Can An Ex-Con Become A Professional Writer?

It was bitter cold in Durham, North Carolina when I stepped off the Trailways bus at the downtown terminal that Monday evening, and hailed a taxi to take me to my aunt’s house on Cleveland Street in a neighborhood on the northern end of the city. I had barely made it from Washington D.C. after a life changing experience with my wife who was living in New York at the time. After being released from prison on Dec. 9, and going to Tarboro where my mother-in-law lived with two of her three step-daughters, I had struck out trying to find a job. I had talked with my wife a couple of time on the phone, and she had said she was glad I was out, even though the reason I had returned to prison in 1966 was because I attempted to bash her head in with a shotgun barrel.

Yes, those were my mean years.

I had about $500 when I walked out of the prison gates in Creswell, North Carolina, a small prison camp, where the superintendent had said to me: « I’m not going to change the sheets on your bunk. You’ll be back. For more than 10 years until he died, I sent this superintendent a card every December that said simply: « Not Yet! I hope the sheets are holding up! » The money had been saved from my work release job with the bridge maintenance crew where I had worked for about a year. So I decided to join my wife in New York. In Washington, I called from the bus terminal to say I would be delayed because a snow storm had halted the buses. Her conversation on the other end was not what I had wanted to hear. I will spare you the gory details. They’re not important to this story. But that conversation was why on December 23, 1968, I was in Durham, NC instead of New York City.

My aunt Hattie, an elderly invalid and her son, Leon, a confirmed alcoholic, seemed happy to see me, and they had made a downstairs bedroom available in the large, old two-story house. I was glad to have someplace to live. My mother was in Virginia, but had told me before I was released that she just didn’t have room for me in the nursing home that she operated and in the trailer where she lived.

First agenda item–get a job! I had grown up in Durham and had committed all my crime there. Most of the city’s police knew me on sight and would become immediately suspicious that I was still a criminal. A job would not change their belief, but, in addition to other advantages, it would give me an ironclad eight or nine hour daily alibi. Tuesday was bitterly cold, too, but it didn’t matter. I had to find a job–today. About 2pm, I did! The man who hired janitors for a famous downtown hotel–The Washington Duke–hired me after hearing my story of crime and change. He said: « I don’t know why Milton, but I believe you. I’m going to give you a chance. But if you let me down, I’ll be in prison, ’cause I’ll kill you myself. » So there I was, out of prison just 15 days and employed. But please note, I was not a hotel janitor. In my mind, I was a professional writer, working temporarily as a hotel janitor. The distinction was both powerful and critical to my future.

Because of how I believed, I never wore the hotel’s janitor uniform off the premises. My co-workers made it a point to be standing out back when I turned the corner off Chapel Hill Street to enter the hotel’s employee’s entrance. They laughed loudly and called me the dressed up janitor. I didn’t own many clothes, but I wore my clothes to work and away from work, never the uniform. Oh, the pay? Imagine $1.25 per hour for a nine-hour day that began at 7am and ended at 4pm, with an hour–Noon to 1pm for lunch. I worked six days per week, and my take home pay averaged about $53 weekly.

Winter weather fluctuates in North Carolina. It can be freezing one day and balmy the next. Therefore, on a Friday payday in January, it was much warmer when I walked into Sam’s Pawnshop on Main Street downtown, and spent $25 for a battered Royal typewriter. I knew from my research in prison that newspapers and magazines did not accept handwritten copy. Besides, I had taught myself to type while working as an assistant teacher in the GED program at Odom Farm. During January and February, 1969, I tried to get in school, but the directors of the two businesses colleges I applied for refused to give me a chance. Undaunted, I began mapping a personal educational program

That’s why on a warm Spring day in 1969, I strode into the Managing Editor’s office at the Durham Morning Herld, across the street from the hotel and applied for a job. As I had learned after an horrendous experience in Tarboro, lying about my criminal background would not work. So I laid the whole story on the line. Alex Crockett’s decision to not hire me neither surprised, nor fazed me. I had a trump card. « Okay, I understand, » I said confidently. « Well what about letting me hang around the newsroom when I get off work at the hotel and see if I can pick up some pointers from the reporters. I am going to become a professional writer, and this is just as good a place as any to begin. » Crockett agreed. So there I went everyday after work, across the street and up two flights to the newsroom.

The lesson was painful, but enlightening. I saw myself as an excited « wannabe professional writer, » but the pros in the newsroom apparently saw me as a « go-fer. » Whenever I came by to ask a question, someone would ask me to go across the Street to Palm’s Restaurant, or down the block to Amos&Andy’s hotdog stand, or downstairs to the break room where the coffee pot was. They gave me the money. I ran the errands, and when I returned, they were always busy. I had to flip the script.

I explained my dilemma to my aunt and cousin, and asked them if they would let me stay there free for about six months so I could take the $20 I gave them each week and invest it in my future. They agreed. So now when I entered the newsroom, I had chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, coffee, etc. Here’s the big difference. I owned the food. The price of my food? Answers to my questions! It worked because the pros « saw » a really dumb go-fer who would not only go get the food, but who would also spend his own money. How could anyone that dumb benefit from what they said? Some of them lied, a few more often than others. That was all right. As I questioned, I began learning more and more about the skills of reporting, which includes interviewing and double checking what people say.

I asked the building’s janitor if I could take care of the trash cans in the newsroom for him. He agreed of course. I wanted all of the crumpled copy paper reporters threw away so I could compare what they started with what finally published. Then with my battered typewriter, I would get up about 5am every day, and rewrite certain stories in the newspaper. When I had about two dozen, I took them in one day to Roger Jolly, the City Editor, and asked his opinion. He said: « How would you like to come in on Sundays and rewrite wire copy? »

Later that Spring, I thought I had learned enough, so I went across town to the local black weekly newspaper and applied for a job. Louis Alston, founder, publisher and editor of The Carolina Times hired me, and I wrote for him for a couple of months before moving to Greensboro to write for another black weekly newspaper, and by the Spring of 1970, I was back living in Durham, and writing for a black weekly in Raleigh. At every opportunity, I met and learned from professional journalists. One of them was the News&Observer’s features editor, Guy Munger, and another was Ted Harris, then, the bureau chief for the capitol office of UPI (United Press International). These friendships soon proved to be most fruitful.

The editor at the weekly paid me $60 per week, and expected me to report and write news copy, as well as enterprise at least three features weekly. Well, in 1970, the afro hair style was the rage among African Americans, and one day in the barbershop, I listened as barbers shared stories about the perils of the afro. Sounded like a good feature. I reported it, wrote it and submitted it. The editor hit the ceiling, saying it gave barbershops and hair dressers too much free advertising. He rejected the story. On a whim, I asked Munger to look it over.

« You want to freelance this? » Munger asked when he completed reading the piece. Pride wouldn’t allow me to admit that I didn’t know what « freelance » meant. So I said « Sure, why not. » He said: « I have only a small budget for freelance pieces, will $75 be enough? » The math amused me! I was writing at least five articles each week for the weekly for $60 (no taxes deducted). That’s about $12 per article, and Munger was asking me if $75 for one article was enough. « Sure, why not, » I said, trying to sound calm and professional.

Munger published my feature story, complete with by-line, top of the fold on the Sunday feature front two weeks later, and on Monday, the weekly editor fired me, for writing for the competition. I went to Ted’s office to see if he knew about any writing jobs I could apply for. While there, the telephone rang and all I heard was Ted say: « Well, I be damn; he sitting in my office right now. »

The telephone call was from the secretary of the Executive Editor of the Wilmington Star-News, a daily newspaper in Wilmington, NC. It seems that Jim Wilson had been instructed by the publisher, Rye Page, to hire that newspaper’s first black reporter and Wilson read and liked the feature and called Ted to see if he knew me. I spoke with Wilson who asked could I be in Wilmington Tuesday for an interview. I ran downstairs to Munger’s office to see if I could collect the $75. Payment, he told me was two weeks away. Back to Ted office, I asked him to loan me enough for bus fare, a hotel room and some food. Ted gave me $125.

In Wilmington, Wilson and I had a grand time, but he was concerned because I didn’t own a car, and didn’t have the money to buy one. I said: « Mr. Wilson, hire me as a reporter and have your editors give me any assignment they want, and the day I miss a deadline because I don’t have a car, fire me. » Wilson replied: « Okay, I’ll start you off at $90 a week, and raise you whenever you prove yourself to be more valuable to this newspaper. When can you be here? We agreed on a date.

That’s how about mid-June 1970, less than two years after being released from prison, a high school dropout with a GED became a staff writer at the Wilmington Star-News, a professional writer, no longer working as a janitor.

Source by Milton Jordan

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