The sky wasn’t dark but it was getting there. My phone had 8% battery charge left. My sunflower seeds were almost gone. I was sick to my stomach — with myself, the media, Internet readers. All this bullshit, because of a rumored sex tape.
I thought back to how it began — an email I thought was a prank.
Are you interested in working for the NY Post today? We need a local reporter to cover the Rachel Dolezal story.
Rachel Dolezal, if you remember, is the white woman who pretended to be black. Err, the transracial woman. At the time, she was making national headlines for being ousted by her parents; she was also the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.
The email I received went on, outlining details of a one-time payment in exchange for eight hours of work. It was signed by an editor/reporter.
Sure, I thought. Yeah right.
Obviously my friends back in New York were making fun of me. See, two weeks prior I had moved from Rochester, NY to Spokane, WA. I was an easy, serendipitous target, as Spokane was steeped in national controversy. I promptly texted my friends and revealed the screenshot: “Ha ha. Very funny guys.”
Really, I was pissed. I was broke and desperate for work after yet another cross-country move — this time post-college. I was living in my parent-in-law’s basement with an interesting amount of credit card debt.
A text returned from my friends. “It’s legit,” they wrote. “We looked the editor up.”
Sweat dripped onto my phone as I hastily replied to the email, my fingers tapping like a jackhammer as if oil hid below my screen: “Yes, yes! God yes! I’m a broke writer in need of work! Will do nude.” I erased the draft, composing myself, returning with tempered thumbs.
Hello, is this job still available? I have cleared my schedule for the day.
I hadn’t seen my mom in years, and today was the day we were going to have breakfast. I sat in her apartment waiting for a response from the NY Post. She was making coffee in the kitchen.
Her apartment, for one reason or another, only captured 3G speed internet, which, when you’re used to LTE, is like waiting for a fax to come through a tree stump. I excused myself to the patio and there I promptly waved my hands in the air. It’s only weird if it doesn’t work, and thankfully my shaman-signal-ritual summoned the email to my inbox, confirming my duties for the day.
“Mom,” I said, charging back inside. “I need to go.”
“But you just got here,” she said. “Where?”
I read my phone again, to make sure I had the details right: “Every spray-tan salon in town.”
There was a moment of awkward silence filled only by the sipping sound of coffee. Time was against me already. I had a lot of ground to cover.
“Why?” It was a fair question.
“I’m writing a story for the NY Post,” I said, with the ease of a seasoned professional, like I did this all the time. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure if I would be writing anything. I had no idea how any of this worked.
“So why tanning salons?” my mom asked while we swerved through the streets of Spokane.
“According to a TMZ report that came out today,” I said, “Dolezal was spray tanned at Palm Beach Tan. There are three franchises in Spokane, so we can start there.”
The more I talked, the more I realized how ridiculous this whole scenario was. Normally, I would have no interest in a story like this. What do I care about Rachel Dolezal? The NY Post, however, was paying me well enough to make me care. So I drove. At a stop light it occurred to me that I had never done any of this before. Plenty of journalism, yes, but I had only written the soft-stuff — lifestyle features, puff pieces, entrepreneur interviews, theatre reviews. Mom and I pulled up to the first franchise. I jumped out and she waited in the car.
“Hi,” I said, placing my notepad on the counter. “How are you?” Inside the salon was an attractive-yet-orange tinted young woman who sat behind a computer monitor. One look at me — she knew I wasn’t there for a spray tan.
“Good,” she replied. “How are you?” I smiled. She smiled.
How the hell do you fake being an investigative reporter?
“I have nothing to say,” she said.
“Right. About Dolezal you mean?”
“Okay.” I picked up my notepad, looked back at the car, saw my mom smoking a cigarette. I returned my gaze to the orange-shaded woman, whose teeth were so white I couldn’t help but stare at them. It was like a Halloween decoration come to life. “Look,” I said, setting my notepad down again. I thought for a moment, and then, in a brief breath of confidence, decided to do what I’ve always done in the face of uncertainty, ever since I was a kid on the schoolyard, ever since I was a writer tapping characters into Word docs: I pretended to be someone I wasn’t.
“I know she came here.”
“We’re not allowed to reveal any information about our customers,” she said.
I smiled. It was the information that I needed: “So she is a customer.”
“Do me a favor and give my number to corporate. Tell them to make a statement, or we’re not going to go away.” I walked out of the salon triumphantly. My mom sat in the car with the radio loud, listening to Soundgarden.
An email came in:
Go to a press conference happening downtown in 15 minutes. I’ll send you the address.
I dropped off my mom back at her apartment, and headed for the presser.
For the Record
Parking downtown in a rush to get to the press conference was the most stressful, aggravating part of the day. Somehow already late, I spun around the busy downtown Spokane area, like Macklemore, three or four times before settling on a spot five blocks away. I jumped out and started to run, but a call came from my NY Post editor that stopped me. “You’ve been reassigned,” she said. “Get to… how do I say this? Kewur…”
“Coeur d’Alene,” I corrected, out of breath.
“Yes, that place. There’s a courthouse there. Pick through Dolezal’s divorce records. It’s all public and legal, don’t worry. You just need to ask for it.”
“And after that, I’ll need you to stake out her ex-husband’s apartment. Sound good?”
“He lives in Coeur d’Alene too. Let me know when you get there.” Click. I stood out in the street with the phone to my head, like one of those human statues you see in NYC.
In Coeur d’Alene I begrudgingly arrived at the courthouse and asked for the divorce records, still mildly bitter that I didn’t get to go to the press conference after all that work. The clerk gave me four beefy, busting folders. I plopped them on a nearby desk and read through them all. I snapped pictures, wrote down details — bagged the juicy stuff.
But something didn’t feel right. What’s the big deal? I internally argued.
On one hand, I was an investigative reporter combing through stacks of dusty papers, like one of those old-school journalists in the movies. On the other hand, I was reading through deeply personal documents in hopes of exploiting details for personal and professional gain. There were diaries from both parties — to each other, to the judge — talking about their child, about their pain. They were airing out personal grievances for public record that they would never have thought anyone would ever care about. In detail, they talked about all the ways that they were hurting each other in accusatory, desperate language.
What hit me most, was that these divorce documents — as I knew too well — would later define the entirety of their son’s childhood. It was an odd day to be spending so much time with my own mother, I reflected.
My phone vibrated, and I quickly silenced it, glancing at the sign taped above my temporary desk that read, “No Phones.” Knowing already who it was from, I read the text message.
“Did you find any details about the sex tape?”
The Adventures of Seat and Seat
At the end of the day I found myself parked outside of a stranger’s apartment. I had knocked on her ex-husband’s door but there was no answer. So I sat and I ate sunflower seeds. It was part-homage to Agent Fox Mulder, part-homage to my stomach, desperately groaning.
To the NY Post’s credit, they wanted every minute of my eight hours.
The assignment started out fun but ended morally ambiguous for me. Maybe I’m just not meant to be an investigative reporter, I don’t know. I never did see the ex-husband outside his apartment. Thinking it over, I was convinced I wouldn’t have got out of the car even if I did see him. But you never know. In the moment — when a reporter has to turn it on and get to work — people don’t become people. They become leads, details and gossip. They become follow ups and corroborators, a Cost of Goods Sold bringing hits to a website, a signature on a check.
With two minutes left on my day, for the New York Post, I put the car in drive and left.
The article was published that night, my name not mentioned as a source or a contributing reporter. I didn’t mind.
Tired as hell with a head full of stories, I reflected on the strangeness of the day: the tan salons, the courthouse, the stake out, my mom. I sent her a text, thanking her for joining me, waiting for her reply as I considered the institution of family. It is a concept defined through the courts and confirmed by law. Yet we, the pretenders, the imaginators, we adults try to break this institution, thinking the courts will redefine them. But they are still there, sleeping in the paperwork.
Waiting to be exposed for everyone to see.
I told the NY Post I would be available for a second day’s work, but when I woke up, there was a new development in Charleston, SC. There was a shooting. A tragedy. A new national focus.
Some out of work writers were busy in Charleston that day. Dolezal and I were left alone.