The last few weeks have been one hell of a ride. I have found, at least for myself, that in trying to make up for lost time when it comes to writing, one’s mind goes in so many different directions and it becomes all the more hard to stay focused on any one topic.
So here are some thoughts, some afterthoughts and a clear explanation of bald-faced lies that masquerade as alternative facts.
Running an errand the other day and returning home, I passed a nearby funeral home that was staging a procession of vehicles about to accompany the dearly departed either to a church service or the cemetery. At least two dozen cars were lined up, with family and friends (most dressed in black) consoling one another with hugs, tears and a loving hand placed on a shoulder.
In that fast glance of taking in the scene, I saw no hearse, but behind the line of cars there was a clearly marked Avis rental van, its back doors open and a metal ramp leading from the vehicle’s interior to the asphalt lot.
The thought that ran through my mind? In hard times and cutting corners, what a hell of a substitute for a traditional hearse.
Just after the holidays, I was at a local Starbucks savoring a coffee (in a mug, mind you) and The New York Times. I had a table for two near the faux fireplace and flanking me near the door are two other tables. At the closest one is an elderly couple divvying up a slice of layer cake and a blueberry scone. They don’t say a word: Their actions and their expressions speak of years, decades even, of being together and deep understanding. No mincing of words, just an understanding nod of the head, a half-smile, a raised eyebrow or a fleeting scowl. Yet they held each other’s eyes and those eyes spoke with a voice that needed no volume.
Adjacent to them, their view to me obscured by the aging pair, sat a young couple giggling and conversing in broken French, their eyes focused on holding hands and relishing and cherishing their company. I envied them, this couple in love, as I did the aging pair, long together and long ago one.
I finished my coffee and stood to leave. The elderly woman met my eyes and smiled. My view now unrestricted, I noticed that the young couple were not holding hands but fingering individual Iphones, all in an online search for the nearest and least inexpensive French bistro.
“Fuck this,” said the young man.
“There’s a McDonald’s next door.”
It’s not that I’m scared about what’s taking place in Washington, D.C. since the president-elect became president on Friday, Jan. 20. Petrified doesn’t work, either. Deeply concerned with an undercurrent of sheer terror and a splash of horror, I do think, fits the range of my emotions. While it’s not the end of the world (might it be?) these last few days have filled me with anxiety and nostalgia for what the future holds and what I know from the past.
Above all else, I’m feeling old. I’m closing in on 60 (someone said to me 60 is the new 40 – yet tell that to my creaking knees when I rise in the morning) and a lifetime of experience is weighing on my mind.
Forty years ago last week I was a 19-year-old college reporter on my way to the nation’s capitol to cover the Carter inaugural. It promised to be a grand adventure. Five of my colleagues from the campus newspaper and radio station climbed aboard a 1966 Oldsmobile that had seen better days. We launched from Palisades Park at two in the morning bound for a hotel in Fairfax, Virginia. The spot was 30 miles outside D.C., the closest hotel we could find that was not booked solid for the historic event. Our young driver (I’ll not mention names here) was a disreputable sort with political connections that had wrangled us invites to all sorts of pre-inaugural parties. We knew he was shady because he was the only one of us that not only had a credit card but a Playboy Club Gold Key Card to boot. The invites alone justified his presence among us, that and his willingness to drive. (He would be arrested two years later for impersonating a doctor and groping young women, we would learn.)
Off we went on one of the coldest and bitterest January days ever recorded, yet are hearts were warmed to the notion of the high adventure ahead. Soon, though, a frigid reality set in. The car’s heater once engaged was blowing cold air.
“Oh, it just takes a little time to warm up and kick in,” he reassured us. With 50 or so miles behind us as we travelled south along the New Jersey Turnpike, there still was no heat. My colleagues sitting behind me (I was flying right seat as co-pilot) were huddled under blankets with just their eyes showing. A wisp of steam from their nostrils indicated they had not yet frozen to death. And of course, they were not amused. It took about eight hours before we reached our hotel and a chance to defrost. Later, in one of our rooms, a potent splash of bourbon from a bottle tucked into an overnight bag helped ease our pain.
As a bright, windy and cold dawn greeted us the next morning, we were carried on that same wind with high expectations, clutching our passes to Jimmy Carter’s outdoor inaugural site. But those expectations were short-lived as our journalist-laden Olds made it to the end of the hotel driveway and promptly died. Unbeknownst to us, a transmission line had cracked and leaked out its life’s blood during the night and our rusting stead went hooves up.
We did finally make it into Washington with a borrowed car from a colleague’s uncle who lucky for us lived nearby, but we missed Carter’s swearing-in and had to settle for a walk along Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade interviewing anyone we could find from New Jersey. Comments from kids, many with runny noses thanks to the bitter cold, made up the majority of our sound bites, running commentary and reporting.
For me, all was not lost. As a print journalist, I and a college radio reporter/soundman managed tickets to Vice President Walter Mondale’s inaugural ball at the Shoreham Hotel in downtown D.C. The event and a tender encounter forever changed my life. For those details, I invite you back into my website to explore, under Essays, “Memories of an inaugural dance with a lovely stranger.”
We worked hard to report the truth of what we saw, heard and experienced. Much of it came from the heart. And while it would have been easy to exaggerate all that we witnessed that day, we stuck to the facts and were proud of our experience and accomplishment.
We had no need to resort to alternative facts. What a far cry and different world today from four decades ago. Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump advisor (and a Jersey girl with a home in Alpine) believes that today, it’s perfectly fine to manipulate the facts and project one spin over another.
My first editor and mentor at The Record in Hackensack (during the paper’s golden years when it was family owned and stood by integrity and not a Gannett-owned rag where the bottom-line now rules) instilled in me that there is no compromise when it comes to reporting and good writing.
“There is this side of the story,” he would say, holding up his left hand, “and this side of the story,” holding up his right. “In the middle, if you have done your job right as a reporter, is the truth.” And his other gem, which he was known to bellow in our ears should we ever lose track of it, was this: “There is the truth, and there are bald-faced lies. Your job is to distill the truth. When it comes to politicians and their hacks, it is their job to lie. Right to your face. Like terriers, we must always ferret out the truth.”
So. Ms. Conway, there are some truths that many of us still hold as self-evident. Understand, too, that terriers have a vicious bite when provoked, that they draw blood and are tenacious when it comes to defending the public’s right to know the truth, not the alternative facts you and others want the nation to accept without question.