By Laura Lippman, Special to The Baltimore Sun
10:35 AM EDT, May 10, 2012
"How much presidential political trivia do you know?" a Sun reporter asked me shortly after I joined The Evening Sun in 1989.
"Not much," I admitted cheerfully.
I was a second-generation hire at The Baltimore Sun, a fact I had managed to conceal until the final rounds of my job interview. I wasn't particularly honorable, but nepotism had failed to work for me in my eight-year campaign to get a job at my hometown paper, so I had switched up my tactics.
My father, Theo Lippman Jr., had been at The Sun since 1965. Perhaps inevitably, his co-workers assumed I would be a chip off the old editorial-writer block, which was pretty flattering to me. My father, an erudite wordsmith, was so prominent in his field that "Lippman's Law" — the only successful presidential candidate must be a plausible candidate from a previous presidential campaign — was once cited in a New York Times editorial. (Undone by Bill Clinton, too, but so it goes.)
The only problem was that I hated covering politics. Didn't really get it, had no natural affinity for it. I chafed at being in a throng of other reporters, not because I disliked them — some of my best friends are reporters — but because I felt nonessential. At city hall, at the statehouse, on national campaigns and in the wake of catastrophes — there would always be reporters, good ones, the best ones. I wanted to go where, asW.H. Audenwrote in a different context, executives would never want to tamper.
So I wrote about poverty. It's become a factoid — the word is used precisely here; look it up — that I was The Sun's last poverty reporter. That's not strictly correct. But it definitely wasn't a star beat when I was on it in the early 1990s.
After five years on the news side, I moved to features. Even there, I wasn't drawn to the more glamorous assignments. Asked — forced — to write about then-Gov. Parris Glendening during his re-election campaign in 1998, I focused almost entirely on his blushing problem. Asked — forced — to cover the mayor's race in 1999, I observed that mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley had a frat-boy smile; I don't think he ever smiled in my presence again. I liked interviewing writers, but other famous people left me cold. Too polished, too practiced.
No, ask me my favorite moments from 20 years in journalism and 12 at The Sun, and I'll tell you about the woman who was selling her unworn wedding dress through the classifieds. Or the Baltimore County English teacher who made his own speed humps when no one would listen to his complaints about fast cars in the alley. I went shopping for a prom dress with a sweet, thoughtful honor student. I helped one of the oldest Confederate widows into her petticoat. The only "celebrity" moment that jumps out at me is watching Allen Ginsberg recite "Howl" outside a Washington courthouse, part of an obscenity case. Or, maybe, matching Christopher Hitchens drink for drink during an interview, although I don't remember that with the same clarity as Ginsberg declaiming beneath a perfect October sky.
Most days, I had the good sense to know it was a charmed life. The single happiest day of my journalism career came in June 2001. I had met a fourth-grader on assignment and been struck by his sweetness, his eagerness to be interviewed. I felt bad that I couldn't shoehorn him into the story I was writing, so I asked my bosses if I could write about the last day of school from his perspective. I interviewed him before the day itself, so I would have a handle on his life story, and set up the complicated permissions. (Every student in his class had to have a parent sign a photo waiver, as I recall.) Then I sat with my laptop in a Harford County classroom and recounted the moment that George Slade opened his report card. He'd had a tough year, and he was hopeful he might bring up a few grades.
It may have been the single most suspenseful thing I ever covered as a journalist. Let others follow the hanging chads. This was where I wanted to be, watching a boy's face as he saw those desired but unexpected A's and B's.
The next day, I walked into the Baltimore County bureau, where I was then assigned, and announced I could quit journalism with no regrets. I had written the best story I would ever write. It was true and it was honest and it made a 10-year-old boy happy.
It was actually five months before I left The Sun to be a full-time novelist. To this day, I keep George Slade's wallet-size school photo next to my computer.
Laura Lippman is a best-selling crime novelist, most recently of "The Most Dangerous Thing." She was a reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun from 1989 to 2001.
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