I made it to the Toledo Blade newspaper every morning on a bike from Target whose rubber handles slid off slowly and whose back brakes were almost useless. Riding in khakis and a button-down, I looked so earnestly out of place that pedestrians who saw me were too confused to laugh out loud.
In the office, I would stare out at the city through an almost two-story high floor-to-ceiling window in the Blade’s crisp-cold and polished but tranquil newsroom. I started to imagine Northwest Ohio as a series of outposts on a sprawling map, each of them holding strings of information that I, as an intern, should extract. The Blade was a control tower among the flatness.
Early one Sunday, I crossed the newsroom to a phone in the corner with a list of about 40 police dispatchers in surrounding areas. The task was to dial every number in a row and ask for information about crimes or major accidents. But every dispatcher repeated the exact same words: “It’s been pretty quiet.” During a heat wave one exclaimed, “All the criminals are out floating in pools.”
Throughout the reporting I did this summer, I wanted to avoid the basic truth that, all things considered, I really don’t have that much experience, that I still have three more years of college when the real staff writers have been writing stories daily for years, sometimes longer than they can remember. The Blade’s editors took its interns too seriously to point this out, trusting us with content they’d print alongside their staff’s work. And there were plenty of signs that I belonged — I had a Blade email and ID card, and drove Blade-owned cars. Below the headlines of my stories were the words, “Daniel Bethencourt, Blade Staff Writer.”
But the holes in my costume showed up in eerie pauses during my phone interviews, when my mind would race for new questions. For my very first story, I was speaking to a high school principal, a teacher, and the school’s PR agent all on speakerphone, and was so worried I had missed a question that I couldn’t accept that the interview was over. But I also had no more questions. I just sat there with my mind racing. In that quiet crackle of silence on their end, all I could think about was that silence, and what they all might look like sitting there. Maybe they were leaning forward in their swivel chairs, glancing at each other, wondering what they had done to make me go silent. Maybe the PR agent was mouthing to the other two, “I’ve never seen a Blade reporter sit still like this. Something must be really wrong.”
Other signs that I was new emerged more slowly. Sources sometimes asked for business cards I did not have, and I would scribble a phone number on a ripped-out page of my notebook. I worked at a desk whose rightful owner arrived for the late shift at 5 p.m., so I knew my articles had to be done.
When sources asked how long I had been working, I would tell them the truth: something like three weeks. Then, of course, my stories ran. And I had to accept that I must have known just enough.