Ericson: So long, City Paper, and thanks for all the fits

The woman who called to get the hose turned on sticks in my mind. It was a few years ago, during a heat wave. She lived in public housing, and the outside faucets didn’t work. Maintenance had shut them down for some reason. The kids were hot; it was too far from one of the few remaining open public pools. She’d been calling Baltimore Housing, she said.

I called housing and left a message.

The woman called back less than an hour later to say the water was on. “Thank you!” she said. I could hear the emotion in her voice.

There was no story to write. I have no idea if my call helped prod things along. Baltimore Housing never returned my call. The woman was so grateful though. She was convinced that the power of the press—of City Paper—saved the day.

That was one of my best days at work.

But, really, even the bad days were pretty good.

You can’t have more fun in life than being an alternative weekly newspaper reporter. It’s like never leaving college, and getting to choose a new major every semester. State courts. Nuclear power. The sheriff’s system (abolished in Connecticut, due to corruption). Bail bondsmen. The new mayor. The richest guy in town. The car club. The gay club. The state fuel contract (one of my all-time favorites). The fact that buildings keep falling down all over the city and people think it’s normal.

Ten years ago I pulled on that string for City Paper and unraveled a rich Baltimore vein: furious neighbors whose houses were being wrecked, incompetent and/or corrupt city officials unwilling to do squat about it; a racist, tragic, alcoholic ex-city engineer; and a thief, drug-dealer, arsonist, and murderer masquerading as a contractor. Of course the cops and prosecutor convicted the wrong man for the murder. And of course the shot-caller’s lawyer was also dirty; he went to prison too.

I had signed on for a semester or two of house-flipping 101 and scum-baggery 202 and I ended up with a post-doctorate credential in Baltimore Normal. The triggerman was just convicted in September. Houses are still collapsing with regularity.

I was lucky as hell to have colleagues and bosses who backed me on this, while all over the country alt-weeklies were shrinking, and many never even attempted substantial investigations.

At its best, City Paper has been a forge for good reporters, hammering them under hot pressure to find stories nobody is covering and make them the most important thing, while getting all the facts right. It’s actually impossible: The most ambitious stories require more person-hours, more expertise, more money for more research than has ever been available to a staff our size. But we still published quite a few.

It’s a testament to alumni like Tom Scocca, Molly Rath, Brennen Jensen, and Blake DiPastino, who were here before me; Tim Hill, Lee Gardner, Erin Sullivan, Anna Ditkoff, Van Smith, and Bret McCabe, who were here when I joined the paper in 2004; Andrea Appleton, Gadi Dechter, Chris Landers, and Jeff Anderson, who came and went during my tenure, and many others: advertising reps like Leslie Grimm and Nicole Allen, who for years made the classified section work; office managers like Linda Bernstein, copy editors, calendar editors (Wendy Ward did it for more than a decade), artists (Emily Flake, Tim Kreider, Tom Chalkley, Alex Fine, and Joe MacLeod, who directed the paper’s art for more than two decades), photographers, and tech people without whom the paper would have withered to nothing—all grinding ballz, skipping vacations and putting up with . . . .

The screaming.

Screaming is a big part of the journalistic process, apparently, from my innate need to howl at almost any computer glitch, to the inevitable misunderstandings writers and editors and art directors and photographers have over various word usages, headline choices, story placements, advertising juxtapositions, and basic facts. This is to say nothing of the phone calls that pour in if a cartoon or crossword puzzle is omitted, much less an unflattering story is published.

In 30 years of reporting in five states, I’ve screamed and been screamed at by people you don’t meet every day.

A state legislator once came to my house to yell at me. A U.S. attorney called me at home on a Sunday morning to dress me down. A U.S. congressman praised my research skills after I filleted him in print, and a banker hinted about the good-pay job I could get if I’d just improve my attitude about the people who mattered. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits, arrested, and even mugged for doing my job. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed me to testify in a murder-for-hire case.

I have cried with mothers whose children were shot. I have interviewed gangsters in their clubhouses. I’ve tried out for the “American Gladiators” TV show, appeared on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” covered presidential nominating conventions, and hung out with hot-rodders. Unbelievably, I got paid to do all this, and it’s been glorious.

And now it’s over.

I can’t say what City Paper’s 40-year run has meant to Baltimore. Everyone has their own idea about that. But after almost 14 years, 1,400 murders chronicled, more than 800 bylined stories in the paper, and about that many online-only blogs, five music videos (and one feature video) posted, three international fugitives inspired, multiple mortgage fraudsters convicted, one drug-dealer/murderer sent to prison for life, one falsely-convicted non-murderer freed, and one cicada eaten, it’s been more than a job.

It’s been my life.

As H.L. Mencken said, “the life of kings.”

Edward Ericson Jr. is the senior staff writer at City Paper.

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