Facts, folly and my newspaper swan song

It was a fitting end, my newspaper swan song. A challenging story, my Sunday article was an update of the toughest story I ever wrote — featuring two “Pregnant and Proud” teenagers in 1993, back when Roanoke had the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state.

The public reaction had been harsh. Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

The outcry went national. It was very definitely personal, with more letters to the editor pouring in to decry the story — and the reporter who wrote it — than just about any other piece in our newspaper’s history.

The emotional toll it took on me was mighty — sleepless nights, fears that I’d sunk the reputations of two minors in a way that would forever set their lives on a downward spiral. I was 29 and pregnant with my first child, in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy. I was learning to give myself insulin shots at the same time readers were publicly calling me everything from racist to naïve.

That story — badly packaged and shallowly reported, true though it was — was not my finest moment in journalism, though it not only won awards; it also taught me many of my finest journalistic lessons:

That words matter.

That you can’t predict or influence the reaction people will have to a set of facts in a story.

That you can only do your best to present those facts humanely and fairly, digging as deeply as you can.

That, when in doubt, the medical code of ethics is always a good fallback: Do no harm.

I began trying to revisit “Pregnant and Proud” in 2011. The update seemed every bit as fraught as the first, filled with reluctant family members, depressing statistics, and rap sheets full of raw truths and damning decisions.

The main  subject, Shannon Huff, wasn’t sure at first she wanted another story written. By the time she was on board and the complex set of facts of her life came into focus, I wasn’t sure there was a story to tell myself — at least not one that did no harm.

But not many journalists get to revisit a story some 21 years after the fact. Fewer still get to report from the same place for the same news outlet for 25 years.

When people ask what my favorite part of being a reporter is, I try to describe the way it feels driving to an interview. Sometimes I’m nervous. Usually I’m hopeful. Always I’m running through the possibilities, prepping for the wrinkles that might emerge.

Sometimes moments of grace occur, such as when I told Shannon I’d never set out to harm her and apologized near the end of our first sit-down interview earlier this year. She stood to hug me, tears streaming down her face. She’d “been through hell in gasoline drawers,” as she put it, and her experience as a proud, pregnant teen — including the newspaper feature — had become her unlikely lodestar. She wanted badly now to prove her critics wrong.

The U.S. poet laureaute Natasha Trethewey once told an interviewer that writers have a responsibility to grapple openly and honestly with difficult subjects.  “When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying why open these old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. … The best we can hope for is acknowledgment.”

Acknowledgment. That word was on the spelling test I took as an applicant for a feature writing job at The Roanoke Times in 1989. So was the word accommodate (some things you just never forget!).

The best journalists worry less about accommodating official viewpoints and more about acknowledging the little people caught in the web of tough circumstances, whether they’re showing up for court or for medical treatment, or standing in line at the VEC.

As the great reporter Susan Spencer-Wendel, who died last week of ALS at age 47, put it: “It was a privilege to go to work each day and grow democracy, to ferret out stories no one wanted told, to be trusted to inform and, yes, entertain our readers. When someone would ask me: ‘Who sent you?’ I loved to reply, ‘Well, ma’am, that would be Thomas Jefferson.’ ”

Nothing but the truth: It’s worth remembering the journalistic oath we made when we signed on for all the bad hours, low pay and sleepless nights, infused with the privilege of witnessing heartache and joy and, yes, judgment.

On the eve of the publication of my first book, “Factory Man,” I recently quit newspapering in favor of the deeper dive of researching and writing books. I’ll seek out my usual underdog subjects, working through the issues I now know I was born to tackle.

I’ll mine for the facts, which will do what they always do: morph into falsehoods the more I learn and the deeper I go.

shannon 93

 

 

Shannon Huff, 16 years old in 1993, from the original newspaper article. Public radio reporter Beverly Amsler interviewed me about this story for a featured that aired here.

I made this list of what I’ll miss the most for our going-away bash last week at Kirk Avenue Music Hall. What a great send-off it was!

The smell of newsprint when you walk into the doors of 201 West Campbell Avenue.

The way Ezera Wertz asked me, along about three Christmases ago, if I would write his obituary when he died. In exchange for a quart of lima beans, of course.

The trails on Mill Mountain, especially the car trail. Especially the Monument and Star trails. Hell, all the trails.

The always-open pantry of Karen Branch, best neighbor in the world.

Getting paid to know so many kinds of people, from short-order cooks to judges to Cookie, the hairdresser who makes housecalls.

Listening to Old Gabriel, the Norfolk-Southern work whistle — so hopeful and yet so dissonant, as if it’s trying to tell you something. . . like to get up and go to work.

Story ideas from Ed, from way back in his folk-art-selling days, and pep talks from Katherine, who – if you ever find yourself about to interview for a fellowship at Harvard — gives the world’s best advice.

Getting to tell my version of other people’s truths — and knowing that I couldn’t have done it without the trust of people like Linda Rhodes, and Ellen Moore and Martha  Anderson and Vivian Sanchez-Jones.

Knowing that if I get into a child-care jam, I can call Chris or Bill, or Angela, or Sarah or Ian and Kathy. Chris Henson’s inimitable 5-minute-long voicemail messages.

Uncle Frosty’s pool. Aunt Barbara’s generosity. Nana’s pies. Aunt Sue’s ability to jump in there and stay with our kids for an entire week.

Jane Vance’s gin-and-tonics and her 26 cats, especially Rare Rare the Cat With Gray Hair. Mountain-bike rides with Jenna, who slows down so I can keep up.

Sweet and sour soup from Mary when I get sick.

Journalism therapy from Mary when someone hurts my feelings or I get stuck on a story.

Also from Frosty.

Also from Carole, the best and toughest editor of them all – and without whose trust and guidance; without her really getting me and what I’m good at — we would not be going on this adventure at all.

I’ll miss everybody. Especially the planners of our going-away fiesta — Mary and Dan and Frances and Chris and Connie and Frosty, and Katherine and Ed — thanks for always being on our team.

And a huuuuge thanks to my family — Max and Will — for their willingness to rearrange their lives around mine without getting too mad. (Max, you can write a memoir in a few years and get your revenge.)

And the biggest thanks of all to Tom, who for 20 years now has held my hand through all manner of nervousness and seems to love me even when I yell because he didn’t put the packing tape back in the drawer where it belongs. Or the scissors.

He bought me a Valentine’s Day card once with a quote by Jackson Browne with a quote that seems fitting as I toast all my Roanoke pals and the myriad ways you all have had my back: “Life is slippery. Here, take my hand.”

Thank you for celebrating with us. We’ll miss you a ton. And we’ll be back before you know it.

Why I love Roanoke — and not just for the eggplant-gouda rolls at Isaacs


 Today, I should’ve been packing. The boxes were assembled, the mandate clear: Pack away our winter stuff first, things we won’t need until the Massachusetts chill settles into our wimpy Southern bones.

Instead, while Tom and Max made their first foray to Boston to get the lay of our soon-to-be homeland, I stayed home in Roanoke and I cooked. 

 Inspired by our recent houseguest, Jes Gearing, who writes a kick-butt vegan food blog called Cupcake Punk, I decided to try something new, an eggplant-gouda appetizer dish I’d sampled at The Isaacs Mediterranean Restaurant last week and absolutely loved. It didn’t hurt that our restaurant manager-friend, Nicole, used to be one of our babysitters, so when I stopped by yesterday and begged to know how they made it, she happily spilled the bones of the recipe.

 I used the nonstick griddle on my newish gas range — something I wasn’t appreciating fully until Jes, our soon-to-be tenant, gushed about all the great food she was going to make on it, complete with a spiffy looking picture of our kitchen that she posted on her blog.

 Funny how it’s hard to appreciate things until someone else points out the wonders of them to you. I think of that a lot these days as I go about my daily routines — hiking through the near-ripe wineberry patches with Tom and Lucky in the mornings, tending my zinnia cut-flower bed that always makes me think of my sweet pal Frances, yacking at uncle Frosty at his poolside (even though he really should be indoors resting after his radiation treatments — having cancer seems to make him even more hard-headed than before.)

 These are the things I’ll miss most about my adopted home of 20 years, a place where you can’t stand in the checkout at Kroger without running into at least one person you know. Or ride your bike up Mill Mountain. Or walk down to Grandin Road, where the new Saturday farmer’s market is hopping. (Foodies, check out the softball-sized shitaakes trucked down from Floyd. And Ashley Donahue’s brownies. And the Amherst County goat cheese. . . . )

 It doesn’t matter that I don’t see my favorite reporter-mentor and friend, Mary Bishop, but every couple of weeks. I’m going to miss knowing she’s only five minutes away if I need her. (Who’s gonna bring us sweet-and-sour soup the next time we catch a cold?)

 When I first came to Roanoke as a single 25-year-old, I thought I’d be here two years, three years tops. But leaving it has never felt quite right.

 Sure, there were bigger and better newspapers I could have tried to work for – though whether I’d still be gainfully employed at them is another issue, never mind being allowed to do the enterprise journalism I’m blessed to do here.

 Sure, there were more exciting cities and cooler mid-sized places. Towns with universities and bigger greenway systems and better schools and places where you can get Dogfish Head 60 Minutes IPA on tap. (People at Isaacs, please, listen up! )

 But leaving never felt right, especially since Tom’s parents moved here last year, supplying Will with a steady supply of homemade cookies that he picks up daily on his way home from school.

 I’m looking forward to my new home in Cambridge — a bike ride away from Trader Joe’s (sorry, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s the truth) — just as Jes is already planning out the meals she’ll make in my kitchen. But when the year ends, I know I’ll be itching to get back to more than my stovetop griddle here in the ‘Noke, which is a lot more than my adopted hometown. It’s home.

 

 Eggplant-gouda appetizer rolls

(Inspired by a recent special at The Issacs Restaurant and a conversation with its lovely manager, Nicole Coleman. Note: I added the Kalamata paste because I’ve been addicted to it ever since we started the Flat Belly Diet. Sorry, Nicole — if you’re an olive junkie, I think it’s even better this way.)

 

1 eggplant, peeled, sliced longways and sweated (salted and left to sit for 30 minutes or so, until the water oozes out) and patted dry

Half pound or so chunk of gouda cheese

Olive oil for copious brushing

Kosher salt

Pepper

Kalamata olive paste (pitted and pureed with garlic, to taste — I use about a half cup olives to 2 cloves garlic)

 

1.    On your oventop griddle — or lacking that, a good nonstick skillet will do — brush on olive oil and then pan-fry slices of eggplant, grilling on medium-high heat and turning over and reapplying olive oil as needed. I did it in batches, flipping every minute or so, until they were pliable and slightly browned (see photo below).

2.    Remove from griddle, let cool on a plate.

3.    When cool, slather a tablespoon or so of olive paste on larger end of eggplant strip, then place a chunk (about a tablespoon-sized piece: picture a quarter that’s three times its depth) of cheese on top. Wrap the eggplant up into a roll.

4.    Place on oiled cookie sheet and broil for 3 minutes until the cheese is nicely melted but not so much that it’s spilled out all over the pan. (I used my “Low Broil” setting.)

5.    Serve immediately, with salt and pepper to taste — and a Dogfish, if you have one, on the side.

 

Eggplant frying on the griddle

Eggplant frying on the griddle.

 

Finished rollups, after low-broiling.

Finished rollups, after low-broiling.