Notes on a scandal: How my shameless childhood tattling led me to pursue a career in journalism
At age 5, I composed my earliest writings in the front seat of my grandpa’s car. I was literally driven to the field of journalism by my maternal grandparents, who both worked for the long-defunct Cleveland Press. I never made the connection between my childhood correspondence and my chosen career until I spent a few days with Poppa last month, and together we sifted through dozens of letters I’d written to Grandma.
“Do you know what these are, Little Dolly?” my 91-year-old Poppa asked as he shuffled toward me, his feet electrically charging the carpet in his senior-living apartment with each half-step. Handing me the 25-year-old crinkled notes, kept carefully tucked away in the top drawer of his antique bureau, he raised his eyebrows and grinned, flashing his dentures. “Your grandma used to read these and laugh until she cried.”
Although she’s been gone for more than 10 years, I still can hear her hearty howl. It rumbled from somewhere deep inside her robust belly and would shake the house almost as much as her snoring. Hunched over her disastrous kitchen table buried under an avalanche of TV Guides, bills and coupons in a scene that would make “Hoarders” seem like a show about neat freaks, she’d crack up, alone or with company, at the sarcastic letters penned by a kid too young to know what sarcasm was.
I wrote the notes when I was in kindergarten, and Poppa would pick me up every day after school and then I’d wait in his beige Buick at the corner of West St. James and Fairmount in Cleveland Heights, where he shepherded area kids as a crossing guard. In an era before Game Boy and PSP, when fetuses didn’t text in utero, Grandma left a pad of paper and a pencil for me on the front passenger seat to help pass the time. Whereas other 5-year-old girls probably would have used it for doodling or scribbling the names of boys, I decided its purpose would be to publish daily reports on Poppa’s behavior, generosity with car amenities and what I perceived to be his scandalous affair with a neighborhood jogger. It’s no wonder I grew up to work at a tabloid.
There were stories to scoop, and I needn’t look beyond the dashboard to find them.
If it wasn’t the climate of the car that had me rallying for revolution, then it was the sound of Poppa’s singing – an apparent affront to my young ears — as he chirped along to the older-than-oldies AM station. I even made sure to record the song titles, in case Grandma wanted to interrogate him later about his repertoire.
Poppa sometimes would join me in the car and we’d watch for stragglers. This presented him with a chance to shower me with affection. Like most goofy grandpas, his most favorite pastime was playfully stealing kisses and tickles; unlike most grandchildren, I tallied his every touch, seizing any and all opportunities to tattle.
I may have been prone to hyperbole from a young age.
As Grandma’s self-appointed spy, I saw it as my responsibility to keep close tabs on Poppa’s every move. Constantly on my radar was a local female jogger who just happened to zip by every day on his watch. He referred to her as the “Lady Friend.” Which at the time I was pretty sure was code for “man-stealing harpy bimbo.”
My novice nose for news could smell a scandal. Poppa’s schnoz, meanwhile, was hot on the scent of something else.
The Lady Friend became the sole focus of a continuing investigative series. Staking out her turf undercover-style in the front seat of Poppa’s car — the only things missing from my sting were jelly doughnuts, coffee and my gingerly uttering cop cliches such as “I’m too old for this shit” — I’d meticulously keep track of each time she waved and smiled at him. Get a room. He only made matters worse for himself by commenting on her comeliness.
Oh no he didn’t.
Poppa must have sensed I was getting too close to discovering his secret because, every so often, he’d conveniently “misplace” my pad of paper or “forget” to pass along my notes to Grandma. I’d catch him red-handed when he’d pick me up the next day and yesterday’s notes were still sitting on the car cushions, spurring me to launch a fierce letter-writing campaign to protect my First Amendment rights to free speech and press.
He *so* messed with the wrong kindergartner.
Even veteran reporters, however, come up short for stories sometimes. A source clams up. Or a lead doesn’t pan out. Or you suffer insomnia during nap time at school and you’re sleepy. I was no exception, but I soldiered on and still made deadline.
Among nearly one hundred notes, I could find only one praising Poppa.
I suspect my generous mood mostly had to do with my decoder magic marker.
When we finished flipping through the numerous notes, Poppa queried: “Do you want to take these home with you, Little Dolly?” He has asked before, but I always decline. They’ll be mine someday, but for now, I like that they’re there keeping him company. I’d prefer that he also had a cat, but I can’t win them all. When he’s missing Grandma, he needn’t look farther than his top dresser drawer to share in her joy. She passed away when I was a freshman in college, a few years before I landed my first newspaper job, but I’d like to think she knew I was destined for journalism, considering the way I effortlessly blew the lid off of Lady Friend-gate. For the encouragement and keeping me well stocked with writing supplies in my youth, and so much more, I wish I could thank her — 7,000 times.
One of my posts about Jesus, “Sex and the City” and leg-shaving — you know me, always writing about weighty issues like world peace and whatever — is going to be performed by actors in a show called “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Blogologues” at Under St. Marks theater in New York City on Monday, Sept. 26 at 7 and 9 p.m. I’ll be at the later show. If you live nearby and love me enough to hire a catsitter for the night, please join us.