Staring down death at the obit desk
Matt Rota / www.mattrotasart.com
Mount Vernon—Dale Edwards Irwin, 36, of Denver, Colo., formerly of Mount Vernon, Iowa, died Tuesday, May 22, 2007, in Montbello, Colo. Services: 1 p.m. Monday at First Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon, with the Rev. Paul Mark Davids officiating. Burial: Mount Vernon Cemetery. Visitation: 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Morgan Funeral Home, Mechanicsville, Iowa. Survivors include his parents, Edward and Paige Eldridge of Mount Vernon, and two sisters, Allison Painter of Cedar Rapids and Wilma Eldridge of Iowa City.
It’s 11:00 p.m. in the newsroom of the regional newspaper where I work. I’ve been here since 5:00, collecting death notices, faxed, phoned, and e-mailed in, mainly from funeral homes, and entering them into the ancient computer system. The next day’s paper was put to bed at 9:00, but I’m still awake, updating service notices and entering tomorrow’s batch of obits.
The police scanner squeals and spits out a report of gunshots fired in the vicinity of Third Avenue—only a couple blocks away from our building. The late-shift newswriter—a dirty-blond twentysomething named Sam—moseys up to the main desk—my desk—where the scanner sits three feet away.
“What was that report?” he asks.
“Gunshots, Third Avenue,” I tell him.
Even close to midnight, the newsroom is cacophonous. Someone has turned the police scanner all the way up because someone has turned the two televisions all the way up. Phones ring incessantly. The calls bounce from the empty desks of one editor to another until they finally forward through Sam’s cell phone, which rings to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
“You’d probably be able to hear the scanner if you put your phone on vibrate,” I yell at him over the top of it all.
“Michael’s the only thing that keeps me on point this late,” he says. “Michael and cigarettes. Let’s go.”
I follow Sam out of the newsroom and down the stairwell to the loading dock. Though the butts have all been swept up, the concrete structure still reeks of them. I can’t imagine what the newsroom must have smelled like in the ’70s.
“Anything tonight?” Sam asks and passes me a Marlboro Light.
I take a drag of my cigarette and say, “Dale Irwin, 36, originally of Mount Vernon, jumped to his death from a hot air balloon outside of Denver.”
“Wow, that’s a good one. That might be the best one yet.”
We are collecting the best ways to die. That sounds cynical, but it doesn’t feel that way. No one wants to rot away from cancer or keel over from heart failure. Those benign-sounding sisters, brief illness and long illness, are the most perverse because of what they aren’t saying, especially in this conservative corner of the Midwest. Drug addiction, mental illness, AIDS. We respect the death notices that tell the truth, even if we don’t usually publish them.
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