Fear and Craving in Columnland


Fear and Craving in Columnland

I don’t know what you expect, but you’re wrong.
You probably imagine the life of a newspaper columnist as breathtakingly glamorous, sexy even. You envision the columnist lounging about in his silk pajamas, stretched out on his velvet couch, sipping sherry, occasionally reaching over to his mahogany desk, picking up his elegant fountain pen, and scratching a few brilliantly witty and creative words as they occur to him, before returning to his repose.
I assure you, it is nothing like that. Well, hardly anything like that. I don’t prefer sherry.
But it’s a hard life, no matter what you think. A newspaper columnist is under constant pressure. On the one hand, there are some people ceaselessly angling to get into a column, to promote their Save-the-Knotweed campaign or spotlight Uncle Boris’s dental-floss collection.
Others are simply desperate to see their name appear in print. My mailman scowls at me every Thursday as he delivers the Chronicle. He has already read the paper by this time, so he has been living with the terrible truth all day long: Once again this week, I have not written about my mailman. It seems to me that my mail is arriving later and later every week, and I sometimes suspect that he deliberately crumples my junk mail, as a signal of his displeasure.
On the other hand, there are people in town who recoil in horror at the very idea of their name appearing in this column. My neighbor with the yippy Pomeranian cannot get through a conversation with me without saying, “Don’t write about Fluffy.” He is Italian – the neighbor, not the dog – and without meaning to engage in any ugly stereotypes, I must confess that I can imagine him grunting, “Brendel sleeps with the fishes.” As a matter of sheer self-preservation, I have committed never, ever to write about my neighbor’s Pomeranian.
A columnist walks a tightrope every day of his life. It’s a cutthroat existence. On Election Day, I was at the Y, preparing to vote. I got my ballot, looked for the first open voting booth, and headed toward it. Suddenly I heard a gruff voice behind me.
“Hey, buddy! There’s a line!”
I turned around to discover that indeed, several people had arrived ahead of me and were also waiting for voting booths. They were not actually standing in a “line,” they seemed to be more of a constellation, or perhaps a map of Saugus. In any case, I had mistaken them for “milling around.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the man I had offended.
But it was the woman standing next to him who spoke next. Her eyes were wide as she placed her hand on the man’s elbow in a gesture of trepidation.
“This is gonna be in the newspaper next week!” she moaned to him.
The man’s face went slack. I had become his worst nightmare. A columnist wields such terrible power, he can never relax. At any moment, at every turn, he has the horrible potential to alter someone’s life, reshaping their destiny, and ruining their Thursday.
Good people of Ipswich, I mean you no harm. I only hope to amuse you. Please don’t break my knees. I need them, praying for that dog to die.


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