Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Vignettes from Vermont: Ode to Joan


BENNINGTON -- Joan Galler died today.

That news means 10,000 things to friends, contemporaries and colleagues of the 69-year-old Trentonian newspaper reporter who would cook you a plate of kielbasa, pirogies, sauerkraut no sooner than she would dig her heels into the carpet and hold your feet to the fire by demanding answers to an incessant line of questions.

"Joan was a decent person," Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann said Sunday morning upon hearing the news of her passing. "Your viewpoints didn't always match up with her viewpoints so she would always ask more questions and hammer away."

[HERE is Joan's obituary in The Trentonian.]

"Oh my God. I am so sorry to hear," Jack Ball, the mayor who preceded Steinmann, said Sunday morning upon hearing the news of Joan's death. "She was a good friend. She was always very helpful and considerate."

Generous, funny, considerate, whip-smart, sharp as a razor and a thousand other adjectives paint a picture of Joan Galler, a pianist, whose personality and flair emanated from a bygone era of pica poles and Jackie O. None of the color approaches the truest word that defined her: talker. Joan Galler talked. And talked. And talked. Talked. Talked. And talked. She talked. Talked. Talked. And talked. Talked. Talked. Talked and talked. Talked and talked some more. She talked. Talked. Talked. Kept talking. I am woman hear me talk. And talk. Keep talking. Still talking. And talking.

And when she was done talking, guess what Joan did? She came back to talk more.

Talked and talked and talked and talked and talked.

Talked.

Joan Galler was the gold medalist of talkers in the United States of America, perhaps on the planet earth. You learned about Joan's love of talking the second you walked into her universe. There are reasons, though. Single woman. Never married. No kids. Cats. And she cared for Aunt Mary. The one and only Aunt Mary. Someone needs to write a screenplay about Joan Galler and Aunt Mary. Everyone in The Trentonian newsroom knew every intimate detail of Aunt Mary, not that it was a bad thing, but Joan Galler wasn't Joan Galler unless she talked about today's Adventures with Aunt Mary.

Aunt Mary died a few months ago. She was 103. You do the math.

Aunt Mary consumed every waking second of Joan's life at home when Joan didn't sleep on the couch in the women's bathroom at The Trentonian. I think Joan chose that couch some nights to avoid the wrath of Aunt Mary although I'll give her the benefit of the doubt; Joan worked stories voraciously so when she looked up and it was 45 minutes past midnight, or 2:30, it was easier to take a long nap in the bathroom instead of driving 40 miles sleepy-eyed to Edison and dealing with Aunt Mary and her antics only to turn around and drive back to work 7 or 8 hours later.

So yeah, Joan spent many nights at work. I worked late one night and left with Joan still doing something or other at her desk near a corner window. I came back to work at 7 the next morning for the start of a 15-hour day and who did I see at her desk? Joan. She hadn't left. She may not have slept, either. I took this picture of her standing in the sea of emptiness that was The Trentonian newsroom.




Everyone in The Trentonian newsroom interacted with Joan on one level or another. So did everyone in advertising. And accounting. Publisher. Pressroom guys. Maintenance fellas. Judy. Chico the delivery driver from Parsippany. Everyone. As far as the newsroom went, some relationships with Joan were positive, most collegial -- and some were powder kegs waiting to explode. Many days they exploded. That's life in newsrooms across America.

Reporter Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman is one of the sweetest souls on the planet. He and Joan got along the best. Sulaiman is a devout man of Allah whose many wonderful virtues include patience and discipline. The 27-year-old Temple grad gave as much of himself to Joan as one person could without going nuts. During the last two years they shared a bond based on the Cookie-Computer Principle. She was like so many older journalists in The Trentonian newsroom who kicked and screamed into the world of Digitalia; learning journalism on tech toys just wasn't in their job description 25, 30, 40 years ago, and more hours were wasted trying to teach them than should be allowed by law.

[To read Sulaiman's eloquent last respects toward Joan click
HERE.]

Joan beckoned Sulaiman's presence every night it seemed. If it wasn't an email issue it was downloading photos onto the desktop. If it wasn't this, it was that. Always something.

Without a second thought Sulaiman would help her upload Flipcam files then sew the clips into a video then help upload it to the website.

Joan knew she was eating so much of Sulaiman's time, and that's why she fed his sweet tooth with cookies galore. Some days it was a package of oatmeal-raisin; other days chocolate chip; other days oatmeal-raisin AND chocolate chip.

Other relationships with Joan led to nasty headbutting that would make Aaron Sorkin blush. Sorkin created the TV show "The Newsroom".

You think your Newsroom features foul-mouthed reporters and editors, Aaron? For the love of anal implosions and syphilis, spend a month in the Trentonian newsroom and then go write a series, Bubba.

Joan Galler was the smartest person in the newsroom. She got it. She hard-boiled the complexities of politics and murder into an easy-to-understand news story just like she knew how to paint the 12th story in a month about the animal shelter adoption drive or the Ewing Talent Show.

"Joan did so much for that talent show," Jack Ball the ex-mayor said. "She came to dress rehearsals and talked to children and really helped promote it. The last couple of years we had well over 1,000 people for both shows, and that had a lot to do with the press Joan was kind enough to provide."

Jack Ball is a man's man. Tall and intimidating and cowboy handsome for a man in his 70s, with a voice thick as molasses and a handshake strong enough to crack nuts. I suspect Joan had a crush on the guy. Oh, sure, she was a reporter working all angles, but Jack loves a good chat too so he gave her the time of day and night, and she loved it.

But it ran deeper. Let's face it, Joan's companionship 99 percent of the time came in the form of 103-year-old Aunt Mary. That alone made Joan a saint. I saw the gleam in Joan's eyes when she talked about Mayor Jack Ball. I remember the day Ball came to the newsroom and Joan stared at him like a schoolgirl with the deepest crush on the star quarterback. Come on, what woman of that era, married or otherwise, wouldn't fall for Jack Ball?

Jack had an affinity for Joan, too. I think Jack appreciated Joan's alpha characteristics: intelligent, eloquent, idea-driven, opinionated, fashion sense of Jackie O. and the woman took guff from no one. A real sassy broad who knew when to be a classy dame.

"Joan just wasn't a reporter but a friend," Ball said. "She always asked about my wife and daughter. She was a very concerned person." Even Mayor Ball understood the dynamic between Joan and Aunt Mary. "We had a standing joke because I called one day and Aunt Mary answered the phone and yelled to Joan that it was the 'Mayor of Izland'" he laughed. "So any time after that she called and asked 'Is this the Mayor of Izland?'

"She was just one of the nicest, most-dedicated reporters I had an opportunity to work with," he said. "She was fair and tried to be as concise as possible. ... When you didn't answer her questions she got short with you, but she was trying to do her job, and I thought she did a good job."

Steinmann ousted Ball as Mayor of Ewing. Joan struggled to connect with him for several months after the election. She always told me Bert was trying to avoid her phone calls. She'd get to work and read a big Ewing story in the Trenton Times that she missed then become furious and think Steinmann tipped off the reporter. Steinmann today said that wasn't the case. He praised Times reporters for digging harder some days and hounding him with as much zeal as Joan, which is pretty hard to do.

To Joan's credit, the Trenton Times began a full-court press on its Ewing coverage months after Joan began giving us such great coverage.

Joan meanwhile kept busting Steinmann's balls and threw in some fluff pieces until he came around and gave her as much time as he gave the Times reporter. That doesn't mean Joan didn't grate on Steinmann some days. Steinmann thinks rags like The Trentonian lust for negative stories above all else. That's not the case, Bert. You're savvy enough to know "negative" stories do fly off the rack faster and get more clicks than happy-fluffy. That's just the way it works in the newspaper game.

"Overall I thought Joan did a decent job," Steinmann told Digital First Journalism this morning. "She did cover the town of Ewing fairly. When she covered it fairly she did a very good job with it. Joan was a decent, honest reporter, and she will be missed."

Joan named one of her cats Joey.

I can't be sure if that's the reason she cooked me kielbasa and pirogies and sauerkraut so often, but I never turned her cooking away even if I had eaten dinner an hour earlier. The woman cooked a mean kielbasa. Some days it was cooked too much but per the life of a journalist, free food is free food. I grew up loathing sauerkraut yet I always slaughtered Joan's kraut. When Joan didn't make me polish food, she brought in egg salad -- it's the best egg salad I've eaten.

She fed my sweet tooth, too, with chocolate chip cookies galore.

Joan and I scratched and clawed many nights in the dying seconds of deadline because I needed her story NOW! and she would keep edit-writing, so I barked at her and she barked back and it became our nightly thing. At the end of the day Joan Galler's reporting was thorough and complete. She highlighted the meat and potatoes of a moment yet captured in detail the accessories a woman wore with her outfit. At her core Joan wore her fashion sense like a badge of honor.

Other nights -- MANY nights -- we used Joan to proof pages after she'd written her story. She graffitied page after page with enough red marks -- misspelled names, inverted letters, delete-loops attached to commas -- to make a New York Times editor blush with envy.

But Joan was a deadline editor at heart -- for years she was a night editor -- and had a knack for sniffing out shit from shinola, for slashing sentences or grafs that did not make sense or added little to the narrative.

Other times she and I warred over headlines I wrote. Many times I deferred to her ideas because she made a great point about the thrust of the headline not jibing with the story. I'm a stubborn bastard but I know when to defer to wisdom.

Some days Joan would old-lady amble toward me and I'd think "Please, God, don't let her stop at my desk to talk. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS DECENT, PLEASE LET HER WALK PAST ME!" Five seconds later Joan swallowed me in conversation. I humored her most of the time (as long as I could stand it) and other times I pretended to listen and did the "uh-huh, yep, uh-huh, sure, right" thing while pecking away at the computer. Other times I had no patience for Joan's rambling onslaught and told her to get lost.

"You never give me 2 minutes!" she charged. To which I respond "Jesus, Joan, I gave you TWENTY minutes last night! I give you twenty minutes EVERY TIME! Now go away."

To which Joan responded "You are so goddamn rude!"

And 5 minutes later she'd return to my desk with a plate of polish goodness.

The death certificate will say Joan Galler died of natural causes or a malady no one knew about. Anyone who knew the woman will say she had exhausted her allotment of words and that it was time to go spend eternity in the Great Beyond of Izland -- with Aunt Mary.

Joan pointing out cherries on Sulaiman's birthday cake in April