Several times in my career when, facing a dilemma, I pondered what my idols would do in a similar situation. When writing my first book, about college pranks, I wondered whether I could get away with writing the chapter on Caltech's Ditch Day by consulting the many articles already written about the annual event. Or did I really need to try to pry the secret date out of class officials, then spend a chunk of my advance buying airplane tickets to Pasadena and back, plus booking a hotel room, then actually fly to California and attend the event itself?
I solved this dilemma by asking, "What would John McPhee do?" The great New Yorker writer was always there, up that tree with that logger, or in the canoe cutting through some stream "as cold as a wine bucket" in Alaska. That gave me my answer, John McPhee wasn't phoning it in. He'd go. So I went to California, and the chapter is far, far better for those select few who have ever read it.
Or on a more regular basis, if I find myself contemplating revealing something awkward or uncomfortable that I had rather not write about, I remind myself: "If Dan Savage can write candidly about being fucked up the ass, I can write about ... whatever. Owning eight Big Toe Uglydolls." (Savage is known for being a sex columnist, but he writes wonderful memoirs—"The Commitment," about getting married, "The Kid," about adopting a son. They're honest, funny, and delightful to read). People who win admiration are bold. Be bold. The enemy isn't embarrassment, but indifference.
Greatness also comforts. I never attempt anything so ambitious that I can actually be guided by the example set by the Washington Post's two-time Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Gene Weingarten. That's would be like modeling your paper airplane after the B1 bomber. But we are both still in the same profession, or what's left of it, and that has to count for something. It's like admiring the stars at night: I didn't make 'em and I'll never get there. But I can look at them.
So naturally Friday, right after dinner, I stepped out onto our front porch with Joseph Mitchell's "McSorely's Wonderful Saloon," a collection of New Yorker stories, and soothed myself. It worked like a charm.
Mitchell was so famous for the unproductive last decades of his life, where he would go to his office at the New Yorker and, well, nobody knew what he did, that's it's possible to overlook just how good he was. He was excellent.
I knew the story I was looking for, though I hadn't read it in many years: "The Cave Dwellers," a reminiscence about when he was a reporter for a New York tabloid in the early 1930s.
"The winter of 1933 was a painful one," the tale begins, with Mitchell's trademark simplicity. Friday was certainly painful to me, and I'm not even sure why. At every step, I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Yet by day's end I was feeling so ... crappy. Maybe I was just tired.
A couple had lived at O'Hare airport for nearly a month. The tip had come in from the wife of the couple, in an email Wednesday morning. My editor passed it on to me because, well, I'm kind of the Keeper of Lost Toys. I phoned the woman, like I was supposed to. She made sense. I drove to O'Hare to talk with her and her husband. They seemed what they said they were. We spent, oh, 90 minutes chatting. I had no question in my mind that everything she told me was true. She knew the streets of the old Taylor Street area where she said she grew up intimately. She knew who Oscar D'Angelo was. Nothing was suspect. She didn't seem to be trying to scam me or deceive me. She wasn't looking for anything.
I wrote the piece Thursday morning, as expected. The part I was most proud of was the end, a sentence pointing out that those getting antsy being at home should be happy they have homes to be at.
Friday morning the story was played across the entire front page. Credit Ashlee Rezin Garcia's moving photographs for that. The treatment wasn't expected, but appreciated. Every day on the front page is a good day.
Except this one.
Then emails started in. Lots and lots and lots. I'm used to emails. But this was ridiculous.
In "The Cave Dwellers," Mitchell is covering the "human suffering" beat. Murders and Salvation Army bell ringers, breadlines and relief bureaus and evictions.
"The attitude of the people I talked with was disheartening," he wrote. "They were without indignation. They were utterly spiritless."
Maybe there was some of that. You don't become homeless because you're so dynamic. That echoed a phrase I wrote several times Friday, trying to explain the couple's situation: "learned helplessness." Some readers wanted to know why these people were homeless. I didn't know what to tell them. Others—most—wanted to help. But how? Where should their money go?
I suppose I could have just ignored them, just skipped over their emails. Sorry, not my table. I just report the fires, I don't put them out.
That didn't feel right. That would make me the faulty transmission, the void between the roaring engine of Chicago generosity and the mired wheel of this homeless couple. I didn't want to be that. My first thought was to set up a bank account for them. But I just work at the paper. I don't run it. We have policies. I consulted with my bosses, who reminded me: we don't do that sort of thing, I was told. And that makes sense. Because if we did, we'd slide into becoming social service, all our time would be taken up helping homeless individuals, and no stories would get written. I agreed, and was off the hook.
"I began to feel I was preying on the unfortunate," Mitchell wrote.
I was relieved when somebody set up a GoFundMe page. Problem solved. I began referring people to the page. For less than an hour. With each email referred, however, it dawned on me, clearer and clearer—I didn't know who this guy was. It could be a scam. Worse. A scam I was endorsing, just by making the referral. Thousands of dollars had already been pledged. I phoned up the person who organized the page. Our conversation did not settle my concerns. It was almost normal. But something was ... off. He was not a legit person, in my estimation, but someone acting like a legit person. A fine but important distinction. The emails kept pouring in. Maybe he was honest. Maybe he wasn't. I couldn't be sure. I got permission from the homeless woman to give out her email to those who wanted to help, so people could contact her directly. We stopped recommending the GoFundMe page. The couple moved from Terminal One of O'Hare to a Quality Inn, courtesy of a benefactor. The ace investigators at the paper looked into the GoFundMe page. There were worrisome questions, reservations. I won't go into details. We made sure not to recommend or link to the page. I ended up wordlessly forwarding the letters offering support to the wife's email, and to write the readers back, thanking them for their generous inclinations. It took the whole day. Nothing else got done.
The cave dwellers of the story's title are a couple who lived in a cave in Central Park for a year but are living in an apartment by the time Mitchell meets them, down to their last seven cents, apparently. This is at the height of the Great Depression, another crisis moment in American history. The story Mitchell writes about the pair also goes on the front page. He also is overwhelmed by the reaction. "My box was stuffed with letters and telegrams from people who had read the story about Mr. and Mrs. Holliman, and attached to many of the letters were bills or checks to be turned over to them," Mitchell writes.
At least I didn't have to deal with that.
He revisits the couple, trying to give them the donations the readers had sent. The couple is in mid-spree, with liquor bottles scattered about, cigars, gift baskets wrapped in cellophane. I'm not suggesting that my O'Hare couple would respond to support in the same way. Rather, it is the sense of let-down I related to. No kindness goes unpunished. The couple is indignant over a slight error. The husband starts in.
"You said in that writeup we only had seven cents left, you liar."They refuse the money Mitchell has collected, chase him out of the room, throwing a gin bottle at his head as he flees down the stairs. Back at his office, he has to send each donations back to each individual reader. The couple are swept up by a millionaire in a limousine who. takes them to live with him at his farm in New Jersey. But when Mitchell checks on them a few months later, they are gone.
"Well, that's what your wife told me."
"I did not," said Mrs. Holliman, indignantly. She got up and waver her tumbler, spilling gin and ginger ale all over the bed. "I told you we had seventy cents left."
"I think they left me because they just got tired of living in a house," the millionaire tells Mitchell.
Life is too complicated to whittle down into a news story, yet we try anyway. Most people are good, most people want to help. I certainly consider myself to be a good person who wants to help. But helping can be difficult and fraught with complications. You can do everything right and at the end of the day it still feels wrong, and you aren't even sure why.