Experienced newspaperman goes freelance
From jazz to journalism
I can still remember the hustling college students and fresh coffee smell when I read the front-page New York Times story that would rupture the bubble of my small, blissfully insulated life.
Until that moment, I’d dedicated my life to jazz, blowing my saxophone day and night in a dorm room plastered floor to ceiling with photographs of New York City landmarks and smoky portraits of Trane, Miles and Dexter. They were my friends and confidantes in the “angry white jazz” program of the University of North Texas, where bebop was life and life was hard. But it was what I’d chosen: a self-imposed exile from politics and problems.
Then my dad — that tenured professor of rhetoric — bought me a daily subscription to The Grey Lady, whose incessant nagging about world-ending crises often left me paralyzed with anxiety. This, after all, was what I’d come here to avoid —nobody goes to music school to learn about Pentagon-funded mercenaries in the Middle East. That was Pop, my Jim Lehrer-worshipping, current events Sphinx of a father . But slowly, like fog burnt away by the rising sun, I saw more and farther than I’d wanted and I couldn’t look away anymore.
Then there was her.
She lay naked on the cover of the paper as I set it down in the quad of the student union, just another day reading between class and big band rehearsal. The dominant photo showed the agonized face of a middle-aged African woman lying on her side, breasts just out of view. The detailed narrative, about the predictably deplorable state of palliative care in Ivory Coast, cast this woman suffering from late-stage breast cancer as its tragic protagonist. The first four paragraphs made it clear that the withering, bloody tumor had emerged from her skin, beyond the left frame and out of sight. The near poetic description of her blooming killer, however ghastly, inflamed my outrage, my nascent sense of justice, and sent me hurtling down a path I thought I’d never wanted.
In some ways, the desire had always been there, but needed the right story told the right way to rouse a latent passion for fairness, for justice. It accumulated over years of bitterness at growing up a marginalized gringo in the Rio Grande Valley, walking through hallways of hyper masculine teenagers eager to pummel the opinionated, loud-mouthed “cracker” who refused to lower his eyes or not know the answer. It once happened in the middle of class, a roomful of watching students who did nothing.
And certainly after a six-month stint in India when I was 14, a bewildered witness to the world’s tolerance of powerless women, malnourished children and poverty, always poverty. You can’t save your innocence when legless men sweep the ground beneath your feet hoping for a dime of charity.
Four years after that day at the quad, instead of New York City, I was living in Georgetown. Not the musical mecca I’d once longed for so intensely, but a place I could live a new dream — that naïve hope of making a difference in a time of moral ambivalence and sunken faith in institutions, newspapers included.
I still play, usually moonlighting with a jazz-funk outfit that frequents Headhunters on Red River, but my most passionate performances take place on the page, where I fire from all chakras, where I can transmute politics and problems from the inscrutable to the comprehensible, where I can pull back the veil on what those in power prefer to remain hidden.
I found that reward in the flood of responses from a community that read, every week, the ongoing saga of true injustice to a man wrongfully imprisoned, the ultimate nightmare. Now a freelance journalist based in Austin, I feel in my fingertips the power of one man’s story to capture the collective imagination. The engines of change move with painful slowness, but once moving, they cannot be stopped.
They are moving in me, and I cannot stop either.