A few weeks into my Masters, my peers and I quickly learned why the Journalism School at Columbia was distinguished from the rest. There weren’t going to be any exams, no extended reading of any kind, or long lectures. It was going to be fully practical, and you either had it or you didn’t.
We were started off with basic level training, a practice called ‘man on the street.’ The problem was that every assignment at the J-School had a deadline; it was exactly like working in an actual newsroom. For everybody else it may have been wetting feet, but for a novice like me, it was close to walking on water. I remember standing a few blocks from campus on Broadway and 115th, with a notebook and a digital camera, and having to ask random people an open-ended question like, “What do you think about what Mayor Giuliani is proposing for Harlem?” This being New York, no one cared to even look at me. I remember saying, “Excuse me, sir” and “Excuse me, Ma’m” at least a hundred times. The clock was ticking and I had barely two hours left to get the story in on time. Finally, a plumpish middle-aged woman wearing a nurse’s uniform and a lady-moustache stopped to curiously ask me what I was doing. She was impassioned about the topic; she talked so fast and had so many kicker quotes. After that I learned to always carry a tape recorder. I quickly photographed her, took down her name and age, and run back straight to the lab to download the photograph and bang out the story. I handed it in at 3:45 p.m. just barely making my 4 p.m. deadline. In the student lounge, all the others were bumming around drinking sodas and eating pretzels out of the vending machines. I was sinking fast, and I realized then how important it is to have some work experience before getting yourself mangled in a Masters degree.
After our introduction to reporting on the street, we were asked to cover a protest in the City. At the time several global issues were burning up New Yorkers, but I chose to cover the City’s public school teachers’ rally. There were so many questions I could have asked, and the opportunity for a myriad of colorful, passionate and incensed quotes was wide open. But when I got there I was so shy that rather than interview the teachers, I started to march with them.
As part of the academic structure, we were all designated a “beat”. This was going to be the town where you lived and breathed. You were to know everything about your beat – the players, the residents, the politics, the history. I was the only black student in my section, and it was either deliberate or coincidental that I was handed Jamaica, Queens, – a historically African-American neighborhood. The professors gave us no clues, or hints about what we were supposed to do or find in these neighborhoods. Years later as a seasoned journalist I would know that the first thing you do when you get into a new town is go to City Hall and map out the leaders of the school board, the town planning council, make friends with the town cops, and perhaps visit the Welfare/Government Assistance office and talk to some angry, hungry Americans. Even visiting the neighborhood barbershop doesn’t hurt.
The second thing to do is to figure out what days (usually nights) all the boards hold their meetings and abruptly show up. It’s during those meetings that most stories will come alive, when parents are screaming at the school board members about budget cuts and teacher lay-offs, or in the town council meetings when a big shot New York real estate investor is caught in a cat fight with residents about bulldozing an old section of the town to develop a new strip mall.
But at the time I was greener than Queen Elizabeth’s lawn. I didn’t know what was up or down. I would walk around Jamaica sometimes all day, not knowing whether I was coming or going. It was excruciating. Just when I was about to possibly get kicked out of the program for showing unprecedented dumbness, I met a counselor at a women’s shelter and she happily talked to me about the plight of abused women. I visited the shelter and was saddened to see so many beautiful women violated by men they loved – they looked like broken shells; completely hollow inside, no light in their eyes and with seemingly nothing more to give. I was told that some of them were wealthy suburbanites, and it had taken them years to finally leave their cushioned lives. And the fact was many of them still returned. When I handed that story in, the Prof looked at me and said, “We’re finally getting somewhere.”
Part of getting to know my beat was experiencing a “Police Ride Along.” These are usually fairly boring. How serendipitous that on the same night I would be riding with the cops, a gang of masked bank robbers would shake down the Federal Reserve? Not. I sat in the back of the patrol car while two chunky officers drove round in circles. All the while their two-way radio was going off in a language I didn’t understand. “10-4, 5-4…” They stopped for coffee and donuts just before dropping me off to the subway at midnight, confirming the stereotype that cops eat too many donuts. I took the F train at the Jamaica stop, the last stop on the Queens train, and started my 45-minute ride into Manhattan. At Times Square, my least favorite spot in the City (Broadway), I changed to the 1, 2, 3 and started my trip uptown. When I got off the subway, the last stop before Harlem, I picked up a quick step up to International House, being aware it was already 1 a.m. But just a few blocks before I got home, I felt someone tap my shoulder, and turned around to find a hovering figure in a hooded sweatshirt.
“Ok. Don’t panic. Don’t panic, don’t panic.” I told myself I was also wearing a hoodie over my head too, so really, why stereotype – he may just need directions.”
“Bitch, give me your bag, give me your watch, I want to see your phone. I need your cell phone right now.”
“Ok. Panic, panic. This is bad. This is really bad.”
My backpack had only school stuff really, and I didn’t want to mention I had on my laptop, so I started to slowly take off my watch and then hand over the cell phone. My prayer was that he would take those and not need the bag. But he knew my moves before I invented them.
“Bitch, I said give me your bag, right now. Don’t be acting all coy.”
Coy? Really? It seems a big word for a thug.
Then a pistol came out from underneath ‘somewhere’, and the strong language went up a notch. I took off the bag from my shoulders and handed it to him really fast. I was half kneeling on the ground now, trying to get as far back from the gun as I possibly could. He quickly sifted through my bag and threw out the books, then took my wallet, my cell phone and wristwatch and threw them in the bag. Of course the laptop was gone too.
Welcome to New York.