Hotheads, homicidal lunatics, forgotten souls and gun toting rednecks: Or the 13 years I worked as a small town newspaper reporter Part I

The back door to the office was made of metal and when his fists hit the door that night they sounded like gunshots. Back then the door was never locked so in a few moments the door to the newsroom was open and in stomped a man I can only describe looking like a cross between the Grinch and Ebeneezer Scrooge.

He was holding a small pamphlet and waving it wildly in front of him.

“Look at this crap!” He shouted, now standing next to the editor’s desk, which he slapped the pamphlet down on with force. He didn’t say, “crap,” honestly, but to protect sensitive ears from the harsher word he used, we will say he did. “Just look at this! I found this ‘bull crap’ on the windshield of my car when I came out of church! This anti-abortion crap on my windshield! I’m in Mass! I don’t need to have some political agenda shoved down my throat while in Mass! What the hell?! You need to write something about these religious fanatics!”

He stomped back out again , cursing down the hallway to the door and out into the night. The door slammed shut and silence followed. The editor, sitting at his desk, hadn’t said a word to the visitor and had barely looked up from his desk. He and the reporters around me continued to type away as if nothing had happened.

I’d only been employed by this paper for about a week, after working a few years with it’s competitor paper 15 miles away, and it was the first time I’d watched someone simply walk into a newsroom, rant about a random issue and walk back out again. The keys of the computers clicked around me and since no one was offering an explanation of what that particular circus side show had been about, I finally asked.

“Oh, that’s Andy. He does that all the time,” the editor said. “He’s harmless. We just let him go off for awhile and then he leaves. Happens all the time.”

Andy was also the former mayor of the village next to where the paper was located, though actually three municipalities blend together where we live, so to call it a separate town can be confusing to visitors. Two of the “towns” are actually called boroughs and are in Pennsylvania and Andy’s “town” is really a village and located in New York State. 

To this day, I remain confused what “religious fanatics” he was talking about since he’d been in Mass at the local Catholic Church when this happened and I’d imagined it was the people sitting in the pews next to him who had put the pamphlets on his windshield, considering the Catholic Church does have a pro-life stance. I mentioned this to my co-workers who agreed with my logic but said Andy didn’t always subscribe to “logic,” and that it was possible he’d been sipping from his private stash before he had stomped by, as he has had done a few times before village board meetings.  

“Harmless Andy” was only one of many interesting characters I encountered while working for three of the four small town newspapers in the county during my 13 year career as a reporter. One of those other characters was a fellow reporter named Lon, who sat at a cluttered desk across from me, often talked to himself in the third person and spent the majority of his shift swearing at his computer.

He was Vietnam vet who we were told had been a sniper with the Green Berets and sometimes suffered from flash backs. One evening I was alone with him and another reporter and we were typing our stories for that evening’s paper (later the paper fell in with the modern newspaper trend of being a morning newspaper). All we could hear were the sound of the computer keys clicking until Lon stretched open a paper clip, looked at me and said “did you know there are 100 ways you can kill a man with a paper clip?”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. I looked at the other reporter and we locked eyes briefly, with him giving me a wide eyed warning that seemed to suggest the question should remain rhetorical. I didn’t listen.  I cleared my throat. “Ummmm… no. I -uh – didn’t know that.” I said slowly.

Lon was standing at that point, grinned at me and put the paper clip back on the top of the desk.

“One of the ways involves shoving it straight up his nose into his brain,” he said and stood there with his upper lip turned up on the edges like The Joker. He just stared at me for a few moments with that creepy grin, his gray eyes, which I imagine were once steely blue, focused on me, but not really seeing me, as if he’d been mentally transported somewhere else.

He was a tall, lanky man with sunken eyes and cheeks and reminded me of a mummy unwrapped from its ancient bandages. He hunched his shoulders a little, dropped his head down slightly and said “I gotta take a crap.”

He turned abruptly and headed toward the men’s bathroom behind my desk. But then he stopped, turned abruptly again and said “did you know when a man dies he craps himself? Just completely loses control of his bowels.”

He didn’t wait for a response. He just turned on his heel and shuffled into the bathroom.

When the door closed I slowly looked at the other reporter. He shrugged. “Eh, it’s Lon. He says stuff like that all the time. He’s harmless.”

And he was harmless, never hurting anyone physically, except himself by smoking a couple packs of cigarettes a day. He lived alone in a tiny apartment, spent most of his life at the paper, and eventually was forced into retirement as he became more and more agitated at sources and forgetful with the facts of stories. Municipal officials started asking the editor not to send him to meetings anymore. I’ll never forget the day the editor told him I’d be taking over the coverage of a municipality he’d been covering for probably 30 years. His expression was a mix of pissed off and dejected and I felt like I’d just kicked a puppy in some ways, even though the decision hadn’t been mine. 

I wish I could say I kept in touch with Lon after he retired, but I didn’t. I visited him once in his small apartment on the top floor of an assisted living building. The stench of cigarettes filled my nose and gave me a headache and he declined to let me come in, saying it was too dirty and smokey inside. We stood in the fluorescent lit hallway and talked with the apartment door part way open to a dark room with an old couch and I think maybe a table and chair.

He was hooked up to oxygen and I didn’t think he could look anymore dead than he already had when we were working together but he did, his skin now even more of ashen gray than before. He thanked me for coming, said none of his other former co-workers ever visited or called, and with a pleading look in his eyes asked me to stop again. 

I never did. 

I don’t know why. Maybe it was that life got busy after I had my son, and then I  left newspapers all together and never wanted to look back. Maybe it was that it was hard to watch a man slowly waste away before my eyes. Whatever the reasons, I was wrong, I was selfish and I will forever regret it. 

He had no family, only a ex-wife he told us hated him and I heard maybe a step daughter. He was one of the forgotten ones – a forgotten newspaper reporter, a forgotten veteran, a forgotten soul.  

The day I saw his obit I cried and was filled with remorse, shame and regret. The write up was brief, maybe a paragraph, to the point, didn’t speak much about who he really was as a person, didn’t name any survivors, and said there would be no services at his request. In some ways it was like he had never really existed. 

His spirit faded away like the smoke on the end of the cigarettes he had smoked and I had forgotten  him, just like everyone else. It’s something I’ve truly never forgiven myself for and not sure I ever well.