Thursday, June 23, 2005

Everyday People
A new hire on our copy desk, a Canadian, was just talking about the time he was jailed in a red dirt, one road Mississippi town as a civil rights worker during the Schwarner, Cheney & Goodman summer of '64. The Canadian counsel had to drive from New Orleans to spring him on a concealed weapon charge. He'd been carrying a pocket knife. As an afterthought, he mentioned he'd also been wearing a Black Watch kilt.
Meanwhile, my deskmate, Ken, is a 71-year-old Singapore native with a ethnic heritage that defies categorization. It includes Dutch, Thai, Chinese, German, Portugese and maybe several others I can't recall. He was a child in Singapore during WWII -- think Empire of the Sun - under the Japanese occupation and recalls walking across a bridge often on which the Japanese military stuck the severed heads of Chinese "criminals" on poles. Young Ken's duties included weekly cleanings of the stolen Studebaker staffcar of a Japanese army captain who was later hanged as a war criminal. ("I'd clean it on Sundays after he took us out in it on ice cream trips. He'd also play piano and teach us Japanese songs. I still can sing two of them...") In 1956 Ken was an Elvis impersonator in New Zealand. He lip-synched from a wire recorder and has a black and white photo of him as Elvis to prove it. He's also been an alpine climber and a international championship bowler and has another photo of former Philippine President Fernando Marcos handing him an bowling award.
Other coworkers with pasts only slightly less colorful hail from Britain, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Bangladesh, India and, of course, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Our photo editor was once the official Chinese news agency (Xinhua) photog at the Clinton White House. His favorite Clinton? Socks the cat. He was written up a couple years ago in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town section for a blog he kept.
You can sometimes hear four or five different languages - Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, English and some Indian dialect - babbling and swearing simultaneously. Religions? We've got Muslems, Hindus, Christians, a Jew, atheists, agnostics, Taoists and Buddhists.
Ex-cons? We've got one or two who have done more serious time than our Canadian kilt wearing civil rights worker.
Our American editor (himself a former Vietnam correspondent for Newsweek) once aptly described this crew of largely castoff reprobates who've washed ashore here as "like the barroom scene in Star Wars.'' While editors in the US wring their hands about striving for "cultural diversity" in their newsrooms (a clown or two at the Rocky Mountain News spring to mind) - and make token hires simply due to skin color or because a last name is "ethnic" - we've got the real deal here.
The funny thing is that most of those US editors wouldn't last one shift here. It's one thing to talk it but the walk is another matter entirely and they haven't even begun to crawl.
They've never been busted in Mississippi wearing a kilt or cleaned a war criminal's car.
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