I am an intruder.
I was near the back of a small Elks lodge in Barre, Vermont, nearly a thousand miles from home—might as well have been a million. An audience of Canadian and New England racers listened respectfully as legendary TV announcer Ken Squier spoke of his late friend Chris Economaki, a fellow motorsports legend of his own right. Economaki had passed away early that morning. The remarks weren’t particularly intimate, yet they made me feel young and small—I’d barely been covering the sport for three years, while Squier and Economaki had 150 years between them; I had just met Ken and had never met Chris.
As I listened along with everyone there, present, but not participating, I felt the shadow of a feeling from years earlier: I was trespassing.
This was not the first time I witnessed eulogizing that made me feel young and small—half a decade ago, I stumbled upon a moment so raw, so wonderfully terrible, it left a scar in my memory.
In 2008, I was working in the video division of the Athletic Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On my way into work one evening, I walked into the reception room outside our office and a small group of people were gathered in a tight circle. I moved quietly towards the group of a dozen people or so, stopping before I was noticed, straining to hear what was being said. Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams was holding a framed UNC jersey, and while a few members of the basketball team were there, this was not a team celebration—the mood was somber.
Tragedy had struck the campus a few months earlier. Eve Carson was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—she was student body president, avid volunteer, and murder victim at age 22. The crime was senseless, pointless, but also emblematic of her life: gunned down for her ATM card, she offered to pray with her assailants with what remained of her time on earth. Eve’s life was a beautiful tragedy: a tragic end to a beautiful life. Like so many others, Eve’s death hit me hard, though I did not know her directly. (The same day Eve’s death became public, I vividly remember Brett Favre’s (first) retirement conference, seeing him cry, and being so angry at him for crying over something so ultimately trivial.) There was a palpable period of mourning on campus, while everyone searched for some small measure of comfort.
In that small reception room, everyone looked to Coach Williams for that comfort. Grief emanated strongly from the middle-aged couple by his side. As they fought back tears, he addressed them with a few delicate remarks; once he was done speaking, he presented Eve’s parents with the framed jersey he was holding, the name “CARSON” cross-stitched on its back.
Though my memory from that small ceremony has faded, I still remember the thick, stifling sorrow in that room, along with the realization I was bearing witness to an intensely personal moment. I will always be grateful to have witnessed something so moving—it helped me process my own grief—still…
I was an intruder.
But, here’s the thing: it’s my job to be an intruder. If you’re a good journalist, you’re constantly putting yourself in places you don’t naturally belong. While I don’t quite fancy myself a “good journalist”, I am quite good at putting myself in places where I am an outsider.
In fact, my very first day on the job, I felt like an outsider: sitting in on my first pre-show meeting, I knew less than nothing about racing and almost nothing about TV production, so the show rundown might has well have been written in Elvish. It was awesome and terrifying. Since then, I’ve grown in knowledge and experience—mainly by learning from my countless mistakes—so I rarely have that out-of-place feeling at work anymore.
However, that feeling never goes away in the field. Sometimes, it’s from being in a strange place, like a shop that makes stickers the size of a car. Other times, though, I’m asking people to relive the worst moments of their lives, a strange and scary thing to do with a total stranger. In those cases, I have to tread lightly, respecting their emotions and vulnerability, all the while pulling them out of their shells—which is not so different than a therapist would behave (my psych degree comes in handy more times than you might guess). If they are gracious enough to let their guard down, I must be careful to present their story as honestly as possible.
Back in Barre, Ken’s comments about Chris were brief and over quickly, and he went back to talking about the main reason I was there—it was the 50th Annual Milk Bowl, a race that runs a unique format Ken created as a model for TV, though it never caught on with NASCAR and television execs. I did not need to tread lightly over sensitive subjects, as this was one of those fun stories in a strange place—Thunder Road, the track Ken co-owns and where the race was to be held, is the most unique track I’ve been to; nestled under the great trees of Vermont, the people and culture at the track are as unique as the setting itself.
But, for one brief moment, I felt I was back in that small reception room at UNC, back where I don’t belong.