Valentine’s Day is a day of love. It’s a day of flowers. It’s a day of candy. It’s a day of Vermont Teddy Bears.
It is also a day that I once ruined for thousands of people.
This happened in 2002. I was a reporter for the Verona-Cedar Grove Times, easily one of the five worst newspapers in the country. (I know what I speak of as I have worked at three of the five worst newspapers in the world.) My main duties consisted of reporting on local school board issues, local real estate issues and other topics that made me vaguely suicidal.
One day, in early February, I received a call from a lady by the name of Bernice. She told me that she had a “pitch” for me as she had a “very important” story.
She had children who went to The Valley Educational Center, a private school for troubled kids from North Jersey. And, for Valentine’s Day, the kids at this school were going to put messages in puffy paint on t-shirts for folks who lived in a nearby nursing home.
Normally, I wouldn’t write about middle school students drawing hearts on t-shirts in puffy paint for a bunch of people waiting to die. But I decided to cover this story anyways. This was done for two primary reasons:
1. These kids were a bunch of juvenile delinquents. It was a collection of arsonists, thieves and rapists. And if there’s one rule I follow in life, it’s this: Always try to hang out with a group of pre-teen arsonists, thieves and rapists. Paricularly if there’s puffy paint involved.
2. This newspaper was a complete and total piece of shit. I covered stories way more retarded than this one. Earlier in my tenure at this paper, I wrote an article about a guy who grew a really big zucchini in his garden. It was the main story on the front page.
I went to the school, where I met Joel, the school’s executive principal and Robb, the school’s head principal. I have no clue what the difference between these two job titles exactly was. The only difference between them was Robb’s hair, which was straight out of the Jeff Ament collection.
“What you are doing for these kids… it’s just awesome and amazing. I mean, these kids have nothing positive in their lives at all,” Robb said. “So, for what you’re doing, we’re going to love you forever. After this article is written, we’re going to frame it for you.”
I told them that they didn’t have to do it. After all, I was a journalist, and I wasn’t allowed to accept gifts from people I was writing about. (However, I would have accepted the following: food, sporting event tickets, free passes to Loews’ cinema, free passes for Blockbuster videos, light drugs, a job reference, cash, and a new car, preferably a Lexus.)
Robb then told me that his brother was a reporter for the U.S. News and World Report. “He really misses writing these types of stories,” he said. “You know, the articles where you can really impact someone’s life.” I’m pretty sure his brother didn’t miss these types of stories. And I’m definitely sure he didn’t miss the $9.75 per hour wage.
Robb then asked me not to write anything that would “cause further harm” to these kids. I told him I would try my best not to, but that I would be writing down what Robb told me. He continued to talk about how fucked up these kids were.
“They’ve been damaged by life,” he said.
Finally, we made it to the art room. And there, as expected, were a bunch of messed up looking middle school kids – 8th graders with mustaches and/or wearing halter tops -- putting puffy paint on t-shirts. I wish I could be more descriptive than that. But that’s all it was.
I went back to work and wrote this article. It could not have been easier. It’s a story that tells itself. Messed up kids who are “damaged by life” put puffy paint on t-shirts for elderly people. I finished the job and went on with my life.
Two days article, our paper came out. My boss, Milo, called me into his office.
“It’s that guy Robb from the school,” he said. “He’s on the phone. He’s crying.”
“What, is he crying tears of joy?”
“No, he’s pissed as shit.”
I picked up Milo’s phone.
“Hello?” I asked.
“You are a fucking asshole,” he said.
“You heard me. You are a fucking piece of shit.”
I asked him what his problem was. He continued to flip out on me.
"Everything in here is a misquote. We went over the rules. I didn't want you to run anything that could hurt these kids," he told me.
"I wrote down what you told me," I said. "Plus, there's not anything in there which could hurt anyone."
"DAMAGED BY LIFE! YOU WROTE THAT THESE KIDS WERE DAMAGED BY LIFE!"
"Because that's what you--"
"Do you know what you did by writing that? DO YOU?"
"No. Please tell me."
"YOU RUINED VALENTINE'S DAY FOR THOUSANDS OF FAMILIES IN NORTH JERSEY. THOUSANDS OF FAMILIES. ALL OF WHOM WANTED TO READ THIS STORY. AND YOU RUINED VALENTINE’S DAY FOR THESE PEOPLE."
Rob and I eventually parted ways, but not before this granola-head cursed at me a few more times.
So, if you’re one the people whose Valentine’s Day I ruined all those years ago, I’m sorry. However, if you’re one of the kids I wrote about in the article, you’re probably in jail anyways.
Gregg Gethard is a Philadelphia writer and comedian. His monthly comedy show BEDTIME STORIES is next Wednesday the 18th at Connie's Ric Rac (1132 S. 9th) at 8PM.