
"Do you have any identification?" one of the women asks.