A guy named Alfred just called me from prison. It was a pre-paid call, but I didn't catch it, so I may never know what Alfred wanted to tell me. I'll take a wild guess and say he was going to tell me he was innocent. That happens a lot in this job.

A couple of days ago a guy sent me an e-mail, wanting me to do a column on a pastor who wooed away and married his son's wife, shocking the community. That doesn't happen too often, thankfully.

A few of weeks ago a girl wrote to me because she and her little sister were looking for their dad, and thought I might be able to help. They had not heard from him for a long time. I checked the jail log and the homeless shelters and his last known address, but couldn't find him. I did this because we have resources here at the newspaper to find people, but I also did it because I thought it might be a good column. That's something uncomfortable I've learned about this job, and myself.

A couple of weeks later, the girl wrote that they had located Dad, thanks anyway. I could tell by her tone she didn't want to say any more. So I wrote about someone else's life instead. I moved along, like columnists do.

I have been doing this job now for one year. It's an odd, endlessly fascinating way to make a living. Because my picture is on the top of these stories, people respond to me much more, and much more personally, than when I just had a byline. They send me cards and poems, leave tearful messages, scream in drunken rages at 3 a.m.

Many are studies in what psychologists call "confirmation bias," the tendency people have to put an emphasis on information that confirms what they already believe, and dismiss the information that doesn't. A lot of people complain because I haven't written about something (abortion, gun control, their cause, their enemies). Others project onto me views I do not hold. A lot of people see the world in black and white a lot more than I do. They are uneasy with nuance and uncertainty.

Dozens of people have let me have a glimpse into their lives, for better or worse. Hundreds more have sent me ideas, angry tirades, jokes, kind thoughts, racist diatribes, political rants, veiled threats, books, and music CDs. I have only had to tell two or three repeat harassers not to call me again.

In the past year, people from my childhood have suddenly discovered me. That includes the former neighborhood drug dealer, who complimented my writing style, and my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Margaret, who seemed proud.

Two weeks ago one man wrote to say he canceled his subscription because of one of my columns. On the same day, a couple from northern Minnesota wrote to my editor to say my column was a reason they subscribed. Another reader sent me a beautiful letter on wolf stationary that I want to have framed.

Last week someone wanted to pass along a tip about troubles at a downtown business that I should look into right away. I can't, I said, I'm taking a break. Already have one foot out the door. Call me in three weeks.

So, I will disappear for a short while. I'll sit in sunny zocalos, or dark cathedrals or dank cantinas and I'll watch the people all around me, and because I can't help myself, I'll wonder what stories they have to tell.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702