Saturday, November 30, 2013 angel

 I have been privileged in my life to see many exceptional people, and to have the honor of being either their father, employee, supervisor, friend, chaplain, child, lover, husband or, in this case, local newspaper editor.

During the early years of my tenure with The Courier, in Middletown, NJ, between 1998-2001, I was working many side-jobs in newspapers (aside from my full-time job) to stay afloat personally and I was working untold numbers of hours in the office and the field to try and right things.

The previous two editors before me were, to be kind, sloppy in preparation of the staff and out of touch with those readers who are supposed to be the newspaper’s base: homeowners in the Bayshore, Northern Monmouth County. It was from many bad habits, though, that newspaper readership fell to just a little more than 2,000 editions every week and the Sales Department figures were in the toilet.

One person could only have so much impact, but I was determined to try and do what I could do to make things better -- no matter how small an improvement it might be within the organization. At that point, I was a young editor and filled with all kinds of energy and enthusiasm. It was wonderful, actually. I wish I had appreciated it more at the time. Anyway, I forget what I was doing when I met Theresa Kegley for the first time. But, I recall I was tired, haggard, hungry and probably looked every inch of it.

I was alone in the newspaper office when she came through the door. She looked like any other attractive, early 30s, well-dressed, educated and professional young woman that was so common, as a species, to that small part of the world we were in. I was already bracing myself for her keeping me there an extra half-hour while she rambled on about her kid’s soccer team, or the Junior League’s ‘big cookout event’ or even an upcoming PTA fundraiser. I had no idea what was to come next, though.

I showed her to the publisher’s tiny office, which was only a scant larger than a cubicle, and asked her how I could help. She explained, very calmly: “Hi, please call me Teri. I live in Holmdel. I am a single mother of two baby sons and I have terminal cancer and have not been given a lot of time by my doctors. So, I want to spend whatever time I have left trying to find my babies good, new parents. Among other outlets, I would like to use your newspaper.”

There are things I am not prepared for at 6:30 pm after a long day, and that was right up there with the Top 10 of those things. But, this is not something to ever blow-off. This is one of those things one does and does not screw up or they explain themselves to their Maker at the Judgment.

I told Teri I would do everything I could to help and make whatever meager resources The Courier had available to her every and any time she wanted it. She was very pleased. We even managed a few jokes about how small the area was. Teri was so composed in giving me her first interview that night.

I forget what kind of cancer she had, but it was bad enough for her to be getting her affairs settled. The calm in this woman was remarkable, though. And, yet, I couldn’t believe Teri was ever sick, let alone possessing a cancer that would take her so soon.

The more I spoke to her, the more my heart went out to her and those boys. Teri struck me as brilliant, witty, beautiful, articulate, loving to her family and community, and as placid as I have ever saw anyone in that situation.

She smiled, “I just want to make sure my boys get a good home when I am gone, that’s all really.” Then came the crack in her armor. A lone tear traveled down her lovely cheek. She almost had me believe she was detached from the whole thing, and then it got her. I wanted to seem very professional so I told her to wait while I get a tissue for her. Actually, my eyes were filling up too. I needed the tissue more than she did. When I stepped out, I wiped my eyes and blew my nose in the bathroom and then went into the vacant ladies room and got her a box of tissues on the top of the toilet.

I returned and set the box between Teri and myself. I was starting to do a horrible job being professional, but only around the corners. I informed Teri I would do the stories myself. She thanked me, gave me her contact information and bade me good evening.

Teri and I ended up doing about four more stories about her search for new parents. I stopped anything and everything I was doing whenever she called or stopped by. I told the owner of the newspaper about her, Joe Azzolina, and he told me to do whatever she wants. I had no problems with that.

Teri and I had many exchanges, but one stands out in my mind. Being a journalist, I am sometimes too curious for my own good. I asked her, off the record of course, when the most difficult times about this hits her. It was an unexpected question, I think. She gulped a bit and said, “In the morning, before I get up; when I am laying there and it just washes over me. It’s sometimes too much. The only thing I can do is get going and get this done. When it comes to me, that can’t be a consideration until this search is finished.”

Over the next eight or nine months, Teri called me socially in-between articles. She gave me updates about how the search was going. I tried to sound encouraging every time. Sometimes, especially as the months wore on, she sounded unwell. Finally, I asked Teri to come in, if she could, one Friday around the end of that span for another story and she did. It turned out to be our last meeting together.

Teri was tired and haggard. Her hair had lost its luster, she had shrunken a great deal. Her face was sunken in and she was pale. The last time I had seen her, just  about three months ago, she was her normal, beautiful self. Eventually, I guess, the bad stuff had to start happening. Poor dear.

Teri was frail and moved slowly.
By this time, the old publisher’s office was now mine and I was the publisher of the newspaper, and even authorized one of the newbees, a Haverford grad named Joanie Cantor (fake name, of course) to start putting together the basics for a website. Things for The Courier were starting to look a little exciting, actually. For me, this was as good a time as it got in my 11 years there. But, for Teri, it wasn’t a very good time at all.

She came in and sat down, ironically in that same chair she did so many months ago. This time, however, she was in pain and ached as she sat. Her face told it all. Teri offered me a weak smile and said there wasn’t going to be anymore articles. I had no idea why and asked her.

“It’s good news, really. Someone who actually reads your paper saw one of the lovely articles you wrote and they got in touch with a couple. I think it will work out this time,” she said. “I have been through all kinds of people looking to get the boys. I sifted through a lot of them, but I think this couple are the ones.”

There has been this compulsion in me since I was a child to ‘lighten the mood’ with humor -- even if it was inappropriate on occasion. Well, I tried it here. ‘That’s all well and good, Kegley, but what do you mean someone who ‘actually reads my paper’? This is the Daily f-ing Planet for this part of Jersey.’ She laughed a little, and I could tell it hurt. Then, Teri said goodbye and added we wouldn’t be seeing each other again. Teri thanked me and gave me a hug. I waited until she was gone before I lost it.

Time comes and it goes. I received a card in the mail from her thanking myself and the newspaper for everything we had done. I put it up on the wall, where it stayed for years. And, life kept going for the little newspaper and I.

I am ashamed to say that by 2008 I had forgotten about Teri. Well, there was a group of ladies in the back of the office, near our Production Department; I had no idea what they were doing there. Reporters were always working with community groups and I barely took notice. Usually I read about it later anyway, and there were a lot of things to get done all the time. I wasn’t keen on gratuitous visitors if there was a lot to do.

Then, this one soccer-momish looking woman breaks out from the ‘Mom Herd’ and walks over to my office/over-sized cubicle. She introduced herself and I again braced myself to hear about little Johnny or Janie and some grade-school fete. But, that wasn’t why she came to see me at all.

The woman introduced herself as Teri’s sister. She said Teri died some years ago, not long after she sent the card thanking the folks at the newspaper. Her sister said that, at her funeral, the articles in The Courier featuring her and her boys were there for mourners to read. I also learned some really important things from Teri’s sister that day.

The first thing I learned was that Teri’s boys were in a good home and they got to see Teri’s sister frequently. They knew who their mom was and about everything that happened to her, and what she did for them. They knew they were not abandoned and, in fact, their mother spent her last breath loving them. They kept her picture with them all the time. I said that was a blessing. Then, I learned that no other newspaper, not a weekly and not a daily, had chosen to do even one feature about Teri and her situation, and The Courier was the only one of the publications in the area that had done so. Finally, I learned that Teri was barely able to get out of bed that last day I saw her, but she wanted to say goodbye to me personally because she thought I had been a help to her.

I needed for Teri’s sister to leave, because I was going to cry. And, I got her out of my office just before the waterworks hit. I shut my door and had a good one.  I then asked God to take care of her, though I think God hardly needed to be advised of this by me.

However, if I did nothing else in my entire career, or even in my whole life, I was so glad I had been of some use to Theresa Kegley. She was among the bravest people I ever met. There may be people as brave as her, but it is not possible for anyone to be more brave or true than her, in my opinion. I did her story right, and writing about her situation did what was should have happened. The newspaper executed what it was created to do and I hadn’t dropped this ball. This one thing has always served to remind me that everything in my work in print, all that I gained and lost and all the joy and sadness, I dealt with was worth it because the Lord’s work got done in this case, if never again, by our small town ‘rag.’

For a change, I did not make this a ‘learning point’ for my young reporters, whom I almost constantly tutored in reporting basics they should have learned in college but didn’t. But, Teri was far more than any ‘learning point.’ She is in my heart still. And, I couldn’t even get past writing her story again without getting hit with the waterworks.

It would have been so much easier if Teri hadn’t been so incredibly heroic and noble -- if she had written a few bad checks or  cheated on her taxes or something.

But, she hadn’t.

Teri Kegley was just one of the most amazing people I ever met. If there is a heaven, she is there. And, maybe one day, she can put in a good word for me with the Big Guy, because my record down here wasn’t even in the same league as hers -- not even the same part of the town where her league was playing. In fact, my league was so far away from her league that there weren't maps at my league even telling people where her league was. It's always nice to finish stories with a smile, at least I think so.

Friday, November 29, 2013


I can't count how many stories I wrote about that ship.
Peter Weiss was the political editor and a columnist for The Jersey Journal, in Jersey City, New Jersey. More than just his titles, though, Peter had a reputation as being one of those guys in journalism that did it better than almost anyone. He was a dear friend, and died of cancer in 2003. I rarely talk about it because maybe that is me putting my mind off of it and thinking he is still alive. But, he was very influential about how I wrote and covered news, which was my life for many years.

Peter was the best writer I ever read, which is why, in 1999, I had the ridiculous amount of brass I did to call him directly and inform him of that. I then told him I was editing a local newspaper and doing a lot of correspondent work with other newspapers on the side, but I want to write stories for him, or do his research or even get his coffee if he wanted.

Because writers getting better is about life learning, and if someone isn't getting better at their craft all the time, then they are getting worse: I said that, I preached that, I lived that. Well, Peter was amused, but he figured he would see what there was to see with me, thank goodness.

The first time we had a meeting, I was supposed to, in the middle of the morning, drive to Jersey City and meet in his office. I was coming up from Middletown, New Jersey, so it was a bit to travel. Alright, then -- no problem. Not going to dicker about the time when I got a shot to make a pitch to Peter Weiss. Well, I get up there and he leaves me hanging in the smallish lobby of the Journal Building for hours. Finally, the receptionist or whatever he was comes over and tells me "Mr. Weiss will not be able to make your meeting."

Fine. Oh, and it was raining.

No problem. I went back to my paper, caught up on my work and then put in another call to Peter, getting a reschedule for our meeting. Well, this time he says we should meet at the V.I.P. Diner on Kennedy Boulevard. Perfect. At least there was coffee there while waiting.

So, in comes Peter 20 minutes late. He looks tired, haggard, pale. He seemed to know who I was, though, because he comes over to me and offered me his hand. I stood up and shook it and then proceed to tell him about my paper, my prior experience with Dorf Features, Greater Media, Rockfleet Media and my stint of writing news in Europe with the Forward Edge, at Lucius D. Clay Kaserne, in Garlstedt, FRG, and for the Stars & Stripes for a piece about one of the REFORGERs.

"Okay, okay...enough about places you don't write anymore at," he said with a little smile.

I told him about how I had been reading his column, literally, for years. Anytime I could pick up a Jersey Journal. Pete was good with a certain amount of flattery and then he was plain: "So, you want to write things?"

I said 'yes,' of course. He assigned me to all kinds of things. He even assigned me to cover the Battleship NJ Project that my full-time boss, Assemblyman Joe Azzolina, Sr., R-Monmouth/Middlesex, was working on. Big Joe wanted to bring the battleship to Bayonne, where he thought it could be better appreciated than in Camden. However, then-state Sen. John Mattheusen, R-Camden (but who was actually from Jersey City as a boy), wanted the battleship down in Camden to complement the NJ State Aquarium down there.

I told Pete I wasn't sure if I could stay 100 percent objective about that story. But, Pete surmised, "Well, Azzolina wants the battleship here in Bayonne. So, if you have a bias, it is to the battleship coming there and not down there (in Camden). So, in this case, I don't mind a little advocated journalism: Just don't go overboard (nice nautical pun)." I briefed up Big Joe about what Peter requested and he agreed. "For once I will be able to get some decent ink about this then," Big Joe joked. "It would be a hell of a lot easier if I just hired all the reporters that cover the news."

I wrote a series of articles about the battleship  I was very pleased with, actually. I was even told by Sen. Mattheusen he thought I was basically very true about everyone's point of view. I have to admit, I found John an incredibly likable fellow. I suppose the battleship going to Camden was something of a 'pyramid' for him. Anyhow, he got the ship, finally. And, it was sent to Camden, where it remains as of this writing.

I cannot count how many times my work was on the front-page of the Jersey Journal, though. I was having the best time as a writer. I was managing The Courier's reporters pretty well; giving them blocks of instruction on 'Reporter Basics,' and then I was off to Jersey City to cover this nasty, glorious, horrible and wonderful city for an editor I would put right there with Ben Bradley.

I first started writing news in the U.S. Army
Peter assigned me to the Union City Board of Education meeting as a steady diet. So, I show up in Union City after racing there from my newspaper down in the Jersey Shore. I get into the meeting and I am one of maybe five people in the audience. I was the rookie so I go over to a few of the board members milling around in the break room there. One of the annoyed board members looked at me and made a big deal about me not being allowed to talk, or "...even look..." at them while they were in the break room. I got an attitude.

'How am I going to cover the meeting without getting some additional comment about projects and initiatives I have not been around for?' I asked.

The response from the same board member was that it "wasn't his f-ing problem, and if you want a comment, go see our press liaison over there!" The now-hostile board member pointed to a neatly dressed man going over his papers at the dais. So, I went over. This was going to be a tough room.

It turns out that particular school board member did not speak English at all, or was not speaking it to me, at least. Alright, they want to play it like this -- fine by me. So, I go to the tape recorder I carry, just in case, and I start getting yelling comments from them about how the Spanish-speaking board member is the only one who can answer press questions. Otherwise, I have to put my questions in a letter and they will be answered when time permits.

This went on 10 minutes into the meeting. So, as they went up on the dais I started out the door. The mean board member said, "After all that, you're not stay?" I responded, 'Nope. Got my story.'

The next day, on the front page of Hudson County's largest newspaper, there was a story, by me, about how the Union City School Board had appointed a non-English speaker as their public spokesman.  I even got some "man on the street" opinions about the practice. It turned out being a good story.

If a reporter is going to cover a story and a tree falls in front of their car, preventing them from getting where they are supposed to be, then they should cover the fallen tree. There are no bad stories, just bad writers.

Well, I was getting all kinds of calls back from the Union City School Board, in particular that jerk. I deferred them all to Peter. By the way, Peter liked what I did. He thought it demonstrated intelligence, guts and creativity -- it was also "extremely well crafted and written." I never got a bigger compliment from anyone, about anything in my entire career.

Nevertheless, Pete sends me back to the Union City School Board the next session, a few weeks later. I come in and the same jerk from before was in the break room. Only, this time he comes out to greet me like I was the King of Siam or something. He was literally falling over himself wanting to help me, along with all the board members. In between my questions they were asking me if I could write another story, noting the board does not have a non-English speaking spokesperson.

'Yeah, bet that got you a few calls,' I smiled.

"I'm sorry," the jerk said.

'You could have been a lot sorrier,' I said. 'Glad you had an catharsis about this.'

The Union City School Board was Hudson County politics at its grittiest. But, they still lived and died by what the Journal said, like everyone else in Hudson County back then. We got along fine after that.

I met Peter a dozen times outside of work, and we used to go across to the newspaper place on the other side of the street from the V.I.P. Diner and we talked writing, news, compared what we were doing to what other papers were doing. It was like learning sculpture from Michelangelo.

I was reforming a lot about the way The Courier was doing things, making a little more money and working even later than I usually did. So, by the end of 2000 I really curtailed a lot of my stringing up North. I still called Peter sometimes to talk. I liked him. He was the brightest writer I ever met, and darn well one of the brightest people, at large, I ever knew.

I asked him once if he thought I was a good editor, over breakfast. He said, "No. You are a good reporter -- maybe even better than good. But, as an That's my opinion."

Well, to be told I was a good writer by Pete was a big deal for me. At the same time, though, my actual profession now was editing and he didn't think I was very good at it. He saw my face and said, "Now, go prove me wrong. Come back here with two or three big issues and knock my socks off and make me see I am wrong. And, study. Study English more. Never stop."

I never spoke to Peter again. He died before I could.

I called his wife, Margaret, to express my condolences but didn't want to go to the funeral. Not for him and, later on, not for Big Joe. I got it, they were dead. I didn't need a production about it. I said prayers for both of them. And, still miss them both.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mel, me and West Red Bank

East Brunswick not so far from Greater Media
Melanie Schriner was a colleague of mine when we both worked at Great Media Newspapers, Inc., when the company was based out of East Brunswick Township, New Jersey. We were both reporters there in 1997; I covered the township of East Brunswick exclusively for The Sentinel, and I forget where she covered. But, all of the newspapers shared a large common area. It looked like a real newsroom alright. I liked it very much.

Well, Melanie left, I have no idea where to or why. What impressed me about her, though, during our time being so closely located, was that she was very upbeat and professional. She worked easily with others, and Melanie had a good idea about how to function in a team.

All in all, I really liked working for Great Media, but the executive editor while I was there, Greg Bean, had made it very clear he was not overly impressed with my work and, consequently, he did not foresee there ever being a time when I might be promoted to editor.  I don’t know what the guy had against me: I pulled larger “inch counts” than anyone in any of his newsrooms at that point and I put in as many hours as anyone. Nevertheless, his evaluation of my work was that it wasn’t ‘there’ to the degree he wanted for me to move onto the next level. Well, that was his prerogative.

True to his word, Greg didn’t promote me. So, in April, 1998 I accepted a job as the editor of The Courier, in Middletown, New Jersey. The little newspaper, unbeknownst to me at the time I accepted the job, was only printing somewhere in the vicinity of 2,500 editions every week. But, they were saying it was like 6,000: whatever. The Courier covered general news in 10 towns in Northern Monmouth County, collectively known as the Bayshore. And, it printed every week on Thursday.

By December of 1999 I had fired the associate editor of The Courier because she didn’t want to cover municipal meetings anymore (and these were our mainstay of coverage) and she was insubordinate when I tried to discuss it with her.

Frankly, the 1999 version of The Courier newsroom was depressing. Our longest-serving reporter, Dave, had picked up some horrible writing habits from previous editors and the younger of the reporters was both only half-trained and far too closed to coaching by me. I needed to have a stable, positive influence working there or I was going to go nuts. And, it had to be someone who could actually write and do it well; oh, and a sunny disposition was a prerequisite from whomever the new person would be.  

I was interviewing a lot of people who were just more problems waiting to happen if I hired them, and then I remembered Melanie. She would fit in, I thought. So, I went about finding her from a few clues I remembered from ‘back in the day’ when we were working together.

I find her, I ask her out to dinner with myself and my roommate, Steve Bailey, and we meet at an Appleby’s or something like that. Melanie accepted the job and it was a wonderful fit from the very beginning.

For me, Melanie was straight out of ‘central casting’ for whom I wanted working for me: a University of Notre Dame School of Journalism graduate; with a wonderful disposition, tempered by an innate sense of professionalism; a wonderful writer, who was a pleasure to read; and an insightful person who had a great work ethic. What is there not to love?

Melanie was absolutely killing it where it came to meetings. Her work was superb. And, she was letting me help her get even better by taking suggestions I offered to her. Everything was working out fine. Melanie’s story counts were fine. Her writing was great. Everything was coming up roses with her and The Courier.

Then came ‘that day’ for her. I always, always preached to my reporters to go well beyond any press releases given to them by local governments or groups -- even the police. ‘The press releases are starting points to get you moving in the right direction -- that is all,’ I would say. Well, part of all of the reporters’ jobs was reporting on crime or police matters in their towns. ‘That day’ for Melanie came on a shining, cool Thursday. She received a press release about a tragedy in West Red Bank: A middle-aged woman killed herself by pouring gasoline over her head in a large pantry in her kitchen, and then she lit herself ablaze. It was the most horrible end I had ever reported upon in any newspaper I ever edited or wrote in.

By no means is reporting for everyone
Melanie wanted to cover it. She threw my words back into my face when I told her she could not go. I was then informed by Mel that she didn’t think I was ever going to fire someone  ‘“for doing their job -- so I am going.” It is not that Mel wasn’t a great reporter and a tough girl. She was and is, wherever she is now. But, I thought her first big police story being the most horrible suicide I ever heard of might not be the way to lead things off. Mel is determined, though, and very persuasive. I did get her to agree to let me come along, though: that was something.

We take my car to the address given in the press release by the RBPD and there was a rundown, abandoned-looking two family brick house in the Spanish section of the town. There was yellow police tape loosely hanging from the door. OK, enough of the backseat quarterbacking for me: ‘What are we going to do, Mel?’

“We are going to knock on neighbors’ doors to see what they know and then we are going to the police station and interview the responding officers, as well as any of her known friends or work mates,” Mel said. She was sharp that one.

She and I get out of my car. I have a camera in my hand. She has a notebook at the ready and several pens. We go up the stairs and, as we do, notice we are walking through a tar-like substance that was almost a semi solid. It was like greasy mud, but as black as something can get. Good thing neither of us were wearing good shoes.

We get to the second floor and Mel knocks on the door of the neighbor. No one there. Then, we go a little bit farther and -- as big as life -- the apartment door was open. Mel said she did not intend to enter but did want to observe what she could from the opened door to try and help with her report. I did not object. She was thinking it through; she had a plan.

It was a half kitchen and we could clearly see it from the open door. Also visible was the pantry door, which was wide open. The walls around the pantry were horribly scorched and the pantry itself was simply black. The entire place, hallway included, smelled of gasoline and something else very unpleasant. Mel was taking notes, getting quiet.

“What’s that!?” she said.

Coming from the blackened pantry was the line of black sludge we had to walk through to get to the second floor. I got it real quick, thanks to having to take two semesters of General Biology at Georgian Court College, in Lakewood. The gasoline was the accelerant. The flames consumed the flesh first and then, being unabated, started consuming the poor woman’s fat as well as the limited amount of oxygen in the tight pantry. It cooked her down and melted a whole bunch of stuff that was never supposed to be.

The RBPD and Coroner’s Office probably brought her body downstairs in some kind of stretcher that contained not only her skeletal and fleshy remains but also some greasy, liquid substances that all used to be her. And, as liquids go, they tend to seep through or spill. Mel and I came to the same conclusion at about the same time.

“We’re standing in her!” Mel screamed.

I tried to assuage her with no result.

She kept screaming, “Oh, my God!” as she ran down the stairs hard, briskly, the fluid now jumping up and staining her clothes because of her running and stair stomping. I came down slowly, more because I dreaded seeing Mel like this. She was a friend much more than she was a subordinate.

She was quiet sitting on the hood of my car.

I came over to her quietly. “Are you OK?” I asked.

No answer. A strange look and no answer. Her notebook and pen were on the ground and she made no attempt to pick them up as she got into the passenger’s side of my car.

The story never ran, of course. She never finished it. Mel needed a few weeks off and I gave it to her. At the end of that, she came back in the newsroom with her big, lopsided smile and settled down in a chair next to my cubicle. I was a little surprised.

I asked Mel if she wanted to talk about her upcoming stories. She responded, “There are no upcoming stories. I am not meant to do this. I know, all the college and everything. But, I can’t do this,” she said. “You didn’t ask anything out of me I wouldn’t have had to do somewhere else. And, you didn’t even want me to do that story. I needed to do it, though. I had to know what I had -- and whatever I have can’t deal with this.”

Mel said she wasn’t going to give notice and she was done today. She said she couldn’t pick up a pen and maybe wouldn’t for a long time. I accepted that and gave her a hug. She shot me back one of those awesome smiles again -- and then she was gone. And, I missed her immediately.

I ran into her some years later. She wasn’t married yet and she was welding and working on boats -- a strange vocation for a Notre Dame grad, I thought. But she was happy. She came over to me in some fast food place I was in and gave me a hug and asked me how everything was. We caught up quickly in passing.

I could not help but notice how healthy and happy she looked. Good for her. During our time she told me it took a long time for her to recover from that story in West Red Bank. I just nodded, what is there to say? I told her if she ever needed a glowing letter of reference please let me know.

This was the first time I put together that being a reporter was not for everyone.

The Highlands Bridge

The Highlands Bridge before it was improved and renamed the Assemblyman
Joseph Azzolina, Sr. Bridge. Actually, I think the name is very appropriate.

Joe and his ship

My old boss, Joe Azzolina, spent so much of his energy bringing the USS NJ
back to the Garden State. He actually went to Bremerton to pick her up and
 rode with her back to Jersey. He wanted to berth her at Bayonone, but politics
got into the way and the USS New Jersey ended up in Camden. Shame, really.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Along the wide road

There are many evils in this world; evils we do to ourselves, those we do to others and those that are visited upon us. Perhaps the greatest evil that happened to me in this life was alcohol. And, no one likes to talk about bad things, but it seems inevitably necessary at some point. If for no other reason, I would like to get my thoughts out on this.

Liquor was a friend when I had great and constant physical pain over the years. Alcohol was there when I had a lot of stress and emotional pain too. It was alcohol that assuaged me when family and dear friends abandoned me; though, it was in some part due to alcohol that at least a few of those people left in the first place.

For a few years, between early 2011 and mid-2013, alcohol was my constant companion. It was the friend who was there when no one else was. It mitigated my pain when there was nothing else to do it. Oh, and it effectively destroyed what was left of my life after I lost the newspaper and the young woman I loved, both terrible losses. And, it was alcohol that was my company when I lost the industry that was the staple in my life and success for so many years (print journalism).

Yet, alcohol was only half to blame. Booze couldn’t have visited its evil upon me if I had been able to stay away from it; from the moment I picked up the bottle, though, alcohol was in the driver’s seat. And, it drove me straight into hell. Regardless of the compulsion, though, or the need to not be tethered to the concerns of the world, alcohol had no real power over me until I reached my hand out and wrapped my fingers around that bottle.

In entertainment vehicles, such as movies and plays, alcoholics are frequently portrayed as people who cannot feel the gravity of their actions until long after events, at least that is my interpretation of popular media. But, I was clear enough to see my lover walk out the door after six years together and my daughters turn away from me, my economic and personal failures reflected in their lovely, disappointed eyes. I saw my friends, trusted or otherwise, leave my side; no shared history compelling enough to remain constant. And, I felt the absence of absolutely everyone: it was horrible and I would not visit that loss upon my worst enemy.

Then, there was that scene I will forever remember: Within my almost three years of homelessness, there were the days I spent living at a small hobo camp on the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska. Without going into too much detail, I lost my job at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital after an injury and filed for workmen’s compensation. An injury I received in Airborne School in 1985, and during my duty in Denmark for the Army in 1987, were the basis of the denial in 2011, when my left shoulder was finally undone as I stopped a patient with dementia from falling headlong onto the ground, and when the rotator for my left shoulder finally gave out.

Still, though I was sober for hospital duty, nearly every moment of mine off duty was spent buying liquor, planning to buy liquor, consuming liquor, sleeping off liquor or recovering from liquor. It was liquor that was now running my life. But, while trying for survival in the outdoor encampment, in Nebraska’s first city, I gathered like everyone else in the camp, at the “employment agency” nearby at 5 a.m. Once there, the stinking, dirty lot of us were parceled out to manual labor jobs throughout the town by a thick, swarthy man with greasy hair and fingers.

I usually drew a job working a sledge hammer (using that bad left shoulder) for $5 per hour. There was no additional pay for overtime, nor security equipment despite working in an enclosed warehouse where chemical dust was floating through the air. The national minimum wage was $7.50 while we homeless earned just $5. And, there were days some of us were not paid for no reason in particular, and it was in Lincoln, Nebraska where this slavery was allowed to flourish by whatever powers that be.

If the Lord judges me to be a wicked man beyond redemption at the Judgment, and I am cast into hell, I will simply wake up in that encampment again, amid the frozen snow and below-zero weather, and waiting again in that terrible hall to get assigned to that chemical nightmare, where I broke large stones into little ones. It was there I lost the last of my strength and health. It was there that my love for this life died quietly and unceremoniously, and I lost my will to remain in the world.

A friend of mine died in our little, frozen camp. I could not look at him in the pre-sunrise hour he was first discovered. Some men were milling around him. Someone would call the police, but I did not want to see Billy. He was much younger than me and a drug addict. But, he was a nice boy with an easy smile. He was not stupid or mean, just addicted to meth, a sad fact during Billy’s 26 years, which contributed distinctly to him not having 27 years.

Whatever pitiful cash we made at our “jobs” was not enough to obtain housing or shelter it seemed, only enough to buy a little food to keep our bodies going. Sometimes, I would buy hot food from the gas station down the street. I would  walk along the highway to the station wearing my filthy rags and wet shoes and socks. And, at that gas station, I surely got my food -- and some fortified wine to drink it down. This is the nature of addiction for me.

Because I injured my shoulder a bit 20 years prior, in the Army, my workmen’s compensation was not paid and I was broken -- thrown out of my condo. Meanwhile, there were no barriers for people to fall back upon in Lincoln. It is a horrible place, unforgiving of personal disaster. A stranger had pointed to that terrible place in the woods where the poor and down-trodden gathered to try survival, grouped together back from the woodline behind that despicable employment agency in that neat brick building. Every day, the homeless who survived the night arose like the dead from their graves to fight for survival anew. And, a few who were not claimed by the weather were claimed by their own hand. None of us bums asked where someone was coming from, or where someone was going.

Even when there was a place indoors for me to stay, I had only God and alcohol with me for too long: It drove me mad. In another life, where my clothes and I had been clean regularly, I was bitter about the unabashed glee from long-time adversaries, such as my daughters’ mother, my professional rivals and my social frenemies consequent to my fall. If one allows it, alcohol, guilt and rage will drive someone right to the gate of hell and then, and only then, allow its passenger to either die or, as unlikely as it may be, attempt recovery. But here, in the Wilds of the Midwest, I truly believed I was going to die. And, it would not have been unwelcome; I called for God to bring me home every night. And, many nights, my borrowed bed bug-infested sleeping bag contained not only me and prayers for an end, but also an empty pint or half-pint liquor bottle. Still, despite everything, I kept reaching for the bottle and begging for death; though, I am sure I began my drunken sojourn as innocently as a child (in fact I was a child when the drinking started).

The bottle was not the devil, though. The disease was not the devil. I was simply obsessed with drinking and leaned upon booze too heavily after a few bad turns. It was me who brought myself to the brink of extinction: I had some eager help, though. People are cruel to the less fortunate and unlucky, and trust can make someone a fool very quickly.

There are a long list of physical, physiological and even psychological challenges I endure still. These things are not an excuse for alcoholism, though. If my ailments were actually a ready excuse for alcoholism then it would only stand to reason I could logically indulge my horrible thirst. Alcohol will kill me painfully, however, just as much as it will kill anyone without a lengthy list of personal and medical challenges to meet. Alcohol is a coward’s way out, and the way I chose for too long.

I did not find recovery immediately when I got back to New Jersey finally. There were nightmares waiting for me upon returning to my former home. As much as I may have left the perils of outdoor living and near slavery in the Nebraska Winter behind me, I was still living with a terrible alcoholic: me. And, it was not until about a year-and-a-half that I was able to finally admit, after everything I had put myself and others through, that it was time to recover from addiction instead of indulging it even one more moment.

Still, like a loyal driver, alcoholism waits outside wherever I am, the motor in its sleek sedan running, its lovely driver standing there smiling and ready to open the car door for a fare that has gotten away. Even after all that alcohol has done to me, I still look out the window sometimes, and imagine what it might be like to take that ride again; such is the illogical, fatalistic mind of my disease. There are times when an addict knows when one’s addiction is speaking and not really one’s self.

If I give addiction even one free moment within me, I will return to the smooth, wide road to hell I had been walking upon. It will be even more difficult to try to step off that pathway should I take even one more step upon it; so I believe anyway.

With hindsight being 20/20, I could see only two welcome outcomes for me in the throes of my addiction: quick death or recovery. The unwanted consequences of my actions and addiction might well have also included: imprisonment; long-term psychiatric commitment; lingering death at the hands of liver failure; or permanent dementia, from which there is no reprieve. I used to be a nurse aide in hospitals and nursing homes. I would tell anyone, without reservation, there is no death quite so horrible as one that involves dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Any death would be better, in my mind, than those things. Too often I have seen the empty husks of people, still living and breathing, walking and making noises, while the essence -- the soul -- of its former inhabitant, had departed. Well, that is my take on it. I would be horrified to think that one’s soul had to live, trapped in those bodies through the indignities of that terrible disease. This end is the only thing I have ever seen that could rival the punishment I came to know and survived through in Nebraska.

In the most important parts of my alcoholic trek through life, I had a nervous breakdown in 1993, when my former wife, Stacey, fled with my daughters, Amanda and Angela, from the purview of the Passaic County, NJ Probation Department and the Monmouth County, NJ Family Court. She simply took my children and never let me know where they were again. And, my father had paid for terrible lawyers who gave me awful advice on the matter (especially Mr. Ernest Caposela, ironically now a Passaic County Superior Court judge as of this writing). In the end it was my wonderful daughter Angela who found me, though by that time no longer a man of means or respect in the community, a shadow of my former self.

I eventually did find recovery, though, and after that I was sober between 1994, when I left the East Orange VA Medical Center finally, and 2000, I did not touch a drop of alcohol. I believe there was some part of me holding out that my absent children would be restored to me, but my children should not have been the reason I did not drink: Because I wanted to enjoy my life should have been the reason I did not drink. I suppose some part of me gave up at around that point, and the rationale probably started as, ‘So what if I do drink?’ Women were not enough to keep me sober: Sobriety is something one must do and want for themselves. My job as a journalist was perhaps crafted by drunks in the first place, ages ago, complete with a fraternity atmosphere. But, ultimately, it was the lack of my own hope that drove me to the bottle. It is a thing I will always regret, of course, but even my deepest regrets have to be moved past if I intend real sobriety.

This past time I found recovery, I can only pray it will be the last time I require recovery. I am doing everything I can to remain in the “Land of the Living,” which is my shorthand for being sober, hopeful and dedicated to the world as it actually is; not the world as viewed through the foggy lens of the bottom of a vodka bottle.

Heartbreak is hard for anyone, not just me. Yet, when people are in the midst of their heartbreak, and this is especially true of me, they can sometimes not see beyond their own pain. So, there is alcohol, with its car still warming on a cold Winter day, its engine running silently and that beautiful driver with a welcoming smile still waiting to hold that door. And, she never, ever goes away; she will track a fare jumper for all the rest of their days. Addiction requires one to fight it for the rest of their life, I think, and simply not look out the window at this and to find the peace one can find in life. In my experience, simply the best thing a drunk can do is not drink, go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and give one’s self over to whatever higher power one believes exists.

Alcoholism speaks to the fear in me; that part of me that chose to believe the sky was falling. When hope was restored to this recovering addict, perhaps not that much changed for the better-- but there is enough love in this world (if someone looks for it) to make the rest of the passage through it and ease the pain of loss, not to mention supplant those things with real joy again.

Well, I have stood on my soapbox long enough. Usually I tell stories and do not write editorials anymore, but this seemed like a good enough subject to try a monologue. This was my cautionary tale of alcoholism. I will not whip this horse dead. But, that metaphorical horse did deserve a good, stern flogging, so to speak, and so it has been rendered.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Joe DiMaggio, 'moron fans' and Las Vegas nights

I was a struggling, new journalist in 1996, working full-time for Rockfleet Media, Inc., based in Pt. Pleasant, New Jersey. I had just been appointed by company owner Joe Fuchs to be the editor of the Ocean County Review and the sports editor for the newspaper chain.

I was also relatively newly married to third wife Dawn Shea, of Keansburg, whom I met while attending Georgian Court College, in Lakewood. It was a doomed marriage from the start, I think. There were so many problems, not the least of which being money. I was only being paid $22,000 by Joe Fuchs to edit his paper, which covered the communities of: Seaside Park, Seaside Heights, Lavallette, Normandy Beach and area, as well as Mantoloking. Dawn did not work but we had two cars (and insurances) and a nice condominium in Brick Township to pay for.

So, I took side work as a news correspondent for the Ocean County Observer, in Toms River, under editor Chuck Tribblehorn; and as a part-time writer for Jeff Rodman, at B&J Collectives, Inc. (later known as Sports Advantage).

This story is about the 55-year anniversary of the 56-game hitting streak for one Joe DiMaggio, also affectionately known as "The Yankee Clipper." In '96, Joe was still alive. And, according to Jeff Rodman, who owned B&J along with his father, they had paid Joe $1 million to have all the rights to his signature for some period of time. How long I have forgotten.

I was doing smaller jobs for Jeff previously: then I wrote the press releases and did the phone work for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and Oakland Raider "Raiderette" Dance Team when B&J was pushing computer screensavers for the organizations, respectively. It worked out well. I did a good job and Jeff noticed. So, I worked on press for the products, as well as went back and forth with the organizations for Jeff, where it regarded media for some important parts of that project. And, it was both a success and a national campaign! Yay for me.

Likewise, I was assigned a Bill Parcells project (he was living in nearby Sea Girt, NJ at the time) for some promotion or other he was doing with B&J and I put together some press releases Jeff wanted me to do, after a phone interview with Coach Parcells himself. For the record, Bill Parcells has a reputation for being gruff and irritated. Well, it was the farthest thing from what I experienced. He was the one of the nicest guys I ever did business with. He was patient, calm, funny...a prince. Anyone could work with Bill Parcells and they would be lucky to do it.

Then came Jeff's 'big deal' promotion. Mr. Rodman informed me that some time back (did he say a year or two?), B&J and Joe D. came to a deal where the Clipper would only sign balls, bats, memorabilia and photos for B&J -- that was it. In exchange for that, he was very well paid for the times.

The relationship between Jeff and Joe D. was reportedly close and the Yankee luminary would frequently call Jeff late into the night or in the wee hours of the morning to "...just talk." Jeff said Joe didn't have many people in his life, and that he was bad tempered and foul mouthed (no doubt contributing to the situation).

When the pair went to Las Vegas as part of the company's annual trek, Jeff said DiMaggio and he were constant companions but noted the Yankee great was both unhappy and troubled. I was sympathetic. I was even one of DiMaggio's biggest fans. Accordingly, Jeff led me into a large warehouse behind the main corporate building and showed me literally rows and rows and rows of shelves with all manner of goods signed by DiMaggio. My mouth fell open. I had no idea how anyone could sign their names that many times. I asked Jeff how he expected to sell all of this, and he replied that he was not looking to sell it all at once. DiMaggio was an all-time great and these goods could be sold for many years after his passing. I was in awe. In addition, Jeff told me he had more goods in a small warehouse off-site. Truly, mind blowing.


Now, to the business at hand: I worked out a time when I could come back and when Jeff could get me a phone interview with Joe D. I was so excited! The Yankee Clipper himself! One of the greatest players to ever live! I was over the moon! Jeff would be there, of course, because I was a little star struck and wanted to get all the information I needed. If anything, Jeff seemed a little affably surprised I had hero worship going on for this cranky old ballplayer he was so accustomed to at this point.

The day of the call I come in early, have two notebooks, several new pens and barely concealed excitement on my face. Jeff's secretary lets me into Jeff's office, and he was behind his desk as usual, conquering the world. He looked up and then put in the call.

The Clipper answered the phone: "Hello? Hello?"

Jeff said: "Joe...Joe...It's Jeff Rodman."

Joe: "Who? Oh, Jeff, what do you need?"

Jeff explained he was preparing for a promotion for the 56-game hitting streak and would like him to answer a few questions for the press guy he hired to help out. Joe D. said, "I don't know about this."

Jeff nods to me and I say, 'Mr. DiMaggio, it is an honor to work with you on this. I am among your biggest fans and it is a real privilege to be able to promote this project."

Immediately, Joe says, "Jeff...Jeff...who the hell is this [guy]? What the hell is he doing here? What is this all about?"

I respond that a press campaign is being put together and it would be very special to have some reflections from the "Yankee Clipper" that may be new, to help with the release and maybe the sales. I concluded with '...there are so many fans of the game that just love you and everything you meant and mean to the Great Game, sir.'

There was dead silence. Maybe I had him...or maybe not.

"The fans are a bunch of morons. F--k the fans! I had the [gosh darn] thing covered years ago. Use that [stuff]. [Forget] you, you [bad person]. The [gosh darn] fans are jackasses. [Forget] them. Do I have to do anymore of this, Jeff?"

I was angry. Turning red. Becoming unprofessional...until I went all the way unprofessional.

"Hey, Joe!" I said. "You're a [gosh darn] sham. If there is anyone who is a [moron] here it is you. People love you and maybe they are stupid but only because they don't see the filthy, old, weird [person] you are, you [bad person]. I would soon as eat [something unpleasant] than write one [gosh darn] word of praise about your ancient [gosh darn] career!"

With that, I turned my back and walked out of Jeff's office. I was not surprised when he did not send my usual check, or when I did not hear back from him again. But, I have always found refuge in the fact that, though I may have lost money, I got the chance to tell DiMaggio where to go and how to get there. I would never buy another thing with his name on it.

And, I still won't.

Three years later, Joe DiMaggio passed away on March 8, in 1999, which was a day before my 33rd birthday. I tried to think of him fondly. I understand Jeff had to fire me. But, he had to be a saint to put up with that man: I could never.