Today is National Columnists’ Day. Someone just told me. It’s a holiday for honoring those depraved, half-crazed individuals who crank out 500 to 800 words each day beneath rigorous deadlines and still manage to remain, technically, married.
I remember when I unofficially became a columnist. Sort of.
I was a boy. I was in my room, pouting.
My room looked like any little boy’s room. It was messy. It smelled funky. There were underpants scattered on my floor. There were Hardy Boys books, aquariums featuring dead goldfish, and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches that predated the Carter administration.
I was having a particularly bad day. Namely, because my friends were playing outside and they had not invited me to join them. I could see my pals from by bedroom window. They were having fun, but they didn’t want me around.
When a kid’s father dies in the shameful way mine did, that child is not exactly the hippest kid in the county. I was forgotten. And it hurt.
There was a knock on my door.
It was my mother.
“What’re you doing in here all alone?” she said.
She glanced out the window. “You’re pouting.”
“No I’m not.”
“Then go outside and play with your friends.”
“They’re not my friends anymore.”
My mother was carrying something behind her. She placed a gift-wrapped box onto my bed. It was the size of a small suitcase, and heavier than a sack of Quickrete, wrapped in Christmas paper, although it was July.
“What’s this?” I said.
“Open it,” she said.
“I don’t feel like presents.”
Her face tightened. “Well, maybe when you’re done wallowing in self pity, you will.”
Then she left.
Mama always had a way of putting things.
I tore open the packaging. Inside was a vinyl case containing a manual typewriter. Sea-foam green. The spacebar was a little crooked, the S and D keys were faded, the ribbon was new.
Somehow I knew what to do. I loaded a clean sheet of paper. I positioned myself before the typewriter. I sat cross-legged on the floor and pecked out one letter at a time, using my index fingers.
My first stories were undiluted crapola. I used the pen name Twark Main. I wrote a story about a kid who was so lonely that he hopped a train and toured the whole United States with his incredible talking dog, Leroy. Everyone loved this boy, and they all wanted to be his friend, and sometimes strangers hugged him for no apparent reason. It was a great story.
Over the years I got older and considerably less handsome. I kept writing stories. I liked to write about the people I’d met. People I found interesting.
When I became a teenager, my life fell apart. I dropped out of school. I quit trying. But somehow I kept writing. I wrote hundreds of stories that no teacher would ever grade. Truthfully, I don’t know why I wrote. I wrote for me, I guess.
I wrote about the old man who umpired for the Baptist and Methodist league games, who once played for the Cubs in the ‘30s.
I wrote a story about the elderly preacher who lived on my street, who once performed a funeral for my Labrador; he wore a necktie and everything.
By age 20, I was a dropout gone to seed. But I was still writing about people. Like the Mexican woman in my apartment building, Miss Isabella, who sold homemade tamales on construction sites for 50 cents apiece to pay for her daughter’s dental braces.
I wrote about the man who had 28 feral cats and died of lung cancer. I was one of only three to attend his funeral. My friend Rachel and I made sure all 28 cats were adopted.
I wrote stories about the barbeque joints I visited. Of people who died too young. Of kids with illness. About the ancient couple I met on the beach who had been married for 76 years.
I wrote about the homeless man named Watson, who lived behind the Greek Orthodox church and wanted to get sober, but couldn’t seem to do it.
Looking back, I don’t know why I wrote these sophomoric stories. It’s not like anyone cared. But then, maybe that was the whole point. Maybe the point of my life isn’t to write stuff people care about. Maybe my job is just to care.
One morning, shortly after I was married, I got home late from work. I was covered in muddy globs and drywall dust. I shed my workboots and found our small local newspaper sitting on our kitchen table with a red ribbon tied around it.
My wife wore a silly grin and told me to open to page 5A, which I did. Inside the paper was a headshot of me. My sentences were printed beneath the photo. “Columnist Sean Dietrich,” the text began.
My wife told me she sent several of my stories to the newspaper. Much to everyone’s surprise, most of all mine, they published them.
“You’re a columnist now,” my wife said.
So I called my mother and told her I was done pouting for myself.