Being a newspaper columnist is a strange and beautiful caper. Your world is populated by oddballs and knuckleheads, superheroes and sociopaths. You rub and trade elbows with the up-and-coming and the down-and-out. For the same column, you can be called “the last person with common sense in the city,” and a “tone-deaf curmudgeon.”
Thanks for that second one, by the way. I had it emblazoned on my coffee mug.
People always ask me where I get the ideas for columns. They come from everywhere and nowhere, from breaking news to my slightly skewed curiosity about the world. A lot of times, the columnist Gods (readers) drop one in your lap. As Guy Clark said, some days the song writes you.
I can think of no other job in which a homeless man will show up at your office and tell you that a prostitute has stolen his therapy dog. That leads you to sit outside a crack den for several hours waiting for someone to walk the man’s dog. Then it leads to dozens of readers who take over and not only find the dog and get the homeless man shelter, but they also raise money to replace his faulty heart valve. Finally, you learn the man’s demons caught up with him again and realize your ability to change the world is ultimately limited.
Those moments were magical and uplifting and frustrating, all at once.
There was the man with cerebral palsy who wrote me a beautiful letter about a desperate situation. An unforeseen consequence of a law meant to help him was about to force him out of his job and his condo. All I had to do is let him tell his story. A bipartisan Legislature changed the law, saving him and dozens of others from poverty.
It’s not always that easy. One of my colleagues summed up my situation well: “The great thing about your job is that you can write about anything you want. The terrifying thing about your job is that you can write about anything you want.”
Which is why, after 20 years at this newspaper and almost nine years as a columnist, I’m retiring. It appears that, despite all odds, I’ve survived a career in journalism. I’m not going to cut myself off from the world, but simply find a new way to look at it.
I started out studying psychology, flirted with law school, but ultimately fell in love with journalism, which is a little of everything. Spending an afternoon in a newsroom can be as dull as it gets. Spending a career in a newsroom, surrounded by eccentrics, is inspiring and exhilarating. I’m lucky to be one of those people.
Soon, all I will have left is a deep gratitude for my colleagues and readers. I have gratitude for my bosses, who have mostly left me alone — the best you can ask for in this gig. My editors have massaged my copy to make me sound smarter. Wise copy editors have saved me from hundreds of grammatical blunders. I end a career as a columnist at a large American newspaper and I still can’t spell worth a damn and couldn’t diagram a sentence to save the world.
Over the years I’ve met so many compassionate, fearless people that they are impossible to count. Two who stand out are the veterans who followed a rat to a pile of wood chips near a facility for homeless vets. The vets there were suffering from the dust and vermin but were afraid to tell anyone, lest they lose their homes. The two men pestered officials for more than a year. They came to me, not for praise or attention, but because they knew public officials heed stories in the state’s largest newspaper. The piles of rubble are now gone.
In the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten worn down by the weekly screeds and wishes that I lead a short, uncomfortable life. I began to dread the 3 a.m. calls and anonymous notes. After many weekends got ruined by hostile chatter on social media, my wife, Ellen, wisely suggested I either kill my column or Twitter. I survived the past few years, in fact, by removing social media from my phone.
I fear we are becoming a mean, arrogant country. In fact, at 6 a.m. the day after voters elected a bigoted, narcissistic megalomaniac, I wrote to my financial planner the following words: “I feel like I’ve wasted 30 years of my life. Get me out of here.”
I was despondent. The reason I’m leaving, however, is exactly the opposite of despair. Over the past year I’ve seen my newspaper and my profession rise to the challenge of people who are aiming to destroy the First Amendment.
As I write this, I’m surrounded by veterans and young reporters who are smarter and more skilled than I am. They are also as committed and tenacious as any journalists I’ve ever known. I’ve come to believe truth and decency will win out. It feels like a perfect time to step away and let them have at it.
In the past few months I started to think about all the good people I had met in my career. They were humble, selfless and compassionate and spoke to me reluctantly about their deeds. Maybe it was time I tried to become one of them. I began to want something more rewarding and more tangible than telling stories and writing opinions for the choir. Selfishly, I no longer have the stomach to engage people impervious to facts or truth.
Maybe I will unload trucks at a food shelf or teach English to immigrants. I don’t know. I welcome suggestions. People who know me well say I will continue to write. I will just stop receiving regular paychecks.
David Letterman said that if you say you are retiring to spend more time with your family, you better check with them first. So I asked my wife, and she agreed there would be nothing better than to spend our 30th anniversary on a beach.
This is my last column. My last day in the newsroom will come this week. So you could say that — much like the Nicollet Mall — my career as a columnist at this newspaper is “substantially complete.”
On Thursday I will walk out of here for the last time, more than a little sad and emotional, but also excited to be cut loose from purpose for the first time in 35 years. I will proudly bring home my mug that reads: “tone-deaf curmudgeon.”
Which reminds me of one thing I’ve always wanted to say: Hey, you kids, get the hell off my lawn!
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin