©1997 A.D. Sullivan
Award Winning Journalist
The Power of the Press
The West Potatofield Incident
by Sharon Griffiths
The geese flock the soccer field
dressed in tan and green
heads shimmering bright
in October sun, bills bobbing
to devour seed planted for next spring's grass
their great webbed feet
splashing through mud puddles
in their rush from goal to goal
missing only the screaming crowd
begging them to score
Award Winning Journalist
This month I won first place for weekly features in the Society of Professional Journalism's annual contest. This comes at a good time for me, when in the middle of numerous journalistic conflicts, I find myself bolstered. Although I won the award for work done in my capacity as a reporter for a Hudson County weekly newspaper, I feel vindicated in other areas, including my dedication to providing an underground alternative to the news, a carry-over from my days when I worked for the LA Free Press (selling newspapers on the street) and the East Village Other (also selling issues on the street) and seventeen years of printed issues of Scrap Paper Review. This on-line issue talks about and pokes fun at my career as a journalist. "The West Potato Incident" by Sharon Griffiths was written as a comment on the fact that at one point during my tenure as a reporter, the only way I could acquire printed copies of my own stories was to steal newspapers off people's lawns. I want to say that this situation has changed somewhat since then, though this issue of SPR is just one more self-indulgent excess by A.D. Sullivan.
My family always thought of Uncle Frank as slow, a lumbering giant of brawn but little brain. Out of a litter of seven, he was least favored, born one child too soon to be the youngest and four children too later to get Grandpa's name. Uncle Albert had that distinct, and for good reason. He came out of Grandma's womb a perfect duplicate of his father, raising his voice the minute the doctor wiped away the blood, and never stopped. As he grew old, he took on Grandpa's jowls and opinions, and thought as much of Frank as Grandpa did.
Even Grandpa's profession seemed to slip through Frank's fingers. He couldn't hammer a nail in straight or cut a board to fit a measurement. That talent fell to Grandpa's second eldest son, Richard, who with Albert, yammered into Grandpa's ears night and day, two brothers competing for the same role of family head once the old man passed on, each learning grandpa's moods and follies, acting in his place when he was not around. They ordered the younger members of the family like two competing princes, each knowing in the end there could be only one king. Even Grandma gave way to them, perpetually grumbling to herself about bringing them into the world, yet scurrying away to complete the chores they ordered done.
Only Frank resisted them, standing in their way like a chunk of stone. When they shouted at him, he ignored them. When they persisted, he told them to go away.
``Who died and made you papa?'' he routinely asked.
But they thought the same of Frank as Grandpa did. Grandpa called him lazy, and said Frank needed to lose some of his baby fat. The echo of this often thundered through the house whenever Frank refused a chore, or whenever Frank got caught sitting in one place when they wanted him someplace else.
``And just what on earth do you think you're doing?'' Grandpa often yelled when he found Frank staring out a window.
``Looking,'' Frank said.
``At what, for God's sake?''
Frank would point; Grandpa would squint. Each time it was something different, yet something utterly incomprehensible to Grandpa or his two eldest sons, a cob web or a spider, or maybe a beam of light cascading down through one of the dusty windows. Despite the protest of the three practical men, Frank found many things to ``just look at,'' even in the dead of winter when the street lights or sunlight glistened off a freshly fallen snow. Frank, however, loved Spring best. In that season, he wandered around the yard, staring down into the places where the plants burst through the soil. Sometimes, he simply touched a tree limb with his thick fingers, or pointed out to me the yellow bloom of some fantastic new growth.
To me, Frank's hands deceived people, huge paws with thick fingers that seemed better suited for hammer and nail than handling plants. Yet, they seemed nimble, and touched things so gently that they seemed to inspire growth. His hands gave truth to the tales of green thumbs. When he knelt and planted one of grand's Easter gifts, some potted store-bought plant destined in other circumstances to dry up and die, those plants bloomed more sweetly than those in Mrs. Gunya's yard -- which neighbors said were prize winning. Frank often took me on tours of the yard, showing me how the cherry tree bark pealed, warning me against the temptation to pull it all off. Not that he was against picking flowers, which he often did, carrying them back from a variety of vacant lots for Grandma who stuck them in a vase above the window, though made no comment to the other family members about where they came from.
The others knew. Richard often complained about Frank dragging junk into the house. Albert said the flowers stunk up the kitchen.
``Looking?'' Grandpa always scowled. ``You shouldn't be looking, you should be out working in the yard.''
But I didn't want Frank working out in the yard, lifting lumbers or hammering nails, too busy to share his little discoveries with me. When left alone in the house or on the porch, Frank answered almost any question I asked, even those questions other adults might have thought of as silly. I asked Richard a question once about why the sink gurgled when the water went down. He looked at me, his hard stare studying my face as if trying to figure out whether or not I was joking. Then, scowling he said ``Why cares.''
``I do,'' I said.
``Because it does,'' he snapped and told me to go away so he could get some work done.
I asked Albert the same question, getting much the same look from him, though his stare registered alarm. He seemed to think I saw too much of Frank, and was catching whatever disease Frank had.
``Stop asking idiotic questions,'' Albert told me. ``Or you'll wind up going crazy, too.''
Frank's eyes sparkled when I asked him, and he leaned closer to me, his large shoulders pressing into me as he whispered in my ears. ``Pixies and gremlins,'' he said, and laughed, and then went back to staring out the window. A few years later, he explained about gravity, and how the air and water struggled to be in the same place at the same time with the gurgling the result of the battle. He seemed to know so much about everything, about the sky and earth and air. I asked him where all this knowledge came from and he gave me a doleful smile.
``I read, boy,'' he said softly -- a thing that might well have explained his thickening glasses and eyes that squinted more and more as the years progressed, the under-the-cover battles with books and flashlight slowly ruining his eyes when he failed to find a better more convenient corner of the house to read. Many times, I found him in the attic hallway, struggling to make out the fine print of a library book beneath the dim 15 watt bulb grandpa had installed on the stair -- grandpa saying it was all the light we needed to go up and down by. Sometimes, I found Frank reading in the basement, the dull blue glow of the dryer dial illuminating his pages. He tried to read in the livingroom, but was taunted out, Richard and Albert and Grandpa wondering what a carpenter could get out of a book.
``If you're so smart, Frank,'' Richard once asked. ``Why are they failing you at school?''
For all his reading, Frank's report cards returned largely filled with Fs and Ds.
``Because I have the same teachers you did,'' Frank told him. ``And they expect no more of me than they got from you. They said it right up front, too, the first day they saw my name. `Here comes another Grimes boy. He won't last.' So they don't read what I write. They just give me the same marks they always gave a Grimes boy.''
He used to get so mad at his teachers, he'd come home slamming his books on the table, telling Grandma how he tried to show them his poetry, but they wouldn't take it, questioning him instead about why he hadn't gone to shop. He told them he hated shop, and wanted to go to college. They laughed, patted his shoulder, and told him to take his seat. In English class they never called on him, always expecting the same question from him they had gotten from his brothers, like ``Why do we need Shakespeare?''
After a while, he stopped raising his hand, though never stopped writing, sticking sheet after precious sheet into his notebook to bring home with him. No teacher ever saw them. I'm not sure anyone read what Frank wrote but me, and then I didn't understand all of it. But then, at that time I thought all poetry had to rime, and squinted over each page trying to find the rime words when there weren't any. Albert, Richard and Grandpa only shook their heads, wondering how a body that had been produced from a family of callused fingers could produce a six foot poet.
Frank learned to keep his hand -written notebooks hidden under a loose board in the attic -- which he removed only after he had secured the door with a bolt. Sometimes, he would let me look over the pages, his large, firm handwriting easier to read than any of his brother's. Sometimes, he read aloud to me, long winding passages that made more sense coming out of his mouth than my reading them, a stream of snapshots taken, not of flowers and flowing brooks, but of the day to day things that went on in and around the house, men sweating over lumber, each word a beaten nail, each stanza a wall, each poem a room.
Years later, when I understood more, I read those volumes again, page after precious page, long after he had ceased to add to his collection. Grandpa, Albert, Richard and life whittling down his resistance to work. I asked him once why he stopped writing in the attic, he only shrug.
``There comes a time when you have to get on with things,'' he said. ``Besides those poems were never really any good anyway.''
Now, reading them again, I agree. Yet in them, locked in their passages is a secret to that old house, I've yet to capture, despite my better poetry.
The Power of the Press
March 22, 1994
Power is a disturbing element in human consciousness, an annoying piece of dust that can grow into a deadly tumor or a pearl. It is easy to see its attractions and how good people sell out to its darker side, bending to the belief that it is some internal virtue and not time, place and luck that gives them importance.
For me, the temptation is great as well, a sweeping sense of self importance that needs to be resisted. As a writer for a weekly newspaper in Secaucus, I have an inherent position of power. Yes, the last year has seen growth in the paper, as I have invested time into making it bear weight in the community. But like with West Paterson, my power ends when I cease as reporter.
Here in town, there is another, older weekly newspaper and a woman reporter whose senses the same frustration, knowing much about how town works, but unable to move beyond her function as reporter to obtain real, personal power. She suffered greatly this year, from both the competitive nature of my reporting and other power figures using me to destroy her credibility. She seems to sense her vulnerable nature.
But she and I should understand that power is always temporary, invested by position, not name -- though some people have obtained a status that cannot be as easily undone as losing a job or credibility. That is rare. Yet even those people struggle, losing much when they are dumped from the scene. In town, the former mayor was once the face and voice of Secaucus. Now, he is an old man sitting alone at home, struggling through press releases to keep his memory alive. He does not enjoy or totally understand the fickle nature of power, how when it betrays those who wield it the way Tolkien's ring did.
Defining ones own power is part of its control. Seeing where it comes from and how it operates helps dissipate the illusion of self importance. I am important because I can put words into print. When I lose that power, I lose credibility and position, fading back into the unwashed masses. My talent as a writer means nothing without the resources to put it before the public. My opinions or perceptions lose their edge when no one reads them.
Even then, with power defined, it is the daily exercise of work and sweat that gives power its depth. One must never presume the past will justify the future: what one did yesterday is forgotten today. It is only what one does today that assures there will be a tomorrow.
I guess this self doubt has come because of recent events. I find people from both sides grooming me for their uses. Next week I'm supposed to go to Trenton, a significant step up from Secaucus and yet... Why do people want me there? What is the purpose of my going? Have I already taken the initial steps towards corruption the way some people in town politics have, letting myself get swayed by the glitter of the position, using one side against the other in order to gain a position for myself and my paper?
A good thing to keep in mind, I'd say.
The West Potatofield Incident
by Sharon Griffiths
Danny O'Sullivan, ace reporter for the West Potatofield Times - in fact, the only semi-literate, semi-sober soul they employed - was tooling around in his 20 year old grayish-brown Wartmobile one cold and rainy Saturday evening. He was way out of his league (and his neighborhood). West Potatofield is a well-to-do bedroom community, where the men all go to the City and do well and the women all stay home in the bedroom and do even better. Danny's neighborhood - East Dumpster - was way across the tracks, a land of tight women in fast dresses and men who spent their lives under cars, either fixing them or sleeping off a drunk.
Danny, a fine example of burly, exuberant Irish manhood, was on a mission - actually, he was looking to steal a copy of the very paper that paid his meager salary. You see, the West Potatofield Times was never to be found in East Dumpster except in winter, when people stole them in bulk and used them to stoke the many trash-bin fires which cast a romantic glow over the main stretch of town and promoted a feeling of community spirit among the winos passing their bottles.
Danny had a systematic timetable for his thefts - he knew which houses left the paper out to rot on their front lawns, the families who wouldn't even grace their dead fish with the West Potatofield Times. All the poor slob wanted was to see if he had scored a "bingo" -- a pathetic term he had coined for having a by-line on every story on the front page, a small thing to salve his fragile and often inebriated ego.
So on that fateful night, Danny, his stocky, muscular body clad for the quick trip only in shorts and T-shirt, got totally lost in the driving rain. He missed the street where he was accustomed to find his paper laying like an embarrassment on the lawn, and drove around slowly, peering through the fogged windshield in confusion -a confusion added to by the nagging thought in the back of his mind that he had somewhere else to be.
He finally found a copy of the sodden tabloid in front of a large classy-looking house with an expansive front lawn. The paper had been hurled close to the front door by a paper-boy with major league pitching dreams, but Danny had been training for his paper pilfering by running through East Dumpster daily, only occasionally because he was being pursued by a curious street thief or bill collector.
So Danny leaped out of the Wartmobile and jogged towards the porch of the house. He almost had his hands on the prize when he heard the door of the cursed car slam and lock and remembered that the keys were still in the ignition. You see, the Wartmobile had come to Danny equipped with its very own poltergeist. Ever since Danny had purchased the Wartmobile from the shifty-eyed "automotive reseller" on his block -- the guy whose merchandise usually ran to Cadillacs with bad, still-damp paint jobs littering the area in front of his paint-splattered garage - mean and annoying things had been happening whenever Danny least expected them. Four flats simultaneously, a jack that had run amok and put 10 stitches in Danny's already well-embroidered head, an unlocatable dead creature in the air vent - the list goes on and on. But tonight, well, this was the last straw.
Half-naked, wet, freezing, miles from home, and in the act of committing a minor crime, Danny momentarily lost what little sense he still possessed and started screaming terrible curses at the malevolent machine. Unfortunately, he was still standing right at the front door of the afore-mentioned classy house. Danny's obscene howling was cut off abruptly as a porch light went on, and the front door was opened by the most beautiful woman the poor rum-soaked Irishman had ever seen.
"Oh", she exclaimed, her luscious curves encased in a flimsy robe and backlit to perfection by the hall light, "Are you all right?" Her green cat's eyes traveled greedily over Danny's muscular thighs, chest, and arms, now totally covered with goosebumps. He made a few gagging noises, sneezed, opened and closed his mouth several times without anything coming out, and finally settled for staring bug-eyed at the vision before him.
"Come in before you freeze to death", she purred, "I'll get you some coffee and find you something to wear while I dry those clothes." She was halfway into the living room when she realized that Danny was not following. He was still standing by the door, making those sounds, and looking for all the world like a total imbecile.
"Come on", the vision chuckled, "what is it -- cat got your tongue?" This line was delivered with the implication that, she being the cat, she would have his tongue wherever he cared to put it. He stumbled forward, his brain turned to oatmeal; all sense of decorum, morality, social grace, and the substantial pain of inevitable discovery blotted out by the sensuous wiggle of her behind. Danny followed as if on a leash, a poodle on Valium.
The lovely lady of the house lead Danny up the winding staircase to a massively opulent bedroom. "You can change in here", she said, "There's a big bathrobe on the door of the bathroom there, and if you give me your clothes, I'll pop them in the dryer. Come downstairs when you've changed; I'll put the coffee on." She smiled a carnivorous smile, her eyes suggesting that there were unspeakable pleasures to be had after that coffee. Danny just swayed slightly and blinked, not rousing himself until she was gone, leaving a trail of Chanel No. 5 and animal lust in her wake.
Danny shambled around in the big bedroom for awhile, tripped over himself as he removed his shorts and almost collapsed the big four-poster bed. He stood in the middle of the room stark naked. With nakedness, dim traces of reason fought bravely through the landfill of his mind.
"Holy shit," was his first really pithy, let alone intelligible, remark of the evening, "What am I doing?!"
His brave attempt at rationalization was quickly replaced by a brave attempt to cover that which he held most dear (usually in his left hand, late at night, in the dark) when the doorknob rattled and the sexy contralto of the Vision cooed, "Are you ready yet?"
Danny sprinted into the bathroom, slammed the door so that the various bottles and jars rattled as if in the throes of an earthquake, locked the door, threw both the clothes hamper and his body against it and croaked, "Almost!"
Our poor befuddled hero could see no way out of his predicament. Bravely, he donned the huge terrycloth bathrobe, removed the hamper from in front of the door, unlocked it, and stepped resolutely out to meet his fate. He knew he was doomed.
After stumbling down the magnificent staircase and taking a wrong turn or two through the spacious rooms of the house, Danny finally ended up at the kitchen door. She was sitting at the kitchen table, legs carelessly crossed, bathrobe parted to expose thighs that would make a grown man weep. Danny blinked back a tear or two and lurched into the room.
"Coffee's ready," said the Vision, indicating the steaming mug in front of the seat opposite her with a glance. Danny approached the table with caution -- caution being necessary to keep the front of the bathrobe firmly closed against the lady's hungry eyes.
Once near the table, our hero darted spastically to the seat, fell into it, grabbed the linen napkin as well as the placemat and piled them into his lap -- praying all the while to Our Lady of the Saltpeter that his body not betray him. He smiled an idiot smile at the lady, grabbed the mug and tossed the coffee down.
Unfortunately, the coffee was still quite hot, and now he had a new excuse for his inarticulate gargling - his vocal chords were scorched.
And this, dear reader, was the cozy domestic scene presented to the Vision's husband (remember, beautiful women are always married to someone else). Danny and the Vision looked up suddenly to behold a stocky, dark man in a tight-fitting pinstripe suit, jumping up and down, flailing his arms and sputtering.
"Madonna mia, whatsa dis? Whatta you do, you mala femmina? I work all day inna da funeral parlor, I spenda my nights tryin' to be mayor a dis pissant town, and alla time you playa da footsie wid some poor schmuck!"
Danny's first impulse was to dive under the table, where he was presented with an even better view of the mala femmina's charms. The Mayor, of course misjudged our hero's intentions.
"Eh you, putz, get out from betweena her legs - whadda you tryin' ta do?"
The Vision was unnaturally calm during all this. She reached casually for a nailfile and went to work on a blood-red digit. "Oh, Gino, come off it with the goombah routine, who are you trying to kid?" She leaned back and addressed the cowering hulk under the table. "He was born right down the block! I mean, he went to Princeton - and not on scholarship either! But he thinks this ethnic thing is good for votes. You know: blue-collar, working-class, Springsteen, and all that." She looked back up at Gino. "Honestly, Gino, sometimes you can be such a jerk."
This comment was all that was needed to cease Gino's tirade, choking his stream of ethnic invective with a jolt of apoplectic fury. He stood there turning purple, clenching his hands and opening and closing his mouth. The only sounds to be heard in the room at this moment were the hysterical gibberings of our poor hero, still cringing under the table.
"Muh-muh-muh", he said repeatedly, until Mayor Malatesta finally calmed down enough to notice. "Whatsa matta you, you wanta you mamma, you stoopid? I tole you once, get out from under da table, you stop looka my wife's thing like dat!"
"Mayor", Danny finally got out of his terrified mouth, "Mayor, Mayor, HOLY SHIT!!"
"EH!", Gino screamed over Danny's hysteria, his enraged face almost upside down as he bent towards Danny under the table, "You watcha you mouth in dis house! I mean, my wife, she's a slut, but you still showa some respect!" With this closer look at Danny, a light of recognition dawned in the Mayor's eyes. "Eh, I know you! You da poor dumb schmuck reporter fromma da paper! You was supposed to be at da meeting tonight to getta my statement - an instead I finda you inna my bathrobe, stickin' you face in my wife private parts! Whadda you tryin' ta do ta me, eh? I thought you was a good guy."
"I didn't - I couldn't - I don't", Danny spluttered, until the lady of the house, bored with all this masculine excess, said, "Gino, I found this poor idiot howling on the porch. All he was doing was stealing the paper in his underwear. He was all wet, so I let him come in so I could dry his clothes. I'd do that for a dog, Gino."
"Yeah, an' you'd probably let a dog stick his nose in your thing, too!" the Mayor replied wittily.
"Oh, cut the crap, Gino," the angel was getting annoyed. "If you keep this up, you know, I'll just have to go tell Daddy."
"Oh sure, go to you poppa! Just cause he bought my first election don't mean dat I can't get elected by myself dis time! Yeah, go to you poppa!" The Mayor looked around wildly, and spied Danny crawling rapidly out of the room on all fours, trying to take advantage of this shift in conversation to beat a hasty retreat to the Wartmobile. The Mayor grabbed him by the collar of the robe and hoisted him to his feet.
"I tella you what, you bitch, I'll showa you anna you God-damned Daddy! I'ma gonna take dis poor fool ana make him my campaign manager!" With this, the Mayor turned Danny's terrified, slack-jawed face around to meet his. "I swear ta God, he's da stoopidest lookin' man I ever saw, but I'll show you dat even wid a idiot lika dis, I'll get re-elected!"
The outcome, dear reader, of this modern morality play is that our poor hero did indeed do a respectable job as the Mayor's campaign manager, once he had recovered somewhat from the shock of that bizarre evening. Mayor Malatesta was elected to a second term, Danny has a new career in political management, and the Vision, impressed by her husband's stab at independence, is wiggling her behind only for him these days.
January 4, 1994
I want to think that Lincoln was right when he said you can't fool all the people all the time. But somehow, the old saying doesn't fit. Justice, poetic or not, is most often the figment of fiction and wishful thinking. People usually get their just rewards only when someone else gets away with murder. In political power situation, it is often one wrong against another wrong with people selecting the lesser of two evils.
In town I cover for a weekly newspaper, an old man wanted to be mayor so bad he allowed himself to be used, trading away his roll as town gadfly for the more prestigious role of mayor. The irony here is that he would have likely won as mayor anyway in any free election, and the dark forces that seduced him simply hitched themselves to his wagon.
But the fatal flaw here was one of pride. The old man had been an outspoken critic of the previous mayor-- a mayor who had ruled that town for so long that two whole generations grew up knowing no one else in the role. This old man was just wise enough to know that comparisons would be made, people always looking towards the former mayor and comparing them.
His election couldn't just be one of a gadfly getting a bite of the big time. He needed to be coronated and crowned, backed by the very people who had made the previous mayor seem important. So in a last minute deal, the old man took on their mantle and then on, he became a different man, forgetting many of the things he had said as gadfly, doing many of the things he had condemned the previous mayor for doing. People reported him shouting at workers and demanding things get done. Often, he was too ignorant of the ways of governing to know he was in the wrong, or how to correct real wrongs when he came upon them.
People came to hate him. Even some who backed him as part of the old party in town, knowing they needed him to keep their own power, and resenting him more for their need. Over the term of his first office, opposition grew. The old party weakened and had to resort more and more to tactics of desperation, tactics which were illegal and risky, but worth the risk if they could keep in power. And the old man was lured along behind them with promises of greater glory, seats on even higher bodies, a place in town history that seemed more legitimate than that of gadfly or even on term mayor.
He ran for reelection in the toughest race that town had ever seen, mudslinging brought to all time low, with people's families named and cursed. The old man himself was blamed for much of this, though his opposition learned to do the same. In the end, on election night, the dirty tricks prevailed -- but by a very, very slim margin and the old man gloated, though nervously glancing over his shoulder. The opposition, however, decided not to accept the loss this time, seeking blood, knowing that if they could turn just a few votes around, the mayor and the machine could fall.
So this week, the court ordered the old man to stand down. A court date set to see about wrong doing, and one by one the great machine backs away from him, not quite pointing a finger at him, not quite willing to turn him against them, but slyly, wishing him well, looking out for their own butts as judgment nears. Who can say who the real winner or losers are. But an old man slunk from behind the podium today, his head folded forward, not in shame, maybe, but with plenty of regrets and thoughts of how things might have gone if he had kept his integrity.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307