Exposing the lie
I pulled up to the red light, checked my watch and frowned. 9:30, a full hour before I usually went into work on Wednesdays. I was a 21-year-old intern for the Asbury Park Press and paying my own way through college, so I was always looking to clock as much overtime as I could. With Christmas only three weeks away, the incentive to earn extra cash was even stronger.
But Karen, our bureau chief, probably wouldn’t be in until 10, since the New Jersey legislature wasn’t in session. That left me with a half-hour to kill.
Five minutes later, I walked into the New Jersey health department building for the second time that week to check whether the state had filed a death certificate for Patricia Quinn. The 26-year-old state police trainee had fallen into a coma in September after a series of boxing matches at the academy. She never regained consciousness, and her parents chose to end Patricia’s life support just before Thanksgiving.
From the start, the state police had insisted Patricia’s injury had nothing to do with the boxing matches. But several witnesses had said in interviews that she had been hit in the head at least twice while sparring, casting doubt on the official stance.
Since Patricia’s hometown was in one of the counties covered by the Press, the paper had two local reporters assigned to the story. Since those reporters were based an hour away from Trenton, they had asked Karen to keep an eye out for the death certificate. And since I was Karen’s intern, it was my job to do the legwork.
The health department worker I spoke with on Monday told me the certificate hadn’t been filed yet, and likely wouldn’t be ready for another week at least. Thanksgiving backs everything up, she said with a shrug.
But I had the time that morning, and the health department was right there. No harm in checking again, I thought.
Several minutes later, I was walking briskly to my car, a single sheet of paper clutched in my hand. It was a copy of the death certificate, issued that morning, that proved Patricia’s death was a direct result of a blow to the head. Proof the state police had been mistaken at best, or outright lying at worst, about the role the boxing training had played in her demise.
My boss had me fax the document to our colleagues in Asbury Park. The story made the front page of Thursday’s paper, scooping all the other news groups in the state, and the reporters made sure I got a contributor’s credit at the end. I said I felt guilty because I hadn’t done any of the writing, but my boss clapped me on the shoulder and said – “You uncovered the truth. That’s the most important part.”
Research leads to opportunity
It was my fourth week as receptionist and administrative assistant for Engel Communications, publisher of Medical Advertising News. Styli Engel, the fearsome editor-in-chief, had just left me a stack of cassettes containing interviews to be transcribed for the magazine’s Top 50 Advertising Agencies issue.
“I know you’re new to the industry,” Styli had said in her brisk way, “so if you don’t recognize a name or term, just give your best guess and flag it in the transcript. I can check and correct it later.”
The tape pile was a little intimidating, but I had all day to finish the first three interviews, and I was grateful for work that was more in line with what I had been studying for. I had dropped out of college a few years before due to lack of funds, and I had taken the Engel admin job with the hope of returning to school part-time to finish my degree. With luck, I might even land a staff position at Med Ad News once I had my diploma in hand.
I popped the first tape in the player, adjusted my headset, and began typing. My knowledge of pharmaceutical advertising was limited to the old “plop plop, fizz fizz” TV commercial for Alka Seltzer. But while listening to the interview, I discovered that agencies were creating advertising for medicines treating everything from acne to cancer. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the ads and the different steps the agency had to take to get approval for their materials.
I transcribed as Styli had directed, putting question marks where I had guessed at spellings and ellipses where the recording had become difficult to hear. Before I knew it, the tape had ended. I saved the transcript file and glanced at the clock. At this rate, I would be done the requested three by lunchtime.
I opened the transcript file again and looked it over. The reporter in me couldn’t let go of the empty spaces and spelling errors. At the very least, I could probably fix the spelling of the company names. Given how thorough the Med Ad News filing system was, it wouldn’t take much time, and it would save Styli the effort. Plus, it would give me a chance to learn more about the business.
While pulling company files, I also found folders labeled with product names, some of which I recognized from the interview. I grabbed those as well, checking the names and correcting the ones I’d misspelled. As I worked on the second interview, I paused the tape when I heard a name or term I didn’t recognize, then paged through the files stacked on my desk for the correct spelling before continuing the transcription. I spent my lunch break skimming press releases and making a list of abbreviations and other medical and marketing-related jargon on a yellow legal pad. By the third interview, I barely needed to hit the pause button.
At the end of the day, I dropped the tapes and printouts of the three completed transcripts into the basket by Styli’s closed office door and headed home. The next morning, a note from Styli was waiting on my desk. “See me,” it read. I swallowed my nerves and approached her open office door. She motioned me in, and I sat in the chair she gestured at.
Styli tapped one of the printouts I’d left her the night before. “These were surprisingly clean,” she said. “I hardly had to change anything. How did you do it?”
I told her I had looked things up in the files and fixed my mistakes before giving her the final transcripts. Styli stared at me for several seconds, then nodded.
“You’re wasted out front,” she said. “We need a fact–checker. I’ll give you the job on the condition you finish your bachelor’s degree. Deal?”
She held out her hand, and I shook it. “Deal,” I said.
The gamble pays off
I hung up the phone and stared at the wall of my tiny hotel room. The job I had moved to Tokyo for a few days before had just fallen through. Budget cuts had forced them to eliminate two open positions, including the one that I was supposed to sign a contract for the following afternoon. The managing editor was deeply apologetic. He said he hadn’t told me sooner because he was fighting up until the last minute to try to save the job he’d promised me.
Always get a contract first, I wrote on the memo pad by the phone on the desk. I doodled a few flowers around the phrase, then started jotting down numbers. The cash in my wallet: 30,000 yen, or about $300. The stash in my savings account: $3,000. The number of days until my tourist visa expired: 86. The average number of weeks to get a work visa approved in Japan: 10 weeks, or about 70 days.
All of this meant I needed to find a job in the next 10 days, or I was going to have to leave the country.
Nothing would make my friends and family happier than to see me move back to New Jersey. They had all told me I was crazy, that Japan had too many earthquakes, too many people, too many strange foods, too much of a language barrier. My mother had worked herself into tears worrying about whether some strange Japanese doctor would give me penicillin without knowing I was allergic to it. “You could die!” she wailed.
I didn’t tell my mom that I no longer feared death the way I had a year ago, before I flipped my car on an icy highway and walked away with a few scratches. I hung upside-down in the driver’s seat for several minutes waiting for the paramedics, and decided then that my biggest fear was dying without having at least tried to pursue my dreams.
I rose from the hotel desk and gave myself a good shake. Living and working overseas was one of my dreams, and I was not ready to call this gamble a loss just yet. I reached for the copy of the Japan Times that I’d picked up at breakfast and began scanning the want ads. I drew big black circles around every single job I thought I could do.
Five days and three interviews later, I had a job teaching English speaking, writing and presentation skills to corporate and government employees throughout the Tokyo area. It was the start of one of the best years of my life.
One good thing
“I sometimes think about jumping in front of a train,” my 8 p.m. student, B., told me.
My entire body went cold. Conversations about suicide were not something I’d been told to expect when I was in training to teach English skills to Japanese businesspeople. If I was in the States, I would refer B. to human resources, and they could get him some help. But I had no such protocol to guide me here.
B. was staring at his lap intently. The silence stretched long between us. I had to say something, but what? I wasn’t a doctor or therapist. What if I said the wrong thing and B. put his words into action?
I remembered a phone conversation I had had with a friend struggling with depression after the birth of her first child. She had been so convinced she was a horrible person and mother. I had gently reminded her of how kind she was and pointed out the ways in which she had helped me in the past. She seemed brighter when she hung up and told me a few weeks later our talk had really helped her.
I asked my student the first question I’d asked my friend back then. “Why?”
B. looked up at me. He clearly had not expected such a direct question. He thought for a moment,then said, “I’m just so tired. Everything is so hard, and I don’t enjoy anything anymore.”
I recalled what I knew about B. He was a foreign currency trader, and he had been working a lot of overtime lately. He lived alone, but he had mentioned a woman he was seeing in one of our earlier conversation practices.
“What about your girlfriend?” I asked. “Are you still dating her?” When B. nodded, I asked if he had told her what he just told me.
“Not really,” he said. “She knows I have been depressed. Actually, she’s been really patient with me.”
“That’s good,” I said. “What kinds of things do you do together?”
B. began talking about the restaurant he and his girlfriend had gone to over the weekend. His shoulders straightened. He began moving his hands when describing the delicious food and the funny waiter who had served them.
“Sounds like you had fun then,” I said.
“Yeah,” B. said. He sounded a little surprised.
“So that’s one good thing,” I said. “What else have you enjoyed with her recently?”
B. smiled a little. “There was this romantic movie my girlfriend made me go see with her,” he said. “I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.”
The knot in my stomach loosened, and I smiled back “Oh really? Tell me about it.”
Contact Carolyn Gretton
157 Church Street, 19th Floor
New Haven, CT 06510