Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Week #3: "Do you have any identification?"

     "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. 

22 comments:

  1. They are all paranoid and biteshy. Something must have happened to them that causes them to act like this or they fear their PR depts.

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    1. Next time have your id in hand, NS.

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    2. Put a press pass on your lapel.

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    3. aren't you supposed to wear a battered fedora with a "PRESS" card stuck in the hat band?

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  2. Well, you could have said "I got your identification right heah!" or "Identification? I am a Federales, senora, I don't need no stinking' identification!"

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  3. Funny as this is, I can't say that I would have reacted any differently. In fact, on any given day, there are dozens of people standing on street corners in the Loop, attempting to get passersby to answer survey questions. I confess that I've always got better things to do than to stop and spend time coughing up inanities for the world to see.

    john

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    1. Yes, but if he said Sun-Times or Trib, which he did, it would make a difference. He's not just anyone hanging on a corner.

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    2. Lovely waterfall photo.

      I read that the Sun-Times CEO is leaving.

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  4. Perhaps, having signed up for a women's conference, they simply preferred not to be accosted by an unknown (to them!) man claiming to be a reporter. There are still a few people out there who are not particularly interested in being in the paper, and they are under no obligation to respond to an unsolicited approach. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them.

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    1. It does occur to me, not having read the book, that perhaps in context this tale comes across as more jocular than churlish.

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    2. Re-reading it after 19 years, it did strike me as a bit churlish. I was younger. Later in the chapter, I quiz the women, and they admit they thought I was trying to pick them up.

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    3. lol, Neil, you devil you

      Mrs. Neil best keep an eye on you, just kidding

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    4. I think there are certain commentators here who sound more "churlish" then the writer.

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  5. if anyone snapped their fingers at me by my face I'd poke them in the nose

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  6. The women were probably all in the Maya zen zone of peace, love, serenity and female power and hence were thrown off balance by the intrusion of your mere male presence :)

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  7. "I confess that I've always got better things to do than to stop and spend time coughing up inanities for the world to see."

    Uh, those of us who regularly read the comment section here may beg to differ on that one...

    [Sorry, John, but I just couldn't pass up that opening! I'd have offered that obnoxious rejoinder no matter who had said it, that is -- I'm not at all suggesting that your remarks are any more inane than mine or anybody else's. : )]

    To the topic at hand -- maybe our host would find a more receptive audience for this episode of annoyance among a different crowd. Many of us here choose to remain anonymous even in this relatively remote corner of the internet; you think we'd want to comment for attribution in a major metropolitan newspaper? Well, perhaps the Ghost would have been willing to go on record opining that all those in attendance at the Angelou event should have been armed. ; )

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    1. Thank you, Jakash. I'm a soft ball pitcher from way back and expected someone to knock that one out of the park.

      And if it's any consolation, I meant to imply at least a smidgeon of guilt in refusing to help poor souls such as Neil do their unappreciated and under paid work.

      john

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  8. This was an experience with Maya Angelou! It was about Maya Angelou! Hey! (snaps fingers at inattentive readers).

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  9. Angelou is overrated due to affirmative action and the pc police.

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  10. I was left wanting more information about the hookers on Cicero Avenue. How much do they charge for sex?

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    1. It was a long time ago, but I seem to recall the factors were a) how badly they needed drugs and b) how much you were willing to pay.

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  11. poor things, prob beaten by their pimps

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