The way this freelance journalist thing works is you sit at home and think of stories to write, and you get an editor's approval for them. Or sometimes you sit at home and wait for an editor to email you with an assignment, some idea the newspaper would like to explore or some event they'd like to put on the front page. I get a fair mix of all sorts of assignments—talking to a child with a disability, spending time with a woman with two uteruses (so odd that spell check doesn't recognize the plural), visiting someone who has opened a new winery, listening to a senator defend the health care bill, and then there was that time a farmer had rotting deer carcasses in his back field.
This week, I got an assignment that seemed fairly benign—call up a guy and ask about some building trouble he's having. I can't go into any more detail than that, because I'm about to ruthlessly mock this man, and I'd hate for this post to be connected back to the story.
I knew a little bit of the background to the story, but I needed the man to answer a few questions to fill in the rest for me. I had my questions written down to help keep me on track, but it wasn't me who needed tracks to follow. This interview should have taken ten minutes, fifteen at the most, but I bet I spent over 40 minutes with the phone pressed against my ear, and for the life of me, I could not get this man to stay focused.
This is what I learned about the man and his life, all of which was irrelevant to the story—he was at Kent State during the infamous National Guard shooting, his father was a great man who worked hard all of his life, his best friend in college worked for the government and is extremely intelligent and successful, he once dated a girl who is related to John Gotti, he is a born-again Christian, he regularly visits a psychic who helps him communicate with his late father, his girlfriend who is no dummy has fibromyalgia and collects Bibles, he has dogs that would kill her dogs if they were ever left alone together, fibromyalgia adversely affects the colon, the colon is a smooth muscle that needs to be treated gingerly.
There were times when I rested my head on the table until he finished a specific subject. There were times I had to hold my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. There were times I would check my email or pet the cats or pour a cup of coffee. I could have set the phone down, gone to the bathroom, run out to the mailbox, thawed an entire chicken for dinner, and he still would have been talking.
I would interject and say something like, "OK, back to this story, can you answer this one last question for me, and then I'll let you go, because I'm sure you're very busy?" But that would just lead to more rambling about this or that or all the jobs his girlfriend has ever held and how she has a hot tub.
I talk in circles, and anyone who ever sits to chat with me knows that, but never in my life have I ever heard anyone with so many concentric circles running through his head all at once. By some miracle, I managed to extract the real story from the mishmash that was piped into my ear, but I am still reeling from the experience.