I didn’t think white people got jobs the way Latinos did, just by talking to each other. But they do, and that’s how it happens for me. My first big job as a writer.
It’s the end of a journalism class at New York University. The room fills with the familiar cacophony of a class ending: chairs scraping floors, students unzipping bags, murmurs about lunch and papers due. The professor, a thin, white woman, fastens her eyes on me.
“An editor at the New York Times is looking for a researcher for a book she’s doing on women’s history,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I thought of you. You write about feminism.”
I smile politely, uncomfortably. I’m twenty-five and writing for Ms. magazine but I don’t consider myself to be someone who writes about feminism. That sounds like work other people do, people who are rich or famous or smart. I’m not a boba though. I have spent enough time around white women to know it’s better to not argue with them.
When I meet the editor, I like her immediately. She’s unpretentious and direct but warm in that “do you want water or tea” sort of way. I have no idea that she’s the first woman to run the editorial page at the newspaper. What I do know is that Gail is going to be the first (and only) lady who pays me money to track down what indigenous women used as menstrual pads back in the pre-tampon days. That’s my first assignment and I set off, gathering phone numbers for anthropologists and historians, generating a spreadsheet to track my interviews and library reading, and returning with my final report. (They used rags. The natural kind.)
Months later, I e-mail Gail an opinion piece I wrote for an online wire service and she shoots back: “Oye, you should apply for this internship here in the editorial department.”
She doesn’t write “oye,” but she might as well have because the way she emails with such ease is how a woman on the bus tells my mother, “Oye, there’s this factory down on Hudson Avenue that’s hiring.”
Oye, and just like that I send my resume, which now includes research on indigenous maxi pads, to the editor at the Times hiring interns even though I have no idea what an editorial is. That’s right. I am twenty-five, I am writing for a national magazine, I have been in journalism school, and I do not know what an editorial is.
I want to say that it’s never come up, that no one has ever talked to me about editorials. But they probably did and I didn’t know what it was and as I’ve been doing since I was in English as a Second Language classes in kindergarten, I acted like I knew what they were talking about and promptly forgot it.
Now I walk around the block to the Greek deli. I pass the women and men waiting at the bus stop, buy a copy of the Times and flip the A section over. A friend has told me to look at the left side of the last page, at the short paragraphs stacked on the page likes shoe boxes in a closet.
The writing carries no byline. It’s monotonous, and I realize why I don’t know what an editorial is. I’ve never made it past the second line.
My feelings though are irrelevant. This is the New York Times. They have Maureen Dowd and stringers all over the world including countries I have to find in the Britannica encyclopedia. If I get the internship, they won’t actually let me write.
But they do.
My summer internship begins on the tenth floor of the New York Times building on 43rd Street in Manhattan.
The first days are heady: the large, revolving doors at the main entrance, the elevator racing upward, a massive desk of my own, the thick solid wooden shelves in the library filled with old books and newspapers and magazines. It’s nine months since Sept. 11 and Howell Raines is the executive editor. He supposedly has a penchant for the visual, which is why, a staff reporter tells me, the corridors are now filled with large scale reproductions of photographs that have been in the paper. My favorite ones, the ones that make me pause, are the aerial photographs of New York City, the tops of skyscrapers like the closed beaks of birds turned toward the sky.
I’m taken to lunch that week, shown how the computer system works, told to wait a minute while an editor, a white man with sharp eyes, answers a call and laughs about how India and Pakistan need to get it together and play nice. I’m told how to put editorials in a queue, how to see what other people are writing for the next day or the weekend edition, how to answer my editor’s questions online. I’m told to join the editorial board for their meetings in the morning.
The meetings take place in a conference room. Inside are a long wooden table, large heavy chairs, and a television in a cabinet. Men show up in stiff white shirts with cups of coffee in hand, notepads and pens, and the day’s paper. The women show up in slacks and button-down shirts with notepads and pens and the paper. They file in one by one, welcome me, make jokes about this and that, and it begins to dawn on me that they are regular white people.
I’m not sure what I expected them to look like but I figured that writing for the New York Times would turn a person into something close to God, or at least Oprah Winfrey. I expected that they would look different somehow, more beautiful, more pristine, that they wouldn’t have to read the day’s paper because they would have a secret telephone they could pick up and hear about what was happening in the world.
What’s not surprising is that they are white.
It’s about a dozen people and they’re all white except for one black man and one man who is white (blond actually) but Mexican. I sit at the table terrified that I’ll say something stupid and more terrified that I won’t be able to say anything at all.
The meetings begin with Gail saying, “Let’s get started.” They go around the table, pitching ideas, shooting down ideas, bantering. A writer with a head full of white hair, a man who could be a grandpa on an after school TV special, says, “Now I have an idea you’re not going to like…” and everyone grins. There’s much about which to have opinions—the war on terror, Bush, stem cell research—but this man wants to write about pollution, about the Superfund sites everyone else wants to forget.
Assignments are made. One writer sighs. “Yes, I guess I’m the one to do it,” he says. Then they retreat to their offices to make phone calls, conduct interviews, and write opinions.
My first idea for an editorial is straightforward, a no-brainer really. I think the New York Times editorial board should urge President Bush to grant Colombians political asylum in the United States. The issue is clear: the U.S. funds the war in Colombia and the people deserve relief.
To back up my idea I start making phone calls and I quickly learn that people will talk to me. The words “New York Times,” in fact, produce the most spectacular effects on people. Local advocates return my calls with eager voices. Government spokespeople chat me up with fake smiles. A number of people bristle at the name; others ask to have lunch with me. Me. An intern.
By the time I call an advocate at Human Rights Watch that summer, I am brimming with the confidence of the arrogant. I announce that I’m phoning from the Times but when I pause for effect, the woman snaps, “Which Times?”
I bite my lip, sure this woman has, with female intuition alone, figured out that I’m only a summer intern. “The New York Times,” I answer doing my best to control the pitch of my voice.
“If you don’t say that I can’t possibly know,” the woman answers, adding that there is the L.A. Times and Time magazine. But I hear it in her voice. The nervous laugh. The slight faltering, the retreating.
The paper, I begin to learn, is not a series of pages bound together. It’s not even the people themselves, the ones sitting at the conference table three times a week or the ones reporting the news. It’s something else, an idea that produces tension in people or flattery. It has the power to agitate people. It’s kind of like God but not in the way I expected. It doesn’t feel good.
The other discovery I make is about white people.
One of the editors, a skinny man who I’ll call Mr. Flaco, listens to my initial idea for an editorial about granting Colombians asylum. “Why Colombians and not another group of people?” he asks, smiling, patronizingly. “If you open the door for them, do you open the door to every other country with internal conflicts?”
Mr. Flaco’s questions are good ones, rational ones, but they also feel odd somehow—the proverbial shoe that doesn’t fit. I mull them over for the rest of the day. I board the bus for Jersey still thinking about his questions and the feeling that something is not quite right.
In Jersey, I step off the bus a few feet from the Greek deli and Chinese restaurant. The street is littered with candy wrappers, the trash bin filled to capacity with soda cans. I walk past the long line at the bus stop, wondering who there is a salvadoreaño with political asylum and who is Honduran and Guatemalan. They wear, all of them, jeans and jackets and baseball caps. They’re waiting for the 165, the 166, transfer tickets and bus passes in hand.
Do you open the door to every other country with internal conflicts?
It falls into place somewhere in me. It’s true that Colombians are not the only ones in need of asylum. It is every group from practically every country where the United States and Europe have at some point staked a claim on land. From the perspective of here, which is to say from the perspective of the United States, of this skinny editor, of people who have power, Colombia is not as devastated as Rwanda or even as Salvador was in the eighties.
Colombians are suffering, yes, but not as much.
There is a hierarchy of pain and it is no longer confined to the pages of my books about political theory. It is here in Mr. Flaco. Pain in and of itself is not enough. It matters how many are dead, how many wounded, over what period of time, how much public outrage there is in the West. The pain has to be significant in relationship to those in power.
Realizing this doesn’t depress me or even bother me. I actually call one of my closest friends radiant to report this discovery because it does feel that way, like a discovery, like I have entered the collective mind of white people with political power everywhere and managed to see one of the strange rituals by which they reproduce.
This, I can only imagine, is how Darwin must have felt.
I call Keely, who is herself white but a lesbian and liberal. It’s not that they’re bad people or even weird, I tell her about Mr. Flaco, about all white people. I’m talking now as fast as I can. “They are just seeing everything in relationship to the power they have. They’re afraid to lose what they have.” By contrast, we (here I mean my family and the men at the bus stop), we are free to make demands, to share outrage, to know solidarity.
I pause to catch my breath and find that Keely is not as impressed with my discovery as I am. But I don’t care. The world looks different to me now, rocks back and forth in all its strangeness.
Because it’s the beginning of summer, NPR has an obligatory story about how more girls are going to tanning salons. I listen to this while lying in bed next to my girlfriend, who frequents these salons. Biracial, Cristina is a little sensitive about not looking Latina enough. She once put her arm against mine and declared, “I’m darker than you.”
With my idea for getting Colombians political asylum stalled, I suggest writing on the evils of tanning. Mr. Flaco loves it. Of course he does. White men can always be counted on to agree that girls do crazy things in the name of beauty and that they need to be chastised. Who better than to scold teenage girls than a young woman herself?
I put these thoughts aside and sit at my computer monitor in my office on the tenth floor writing the best little opinion piece I can muster. Although the topic is one that slightly depresses me (I could be writing about the impact of the civil war in Colombia!), I nevertheless find myself humming and tapping away at the keyboard, having the experience that comes whenever I write: a rush of joy through my body. I feel energized, happy, strong even.
At the end of the day, I get on the elevator exhausted, my face slightly flushed. I am living a life I could never have imagined, even if it is just about sun tans.
At the Times, people spend their days writing and then get paid every two weeks. It happens even if you disagree with Mr. Flaco or if you write a bad piece that needs tons of editing. You still get paid.
So convinced that this life can’t be mine, I insist on taking my intern paycheck to the bank every two weeks and cashing it. Each time the black teller hands me the stack of hundred dollar bills, I feel that I am real and this is really happening to me.
It is a lesson I learned from my mother.
On Fridays, if she had been paid at the factory, my tía would take my sister and me to meet my mother at the bank where she would be waiting on line with a check, that precious slip of paper in her hand. She would take the money from the bank teller in one swift move as if someone was going to steal it from her and then she would move over to the side and count the bills, slipping them into a small envelope the way she would place a pillow in a pillow case. Those dollars were freedom. We could afford an evening meal at McDonald’s.
Although I can now afford a navy suit and a briefcase, I refuse to spend the money. Without knowing it, I am hoarding. I don’t believe this is going to last so I need to keep every penny for when I wake up from the dream.
Several times a month, people visit the editorial board. Sometimes they are invited; sometimes they have lobbied to meet with the board. Sometimes it’s the person’s chance to talk about their issue; sometimes it’s the board members who have asked to hear their perspective.
Cookies and coffee are served and we show up with notepads and pens. If it’s an extremely important person like the head of the FBI or an academic who wrote a new book about the economy, lunch is served.
It is during one of these visits that I find myself meeting Mr. Alvaro Uribe.
For months now my mother’s kitchen has been plagued with Mr. Uribe’s name. Colombians in Jersey and Queens and Florida and other areas of the diaspora were able to vote for him in the presidential election and my aunties have been anxious. Will Mr. Uribe be able to do anything, however small, to end the civil war that’s plagued Colombia since the sixties? The answer, of course, is no. It takes a movement of people to end violence, not a lone man, but people being people and aunties being aunties, they fantasize about being rescued.
Mr. Uribe comes from a wealthy family. Young and educated at Harvard and Oxford, he’s promising to be Colombia’s Rudy Giuliani. He is vowing law and order in a country known for drug cartels, magical realism, and the kidnapping of gringos. His own father was killed by the so-called rebel groups who are now better described as drug traffickers and Mr. Uribe is rumored to have ties to the paramilitaries, the privately funded armies who massacre civilians.
But in the editorial conference room on the tenth floor, Mr. Uribe hardly looks like someone privy to murders. He could be one of my uncles, a small man stuffed into a suit and not permitted, for the moment, to drink whiskey or curse in front of company. He proclaims that the coffee is not very good and then he makes a little speech about his Giuliani-style plan and takes questions. It dawns on me that he is here because he has to be like when my mother and tías would force me to leave the books in my bedroom and meet their friends in the kitchen.
“Many Colombians in the States are hoping for temporary protection status,” I note. “Will you take up that issue?”
“They voted for me so I have to ask for it.” His lips curve into a small sneer.
Later in the day, it occurs to me that for the first time I met someone who may be responsible for the murders of many people and I asked him a polite question.
It is a custom in Latino families like mine that you live at home until you marry. Even if you go away to college, which I didn’t, you still come home when you are done.
I have already broken this rule once, going to live with a boyfriend at nineteen. But the moment the relationship failed, about a year later, I returned home. Now at twenty-seven, I am ready to leave. This time permanently. I just have to deliver the news.
In the kitchen, my parents and tía are watching the noticias. It is evening and everyone is done with dinner. My father is drinking his beer. The window shades are still drawn and the world outside is dark. The voices of children playing in yards and on the streets come up to our windows in bursts of little firecrackers.
“I’m going to live in the city,” I announce.
Everyone turns their heads toward me. No one speaks. Then my father looks back at the television and my mother and auntie do the same. I wait for some questions but they don’t come. Not then. They come the next day and the one after that: Is it a safe place? Are you sure? You’ll be closer to work, yes, but…
They want to argue with me but they can’t. I have married the best man I could possibly find—the New York Times—and we all know it.
My mother and tía go with me to buy spoons and forks, a Brita water filter and curtains with flowers. They help me set up the apartment, a tiny studio on the Upper East Side that’s about the size of the bedroom I shared with my sister growing up in Jersey. When they leave, I am left with myself in a way that feels new. I am on my own for the first time in my life. My very own place. I have the sensation of having escaped a burning building. I have a job. A good job. And my own illegal sublet. I am paying my rent and groceries and not doing it by working at a factory or cleaning toilets.
The New York Times building has windows like a cathedral’s: tall, large, indulgent with how much sunlight they permit indoors. I walk up to the fourteenth floor one afternoon and stare out a closed window, mesmerized that Manhattan can actually be reduced to a miniature city, that the millions of feet and voices cannot be seen or heard from here but are nevertheless in perpetual motion.
I love the quiet here, the space to contemplate how quickly perspective can be changed, to wonder how a man like Uribe who loses his father makes peace with grief, to think about what a man on the editorial board said to me: “I bet no one else has written for this editorial page whose parents didn’t speak English.”
In a few weeks’ time it will be the first anniversary of Sept. 11 and with it will come the rush of memory, of women and men who—hundreds of feet above the city—stepped into the sky that morning to escape the heat and the twisting metal and the violence of not choosing their last moments.
But before the anniversary, about two weeks before, a white man from the Times, a business editor, will look out a window like this one. He will be up one more flight of stairs and maybe he will wonder about the sky and the city and perspective. Or maybe not. The pain by then will be squeezing at him too much. He will prop open the window, place his face to the city air, and step into the sky himself.
Mr. Flaco is curious to hear what I might want to write about a new report showing that boys are being left behind in education. Nervous, I stumble through my pitch about how it’s not all boys. It is black boys and teenagers. “Racism,” I begin, “has, you know, shaped the expectations the kids have of themselves and that teachers have of them.”
“What’s going to be your recommendation?” he asks, a smile at his lips. “Tell teachers to raise their self esteem?”
I force a smile and stare at the carpet. He continues.
“What’s remarkable is that when you look across socioeconomic levels, black boys consistently do badly in school. It doesn’t matter if they are living in Westchester or Harlem.”
The air around me grows thin, choking.
“By comparison,” he says, “Chinese kids do well in school even when they just got here yesterday.” He chuckles. He grins. “It’s like it’s genetic.”
I glance at him to make sure he is really here in the room with me, that he has actually said those words. I don’t expect to see the smiling face of the skinny man I have known for two months. Surely his words have distorted him, have made him into something ugly and horrible, a monster.
But no such thing has happened. He is still the same man with the skinny face and a high-up job at an important institution. A Mr. Uribe. He smiles at me.
In Times Square, the taxis blare, the trucks screech, the tourists squeal and position themselves for photos. It’s August and the air is thick with humidity and the grease of hotdogs being sold by street vendors. I stare at the crowds of tourists pointing their cameras at each other and then up at the billboards. They have come from all parts of the country and the world to be here under these towering ads and bright lights, and as I watch them I begin to consider that maybe I don’t want to be here.
It’s not because of Mr. Flaco the Racist. Or Mr. Uribe the Killer.
It’s not about them as individuals. It’s about…here my mind pauses. The streets vibrate with people, too many people, and the billboards tower over us with white faces, white smiles, white summer cotton, and I find that I don’t have the words. All I know is that as much as I want to leave, I can’t.
This is my big opportunity, the moment I have been preparing for my whole life. People like me, from the community I come from, we don’t just get to work at the New York Times. Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up, and my parents paid for Catholic high school so I could be here. Whatever I do, I can’t say no. I have to say yes, yes, and yes again.
When Gail asks if I want to pursue this journalism business, I say yes and I find myself with a year-long internship on the third floor reporting for the metro desk.
Newsrooms are set up like mazes.
It is an endless series of desks and television screens and everywhere you turn is another white man. You are meant to be the intern who gets lost and can’t find the elevators, or at least I am. Looking out across the third floor, I see only receding hairlines, white foreheads and bushy eyebrows. Somewhere in that I am supposed to find an editor with a name like Bob or Jennifer. Locating my new desk amid the clacking of keyboards and droning of television news, becomes my accomplishment that first week.
It doesn’t take long though to see that I am missing a crucial asset: a talent for talking to white men.
I have a good deal of experience with white women. I learned their mannerisms right alongside lessons in English, algebra, and chemistry. If I count my entire schooling starting with kindergarten, that’s nineteen years of studying white women. It’s easy now to make small talk with them. I nod sympathetically about children, inquire about their favorite movies, commiserate about the morning commute.
But white men are different.
After two weeks in the newsroom, I see that talking to white men boils down to a crude combination of cracking jokes about children and the morning commute, referring to sports teams and events at random, and imparting snide comments about this book or that article. It is especially impressive if you can comment on something buried deep in a news story since everyone knows that no one actually reads the story to the end. Talking to white men then has a pattern, a set of rules, but try as I might, I can’t learn it. My mind blanks when they joke with me. I find myself nodding, forcing a smile and looking the other way, hoping they will leave me alone.
What’s worse is that I have absolute no instinct for reporting. None.
“Here’s a news release,” an editor tells me. “I need copy by three.”
I nod, sit at my computer, and look at the paper. Something about a food-borne illness. I stare at the words and wonder what I’m supposed to do.
Writing an opinion, even a stiff editorial, comes easily to me. My mind immediately reaches for questions, important points, people to interview. But reporting produces in me a condition akin to stage fright. My body freezes, my mind stares at a blank white wall. Even though I’m doing exactly what I would do on the tenth floor with the editorial department, here on the third floor without the option of forming an opinion, I have to remind myself of what to do: make calls, summarize, send to editor, wait.
After that first story, I’m sent to get quotes from people on the street about an increase in subway fares. Then, I’m sent to get quotes from people on the street about the mayor’s new idea to ban loud noises. Then, I’m sent to Brooklyn where a fire has killed a black child. Then, the governor’s going to show up at a Latino event and I’m sent to get a reaction. Eight hours become ten, eleven, twelve. The copyeditors call at seven, eight, even nine at night.
In the morning, I board the subway exhausted. I spot that day’s paper in someone’s hands. A small thrill comes into my heart. Someone is about to read one of my stories. But the woman scans the headlines, flips the pages, and then folds the paper and puts it in her bag.
That’s it. Twelve hours of work—by hundreds of reporters, stringers, editors, copyeditors, designers, and delivery men—were considered for a total of five seconds by a white woman on the number 6 train.
I meet humility for the first time and I hate it.
One of the young reporters at the paper decides that we need to meet with veteran reporters for informal conversations about the trade. This is her code for “I’m trying to move up in the paper,” and the rest of us agree that it’s a good idea. Someone from the powers-that-be at the paper says we can meet on the fourteenth floor where the big private events happen.
I arrive early. I want to enjoy the quiet here, the cathedral windows, the sense that the city and even the newsroom with its ringing phones and chatty television screens are at a distance.
The veteran reporter steps into the room. He’s an older man with a kind voice and gentle smile. We say hello but then his eyebrows furrow. He’s staring at a door off to the side of the room. “Is the stairwell through there?” he asks.
“I think so.”
He’s lost now in his own world as he walks over and props the door open. I follow him. In the stairwell, he pauses at one of the windows, mentions the editor, the white man who killed himself, and grows silent.
The window here is dusty, viejo, and yet a golden light filters through the pane. It’s late in the afternoon and the light bathes the parapets of the building, the stairwell, and even, I suppose, the place where the man met his final moment. The older reporter stares out the window, inspects the window frame, sighs deeply, and I begin to understand that I believed the TV shows I watched as a child. I believed bad things didn’t happen to white people, not in places like this. But now here is the window, the man grieving, the light golden and punishing.
While I’m reporting for the Times, my father is spending his days in the basement where he’s made a little home for himself apart from the family. He has his beer, his radio, even a mattress so he can take naps. He has set up a shower for himself.
Somewhere in this basement are letters from Cuba, probably still tucked in their envelopes with murmurs from relatives of how difficult things are there, of what size shoe so-and-so needs and the prescription for someone’s glasses. Here too in cardboard boxes are the orishas hidden. My father does his praying here in the basement and his drinking too. At night, he joins my mother upstairs for the evening news and dinner.
I am afraid of finding him dead in the basement one day.
Already, the basement has been the site of accidents. It is here that too drunk to stand up, my father fell and cut his head open and we had to rush him to the emergency room. But there is no use trying to get him out of the basement. It is a blessing that he leaves it for visits to have Doctor Goldstein check his blood pressure.
During one such visit, my father asks me about the New York Times, how I am doing. I brave a moment of intimacy, confiding that I am not enjoying the work. He stays quiet and looks at the gray floor. He’s sitting on the exam table, dressed in his usual dark jeans, construction boots and flannel button down shirt over a white Hanes T-shirt. I am sitting in the chair reserved for parents or partners and I figure Papi is not going to say more. He’s a man of few words. But just then he says, “¿Tu piensas que a mi me gusta mi trabajo? A mi no me gusta mi trabajo. Tu mama tampoco.”
That is what I record in my journal that night: “Do you think I like my work? I don’t like my work. Your mother doesn’t like hers either.”
When Dr. Goldstein comes in, I begin moving back and forth between Spanish and English admonishments: stop drinking, stop smoking, eat more vegetables, more fruits, like maybe oranges.
“Oranges?” my father exclaims in Spanish. “No, that’s all I ate in Cuba, only oranges. No oranges.”
The doctor and I look at each other. After so many years of working in our community, Doctor Goldstein knows like I do that there’s no use in arguing against memory.
Neither do I disagree with my father about whether or not a person should have work they enjoy. But the next morning, I notice I have a hard time getting out of bed. Not an impossible time. Just a heaviness about me, as if the air itself were an open hand holding me down.
It’s a cool night in November and I’m walking on the Upper East Side, past doormen and women in three-inch heels hailing cabs and men in their fifties walking dogs the size of pillowcases. I am, as usual, lost in my inner world. I am contemplating a conversation or rewriting an article or wondering about the origin of three-inch heels. I am acutely aware of the streets in Manhattan, of the way darkness never wins here, not even at night, but is always kept at bay by street lamps and the bobbing headlights of taxis and limos and buses. The city is a blitz of lights and sounds and smells but I have learned to shut it out, to be in my own quiet place.
Tonight, however, is different.
Tonight, I turn a corner and the city yanks me from my inner world in one swift moment. Fifty feet up in the air is Kermit the Frog and Charlie Brown and Barney and Dora the Explorer, their bellies nearly touching the top of the street lamps, their fingers reaching to tap the windows of high rise buildings, their inflated balloon bodies covering the stretch of the Manhattan street.
It’s the night before Thanksgiving Day and the balloons are being prepared for their annual walk in the Macy’s parade. It’s the sort of the thing that can only happen in New York, not the balloons but finding them around the corner, the way they make even this city feel small, insignificant. It feels magical, bizarre too, how the world can contain all of this, the plastic smile of a green frog, the memories and the oranges, the dead white man.
Editors were invented for several reasons, one of which is to torture interns.
It’s a metro editor who decides that interns will spend time on the police beat helping to cover New York City’s homicides, rapes, and robberies. The work mostly involves chatting with white police officers in charge of information they won’t give you unless the two of you get along and they consider you something of a person they’d want to have a beer with. To say that I’m terrible at this would be putting it kindly.
The rest of the work, at least for me, involves watching a veteran reporter with reddish curls call the families of crime victims and say in a mournful tone, “I’m sorry for your loss. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”
I stare at him the first few times, and when it’s no longer polite to stare, I pretend to read online while listening to him. He sounds genuine and compassionate during every phone call. He modulates the tone of his voice and I note how his English is comforting the way a hand-rolled cigar feels, as if the earth has been gathered up, made compact, held steady. His voice reaches out to the other person, yes, but it also allows for mutual silence and then directs back to the questions, the information that’s needed, the interview.
Then, the call is over, the moment has passed, and he’s on to other calls, detectives, cops, higher ups, and he’s issuing orders because another paper caught a piece of information we didn’t, and I’m off to the Bronx for a story about a young man named Buddha who killed a boy on the twelfth floor of an apartment building.
The hierarchy of pain has nuances.
Buddha’s killing and his arrest are a story because the victim was a child. If the child had been a few years older, if he had been not a child but instead a young black man, the editor would have said, “Victim and perp knew each other,” which is the preferred way to explain that black men killing each other is not news.
But Buddha murdered a child and he did so three days after Christmas, on a day when the news was slow.
He’s in jail. Buddha. It’s his mother I am after. Me and reporters and stringers for local newspapers. I interview the neighbors, note the holiday decorations (Peace and Joy), listen to the speculations. The district attorney’s office will verify that the young man was called Buddha because he was tall and fat, that three days after Christmas, Buddha was bruised, not his body, but somewhere else. His heart or his ego. Another man, another tall, fat black man, had teased Buddha. Words were thrust back and forth between them, threatened to erupt into fists, into gunshots, but the women stepped in. The girlfriends. And the air grew if not calm then at least hesitant.
It didn’t last. The hesitancy.
Buddha followed him, not the tall, fat man, but the man’s little cousin, thirteen-year-old Brandon. In an elevator, Buddha towered over the youngster, and while boasting of how he planned to hurt the other man, his mirror image, Buddha thrust little Brandon against the wall of the elevator and shot him in the head.
The elevator reached the twelfth floor. It was after midnight. The door must have opened then, mechanically, indifferent.
Now the elevator door creaks open and Buddha’s mother steps into the narrow hallway. She’s pushing a shopping cart off the elevator. It has two six packs of beer. She refuses to talk to us as she opens the door to her apartment. She’s a heavy black woman with colorless eyes and deep lines set in her face and my first thought is that no one is going to tell her story, the story of how she probably falls asleep at night in front of the television with a can of beer still open, just like my father, how she raised a family here so many hundreds of feet above the Bronx, how she mothered a boy nicknamed Buddha. I wonder what stories she tells herself.
There are also the other stories, the ones about how these neighborhoods were set up, how white men decided where black families should live, how it came to be that Buddha grew up in a place where you carry a gun to come and go from home and kill a boy who looks like a younger version of yourself.
I don’t have words for these other stories, just the feeling of them inside of me like pebbles piled at the corner of a child’s desk.
There must have been more than one. I can’t remember the other one, but there must have been at least one other black reporter in the newsroom at the New York Times besides Jayson Blair. When I think back to that time though, to the spring of 2003, I can only see Jayson.
He had been an intern once like me. Now, he is writing front page stories for the paper. Stories about war veterans from Iraq. I haven’t figured out if he’s quiet and withdrawn because he’s brilliant or if something is wrong with him. The fact that he wears long sweaters instead of shirts and ties unsettles me. It isn’t the sort of thing a white man would do, let alone a young black man. I keep wanting to tuck his shirt in. I tease him once or twice about being short. He’s polite but clearly not humored and I leave him alone.
It turns out though that he has good reason to keep to himself. Jayson is drinking, lying, and plagiarizing his stories. Front page stories.
“Did you hear?” another intern asks me.
I nod. “Crazy.” I figure the paper will run an apology and move on.
But there isn’t an apology. The story unravels. The anxieties of white people, the ones kept behind private doors, burst and the other newspapers report them: Jayson only got as far as he did because he’s black. A fellow intern comes up to me, irritated. “Why are people thinking it’s okay to say racist shit in front of me?”
She’s holding a cup of coffee. We both glance across the newsroom, across the cubicles, the tops of people’s heads. I have no way, none really, of knowing who in the room is a Mr. Flaco, and this is part of the agreement I made by working here, that people of color make over and over again when they enter PWIs (predominantly white institutions). We don’t know who in the room is an idiot. We don’t know who harbors doubts about our capacity to think and work and write.
Jayson, meanwhile, is rumored to be shut away in his apartment, and as a friend of mine puts it, the white people do what they always do when they get nervous. They call a meeting.
The meeting is held on 44th Street, in a theater. I get in line along with hundreds of white reporters and administrative staff and editors. The executive editor and managing editor and publisher sit before us on a stage. They’re going to explain what happened.
There isn’t an easy way to explain that someone who was mentally unstable managed to get a job at the world’s most recognized newspaper and snuck lies past more than one or two or even three editors. I sit in the audience and inspect my identification card. I don’t like sports where a person is put in a ring to be beat up. Besides no one is going to talk about race. Not in an honest way.
But I’m wrong.
The executive editor has the mic. He’s from the South, he reminds us, a place where a man has to choose where he stands on race. “Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many….”
I wince and I pray that he won’t go there. I pray that he won’t go there because if he does it will not be pretty. It will not be understood by the hundreds of white people in the theater.
But he goes there.
Did he, as a white man from Alabama, give a young black man too many chances?
“When I look into my own heart for the truth of that,” he says, “the answer is yes.”
I walk out of the theater.
It’s been eight years since that day in the theater and I’m thinking again about the hierarchy of pain, about a white man admitting to his own people that he cared about the black community, that he thought he could single-handedly change a hierarchy. I’m thinking about the whiteness of the news organization and how that whiteness reproduced itself with every hire, every promotion, but how that is not a scandal.
He left, the editor. He was fired and the metro editor—a white man who once told me that community-based organizations, the ones helping poor people of color, were no longer relevant—was hailed as a savior because he had tried to stop Jayson from writing for the paper.
A week or so after the theater meeting, I meet the Jourdans.
The Jourdans are Haitians. They came to New York City one by one over the course of thirty years: Patrick, Paul, Cosner. They knew that life would be easier the closer they lived to white Americans. They earned their money; they sent it back home. They brought another brother, a sister and a young cousin. Together, some of them with spouses, they shared the basement apartment and second floor of a two story home in Brooklyn.
They learned to have familial love by telephone calls. Like my aunties, they probably bought the wallet-size phone cards and used pennies to scratch the personal identification numbers. The Jourdans probably called the 1-800 number and an automated woman’s voice asked them for the PIN and then told them how much money they had to call Aquin, their home town, how much time they had with the people they loved.
Maybe that’s what Cosner Jourdan did on Saturdays. He walked the neighborhood most days, making friends and talking. At sixty-six, he had diabetes and had retired from factory work. He had been in Brooklyn for ten years and he took care of two trees outside of his basement apartment. He had friends, people who loved him. Cosner was a hero of the everyday variety.
On the night of May 29, 2003, however, a fire breaks out around three in the morning. It rips through the basement apartment. The smoke spreads to the other floors and the brothers, their spouses, sister and young cousin flee to the streets. But not Cosner. He dies in the basement from smoke inhalation.
Because his death happens on a day when the news is slow, the story catches the attention of my editor and I am sent there along with reporters from other papers. We all scribble the pertinent facts: Cosner’s age, the names of the brothers, the cause of death. The other reporters leave the scene in a matter of minutes having deduced that there is no news. I see the same thing but something keeps me in place.
Perhaps it is the basement.
Layers of soot cover the basement, including a bicycle and shopping cart. Hours after the fire, it feels uncomfortable to breathe inside the building. I sit with the Jourdan brothers on the front stoop as friends and neighbors come by. They speak in Creole about the night and Cosner’s death. I listen mostly. I ask a few questions from time to time. I watch the sadness on the faces of Cosner’s brothers and the people who loved him.
The day is hot; sweat coats my back and drenches my button down shirt. In his last moments, did Cosner dream of his father, of his homeland? Did he wake up and think it was his father’s birthday that day, that the old man was turning ninety-eight and what would he say when he received the news? His son dead.
Remembering now that day with the Jourdans, I think: we were not meant to be here. We were not meant to die underground engulfed in smoke. Not Cosner, not any of us. The death of a Haitian man is not some accident in the middle of the night but that is how it is reported. It’s how I reported it.
I wish I had saved my reporting notes from that day, but I threw them out. I discarded them because it was perhaps that day sitting in the thick heat of a Brooklyn summer with the Jourdans that I began to feel a cracking inside of me.
I had first read that word “cracking” in an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay called “Crack-Up.” I didn’t know much about his writing, only that he had become a writer and earned a lot of money and did not live in basements. Everyone had told me as a child that I would be like Fitzgerald one day without the booze and early death. I would do more with my life than work to pay the rent. I would write and in writing I would help people.
But sitting in Brooklyn surrounded by the somber faces of Haitian men and the smell of soot, it begins to seem that things are not going to turn out as people said they would, as my parents hoped for, as I wanted. At least not at this newspaper, not now. I need time away to find words for what I am seeing, for the grief and the killings, for the whiteness of the third floor and the tenth, even for the people who wake up each day and help to keep a hierarchy in place because they are afraid.
The bravest thing a woman can say is “I don’t know.” That’s my answer when my family asks what I am going to do with my life if I am leaving the New York Times.
I don’t know.
They give me blank faces and some of my friends give me sympathetic looks the way you do when someone is about to file for divorce and you really liked both people in the marriage and you feel sad and wonder what it says about life that two good people couldn’t make it work. I force myself to smile, eat dark chocolate, and say, I don’t know.
My last months at the newspaper are a blur of reporting and long hours. When a blackout hits that August, the city is without cell phones or computers or subways and Manhattan turns into a small town. People start walking home. They laugh and curse and eat ice cream at the deli before it melts and I interview people at the Lincoln Tunnel trying to get rides to New Jersey. An old man hollers, “East Orange! South Orange! Any Orange!”
I find myself smiling. Maybe it’s perfectly acceptable to not know what’s going to happen next in life. I walk back to the office in Times Square, where editors are frantically shouting into phones and I file my story on the man and the oranges. It’s after eight or nine when I start the walk home to my little studio on the Upper East Side.
Times Square is silent. It’s not an absence of sound but of color, of lights. The darkened billboards loom like empty picture frames. I squint my eyes to adjust to the dark. At Grand Central Station, I can barely make out the grown men in suits stretched out on the sidewalk, their heads on their brief cases, fast asleep, because they can’t get trains home tonight. The only lights are from the taxis, from the city buses which groan past me, their doors open, people teetering from the steps.
There is comfort in walking through Manhattan when it has been flung into darkness. There is humility, some brief quietness, and I find that I am not afraid or confused or maybe it’s just that when those feelings rise up, I am focused on my feet, on where the sidewalk ends and where it begins and on the headlights of the buses which help me make out the street signs and find my way home.
As in the best creative nonfiction, the author of “Blackout” casts an unwavering eye on personal experience, and, by doing so, comments on a wider world – in this case that of racial politics. This essay never preaches; instead, it reveals its universal message metaphorically and, by the end, with grace.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge