I Met a Reader in the Wild Today

I was in Wayne’s Bicycle Shop this afternoon talking with him about building a wheel for my new Surly Long Haul Trucker when a young woman came in with a beater bike that needed air in the tires and a seat adjustment.

We struck up a conversation and I gave her a Palm Beach Bike Tours business card. She looked at it for a moment and said, “I think I’ve been on that blog before. Do you write about your family in it sometimes?”

I confessed that I had been known to slip in some family references.

She mentioned enough other details to confirm that yes, she was actually the first stranger I had ever met who had made it to the site. She said some nice things, too, but she might have just been polite since I was blocking her exit from the shop.

It’s still exciting

I’m going to let you civilians in on a secret. Journalists, at least the ones I’ve worked with, are secretly excited to find out that folks look at their stuff.

I was still in high school filling in for the city government reporter when I started covering a particularly fractious political squabble. One day I was in a local coffee shop having lunch when I overheard a couple of local movers and shakers talking about MY story: “The paper says….”

And I thought, “‘Paper says?’ I wrote that. And I wonder what they’d think if I’d go over and let them see the snot-nosed kid whose words they were treating as gospel.”

I’ve been tear-gassed in riots

I’ve covered Civil Rights marches, been to so many anti-war rallies that I thought my head would explode if I heard one more repetition of Give Peace a Chance, got trapped in a library sit-in (on the night my newlywed wife had planned a dinner party) and been on drug raids where friends were the targets.

I’ve been hassled by guys with guns

Most of them were wearing badges. This encounter was on the Florida turnpike in 1977. The series of pictures that staffer C.J. Walker and I shot ended up defining the highway patrol’s media policy that has been adopted by fire and law enforcement departments nationwide.

I’ve climbed high objects

I’ve climbed bridges, water towers; talked my way onto rooftops and crawled into coal mines. Sometimes it was because it made a better vantage point. Other times, because it was just something neat to do.

I was half-way up a water tower in a small Florida town when a booming voice came over a PA speaker, “Climb down off that tower. NOW!!!”

I explained who I was and what I was doing, but he said he was afraid that I’d sue him and the county if I fell off. “How about I sign a release?” That might work, he said, but he didn’t have anything like that with him.

He settled for my handwritten statement: “I, Ken Steinhoff and my heirs will hold harmless the county of XXXX in the State of Florida and Deputy XXXX, in particular, in the case of my death or injury. In addition, I promise to scream all the way down to warn anyone who might be walking under the water tower.”

I’ve dangled, uncomfortably, from a helicopter

Despite the fact that the newspaper had been critical of the Palm Beach County Sheriff buying a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, I managed to convince the right people that I should do a story on the good things that it did.

I spent almost six months flying with the crews, most of it on my own time.

Some of the crewmen didn’t know whether to trust me or not. While we were going through the chicken dance, getting to know you phase, I heard that they were going to do some practice picking up victims in the rescue sling. That sounded like fun, so I volunteered.

The last thing they pointed out before we lifted off was a red switch covered with a safety. “That’s the guillotine switch. If we ever feel that the load we’re lifting is endangering the aircraft, I just pull the safety back, push this red button and a blade cuts the cable: The cable you’re swinging from.”

He wasn’t smiling when he said that. I kind of got the point.

I spent a month covering the Cuban Boatlift

And discovered that some news footage of me shooting a boatload of refugees made it into the opening titles of the movie Scarface. (That’s me in the yellow Cat hat, in case you didn’t recognize me.)

The first thing you do

The first thing you do as soon as the paper comes off the press is to turn to your story or picture. You want to see if some editor screwed it up. Or if the composing room manged to switch your picture of the city’s new garbage cans with the mug shot of the mayor (it happened). You want to see if it reproduced correctly, and, most importantly, you want to see YOUR name in a byline.

Finally, you listen carefully to see if you hear anyone in a coffee shop say, “The paper said….”

I got that same rush today in Wayne’s. I can’t wait until it happens again.

10 Replies to “I Met a Reader in the Wild Today”

  1. YAY! I think I got the same rush for you when I read about it.

    I’ve heard many of your stories, but I haven’t heard this one, yet: “….and been on drug raids where friends were the targets.”

    May I make a request?

  2. When I was working in Athens, OH, it wasn’t uncommon to get a call from the cop shop saying, “Show up at 6 P.M. We’re not telling you why. You won’t leave until we tell you can leave.”

    That was a tipoff that they were going to make a sweep. Once you got to the station, they wouldn’t let you leave nor could you make any phone calls.

    Capt. Charlie was a real redneck jerk. I was along one night when he had a warrant to search a home owned by a couple of young school teachers. Frustrated because he hadn’t found anything after tearing the house apart, almost literally, he decided that “they must be hiding their dope in the kitchen” and proceeded to dump all their sugar, flour, salt, tea, etc., all over the floor.

    He also like to roust people from their bedrooms, particularly if they were female and not wearing anything.

    One night we rolled up a familiar farmhouse driveway leading to a guy I had some photo classes with. I was surprised that the cops didn’t find anything because he had quite a rep as a head. A nice guy, but a head.

    Later, he confided that somebody had tipped him off and he had buried his weed in a Mason jar in the barn.

    Now, we’re not talking about folks with bales of square grouper, we’re talking about college kids with a couple of ounces for personal use or to share with their friends.

    Cops in Ohio in the 60s were proud of a two-ounce bust. You can imagine the culture shock when I moved to Florida and covered hauls in tons.

    I remember when a plane either spooked or got lost and dropped bales all over Palm Beach. Or the day I was doing a story in the Big Bend area of the state and a local suggested that I might not want to go out on a particular deserted road “because something heavy might fall out of the sky and hit you on the head.”

    I can tell you that the War on Drugs has been an abject failure.

  3. I suspect that your DOD will not post this story, but one of my favorite Ohio University stories is about when he had roommates and packages would arrive from home (cookies, candy) and well, the story takes place in the winter and involves a Coke can being kept outside on the window ledge…

  4. Congrats on the wild reader.

    I’m hoping in the New Year to find one myself. Or maybe print some business cards.

  5. Were you excited every day your stuff appeared in the paper? That feeling never got old???

    I designed pages and rarely got excited about seeing the layouts in print unless we did something unusual, like a 6-column photo.

    But when I wrote and photographed a few stories for the Travel Section, I was waiting in the pressroom for them to come off, and have copies framed in my home office. You see, these, unlike my daily work, had my NAME on them. Those few Travel stories and photos felt MUCH neater than the thousands of no-name pages.

  6. No, the feeling never got old. The Post ran a file shot of mine this summer that’ll probably be my last Post byline. It was still as sweet as the day I shot it.

    There was a time when I clipped everything I wrote, down to and including tw0-sentence briefs.

    It’s because John Blue called me aside one day and said, “Write every story for 1A, no matter how insignificant it is. And the obits are the most important story you’ll ever write. It’s going to be read more closely than any other by folks who know every detail of the person’s life. It’s going to be clipped out and pasted in the family Bible. And it’s likely to be the last time that person’s name is ever seen again.”


    In those days, stories didn’t automatically get a byline. If your name appeared with a story or picture, it was better than a bonus check.

  7. Hey, http://twitter.com/mathildepiard just told me about your blog after I started following her.

    Terrific stuff!!

    It also is a charge when you HEAR your stuff read on the air. I found this out when working the night broadcast shift in the AP’s Boston bureau at the start of my career. I entertained myself by writing a line that happened to be true: “After six games on the road, the Bruins make it home tonight to host the Red Wings …” (Taking off on the lyric from “Six Days on the Road.”

    Driving back home at 3 a.m., I heard the WBZ guy read it. I was thrilled.

    I’m also going to study your tail light recommendations more closely. I need a good one or two for my night commute here in NYC.

    My blog, too, combines a bit of journalism with a bit of photography with a bit of cycling with various odds and ends:


    I look forward to reading yours regularly!

  8. I quit clipping my stories somewhere down the line — maybe during my first job at the Hollywood Sun-Tattler. It was there I put my heart and soul into a tiny weather bug that appeared on the masthead every day.
    It was a serious thrill on day to get a call from someone at the National Weather Center who said he loved the fact that I made it interesting to read the typical forecast expanded by one phrase: “thunderstorms expected – a good day to curl up with a book,” or “all sunny – go ahead and plan the picnic at the beach. ”
    Later, the thrill was seeing my Post columns and stories being picked up by papers as far flung as Canada, etc. and referenced by NPR and other shows.
    Somewhat torqued me, of course: A freelancer or a photog would get paid for the subsequent use — as a reporter I got nada since it went out on the wire.

  9. Sure, we photogs made a fortune when AP picked up our art. We got $5 a shot. They refused to give the photographer a byline until the last decade or so.

    I have lots of wire service fond memories.

    I worked in a university town in Ohio, so AP wanted sports pix. You’d hump all day doing your normal assignments, cover some football game in the freezing rain, and then call AP from the transmitter to hear them say, “Athens, we’ll take Athens1 as number six in line.”

    I’d say, “Columbus, you’ll take Athens1 as number two in line or you’ll get it tomorrow.” Sometimes that’d work, sometimes they’d get it when I darn well pleased.

    In Gastonia, where extra income would have been nice, AP refused to give me a transmitter because Charlotte was only 19 miles away.

    One night there was a big mill fire and AP wanted the art in a big way. They wanted me to drive it to Charlotte for $5.

    I finally told them (a) they could have the picture for $50 (big money in those days); (b) they’d have to come and get it – they agreed to send a cab to pick it up – and (c) the cabdriver better have my money in cash.

    I still have nasty letters from Hal Buehl, photo god from AP, from the embargoes we put on every Post picture transmitted under my reign.

    MO (magazines out), FL out, USA Today out… in some cases the embargo line was as long as the caption.

    When he complained that USA Today wasn’t our competitor, I said, “They’ve got a box in front of my building. Every paper someone buys from there is one less bought from The Post box next to it.”

    Ahh, the good old days when newspapers actually competed and were proud when they scooped the paper down the street.

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