Time and tide

I saw some faces I hadn’t seen in awhile these past few days. Such wonderful faces. I have so many great memories of each of them.

Two in particular won’t leave my head. One I don’t see enough. One I won’t see again.

It was a particularly apt night to be talking to Janet, last night as the tide flung itself on the sand and Scout’s sweet canine face looked on, listening closely. Two days earlier, the Chicago Sun-Times decided to lay off its entire photo staff. Twenty-eight photojournalists, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, with the reasoning that a reporter armed with an iPhone, or one of these ubiquitous citizen journalists, can do what photographers do.

Well, Janet is a photographer, and they can’t.

I can’t. I was a reporter, and I interviewed people, took notes and wrote stories. That was a full-time job. It was my job. Photography is a photographer’s job. Snapping someone’s picture when I was done would hardly have been the same as having a trained professional, having asked the right questions and understood the salient points, unobtrusively working while I did, or before or after I started, wearing her camera like an invisible cloak, never intruding or interrupting, only adding and enhancing. Whatever I produced, or whatever Dick or Jane on the street, no matter how fluent in Photoshop, will produce, won’t be the same quality, the same cohesion, the same anything as the black-and-white photo of a minor-league pitcher warming up by himself on the patchy dirt of a visitor’s bullpen in the pitiless North Carolina late summer sun. Or any of a hundred other images Janet shot that really didn’t need the words I fought so hard for on the same page.

I’d like to say I wish the Sun-Times luck in its bold new venture. But I don’t. I hope it fails as miserably as I know it will. I hope gutting its soul hurts, and badly. A quick death would be tolerable, but a slow bleeding out, like my friends and colleagues and the journalism business altogether have suffered as people who have no idea what their jobs entail make decisions about their jobs, would be more satisfactory.

Janet is not just a photographer, as if that requires a “just” in the first fucking place. She is also a storyteller. Using her lens, and, as you know if you’ve ever been lucky enough to read them, her words. I actually kind of hate her sometimes, because her fluency in the show-don’t-tell domain of writers is every bit as masterful as – well, as mine, or at least as I aspire it to be. If her pictures don’t conjure up the life and spirit and joy and pain of their subject (which they will), sometimes she’ll throw in an extended cutline or two, just to drive home the point and make you really laugh, or weep. Feel.

Mike was a storyteller, too. One of the great ones. To sit in the darkening twilight, a hoppy beverage near at hand and members of his audience silent on either side, as Mike’s honeysuckle voice rose into the air with the swirl of cigarette smoke, was the sweetness of the first pitch on Opening Day, the remembered saltwater sting of diving into a wave, the flicker of fireflies trying to evade your sticky six-year-old grasp.

Mike wrote the words, often to Janet’s pictures. You know those one-word people? SonnyandCher. JackandDiane. MikeandJanet. “Are MikeandJanet going?” “Did someone call MikeandJanet and remind them they’re bringing the poker chips?”

We used to play poker once a week at a rotating series of houses. Sometimes this required someone else bringing chips. Once, someone forgot, necessitating some enterprising young-then person to fish in a cabinet and produce a box of elbow macaroni. This offended Mike, a purist at poker and most other things that mattered, to begin with. When I called one of my favorite seven-card games, such as Follow the Queen with sevens also wild, he turned pale.

 I used to pin Mike to a darkened corner of this or that person’s party, rambling on after one or two too many about whatever was causing me grief at the moment. Mike, too polite to ever tell me to shut up and then dart for daylight, would listen, his dark brow creased beneath his dignified though regressing hairline, lively eyes snapping like a camera shutter as he processed my torrent of words, a professor of Faulkner contemplating run-on sentences. He’d offer some short, sage advice – which I likely already knew, and no doubt immediately disregarded.

He never seemed to hold this against me, always willing to tell me another story.

MikeandJanet’s story, at least the part everyone could read, ended too soon. After, I think, 10 years or so. I’m bad at numbers, and birthdays and anniversaries are numbers. It’s one of my many shortcomings as a wife, a stepmother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend. But I know he left nine years ago, a few days after my oldest niece was born.

I was eating some cheese straight from the package and trying to decide if I had time to squeeze in a short beach trip two blocks down 74th Avenue before work when the phone rang. The words on the other end changed the tenure of that summer, of my sand-coated troubles, of everything, to some degree.

Nine years is a long time, and it’s not. A lot has happened in nine years. I left the paper by the ocean a long time ago, leaving pieces of myself in the tide but needing more space than all its infinite swells and breakers could provide. I have tried not to leave its people. Those of the water and the sand, and those already returned to dust.

And that is the heart of newspapers anywhere. Its people. That heart that has had trouble, to be sure, and a lot in recent years. Blockages and ruptures, unnecessary surgeries, and the occasional hatchet strike to its tender center. But it beats on, slower and fainter, but audible. For now, until the managers run out of people to manage, and are left looking out their office windows at a parking lot teeming with citizen journalists, unable or unwilling to see the barren caves of desks and chairs and computer screens blinking emptily in front of them.

Evocative scene, that. It would make a nice photograph.