When does a reporter stop being a reporter?
Sometimes being a reporter means being the bearer of bad news.
It’s a reality of the job that comes in a couple different forms – not that any of them are ever easy.
There are the conversations you dread like calling the family of a murder victim or of a soldier who has died overseas. Phone calls like those require a deep breath and a pep talk beforehand, and you never really exhale until it’s over.
And there are the surprise bad news moments. The instances when you accidentally lay something heavy on someone who is unprepared or ill-equipped to handle it. Sometimes, those moments are almost as bad. Sometimes they’re worse.
A few weeks ago, I was in York’s south end knocking on doors in hopes of finding sources for a piece that ran this past Sunday. In an effort to collect the $14 million that is owed to the city by delinquent sewer and trash customers, York officials are, for the first time, planning to cut off water service to those who haven’t paid.
Cut offs won’t happen all at once — there are at least 4,000 customers who are behind on their bills in some capacity – so the city has issued a list of the top 36 delinquent customers who owe the most. Shut offs will begin with those people, and, depending on the success of the program, move down the list from there.
That’s where my mini road trip began. List in hand, I headed for a group of delinquent customers concentrated in the city’s southwest end, hoping to put some faces to the names on the list.
I knew from a series of Lexis Nexis searches that the people I was looking for were mostly senior citizens — only three of the names I searched appeared to be under 50 — but the situation I walked into at one address on West Maple Street was nothing I could have prepared for.
The man who answered the door was friendly. He invited me in and explained that he lives at the modest house with his 75-year-old mother, who happened to be at the hospital that day following some surgery.
She’s a retired employee of Danskin, who now lives on Social Security and disability payments — in addition to his modest salary from Cracker Barrel, he explained.
They had both read a story in the York Daily Record about the city collecting delinquent sewer and trash fees, but they had no idea that they were on the list, he said.
Before I could get in another question, the man abruptly stood up. “There she is,” he said, dashing outside to help his mother into the house.
I sat frozen on a chair in the living room, unsure of how to escape the situation. The last thing I wanted to do was ambush a woman with bad news as she got home from the hospital, but there was no way to leave the house without blocking her entry.
With painstaking care, the elderly woman made her way up the stairs in front of the home with the help of her son and another woman. I could hear hushed voices discussing “sewer” and “trash” as she struggled up the incline.
When the woman reached the house, she planted herself on a chair beside the door. As she caught her breath, she asked me if I was with the city.
I explained that I was not, that I was instead with the newspaper, and that I was trying to find the people that the city was threatening with water shut offs. That made little sense to her, but she asked what she owed. I told her it was just over $52,000.
Her breathing grew increasingly labored.
“I’m a widow,” she said. “There’s no way. I don’t see how.”
All of a sudden we were desperate to keep her calm. You just need to start a payment plan, and everything will be fine, I told her. I scrawled her account number and other information on a piece of paper along with the address for city hall, and the other woman gently assured her that she would take care of it.
That house was the first I had found all day with an actual human being in it, but I knew I had to get out of there. My story needed sources, but not at any cost.
“Ain’t this a nice homecoming,” the elderly woman said shaking her head as I made my hasty retreat.
On days like that, it’s a struggle to stay professional. As reporters, we have a job to do, but it’s impossible not to feel for some of the people you encounter. The woman had a compelling story, no doubt about it, but I know when it’s time to make my exit. What byline is worth someone’s health?