When I was working at the newspaper, I was responsible for writing a section of the paper called 'Our Neighbors' which I filled the section with profiles of people within the community, with the operating premise that everyone has a story.
Often, we would profile people who did or do something extraordinary, but many times, this section became the place where my editor stuck pushy people who wanted to bully their way into the paper. As a result, I would be forced to meet with that person and figure out what was interesting about the jerk so readers would feel like there was a reason they were reading my story.
When I wasn't being bullied into providing free press for someone's bullshit hobby, the section was my favorite to write. Sometimes, I would write about people with 'dirty jobs,' like the septic guy who drove a truck that read 'We're #1 for your number 2.'
Other times, I would pick people for the section just because the art (photos) for the story would be colorful and timely, like in the spring and early summer when I profiled a blueberry farmer one week and later I wrote about the owner of a pick-your-own peach farm just as the trees were heavy and bowed with fresh peaches. I thought it gave me some fodder for introducing a little imagery into the profile.
Well, last year Easter came early and snuck right up on me. I didn't really have anyone lined up for 'Our Neighbors' as I was preparing for the issue of Easter week. I was actually pretty clueless about who would be my neighbor. I hadn't really gotten all that adjusted to the paper and wasn't really thinking in terms of great photos and introducing imagery verbally. I just wanted to figure out how I was going to fill 12 to 15 inches of space with info about someone. Anyone really. I had to write 8 to 10 articles that same length every week. There wasn't time to dilly-dally.
Taking a look at it numerically:
12 to 15 inches of newsprint
8 to 10 times weekly
3 sources/contacts per story
30 words per inch
On a busy/productive week, I was talking to 30 sources.
Producing 150 inches of newshole, or 450 words,
Arranging and assigning 10 photos to one photographer.
Producing 10 newspaper articles that I would feel comfortable not only signing my name next to, but also my email address and work number, including extension.
And trying to tell a readable, interesting Feature story in every single one.
No wonder I quit to sling hash and make money again.
Well, with Easter sneaking up on me (there was always extra work to do leading up to a holiday) I asked my editor if she had any ideas for one of the two papers I wrote 'neighbors' for.
She jumped right in and said, "How 'bout a someone who makes their own candy? One of these candy shops on the boardwalk still has to make something themselves. Candy Corn? Fudge? It's for the Easter paper, so it will be timely."
"Good thinkin'," I said and walked to my desk, wondering how I was going to track these candy makers down in March when nothing gets up and running at the beach until at least the middle of April.
Well, they have phone numbers, I thought, figuring I would get started as soon as I left the office. I only got through on one number and I left a message because it was always safer to give a warm-up call and leave a message because some people still really freak out with journalists, despite all the fame-whores this country seems to be producing. I really had to step it up a few notches when I first got the job and almost had an anxiety attack after I realized how much time I would have to spend on the godforsaken, always-ringing phone.
Anyway, I left a message at a long-standing candy store whose owner had left contact information for prospective employees.
"Looking for summer work? Why not be a kid in a candy store and join the 'insert candy-store here' team for summer 2008? Call XXX-YYYY to apply"
So, I called XXX-YYYY and left a message to see if there was anyone who made the treats, in-house and promptly received a call back, even before I got to the next candy store to play investigator.
"Hi, is this the reporter trying to reach someone from Candyland?"
"Yes, this is Molly speaking. I was wondering, do you have a resident, um, candy-maker?"
"Well, no there isn't anyone, in-house, who makes candy. There actually isn't anyone in town who makes their own candy anymore, I just bought Candyland and nobody does it these days."
"What? No fudgemakers? Or Taffy-pullers? You mean not one of these shops makes their own candy? I mean, this is the beach, what about carmel corn" I said before realizing that even if there were still resident candy makers in town, they certainly weren't pulling taffy in 20 degree weather for the hoards of tourists outside.
After I realized I wasn't going to have anything to go with now that the Oompa-Loompas were taking the winter off, I realized I could still run with a story and instead of focusing on an actual candy maker, I would just write about the owner of the Candyland. He seemed to have a lot of stuff he was planning to do to expand the 70-year old Candyland he bought the previous summer.
"Well, I'm sorry to find no one in town makes their own candy. Wha? Ok, you get your fudge from New Jersey? Interesting," I said, without really caring. "Alright, well we can still work with this. You are open on some weekends, ok, I see. Well, how's Tuesday fit into your schedule?" I said and made arrangements to meet with the new owner of Candyland at the beginning of the following week.
When I met with the new owner on the following Tuesday, he was clearly excited to be getting some free press. As I made my way around the store, he pointed out he was voted Best Downstate Candy Store in a poll created by a statewide magazine. He made me a 'chocolate soda,' a concoction that adds even more fructose to sodas and gave me the phone numbers of some regular customers and business associates as further sources.
He showed me more than 40 varieties of fudge and chocolate candies. The gummi-bar, featuring a menagerie of gummi-animals, beyond the usual assortment of bears and worms. The store had a black-and-white checkered floor and some vintage-looking tables to sit down and have a pop at. After all, the store dated back to the days when teens would meet up for a pop at the end of a school day.
While we were chatting, the owner said he was a transplant, moving within the past 5 years after working in publishing. He said he had previously worked as a travel writer, which sparked my interest, and said he had even published a magazine in the area. I was interested until it became apparent that his magazine was geared more toward an alternative lifestyle. Basically, he was publishing a gay magazine.
While this might have raised alarm signals for many, the beach where Candyland is located is known for it's large population of homosexual and lesbian residents. Think Provincetown, Cape Cod, but less garrish and campy.
If I ever got my hands on one of the magazines, I think it was definitely something I wasn't very interested in, but not a red flag. I certainly didn't want to label myself a bigot and I only had so many inches of space to delve into the history of the shop, the new shop he was opening of the same name, the genesis of the candy that satisfies our cravings and rots our teeth.
I wrote the story and gave it a real willy wonka spin. I mean, really, a gummi bar? How could I not? When the story came out, the headline read "The Candyman Can' and I went on about my business for the next two weeks.
After eating mushrooms and having a particularly bad trip one Sunday, two weeks after the story came out, I awoke at 7:30 on Monday morning to the sound of my cell phone buzzing with a text message.
I read the text and almost swallowed my tongue when a family friend told me that a local radio personality said my name on air and was talking about one of my articles.
"Oh shit." was my immediate reaction. I went down to the only radio I had that worked, the one in my car, and I heard the host talking about the owner of Candyland. The radio host had bad blood with the man over business dealings in the past, but this did not change the issue at had: The owner of Candyland was a convicted pedophile from Missiouri and he bought the local candy store, his pedophilia charges from Missouti notwithstanding.
"Holy shit? What?" I thought, and then I could feel my insides tightening up.
Nevermind the host was an old muckraker and I was not up for holding a press conference at 8 a.m. on the morning talk radio circuit, I just wanted out of my life, like,immediately. All I wanted to do with the story was write a fun profile for Easter! Now, I felt like I wanted to burn it, except I was glad someone was talking about what was really up with this dude.
I started shaking a little when I thought about going to the newsroom. I hoped no one was listening and I believed I was the worst reporter in the world. Clearly, I believed, I was. How could I have been so naive. The publisher of a gay magazine owns a candy store in town? What do you do?
As it turns out, the Candyman was a kiddie-toucher who served time in Missouri and high-tailed it to the East Coast for a chance at a new life.
I wonder if it is known in the ranks of kiddie-touchers that they don't have to re-register as such when they move to Delaware (although I'm unsure of exactly how it really works).
I got hate mail. Real, live, no-return address, postmarked in New Jersey HATE MAIL.
On one hand, I felt I made it. On the other, I was miserable. How could I have been so negligent?
It wasn't until I followed up on one of the hate-emails I received that I could make some peace with it.
A woman emailed me, asking how I could have written such a kind story about such a villian. I wanted to shoot a response back to her telling her exactly where she could go and how she could get there, but then I saw she CC'ed the radio host, and virtually everyone else at that station.
No thank you, I've learned my lesson. I no longer eat mushrooms on Sundays. I realize what I put on paper lingers, even after my mood disappates.
I called her and asked her if she would have wondered who owned her local candy store if it weren't for my story? I asked her if it was really my job, as a reporter, to make sure this man could not be in contact with children, or maybe if it was her job, as a citizen, to mobilize and make changes in her community if she would like to see them.
That shut her up. Hopefully she's mobilizing right now, maybe to this tune:
Who can take a felony record?
Move a time or two?
Seperate the sorrow, and create a petting zoo?
The candyman can,
cause he mixes it with chocolate sodas, webkins, gummis and love,
and an adolescent for you too.