“Where did you go to J school?” asks the kid who obviously lives and breathes journalism. I say “obviously” not because he’s interning with us as a reporter for the summer, or because he says things like “J school.”
No, the real reason I can tell this guy longs to be a newspaperman is because he’s wearing a blue button-down shirt with a white collar, and everyone knows that white-collared shirts are reserved for lawyers, bankers, douche-bag VPs and reporters.
He’s so earnest that I feel bad for what I’m about to say. But I tell him anyway.
“I didn’t go to college. I’m the proud recipient of a G.E.D.”
I’ve never been satisfied with simply telling someone I didn’t go to college. I always have to throw in the part about the G.E.D. If I were to play armchair psychologist, I’d say I do this for two reasons, the first being that I’m naturally an open book. Even when it’s to my detriment, I find it hard not to open up about my past. This is especially true when it comes to things that are less-than-flattering.
To delve deeper into my psyche, I imagine this is a defense mechanism kicking in. When you grow up as a fat, awkward kid, you learn quickly how to seize the power from others by making fun of yourself first. So, by saying I have a G.E.D., I’m opening up about who I am while also disarming the person I’m talking to. It’s hard for them to use it against me after I’ve already poked fun at myself, which is why I think the “proud recipient” part does so well.
The second reason I tell people about the G.E.D. is that I have a strange sense of pride about it. It’s not that I’m proud that the highest grade I completed was the 9th. That would be sad. What I’m proud of is what I’ve done with myself since dropping out. I grew up with a lot of people who also quit school, but the route most of them took was the one most people expect. Many of them either ended up in trouble with the law and/or doing menial labor, while I ended up in this newsroom, crushing the soul of a twenty-something with a student-loan-financed dream.
I’m not sure how this kid felt when he found out Santa Claus didn’t exist, but I’m sure it was less devastating than learning that the guy working the government desk didn’t finish high school. I guess this because all he can manage to respond with is “cool,” before walking away with his head hung low.
The intern doesn’t know it yet, but my time as a news reporter will be short-lived. I grew up in a small Air Force town in Middle Georgia, so being in a small Air Force town in South Georgia, reporting on its city and county government, is not exactly my idea of Shangri-La. I’ll end up only spending nine months here.
But, before I leave, I’m determined to make my mark on the city. And on my way to work this morning, I decided what that mark would be.
THE road I take to work has a set of dormant railroad tracks. This wouldn’t be a problem, except they are raised so high that my beat-up grey Pontiac feels and sounds like it’s going to fall apart every time I cross over them, even when I go five-miles-an-hour. Sure, I could find another way to work, but that’s not the point. I hate those railroad tracks. So, I’ve decided it’s time to find out what power I have as someone employed by an organization that “buys ink by the barrel.”
After ruining our intern’s day, I call the city planner, who tells me that what I’m referring to is called a rail spur and that there were two companies that once used it.
“Are there any plans to use them again?” I ask.
“No, that was a long time ago,” he says.
“I only ask because we’ve been getting some complaints about them.”
“Yeah, I guess some people worry that they are detrimental to their vehicle’s suspension. Why don’t you guys just pull them up and pave over them?”
“Well, that’s not the city’s call,” he says. “That would be the responsibility of the railroad company.”
My next call is to the railroad company. The nice woman I talk to confirms that the tracks are theirs and that there are no plans on covering them up. Before I say thank you and hang up, I casually mention the “complaints” and how the tracks could be a hazard for vehicles.
A few days later, I’m at a picnic for city workers and guess who happens to be there? The manager of the railroad company! I only know this because I’m introduced to him by the city planner. It’s not like I’m the kind of guy who would know the manager of a local railroad company.
“I wanted to ask you about the tracks on Gordon Street,” I say, after the customary “nice to meet you” bullshit has been completed.
“Funny,” he says. “We were just talking about those. What do you want to know?”
“I was wondering if there were any plans on covering them up.”
He looks at me with the kind of scrunched-up face a stranger might make after being asked about his wife’s favorite sexual position.
“No. There are no plans.”
Between his what-did-you-just-ask-me face and his tone, I can tell that the railroad manager is annoyed by me, but I continue with my questions.
“Well, I’m only asking because we’ve been getting a lot of complaints at the paper. People are calling, worrying about their cars. Some have even mentioned lawsuits.”
“People are always worrying about something,” he says. He’s trying to act cool, but there’s a look of concern in his eyes.
“Yeah, I have to agree with you there.”
We share a laugh, the conversation ends and we go back to enjoying our plates of barbecued chicken, baked beans and some of the best homemade potato salad I’ve ever had. It’s so good that it’s helping me get over my defeat at the hands of the city and the railroad. I fought the man, and I lost. Or at least that’s what I thought.
By the time I get back to the newsroom, deep into my food coma, there’s a message waiting for me from the city planner.
“Hey, Tony. I just wanted to let you know that the tracks you inquired about are scheduled to be covered up by the end of the month.”
I can’t believe it. I just single-handedly took on the not-at-all-controversial railroad company and won. Woodward and Bernstein? All they did was take down a president. I just improved my morning commute. And I didn’t have to write a word.
If all I ever achieve as a news reporter is getting those tracks removed, I’ll consider my time here a success. But, as it turns out, I’ll have another chance to wield my influence before I leave, although this time I’ll act more as an accidental influencer.
DURING my last week at the paper, I’m in the newsroom when we learn that one of The Blue Angels flying team, practicing for an upcoming air show at the nearby Air Force Base, lost two of its pilots when their plane crashed into the ground. As the military reporter is rushing out the door to investigate, he asks me to call City Hall for a quote.
A moment later, I have the mayor on the line. One cool thing about small-town news reporting is that it’s not usually hard to get the mayor on the horn. It doesn’t hurt that he likes me. You see, I’m the “crazy” guy who likes to roller skate into his office for a quote.
I should point out that I don’t skate into the mayor’s office to be disrespectful. I do it because I’m lazy. The newsroom is close enough to City Hall to walk, but to save time, I’ll often strap on my skates and glide into the mayor’s office like I’m his spoiled brat of a son. It has painted me as the lovable eccentric and the mayor at least pretends to think it’s charming.
“How will the city honor the pilots who died?” I ask.
“We haven’t really thought about that,” he says. “What kind of thing were ya thinkin’, Tony?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe fly the flags at half-staff?”
“That sounds about right,” he says, before switching to his official tone, which is one of the great arts practiced by elected officials. One minute they are shooting the shit with you like you’re their long-lost brother, and the next they’re sitting upright in their chairs, speaking like they’re on national television.
“Tony, the city will honor the pilots who lost their lives by flying all the flags at city buildings at half-staff for the next week.”
I thank the mayor and hang up, not believing what has just taken place. Had I known the decision was going to be up to me, I would have asked for more. I would have asked for a parade. Or maybe I would have asked for all the kids to get a week off from school. I would have been the town hero. Well, the mayor would have been the hero, but I would have known the truth. I would have driven by the schools all week and known why they were empty. And that would have been enough.
Since I cover both the city and county government, I also need to find out what the county plans to do, so I call the county manager.
“Hi, it’s Tony Jenkins at the Times. I’m just calling to find out what the county is planning to do to honor the pilots who died in today’s crash.”
“The county has no plans,” he says, without asking if I have any suggestions. This is probably a good thing, since the parade idea is sounding better by the minute.
“Okay, I was just checking,” I say, before making a last-second effort to change his mind. “I checked with City Hall, so I figured I should check with you.”
“Oh, is the city planning on doing anything?”
“Yeah, they are going to fly the flags at half-staff all week. Anyway, thanks for taking my call.”
Reminiscent of the mayor, the county manager swiftly switches into his official tone.
“Tony, the flags will fly at half-staff at all the county offices throughout the next week.”
I hang up the phone and send the quotes to our city editor, Brian, then walk over to his desk to tell the story of how I quietly influenced things. It disturbs him. I know it disturbs him because he looks at me with disappointment in his eyes and says, “This disturbs me.”
I argue that he’s overreacting. It’s not like I plagiarized anyone. The mayor asked me a question and I answered him. This doesn’t matter to Brian, who is a stickler for the rules and regulations of journalism. He feels like I have indirectly become part of the story. Good thing I never told him about those railroad tracks. He may have gone home and burned all his white-collared shirts in an ill-focused rage.
AFTER celebrating my last day at the paper with my coworkers, a fellow reporter and I take a drive through the city and the unincorporated county. I’ve never been a patriotic person, but on this night I can’t help but feel a sense of pride as we marvel at the beautiful sight of American flags, fluttering in the wind at half-staff. God bless America, indeed.
If my night had ended there, I would have left this city with a sense of satisfaction. But there was one more stop I needed to make, so I drive us to what we’ve started calling the “Tony Jenkins Memorial Highway.” It doesn’t matter that I’m not dead, or that it’s not a highway, it only matters that the drive along this section of road would be a lot bumpier had I not intervened.
I stop the car where the railroad tracks once were and we get out to admire the newly-paved road.
“Tony, your time here is done,” my coworker says. “You will not be forgotten.”
My only regret is that our intern is not here to see this, since it could serve as a great life lesson. It’s not about how you end up where you end up; it’s about what you do when you get there.
Illustration by Kristina Ackerman.