The Mean Hat
Lucas Carpenter Sr. was angry, and he made sure that the Toledo Blade city editor on the other side of the phone, Jeff Schmucker, knew it.
The story was simple: he wanted to purchase the two blighted city-owned lots by his house so that he could restore them. Toledo’s Department of Economic Development had rejected his application. Why? Because, they said, his house wasn’t adjacent to the property, and the city doesn’t sell property to non-adjacent landowners. The way Lucas saw it, the city was telling him that it would let blight overrun its lots, but that it wouldn’t allow him to clean up the mess. What nonsense was that? Send a reporter, now.
The Blade sent me, a two-month-old summer intern. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in my journey to clarify an obscure city policy I would do a lot more than just report—I would come to understand why journalism, a field that at the time I had known for barely two years, now speaks to me so deeply.
I’m an introvert who has decided to pursue a career path rigged in favor of extroverts, so essential is interpersonal communication to effective reporting. I have struggled with this basic contradiction between my personality and my work since I began reporting, and Lucas’s story forced me confront it. For two weeks I tried to reach the Department of Economic Development, and for two weeks I dealt with empty inboxes and unanswered phone calls.
“You’re too nice,” Jeff told me, after I came to him for help a couple of days into The Great Stonewalling. “You have to put on your mean hat.”
Jeff’s advice was typical of the reporters at The Blade, who didn’t hesitate to cut government officials with the jagged edges of their cynicism. In this case, his cynicism was probably justified; Lucas told me shortly after that city worker had showed up at the lots for the first time in ages and cleared the overgrown shrubbery. Their appearance might have been a coincidence. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that perhaps someone at the economic development department had heard my copious voicemails and was trying to cover up the evidence; if the vacant lots weren’t blighted, the city’s refusal to sell them to Lucas wouldn’t be as outrageous. So I took Jeff’s advice.
Forget phone calls and emails. I made a trip to the department building myself. I couldn’t get much farther than the secretary, who claimed that certain department members were prohibited from meeting with reporters, but she promised she would forward any emails I sent to her to them. I wrote the email immediately, attempting a balance between polite and aggressive. My first question: “Why have these lots been abandoned for long?” Within a day, I had the department commissioner on the phone.
On October 16, around seven weeks after the article was published (“Rules stymie blight action by East Toledo residents”), I received a text from Lucas: “I wanted to let you know that my wife is dropping off a signed purchase agreement and cash tomorrow for the two vacant lots.” Then five simple, sincere words: “Thanks for all your help.”
My aggressive approach had worked. It was quite the validating moment for me. That text, in showing me that my reporting had effected actual change, even if on the most micro of levels, justified the difficulties of writing the article. Reporting the story had been a grueling process that demanded overcoming my introversion, challenging bureaucratic machinery, and not allowing my sources, whether it was Lucas with his fury or government officials with their intransigence, to overwhelm me.
In other words, Lucas's was exactly the type of story that called for the "mean hat." Ever since, I've always imagined the “mean hat" bore an uncanny resemblance to the yellow helmets worn by construction workers and firefighters. The similarities abound: the air of competence, the hard-headedness, the deflection. The best offense is a good defense.
But some days--or more likely, nights--I left the mean hat at home. Those were the night shifts, where I would be asked to write an obituary for the next day’s paper. The process involved calling strangers to question them about the personal life of a dead stranger so that I could write an intimate portrait of said dead stranger. As it turned out, morbid and unsettling as the whole affair could be, I came to appreciate the odd intimacy of learning of the personalities, achievements, and idiosyncrasies of the most random assortment of individuals: a race-car obsessed commercial pilot, an elementary school nun, even a farming navy veteran. Some calls didn't go well, as with the man who, convinced that I was running some exploitative scam, threatened to call the police if I called again. But for the most part I bonded with the people that had been left behind, alternately comforting them for their loss and being comforted by their incredible emotional strength, all without ever seeing their faces.
Long silences punctuated these calls. In those moments silence, the sound with which I was usually most comfortable, caused me to squirm in my seat and sweat to trickle down my brow. But I maintained my discipline, and eventually that silence warmed, the steady glow of a candle in a frosty night. That silence spoke more than the most loquacious of inquiries.
Toledo taught me its fair share about the journalistic process—rendering interesting a dull press release on falcons, scrambling to gather information the night a local sheriff was shot, breaking down the kafkaesque maze of the local government. But the most important lesson of all lay in learning how to use the mean hat: when to put it on and when to take it off.
It turns out being talkative isn't a particularly great quality for a journalist. Journalism isn't about talking. It's about talking at the right moment, and in the right way.