A Question Unasked

I attended an evening lecture a few days ago in which a crusading civil rights lawyer recounted some of his most famous, paradigm-shattering court cases, some argued before the US Supreme Court.

I took notes as he spoke, out of a habit that began long ago, when I was assigned to attend open-to-the-public events by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The work appeared anonymously in a section modeled on The New Yorker‘s Talk-of-the-Town, that quirky, front-of-the-book (people who write and edit a magazine call their publication a book) assortment of quick  interviews and profiles, “think” pieces and breezy, self-consciously witty fly-on-a-wall observations that, when taken together, celebrated the unique excitement of living in the Biggest of Apples.

At the time I wrote for newspaper (whose reporters and editors definitely do NOT call their publication a book) my section was zoned, that is, it appeared only in the editions sent to New Jersey. The territory of the coverage was the entire half of the state from Princeton (whose McCarter Theater productions were reviewed faithfully by newspaper’s second string drama critic), all of the shore from Sandy Hook down to Cape May, as well as the Delaware Bayshore towns of Greenwich and Salem, with its atomic power plants. I typically spent more time driving to and from the event (and frequently getting lost), than attending and writing about it. In those days before hand-help GPS, I splurged on a half dozen street-by-street country road maps that I kept in the trunk of my car. This led to a fascination with back roads and towns with such names as Ong’s Hat, Berlin (a former settlement of German immigrants),  Winslow Junction (where steamer trains from Camden and New York would refill their engines with water taken from the Pine Barrens), Miami Beach, Rye Gran and Byoona”–Jersey for Rio Grande and Buena and Leed’s Point, legendary birth-place of the Jersey Devil.

One assignment sent me into the Pine Barrens where state forest rangers offered a Halloween-themed Jersey Devil Hunt, an evening, bring-your-own-flashlight nature tour. Though I am shy and afflicted with social anxiety, a reporter’s notepad, and need to “get the story” for a tiny section of THE major metropolitan daily in the Delaware Valley, helped me banish any personal impediments.

One challenge of this kind of reporting was to find reasons for people who would not normally be interested–to maintain their interest. An easy way to do that was to find, among those who gathered for the event, some people who come from distant lands (Scranton, PA!). Where there any degreed professionals among us (a botanist searching for rare species, perhaps)? What, you’ve written a self published book about the Jersey Devil?! Had someone done this before (this is your TENTH Jersey Devil hunt?).  and a cute kid who would say cute things. What would you say to the Jersey Devil if you met him? “Why do you have to be a devil when you can be a angel instead?”

Of course, I talked to the park ranger leading the tour and  then reported what happened, more or less. We shined flashlights on rare, weirdly translucent tree frogs. We trudged across the Pine Barrens’ luminous white sand. We stepped carefully among the dwarf pine trees, prized by bonsai collectors. We visited the ruins of a ghost town almost completely obscured by vegetation. I asked questions constantly and even aggressively to obtain information and quotations to give the article a special zing. The hunt ended without an appearance of South Jersey’s most famous monster, but, after a cute quote from the cute kid (“The Devil is hiding because he’s scared of us.”)  a good time was had by all. I rushed back to my apartment in Pennsauken, pulled out the typewriter, hammered out the piece and hand delivered it across the Delaware River to the Inquirer’s classical revival office tower, which, at the time, was on Broad Street, a few blocks from City Hall.

This was a living and, sometimes, a thing that led to something else. Covering a kite-flying contest led to a two larger articles about a guy who flew some of the largest kites in the world–one was four miles long! Stuff about Atlantic City eventually led me to move closer to the shore, where my coverage “peaked” when I covered the state and the shore for the New York Times.

Also, I genuinely liked learning interesting things about New Jersey, the people who lived and worked there.  I wallowed in the history and personality of different regions, no matter how trivial (Did you know Welch’s Grape Juice was invented in Hammonton by a Methodist who wanted to preserve the juice but NOT drink alcohol?!). I let my enthusiasm take me where it will, especially when the rather low amounts I was paid precluded moderately priced indulgences.

It was odd, then, to go to this lecture and not talk to people. I didn’t see any cute kids attending, or even those who might be in college. A discussion of the history of the irrational, hateful, murderously violent struggle for racial, ethnic and gender rights did not seem to be a date night draw: most attending were of senior years, which meant that they lived through this, even if, as I did, most of the conflict was watched on television, or portrayed in movies and stage plays.

The speaker was, without question, a hero who had not only defended successfully the rights of mixed-raced couples to marry. He trained Freedom Riders who challenged the “separate but equal” hypocrisy of the South, got Martin Luther King out of one of the many jails that tried to hold him, consoled those who had been beaten during protests and counseled those whose repeated marches on Washington helped to end the Viet Nam war. He sued colleges that refused to admit women, school systems that fired female teachers when they became pregnant (he quoted one of his adversaries explaining that “We don’t want children to think there’s a watermelon under her dress”) and, as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union who happened to be Jewish, and who rediscovered his Jewish identity when he practiced civil rights law–defended the American Nazi Party.  When his parents found out about this, they did not listen to him explain that any abridgement of civil rights, no matter how despicable the people exercising those rights happened to be, could lead to further restrictions. His parents refused to speak to him for two years.

Some of the court cases were actually easy to win. The baseless claims used to defend racism, bigotry and inhumane cruelty did not work against a highly educated judicial elite that knew American society had to change for the better. He quoted a college administrator: “We don’t discriminate against women here. We just treat them differently.”

He barely restrained his contempt for the way members of the current Federal administration, many in Congress and specific Supreme Court justices, are trying to limit, curtail, “roll back” and otherwise deny the rights that so many died for in the last fifty years.

When the talk ended, we were told that this was our speaker had turned down an honorarium and, because of his advanced age, this was probably the last speech of this kind that he would ever give.

Then we were told we could ask questions. I had one to ask that was similar to the kind of questions I used to ask many important people. This question was especially important to me because my father not only practiced law, he had helped ban the death penalty in New Jersey. I remembered how my father became so happy when we won a case, and so bitter when he didn’t.

Other hands went up. Those permitted to ask questions seemed to talk more about themselves. They couched their queries in long preambles, sometimes demonstrating a knowledge of the law, other times subtly challenging–in light of the harrowing turn our current government has taken–the propriety of going up against the powers that be.

He answered the questions forthrightly and, at just the moment when I thought to raise my hand, we were told that there would be no more questions.

I wanted to ask if, when he was trying a case where the outcome did not seem obvious, logical or easily won, did he, in a private moment, pray that things would happen his way? Or did he, like my father, withhold importuning Heaven, and put his faith in the rule of law that, for all its many faults and failings, still aspires to be the essence of justice in the free world?

Perhaps if I had a reporters pad in my hand, and the certainty that a newspaper or magazine would print my account and give me some paltry pile of coins for the privilege, I would have jumped up and done the “one more, Mr. President” act that, far more than not, does get one last question from your source.

But I didn’t and, as people left, I reminded myself that part of what makes prayer so interesting, compelling and, for some, necessary, is that, when we are genuinely afraid, when we want one outcome over another, or when we are tired of losing, of seeing our values defied and insulted, of suffering and watching other suffer even more for no reason other than the powers that be do not care enough to make things better–we do it anyway.

And sometimes, you get what you want.




the Inquirer’s circulation was most of northern Delaware, all New Jersey south of Trenton, all of Philadelphia and the five Pennsylvania counties surrounding it. My section was zoned, that is, it appeared in only the New Jersey editions.


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