Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What I love about my job

Last Tuesday I found myself wandering around McKinley Park on Chicago's South Side.

I was there looking for fishermen at the park's lagoon for this article. But I was there at 10:30 a.m., not exactly prime fishing time. So I only found one guy, and he was leaving just as I saw him. I talked with him and then waited around for another hour or so before deciding I'd be better off coming back the next day.

I drove home frustrated for having wasted the day, especially when the assignment pays a flat fee and not an hourly wage. I essentially drove there for nothing, which is a freelancer's worst scenario.

When I returned Wednesday evening I wasn't very optimistic. I walked around the lagoon again but didn't see anybody fishing. Then as I rounded the far side I spotted a few guys set up on the path ringing the lagoon. They had poles propped up on the shore, lines in the water.

I still wasn't sure if I would find anything interesting as I approached two of the men. I told them who I was and that I was writing about the recent consumption advisory telling anglers they shouldn't eat carp caught in the lagoon more than once a week. The carp population was contaminated with PCBs.

The guys pointed me to an older man sitting in a folding lawn chair next to two tackle boxes and a cooler. He wore a tan fishing vest over a T-shirt that read something to the effect of him having to choose between fishing and his wife. Lower on the shirt was a Gone Fishing sign above, "I'm sure going to miss her."

This turned out to be Lonnie Williams, a 58-year-old McKinley Park resident who claimed to have fished that lagoon for 50 years. Jackpot! I don't know if he saw my face light up or not, but I knew without having to ask another question that I'd found the guy I needed to find for the article. His two friends, who were about 15 years younger than Williams, were equally interesting.

This is how it often is for journalists. Sometimes we strike out looking for the perfect fit for an article. And sometimes we find Lonnie Williams. Nothing replicates that feeling of knowing everything is going to be all right -- I'm going to make deadline, I'm going to have an interesting character to channel the subject matter through, my time hasn't been wasted.

It also makes me feel very fortunate. If not for that assignment I never would have discovered McKinley Park or Williams or his band of urban anglers. That's the best part of the job, the discovery of something new. It might not be new to everybody, but it's new to me.

I'd be happy if I never interviewed a famous person again as long as I can continue meeting people like Lonnie Williams. Or George Hood, who I first encountered a couple years ago and interviewed again this morning.

Hood is looking to reclaim his Guinness World Record for riding a spin bike. The record stands at 192 hours, but he's shooting for 300 hours or more. Some think Hood is crazy, and I can't fault them for that. It is crazy to put your mind and body through such an ordeal to raise money for charity and to get your name in a record book.

I'm fascinated with Hood and what makes him tick. I'd like to write a book about him, and he's offered me the opportunity a few times. But as much as I'd love to do it, that would mean I'd have to drop everything else. I don't know if I'm ready to focus on only one topic and subject, no matter how fascinating it is.

There are just too many people out there with interesting stories waiting to be told.

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