Eradication of Smallpox

Eradication of Smallpox
Chapter One

The Last Job in Town

You don’t know me, unless you read a little book I wrote as a Harvard undergraduate—unlikely, but more on that in a moment. My name’s Ned Alexander; I’m a minor screw-up, or a major ne’er do well, whichever way you want to look at it. My time at Harvard was less than distinguished, as I graduated on the nine-year-plan. My only redeeming achievement was a little book I wrote about my summer travels in Wales pursuing the ghost of Dylan Thomas. This book, complete with exercises in Dylanian self-destruction, spoke of the alienation and disillusionment of youth in the early ’80s, received a limited literary approval, and fielded a sympathetic audience of like-minded, semi-estranged college students. Its greatest notoriety came when it was used as a textbook in a number of freshman English courses, at Harvard and other universities. However redeeming of my intellect, it did little to justify my overall poor academic performance, and I drifted from course to course and major to major without distinction.

The only way I got into Harvard in the first place is that I come from parents of illustrious, though esoteric, fame. My mother is a sociologist famous among scholars of Appalachia and popular educators. She has a penchant for doing real work, with real people, which was an extreme handicap when it came to climbing the academic ladder. For her, integrity on her own terms was enough, again a fatal flaw for an academic. When my parents met, my mother introduced herself as she always does: “I’m Helen from North Georgia—North Georgia, you know, has always been an abolitionist stronghold.” That pedigree, and Helen’s youthful and energetic beauty, was enough for my father, who, in the only active pursuit of his life, married her within the year.

My father was a literary critic who dabbled, most often against his will, in diplomacy. The son of an old-moneyed New England family, he drank in erudition with his mother’s milk. Indeed, mother’s milk remained an important theme far into his adulthood, when he resigned from a stint in the United Nations after his country was the only vote against restricting the advertising of infant formula in the Third World that was contributing to an appalling rise in infant mortality. His early erudition, along with his mother’s milk, was distilled into a fine liquor at the best prep schools and Ivy League institutions.

His voice and manner lent an intoxicating quality to his opinions and arguments. He was one of the few people I can call an intellectual, with that rare ability to speak with meaning to anyone, on any topic, in any situation, without appearing pompous. This ability was also the source of much of his unhappiness, since he was continually pressed into service on some diplomatic foray at the request of childhood and college friends who seemed to constitute much of the government. “God damn it, Ned,” he said shortly before his death, “I should be aging gracefully, moldering on the wine rack that makes up the faculty of our finest institutions, instead of making powerful people who have behaved badly feel better about themselves.” Two months later, he was dead, the result of a bomb explosion at American University in Beirut, where he had been sent to infuse a little sanity into a world controlled by people behaving badly.

The major benefit of Harvard is not a good education, though it’s there for some. No, Harvard, as it turns out, is the absolute best university for finding a job. Not because people at Harvard are smarter; everyone with any sense after their freshman year knows that there are tons of people who are smarter than they are. And it’s not because it has such an illustrious faculty. No, it’s because everyone thinks that Harvard is the best university, and consequently Harvard graduates, or students, think they’re smarter than everyone else. If people know you’re from Harvard, they’ll hire you so they can tell you what to do and feel good when you screw up. I learned this lesson early on and have made somewhat of a profession of advancing my career through minor screwups.

If you work a construction job, someone will say, “Hey, Harvard, go get me a ballpeen hammer. No, not that one, that’s a framing ax. Jeez, do I have to tell you everything?” If you make pizza, you hear, “Hey, Harvard, that last crust was a little doughy, so leave the next one in a little longer.” Then: “Hey, Harvard, the crust looks a little burnt. Gosh, can’t you guys do anything right?”

“No, sir,” you say as you smile stupidly. You can work there forever. As I said, the only way I got into Harvard was through my father’s connections. My poor performance was again buffered by the university’s esteem for him, and whatever the reasons, though I was constantly on probation, they failed to throw me out. Upon his death, this esteem transformed into martyrdom, and I knew that whatever I did, or didn’t do, I would be allowed to drift through the halls of the school with impunity.

Scaring myself with Twilight Zone visions of an endless existence at Harvard, I went looking for help from my father’s best friend, the Brazilian poet and radical educator Umberto Conway. Conway was a professor who had been living in exile from his native country for twenty years. He was also my godfather, having christened me, so the family legend went, with a bottle of tequila at a nondenominational ceremony marking my birth. As the story goes, Conway emptied the contents of the bottle over my forehead in the garden. Some of it splashed into my eyes, and I cried for the next hour. Whatever the truth of the tale, Conway has since served the function of godfather. I confided my fears and asked him for help.

I don’t know if all poets are great listeners, but Umberto was, and he listened for more than an hour, making only grunts and sighs. When I finally rambled into silence he said, “So you want my opinion.” It was not a question, so I remained silent. “I’ll give it to you, because your father was my greatest friend and also because your problem is relatively simple.” He went on, his R’s rolling syllables of thunder. “Most fundamentally, your problem is that you have been pursuing reputable disciplines: literature, history, sociology, even biology. These are disciplines that require both rigor and respectability, and you, Ned, are not respectable. Moreover, you are not respectable by choice. Since I have known you as a little boy, you have refused respectability, seeing a conflict with your own independence. If you wish to pursue an academic career, it must be one that is not completely reputable. Although you respect, admire, and even, in your own way, aspire to intellectual pursuits, you choose to live between the cracks of the academic disciplines. In short, you refuse to pay the price of respectability.” Smiling at my discomfort, he continued. “The answer is simple. We need a disreputable discipline that you can commit to. I know of three taught here at the university. If you had a pirate’s soul, rather than just a pirate’s style, I would recommend business—we have a fine business school—but your sensibilities preclude this. For the same reason, political science is not an option. I recommend journalism.” He said this as if there were nothing more to say. And as there was nothing more to say, I left.

Journalism indeed proved to be the semi-respectable discipline with room for both independence and literary rigor, as prophesied by Conway. I threw myself into the course requirements and soon graduated. The degree required no great theoretical or academic foundation, had few doctrinaire components, and best of all was mobile. One could, I reasoned, write anywhere, then for any reason pack up and go anywhere else. Thus, I found myself in need of a job in Tucson, Arizona, in the early winter of 1997.

There were two major papers in the southwestern town of just over 500,000—the Sun and the Times Review—along with a few local cultural and business tabloids. I tried the personnel offices of all of them and found there were no jobs for an itinerant, inexperienced journalist at the time. I was told, euphemistically, that they would let me know if anything came up.

I was not yet dead, however, and still had my trump card to play. I spent some time reading the two major papers and liked the Daily Sun the best. I paid attention to the reporter’s bylines, the names of the editorial staff, and their editorial positions, although no names were tied to the editorials. I also wrote a number of letters to the editor under assumed names, delivering them in person to the main desk. This allowed me to skulk around and do a little observation of some the people whose names I was learning. One letter even got published. It was about a high school baseball coach whose players got caught ordering beer at a Pizza Hut after an away game. The coach was fired, I thought unfairly, and my letter pointed out the long and respectable association of baseball with beer, and I signed my assumed name followed by the title Milwaukee Brewers Fan.

Following the successful beer theme, I hung out in a few of the bars near the Sun. An editor named Mike Halloran was a regular at Famous Sam’s, across the street. I sat at the bar and listened to Halloran talk to members of the Sun’s staff. Everyone seemed to defer to him, and I liked his humor and rough manner. I didn’t know exactly what he did, but after listening to him for a couple of days, I was ready to make my move.

The next morning, I went to the Sun and found Halloran. I knew his desk from previous scouting expeditions. He was standing outside his office and talking to a young woman who was alternately waving her arms and pointing at him, looking frustrated and upset. Halloran’s manner was calm as he walked away from the woman, who continued to point where he had been standing. After he had put some distance between them, and she did not follow, I approached.

“Mr. Halloran,” I said. “I’ve been an admirer of the Sun for a long time, and I’d very much like to work for you.”

He looked up from the copy he was reading. “Who are you?” he asked evenly. “My name’s Ned Alexander, and I’ve just graduated from journalism school,” I said, delivering my words carefully.

“Have you gone to the personnel office?”

“Yes.” I said. “But they’re really the last to know, aren’t they? And I’ll take anything, it doesn’t even have to be a standard job. So I thought I’d come to you.”

The young woman had now moved closer to us, and it was evident that she was waiting for me to leave. Her shoe tapped the concrete floor as she stood with one hand on her hip and holding copy in the other, in a perfect dramatic exercise of someone exhibiting impatience. Halloran, though not unaware of her, continued with me. I silently thanked the young woman whose presence I was sure prolonged our conversation.

“Did you notice the weather today?”

“Ah, yes,” I said, slightly thrown off balance.

“It’s seventy-two degrees out there in December. Other parts of the country are freezing their asses off.” He paused. I waited, not knowing where this was going. “Everybody wants to work at the Sun. I probably get twenty inquires a week from reporters wanting to live here, admiration for the Sun aside.”

I now understood where it was going, but I continued anyway. “Yeah, but they all probably want real jobs. I’ll take anything.” Halloran smiled not unkindly. By now, the tempo of shoes on the concrete floor had increased to double time, and the young woman’s knuckles were white where they drove into her hip, as she fanned herself with her copy. He looked at her, then back to me. I could have kissed her.

“Sorry,” he said, in what was meant to dismiss me.

It was time to play my card. “Damn,” I said, looking down and gently kicking the floor. “I guess a journalism degree from Harvard isn’t worth the ink that’s used to print it.” I had worked hard on that line and delivered it smoothly. I turned slowly to walk away.

“Harvard, is it?”

“Yes,” I said, turning back. The women’s fan increased its speed, no longer mere theater; it was now becoming necessary as a functional cooling device. Again, I could have kissed her. “Ever do any crime reporting?”

“Quite a bit,” I lied. Actually, I had done almost none.

“Well, Barbara there,” he said, pointing to the woman who was quickly becoming a caricature of silent fury, “is unhappy with her assignment. She’s drawn an aesthetic and moral line in the sand and dares me to cross it. So, Harvard, I have a job for you, if you want it.” I waited. “You want it?” he asked, raising his voice for the first time. Barbara, who had been listening to our exchanges all along, stood up straighter with his words and looked directly at us.

“Yes, I do,” I said, trying to sound both earnest and confident. With my words, Barbara turned quietly and walked away.

“She’s really pissed now,” he said. “But she’s class and not about to show it. Come on, Harvard, I’ll tell you about your job.” We walked to his desk, and he pointed for me to sit. “How do you feel about capital punishment?”

“I’m mostly against it.”

“Mostly against it,” he said, repeating my words and stretching them out in parody. “Well, America’s mostly for it, in fact, seventy-seven percent mostly for it by the latest polls. How mostly against it are you? Seventy-seven percent, perhaps?”

“I don’t really know, I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought,” I answered honestly. “Your view on the death penalty is not really the point. Have you heard of Eugene Redway?”

“The murderer? Yeah,” I said.

“Yeah, the murderer,” he repeated—more parody. “Well, my problem is that Barbara is pretty much against capital punishment one hundred percent. She’s been covering the story, and covering it well, too. Anyway, unless there’s a stay, which doesn’t seem likely, Redway dies tonight in Florence. It’s Barbara’s job to cover it, and she’s been selected to view the execution. Her idea is that we should cover the story without viewing it. Take a stand, if not against the death penalty, against what she calls catering to the ghoulish sensibilities of the masses, if I have that right. Fact is, I think it’s an interesting idea. A bigger fact is our responsibility to the seventy-seven percent of Americans who are mostly for it.

“You begin to see your job now, don’t you? If it were just up to me, I’d side with Barbara and aesthetics, but it’s not. And if I don’t make some attempt to cater to the ghoulish sensibilities of the masses, I get in trouble with my supervising editor. And frankly, I don’t know where I stand on this issue, so when I get into trouble, I want it to be something I really care about. So, the job, Harvard, is this: You cover the execution for the Sun, and Barbara writes the piece the way she sees it.

“If you’re a lousy writer, then I won’t use your piece, the managing editor will be mildly pissed, but at least I can say I tried. Barbara will be happy, and we’ll strike a blow for aesthetic journalists everywhere. If your piece is any good, then we did our duty by the masses, and Barbara’s piece still gets its licks in.” He relaxed into his chair and said, “So Harvard, what do you think? It’s probably the last job in town.”

His last question was rhetorical, so I said nothing, and I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon going over the file that Halloran had provided me. Most of the articles I read bore the byline of Barbara Solomon. Halloran was right that they were good, and surprisingly balanced, given the strength of her convictions. I saw no more of her the rest of the day but periodically gave her thanks.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this story. Despite what I’d told Halloran, crime work never interested me much, my preference being for articles on politics, international policy, urban social problems, stuff like that. Though I had heard the name Redway recently in my recognizance reading of the Sun, I had been unaware of the crime spree he had participated in at the time eighteen years earlier or of its nature. While I was ecstatic about the way my employment had taken place, the fact that I was to see a human being killed in a few hours gave me a creepy feeling, and I did my best not to think about it. This was a bit difficult since I was busy arming myself with as many facts as I could.

Solomon’s stories focused on the debate between those advocating for Redway’s execution based on the heinous nature of his crimes and those opposed to the death penalty on ethical, religious, or moral grounds. There was little or no discussion of possible innocence, or of redeeming activities of Redway while in prison that might mitigate the severity of the sentence. Also in the file were articles written at the time of the crimes and the original trial. I sat at a little wooden desk built on a scale appropriate to a third-grader, feeling like I was in high school detention, as I took notes on an ancient typewriter. I don’t really type, being brought up on computers, but it seemed the thing people would expect, so I hammered away, paying more attention to my rhythm than my accuracy, which was laughable. I noticed that the keyboard, or whatever it’s called on typewriters, was dusty and probably hadn’t been used for a while. I told myself that maybe I did have the makings of crime reporter.

In the back of my mind, I reviewed the nature of the fragile employment agreement between Halloran and me. Fundamentally, I was being used as a device to promote a kind of domestic harmony between Halloran and his reporter. And though she was unhappy now, this compromise would work to her advantage in the end, and Halloran knew it. My worry was that perhaps he had no intention of publishing my article. “But,” I told myself, “I’m a hell of a writer and the quality of my prose would make it impossible not to use it.” Pursuing the ghost of Eugene Redway would be easier than pursuing the ghost of Dylan Thomas, I reasoned. And so, with arrogance to the rescue, I thought little more about it.

After a couple of hours, Halloran called me back to his desk and told me that everything had been set up for me to attend. When he gave me an I.D. pass that said Sun and told me to get my picture put on it at the personnel office, I began to feel a little easier about the reality of my position.

“Listen,” he said before dismissing me. “What I want from you is an account of the execution, how he looked, what he said, times of events, that stuff, I don’t want you to do a lot of background. We’ll leave that to Barbara. Can you do that, Harvard? All I want is accurate observation and competent writing. This isn’t the Daily Weasel.”

Through all of his instructions I had been nodding along earnestly, but with this last comment my head snapped to a halt, and I looked straight at him.

“Yes, sir,” I said. The Daily Weasel was an underground newspaper I had written for both during my time at Harvard and after graduation. It specialized in exposing unjust social conditions around the Boston area, did political commentary, and had a limited but educated readership. As I stood up to leave, I saw a photocopied page from the Weasel with an article I had done on housing scandal in Roxbury. I had been surprised when my name appeared correctly on the I.D. pass since I had said it only once when I introduced myself. Now, it seemed that in the space of a few hours, he not only knew my name but also had done some checking and read some of my work. Halloran may have looked and acted casual, but it seemed he missed little.

“Redway’s in Florence State Prison, which is about an hour and a half from Tucson. He’s scheduled to die at midnight. I want you back here with your story written by three o’clock tomorrow morning. Can you do that?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. And afterward, Ned, I’ll buy you a beer at Sam’s, and this time you can sit at my table.”

Again, I did a double take, then turned to write an account of how a dead man, not yet dead, comes to die. I walked out of the offices of the Daily Sun much different than when I walked in, holding my incompetently typewritten notes in one hand and clutching my I.D. in the other. For me, it was the last job in town.