WHY I AM A JOURNALIST: Frozen in May
Last week I took a stroll in the sunshine from my home to Salt & Straw, the ice cream mecca on Northwest 23rd Avenue.
Gone is the old queue around the block of excited teens and tourists. Now, during the pandemic and partial lockdown, it is pickup window service only. People order on their phones and mill around on the sidewalk, waiting for a pint of frozen cream to be slid across a table on a metal tray. And then they depart. Strangers do not chat.
I do because I'm a journalist and I have the perfect excuse to get out of the house.
Writing about Salt & Straw is not exactly Pulitzer-grade material. Walking 15 blocks past rose bushes and tidy tent camps for ice cream is the definition of ease, if not privilege. You have an affable owner, Kim Malek, who is a veritable quote machine, and a product that is one part sugar, three parts dairy, and six parts social currency. In good times, Salt & Straw has a license to print money. In bad times, they're in a Battle Royale with all the other treats in the freezer aisle.
My job can be easy, but it is still essential in one respect: the firm is local, and Pamplin Media and the Portland Tribune are fiercely committed to local journalism. In the Business section, the 2020 Depression is far more significant than the coronavirus pandemic. Lots of people don't know anyone with COVID-19, but we are all affected by unemployment, the growth of income inequality, the prospect of civil unrest, and maybe even the threat to democracy.
I had already interviewed Malek on the phone the day before, and her staff didn't want us inside the store taking photos, but it was important to show up anyway. What could be lovelier after being shut inside with Teams and Zoom and Outlook and Chrome all day than smelling roses and vanilla-flavored waffle cones, watching little kids and Boomers waiting their turn, eavesdropping on the muffled conversation of teenagers, and taking the temperature of the world with my tongue?
Walking home clutching a pint in a brown paper bag ($10.95, plus tip), I wondered why do we do this? Why do people stand in line for a product they could get delivered? I talked to three teens who had driven in from Scappoose just for something to do and an economist for the World Bank who wanted to give her kids some exercise, sugar, and a bit of joy. They were all yearning to be free, in the mildest of ways, and it was a privilege to talk to them.
I'm not saying my job is essential in the pandemic. I also have the privilege of dating a wonderful woman who is an oncology nurse practitioner. She can no longer hug her patients after telling them how long they have to live. Her lips are unreadable under a surgical mask, and she cries behind a plastic face shield. Because there are COVID-19 patients in her building, every evening when she gets home, she has to dump all her clothes in the laundry and take a shower before touching anything. Now that's essential work.
But remember, all news is local, and local news is eminently verifiable. In most American cities, you only have to walk a few blocks to talk to the mayor, or the business owner, or the consumer.
Going for ice cream is the easiest job in the world. The truth is, I wanted to get outside into beautiful Portland on a perfect May day, and I suspect we are all feeling that way. I just had a slightly better excuse than everyone else.
I would, however, say my job is essential in the recession. Someone has to look people in the eye and talk to them. Will your office come back for a new season? How does unemployment feel at 3.6% versus 14.7%, and can you sue for whiplash? Is crime an option? People want to know how the wheels of the economy are still turning when the government is printing money to keep us inside.
We all know one day the bill will come due. At Pamplin Media, we're just trying to put a date on it.
Joseph Gallivan is a journalist of more than 25 years and the author of two novels. Visit savinglocalnews.com to support reliable local business reporting.
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