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How it Came to Be
Sad Story
Powerful
The 350th
Life's Horizon
Land Line
Fisherfolk
No Women
Chinese Mud and Going Native
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once a reporter, always a reporter



but now I have a dog



island dispatches



Fisherfolk

“If she asks, you have to tell her there are no waterwomen.”

“Water women?”  My neck cracked as my concentration broke.  I only caught the editor’s profile. He’d slowed at the corner of my desk, spoken his piece and walked on, across the expanse of filthy blue indoor/outdoor carpeting glued directly to the cement floor and into his glass room.

“Who asks?” I asked, having followed at the respectful distance that placed my arrival at the jam only after he’d seated himself and looked up expectantly at the door.

            “Mary Z.”

The latest publisher. A cozy name she’d offered which acknowledged an awkward pronunciation and an unaccustomed rank. Up to this point everyone operated on a purely first name basis.

“Only if she asks,” my editor said.  He’s using his hands now. They’re up from the desk where, as he’d sat, they’d fallen naturally on top of an array of scribbled notes which he swept without a glance into a pile of privacy. He’d rested them as I reached the jam. It was a ballet of unconscious timing perfected over years. The confidentialities he’d guaranteed safely ensconced, he opened his palms and offered a tightly controlled shrug. “I told her there were none. Absolutely none. None. Not a single woman working as a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay.”

The newsroom gauges the editor’s anxiety by the tightness of his squint. “There aren’t any, are there?” he asks and suddenly leans forward, dropping his palms flat upon the lightly noted desk calendar, fencing his pile of confidentialities in his arms. You could blind him with tooth floss.

 “Why does she want to know if there are women watermen?”

“She wants to call them fisherfolk.”

“Fisherfolk?”  I squint. 

“Fisherfolk,” he said.

“She wants to call female watermen fisherfolk?”

 “She wants to call all watermen fisherfolk.”

I stepped inside.  It was a small office. Within two steps I’d reached the sagging chair in the corner and sat quickly at its edge. “No,” I said and no doubt a nervous giggle escaped. “Oh, no. She wasn’t serious was she?”  

“Yes. She was serious. She was very serious. Yes she was. I told her it was impossible, it was a traditional name of centuries, and she asked if there were any women.”  He paused and glanced at the door, but did not walk around his desk to close it. “I told her there were absolutely no women working on the water. Not one in the entire Chesapeake Bay.” 

He was silent and we looked at one another with narrowed eyes.

“Jackie Russell would agree with that,” I said.

“Yes. That’s what I told her,” he said and his palms pushed up from the desk and onto the armrests. He could swivel back to his screen from here, a signal for us both to return to our separate and solitary work of the approaching deadline. But he didn’t turn yet. He looked at me. “And that I’d check with you.”

I was flattered and stood to make ready to leave the glass room.

He turned toward his own monitor and rested his hands on the keyboard and glanced at me and then at the door.

“Fisherfolk,” I spat, glancing back to meet his eyes, then stepped out the door and faced the newsroom, which had heard it all, of course.  The glass room was pretend. It had no ceiling. It was merely four partitions of pressboard paneling dropped into the cavernous hind end of a cinderblock shopping strip. No windows back there. Well, no windows upon the outer world.

Two of the editor’s partitions contain framed plates of glass and jut like a prow into a narrow galley of battered and mismatched desks and chairs. The desks were commandeered by equally mismatched reporters, some were obsessively uncluttered and others fouled and sinking beneath a Niagara Falls of paper, paper, paper. It was, back in the mid-1980s, a hold of mismatched keepers of all that’s fit to print and a good deal more. A tremendous load of paper, paper, paper, hidden, stacked, filed and piled and even spilling from the walls.

    Far above is the underside of the leaking roof. Way up front – at least three partitions beyond the newsroom located where warehousing was intended –  plate glass windows were intended for the customer end of a retail outlet. These plate glass expanses were the window on the world that supported The Enterprise: Lexington Park.

    The windows overlooked, in the mid-1980s, the state highway leading to the U.S. Navy base. Two lanes and a farmhouse was all there was to see in the time of Mary Z.

Well before Mary Z  presses ran in this middle space and the loading dock bustled. The newsroom was up front with its own set of windows, holding second billing along side the publisher. The remaining paper of St. Mary’s County, when I joined its staff in 1985, was reduced to a single retail slot and had been sold by Charlie Molitor to out-of-town owners.

Charlie Molitor was the last owner and publisher to operate in the editorial realm. Not that others didn’t dabble, but Charlie ran the place. He was loved and hated. He threw legendary Christmas and election night parties that had upon occasion resulted in wreck and ruin, death and destruction. He installed the second oldest newspaper of the Mother County of Maryland next door to the bowling alley in his new retail strip in the up and coming Lexington Park. He set offices up front and watched the freshly repaved two-lane road funnel federal money to the Navy’s first aviation school. The presses roared with business, the farms turned residential and retail began peppering the road.

But more than a score and ten later, when Mary Z stopped by, the retail and residential was ribbon-thin and stalled along the shoulders of the road near its handful of intersections. At the largest crossroads, the main gate to the Navy base, was the county’s only shopping center anchored with a K-Mart and an A&P. There was a Sears catalogue store, a dress shop, a liquor store, and a pizza place next door to a barber shop where – it was proven years later in court – gambling took place.

Stalled in the waning years of the Cold War, the military downsized while corporations expanded. The presses, then the typesetting and ultimately even the underpinning layout tasks were replaced by telephone lines that carried St. Mary’s local news to computers up the road. Up-the-road like out-of-town-owners was the rule of the day.

By Mary Z’s time the newsroom was entrenched in the back, owners, publishers and editors were different people and there were a great deal more of them located somewhere else. Publishers rarely visited and even less frequently roamed so deep as the newsroom. The newsroom felt things ran better that way and worked in unison toward that aim.

No one said a word when I left the editor’s office with the epitaph “fisherfolk” resonating in the threshold. No one looked up. Relief steamed up to the fluorescent fixtures behind the plastic inch-by-inch grating that hung above the faces intent upon their screens. It was likely superstition that created our rare silences, a fear that to acknowledge the gulf of understanding between the newsroom and the publishers would only open the door for that much worse. We acknowledged among ourselves, without comment, these small and quiet rescues and saw them as heroic; saw ourselves as caretakers of St. Mary’s County’s last local paper, likely one of the last locally owned papers of its caliber in the nation. We strove to shield it from ridicule from its loyal readers – the vanishing natives – although few of them would believe such a thing of us.  Our readers, the vanishing natives of The County, still considered The Enterprise the bastard paper, but – and God love the way newspaper readers think – indignation and outrage spurred them to plunk down increasing amounts of silver twice a week for the privilege.

It was here that I found the photo of Jackie Russell taken the first day I had met him more than a year and a half before. And it was an odd, over-the-shoulder type of hovering feeling when it manifested itself in my fingers as I flipped through the manila envelope marked “R.”

Farther back than even the newsroom was a wall of mismatched filing cabinets that held the so-called archives of a sort-of century of publication. There were gaps. There are issues, and I mean this in the largest sense of the word. There were no sprinklers.

Two drawers held black and white photographs filed alphabetically in manila envelopes, reams of black and white photographs going back decades, scores of years. These are likely gone now – the newspaper moved and photos had already gone digital. But back then, when Lexington Park wasn’t much more than a Navy base, a shopping center and a two-lane state road, the bank of filing cabinets held St. Mary’s County history. In the lower of the two drawers, from a manila envelope marked “R,” was filed a headshot of Jackie Russell. It fails to capture him unawares. I could see that immediately, although he wasn’t looking at the photographer.

I may not have yet discovered that photo the day that spawned the legend of the fisherfolk. For though we spoke no more of the burial that day, and, in fact, the word passed no lips in the newsroom for the relatively short tenure of Mary Z, the story was legend and leaped full-blown as Leda when we guffawed at the notion as the glass door in the far front of the building swished shut behind her final exit. “Fisherfolk,” we called behind her, out of earshot, presuming, as had been the custom, worse would follow. And it did. Back then we’d had no hint how radical news would change, but we didn’t have many illusions left either.

Even if I had discovered the photo by then, I had not yet taken it from the envelope. I literally jumped that first time when my palm slid down the smooth and graying back of the Raley or Ridgell before him. I did not remove it that first time, merely started and quickly rifled on searching for the Richardson or Randall or other Russell called for.

Later I would take the whole envelope back to my desk as if searching there were more convenient than standing on the concrete in the old loading dock where the file cabinets sat. Then I would put it back in the envelope and put the envelope back.  I eventually took it home. It’s probably still around here, somewhere.

  Jackie Russell was, the day of that photo, casting judgment upon the fisheries of the Potomac River and the watermen who made their livings from them. 

The Potomac River runs wide and deep a few blocks downhill from the old fisheries building where Jackie Russell presided that day I first saw him.  Waves were audible, the weather was iffy enough to allow a couple dozen watermen an excuse to attend the public proceeding of Virginia and Maryland gubernatorial appointees. It was at these meetings that the appointees publicly codified decisions reached privately the night before.

And that’s a lie, was already a lie back then.  These bureaucrats, industry reps and otherwise invested political friends of governors broke bread the night before to merely remind one another of how blew the winds of their respective governors and assure one another that no surprises would mar the morn. Even in private, it wasn’t their vote. It was representative governing.

 

 “And we really thought we were doing something,” Jackie Russell says of that day, the day of that photo. He exhales a heavy sigh before turning his back and asking to be spared any more narrative tonight, asking, instead for the peace of sleep. “We really thought we were doing something,” he repeats and heaves his great sigh again, without self-consciousness, without awareness of his own melodrama. “Trying to prevent this day from ever coming,” he says. “Right now.”

at the dock




No Women