Pardon me. Would you mind scratching my back? This lamp post isn’t doing the trick and that dog looks like he wants to use it. Thank you. Now, get your paws off me, brute. I hate people touching my back.
Most news reporters eventually develop an itch that never goes away completely. It forms high on the back, between the shoulder blades. It’s an area of the body popular with assassins who strike from the shadows with high-powered rifles that barely make a sound.
It’s not that I’m paranoid, mind you. It’s just that some days, every one of you is out to get me.
When you wade into the downtown fray night after night, it pays to be on guard. There are those who will jump you for your money, those who will tackle you for cigarettes, others who have their eyes on that fancy police scanner. Of course, there are always the lurking few who want to silence the words you have written in your notebook.
The itch between the shoulder blades was developed during the evolutionary process as man developed traits to make them hated by others. It is a bodily reaction meant to remind a person to pay attention to what’s behind him. Heed the itchy warning, or perish.
But there I go again, indulging in wicked hyperbole. Generally, I feel quite at ease when I’m out where fists are flying and weapons are drawn. It’s in the seeming safety of the newsroom that it pays to be braced for trouble.
On a recent afternoon, a package was left on my desk. Inside was a plate heaped with fudge, a delicious array of peanut butter desserts covered in cellophane. Attached was a note that said: “Dear Mark and editors. Please accept this gift to show that we hold no hard feelings for the article you wrote and printed in the paper …”
Sweet treat from a stranger? Or a cleverly disguised bullet, sneaked into the newsroom like a Trojan horse?
Always alert for danger, I decided to test the confections before indulging. I left the plate out near the cluster where editors sit, inviting them to partake in the serendipitous fudge. By early evening, none of them had keeled over. Although, how would I know? On any given day, editors lurch around with that undead gait popularized by the movie “Night of the Living Dead.” Here’s a secret I’ll share with you: Those weren’t zombies in the George Romero classic. They were editors.
As it turned out, the fudge was not a concealed assassination attempt. It was merely a very kind and tasty gesture from a person who understands the role of the press even when that person has become the focus of it.
Still, you never let your guard down. There’s that phone call, for instance, from a stranger who says he has something for you and would like to meet on the street. Sure you have something for me, sniper. Namely a bullet meant to scratch that itch between my shoulder blades.
I always meet people who call and invite me to the street. Curiosity is a far mightier motivator than any sense of wariness. So I went out to Park Street and waited for the ominous black car to roll up. Actually, it was a Ford F-10, but ominous black car sounds far cooler.
The man had no weapon and no ill will. In fact, he wanted to present me with a framed copy of an article that had appeared about me in another paper. I thanked him, shook his hand, and then quickly sent the item to the lab for analysis.
No hidden eavesdropping bugs were found. No tiny nozzles set to spray cyanide gas by remote control were detected. It pays to be thorough. It pays to have a team of technicians working around the clock in a lab that exists only in your head.
A news reporter should always be leery about callers who will not state their specific business. I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve had dozens of calls from people who say things like: “I have information but I cannot tell you what it is right now. Meet me in Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary at midnight. Come alone and bring a shovel.”
I like meeting people in the dark. Many a delectable secret has been shared by people talking in hushed tones, marked by the dance of glowing cigarettes. No matter how the itch of paranoia screams, offers of nighttime meetings will always be too irresistible to ignore.
The ultimate truth is this: If someone had an earnest desire to mow me down, they would not have to lure me to some secluded spot. I’m easy to find. Night after night, I’m out on Park Street, surveying the downtown and looking for trouble.
I’m the guy rubbing up against the lamp post with impatient dogs circling at my feet.
Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal’s slightly paranoid crime reporter.