A long time ago I lived in Manhattan and worked at Columbia University in the Office of Public Information. It was an exciting place to work although my job consisted of routine stuff like answering phones, typing, filing and photocopying. Public Information is the University’s Press Office. It functions as a liaison between Columbia and the New York City and world press services. It’s also the office that announces the Pulitzer Prizes every spring. Columbia has always been home to Nobel Prize winners, arts celebrities, and student riots, so there was rarely a dull press release leaving our office.
Unusual people were always popping into Public Information to get their Columbia questions answered. One time the late actor and Smith Barney spokesman, John Houseman, was making a movie in Low Library, the main administration building at Columbia. Our office was on the third floor. He walked into the office one day and asked if he could use my telephone. I said “Sure” and when he was done I got him to sign his autograph “Mary, she makes money the old fashioned way: minimum wage!”
My job title at Public Information was “Office Assistant” and the only people lower than me in the office hierarchy were the student aides—young men from Columbia College. They fulfilled their work study obligations by putting 15 hours a week in at our office.
One of our aides was an engineering student named Harry Maier. Harry was a scholar/athlete and his sport was rowing. He was out on the river every morning at 6:00 a.m. practicing with his “eight.” They practiced in all kinds of weather rowing uptown, past Baker Field and the rock with the giant “C” for Columbia painted on it. Rowing is one sport Columbia takes very seriously.
One morning during the second week of November, on a cold, sleety, gray day, I arrived at work around nine to hear that there had been an accident on the river that morning. A shell tipped over in the filthy, icy waters near the Columbia rock. One of the boys wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to make it to the riverbank. He clung to the boat until the numbness in his fingers forced him to let go. It would be spring before his body rose to the surface and was found floating near the Brooklyn Bridge.
At first we were scared that it might have been Harry. But by 10 o’clock we were told the dead boy’s name and it was someone we didn’t know. Fred Knubel, Director of Public Information and official spokesperson for the University, read a brief statement at a hastily called press conference. The last line of the statement was: “The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.”
When Fred came back to the office after the press conference he told us the phones would start to get busy—mainly with calls from reporters asking for more details about the accident. He said that for the time being, Mary Anne, the office secretary, and I were to stick strictly to the statement and under no circumstances were we to reveal the name of the drowned crewman. We fielded calls all morning, always reading the statement and refusing to answer any other questions no matter how hard we were pressed. It was tense, exhausting work and by lunchtime we were beat. The accident had ceased to be real to us. We were removed from it by the mindless repetition of words describing it. Over and over we’d repeat the mantra that protected us from feeling: “…the name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of next of kin…the name of the victim is being withheld…the name of the victim is…the name…”
Around noon, Mary Anne went to lunch and I was left alone to handle the calls. Fred was in his office deep in discussion with other University officials. Since word of the drowning had arrived the administration had been scrambling to keep Columbia’s nose out of the muck at the bottom of the river. Our job in Public Information was to word the press release so as to express regret and sympathy to the family of the deceaased but in no way to suggest that the University was to blame for the accident.
By 12:45 p.m. I had a headache and was practically counting the seconds until Mary Anne would return and I’d be able to get out of there for a while. There was a lull in the incessant ringing so I put my head down on my desk and closed my eyes. I got about a minute’s worth of peace before the phone rang. The sound irritated the hell out of me and I made sure the caller could hear the crabbiness in my voice when I said, “Good Afternoon. Public Information.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line before a man’s voice said low, “Tell me the name of the boy who drowned.” Well, that infuriated me. Reporters usually identified themselves and where they worked before requesting information. I was ticked at this guy for ordering me around like that. I wanted to tell him where he could go get his public information but I was aware of Fred and the VIPs in the room next door so I settled for playing hard to get. “To whom am I speaking please?” The caller ignored the question. His voice got raspy and urgent: “Tell me the name of the boy who drowned,” he said again. My annoyance turned to unease. For all I knew it could be President McGill, in a bad mood because the day started with one of his students dying. So I was all business as I read the statement: “…The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth he spoke so I could hardly hear him: “My son is a rower. He was out on the river this morning. Will you please tell me if he’s dead?”
I was suddenly cold, shivering as I watched goosebumps spring up on my arms and felt my teeth clatter together the way they always do in cartoons when someone’s scared. This was not a call I had expected. I tried to think of Fred’s instructions. He said we weren’t to give out the name to anyone. Did that include someone’s father? The only reason we knew the name of the victim was because of our concern for Harry. I was dithering, but managed to sound coherent: “Sir, I’m sorry I’m not allowed to give you that information but if you hold I’ll…” “Don’t put me on hold!” he cried. “Please don’t,” he added like a child who remembers that “please” is the magic word.
“Look,” he struggled to regain control of his voice, “I’ve called his dorm, some of his friends, whoever I could think of, the rowing office, sports information, even the health service. No one knew or would say anything. The sports information office suggested you were the only people who could help us.” He paused and in the background I could hear someone else, a woman I think, breathing hard, almost gasping into the extension. She didn’t say a word, only listened as the man said gently, “You do know his name, don’t you?”
My silence told him that I did. I was twenty years old, probably the same age as the kid who drowned, and I stopped even pretending to sound like a professional receptionist and started whining at him like a little child, “I can’t tell you. I’ll get in trouble. Please let me get my boss.”
But desperation had made him sly. He spoke carefully now, persuasively: “Listen, you don’t have to actually say the name. I wouldn’t want you to disobey your boss’s orders. I’ll tell you my son’s name and you just say yes or no. That way you won’t really be telling, right? Just say yes or no. Please.”
I was maybe about to be the one to tell a father and mother that their son was never coming home again. No more tuition to be payed, birthdays to celebrate, girlfriends to meet. Nothing in my life had prepared me to do such a thing. I should have just pressed the hold button and gone to get Fred. But I couldn’t do that. In those few minutes on the phone the press release I’d been so bored with all morning had turned deadly real. There was a real boy drowned and real parents who had not yet been told. The longer I held the phone the more their poisonous misery flowed into my ear. When it finally reached my heart and all but stopped my breath I whispered: What’s his name? His mother said it first, the father echoing a breath behind. When I heard it I was forced to my feet in an explosion of relief. “No!” I shouted. “That wasn’t the name. It wasn’t your son. It’s not him!” Fred came to his office door putting a disapproving finger to his lips, but I didn’t pay much attention to his shushing. I was listening to the father’s long pent up crying begin. He kept trying to say thank you but he couldn’t get it out. I was giddy with joy—we three had played Russian roulette and cheated death—until his mother made me remember. She said quietly, “We’ll pray for those who don’t know yet.”
My legs were shaky as I walked into Fred’s office, meaning to tell him that I wasn’t going to answer the phone any more that day. He was still surrounded by University officials, but looked up from his notes to tell me that the boy’s parents had been notified and the name was being released to the press. We’d be getting a new press release to read soon. I walked slowly back to my desk, sat down and picked up the phone—because it was ringing.
Copyright © 1998 Mary Murphy firstname.lastname@example.org