One Monday at work, I get a three-line email from Mr. W, an American jazz musician I have been trying to interview for months after watching him play trumpet on a Slovak documentary.
Anna, I have a story for you. Let’s meet in a quiet cafe somewhere. You should bring your recorder.
Last time I heard from Mr. W, who worked in journalism for many years before retiring to Slovakia, he was politely canceling our interview, and I was trying really hard to hide my disappointment. Now, his unexpected message has renewed my excitement, but I am tentative.
Mr. W has published flash fiction and essays on racial discourse in rap music. He's lectured at prestigious colleges in the U.S. Why would he want to talk to me, a part-time writer for a modest newspaper in Slovakia?
I finally get to meet him in person on a Tuesday afternoon in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza hotel, his favorite hangout. Mr. W looks shows up in a sleek black suit and white New Balance sneakers. I am now certain I am about to interview someone who has lived one hell of a life.
We sit in the almost empty cafe portion of the lobby and order. I opt for an espresso, the cheapest item on the menu, while he requests some dark Diplomatico rum.
“I’m going to need a drink before I tell this story,” he says with a soft laugh.
After some pleasant small talk, he takes a poised swig of his rum and starts to spill, tentatively, his guts. He speaks of his time in an infamous cult, which oddly enough gave him his promising start in journalism. He mentions a regrettable name change and an interview with a coy jazz musician. He tells a story every journalist would be champing at the bit to tell the rest of the world. He tells a story I do not have permission to tell.
“This is not for the The Spectator, by the way,” he says intermittently, reminding me of our agreement at the beginning. He is sharing his personal story with me to make sense of it, he had said.
Almost two hours later, the enigmatic man in the black suit and white New Balance sneakers pays for my espresso, orders me a taxi and tells me to keep in touch. I am confused, inspired and a little frustrated. In other words, I feel like a journalist who has been given a giant shovel, but just as I was about to dig for the big scoop, it was taken away from me.
A few days later, Mr. W emails me again.
I’m thinking about a purchasing a French press but don’t know how to use one. I imagine there are some YouTube videos on how to use it.
It’s the best email I’ve received since becoming a journalist because the most hard-to-get story, which has subsequently elevated him to celebrity status in my mind, is emailing me about the most mundane of things. Only now do I realize what a gift that is.
A journalist is always on the hunt for news, but as storytellers, I think we crave something more in the end. We will only be truly satisfied when we hear a story that appeals to our humanity first. And sometimes, the most personable and real stories are nonsensical and plain, the type of stories that often never make it to print. My shovel was confiscated but I gained a stranger’s trust. Surely that counts for something.
I didn’t get to tell the story of Mr. W, my biggest scoop thus far. Instead, I gained a mentor, a pen pal, and perspective from a man in a suit and sneakers, who will undoubtedly email me about the decaf he is about to begrudgingly buy — off the record, of course.