By Sarah Handelman
Luminary Reporter Emeritus
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Ida Lake.
If you don’t know who she is, you’ve probably seen her anyway. She’s been working the Parkville farmer’s market for decades. Six years ago, when I graduated high school, Ida was the first subject I interviewed as a “practicing” journalist. Ida was amiable and patient. In our hour-long interview at her market stall, she bequeathed years of her stories — each one like the perfectly ripe, juicy fruit around us. As I scribbled her every word into my pocket-sized reporter’s notebook, I remember thinking, “Hey, this is kind of fun.”
The interview ended. We exchanged goodbyes. Happily, I drove up Crooked Road, giving myself a pat-on-the-back for reporting well done. I could practically see my name in print. My first story in the Parkville Luminary.
My daydream was a little premature. When I sat down at my laptop to draft my first feature, my newbie glee disappeared. A blank screen and blinking cursor stood between me and my printed byline. Panic. There was no way I could write this. How do you even begin to tell the story of woman who’s worked the farmers market for more decades than you’ve been alive?
For a moment, I considered quitting.
But my grandfather, the Prince of Parkville, had, more-or-less, gotten me the job. And if there was one thing Bill Grigsby the good-hearted tale-teller didn’t like, it was a quitter.
Plus, the Luminary editor scared the daylights out of me. So I struggled through every word, and filed it with my editor, Mark Vasto — a big, loud New Yorker, who somehow ended up in Parkville.
I recoiled as he took his pen to my words. Thankfully he did. The story ran with my byline on top. I earned [a few] honest bucks, and I was hooked. I continued to write through the summer. With each article, the words came more easily and Vasto scared me less. At the end of the summer, I went to journalism school, learned some, wrote some, worked some. And last year I moved to London to do, essentially, the same thing.
Throughout college I didn’t think much about Ida or The Luminary.When my grandpa asked if I’d read his latest column, I’d blush and lie — yes! Of course! I was interested in something else: bigger cities, bigger opportunities, bigger journalism. It wasn’t until I followed my instincts to London that I realized everything big starts small.
And small ain’t so bad anyway. My summer at the Luminary taught me everything I know about being a journalist, or any kind of writer. It served as the foundation for what I think journalism should be. For me, it involved a lot of listening, paying attention and relinquishing my pride for a story — sometimes I had to look (or feel) stupid to figure out what was really there. Mostly, though, I was lucky to work for a guy with little tolerance for excuses.
When I failed to show up to cover a local children’s science workshop, I didn’t have to look at my phone to know who’d be calling. Mark Vasto, The Loud New Yorker, didn’t hesitate to weigh-in on my conscience about missing the assignment at the H.M.S Beagle. But in an elegant balance of personal anecdote and unabashed reproach, Vasto’s words stuck with me: When you say you’re gonna do something, do it.
The 18-year-old, overachieving version of myself cried a little at this display of tough love. But it was only because I knew Vasto was right. The next day, I swallowed my pride, walked into the science shop and apologized. It didn’t matter that the “scoop” was kind of boring. I should have been there.
Writing for a community paper like the Luminary helped me understand why the big and small stories matter. There’s an audience who wants to know. And nothing’s boring. That’s just a lazy excuse (and I’ve made them) for doing a crummy job.
I’ve always wanted to be a good journalist, but the Luminary (and my scary editor) showed me how to try to live good journalism. I still battle the exhilarating whir of reporting against the ever-looming writerly doom, but now I know it always passes.
Six years and 4,000 miles later, my experience at the Luminary rings clear and true. But it sounds less like bells, and more like the thick New York accent of my friend.