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Domestic Disturbances

Helen Rafferty

Byline Blues

Saturday, 7am: The call comes in. While my family and the rest of the innocents in this town sleep, I grab a pencil and jot down the where and when. The who, what and why will have to wait until my relentless and finely honed investigative skills flush them out. Into my Sportsac I toss my reporter's notebook and five Bic ballpoints, having learned the hard way that news won't wait for a hack without a back-up pen.

By 8am, I've hit the streets. It's quiet — a little too quiet. I plant myself on a bench near the park gazebo and wait. The lens cap is off my camera - another hard lesson learned after several rolls of wasted film - and my five pens are poised.

Finally, at 9:30am, all hell breaks loose. In a frantic scrawl decipherable only by me, I get it all down — the crowds, the noise, the confusion, the barking. By noon, I've pounded out the copy and captioned my photos. And with the next edition of the Harrison Herald, my byline will be printed proudly in glorious black and white, just below my latest hard-hitting headline: "Harrison Pet Parade a Success — Again!"

Welcome to the world of the local reporter. For the past six months, my weekends have all been like this — early morning shlepping to one feel-good festival after another. Interviews with bake sale organizers and boy scout troops. The hours for this job are long and inconvenient, but it's exciting, demanding and creatively fulfilling work, and it's making me rich.

Actually, it's boring, demanding and creatively unfulfilling but, at ten cents a word, who could walk away?

Okay, so anyone could walk away from an hourly wage that's been considered unacceptable since the late 18th century. The real dilemma is: What aspiring writer could walk away from the chance to see their name in print? Not this one. To me, happiness is found not in losing ten pounds or winning the lottery or world peace. Happiness, for this late-blooming Lois Lane, is a BYLINE. A byline read by about 147 people but a byline, nonetheless. My readers grab me in the produce section of the Stop-n-Shop and tell me they enjoyed my story on the Senior Art show or that pesky sewer line break. I smile and thank them and insist that, "it's just a little something I do in my spare time," while my inner voice hisses, "Eat your heart out, Christiane Amanpour!" My running around town with a notebook and a cheap Nikon completely mortifies my daughters. So add the perverse pleasure of embarrassing my children to the list of press perks.

I tell myself that I'm doing more than taking a mid-life, low-mileage ego trip; that small-town journalists fill a noble role in society. After all, they find the news that's fit to print; they uncover the truth, rooting out injustice and exposing the dark underbelly hidden beneath the deceptively calm surface of suburban life. In this town, the dark underbelly role is usually filled by a gardener ignoring the latest leaf-blower restrictions or some drunken teenagers trashing the local golf course on a Friday night. It can get ugly, especially if one of the kegger kids turns out to be the son of the PTA president or a local minister. Still, a reporter must venture where the average citizen fears to tread.

News is where you make it for the local reporter. And I do find room for a certain level of creativity in my journalistic endeavors. I do this by lying. Well, not by lying, really; it's more like intuiting inevitable truths rather than technically, physically observing them.

So, say the Dixie Dandies start their free concert in the park at 5pm, promising to play until it gets too dark to read their sheet music. I don't know about you, but I'd rather chew off my own hand then sit through three hours of "My Gal Sal." Therefore, I take a few pictures and grab a few quotes, then retire to the local Mexican joint where my reporter's notebook practically fills itself with Dan Rather-like musings on the nostalgic journey taken by the Dandies' multi-generational audience as the sun set brilliantly behind them. Hell, no physically present reporter could have written a more glowing review.

It is a comfort to know that I'm following in the footsteps of many famous writers: Anna Quindlen, James Michener, even Papa Hemingway, himself; they all started out as journalists. And every one of them went on to write novels, so you can't tell me that flexing the old creative muscle isn't a time honored journalistic tradition. In fact, I suspect that the news media deserves credit for some of the most moving fiction I've ever read.

Hemingway got sent to cover the Spanish-American War. I get sent to cover the Nature Center's Annual Ice Cream Social. Maybe, if I'm lucky, a food fight will break out.

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