Several months ago, I attended a workshop for up-and-coming journalists of color at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, on behalf of my employer, Automattic, the VIP division of which is a regular, enthusiastic supporter and financial sponsor. The VIP team was on their annual Grand Meetup, so they’d asked if I would attend on their behalf. Being a geek of all things journalism, I’m fairly sure I said yes before Steph had even had a chance to finish typing the question in Slack.
Mid-October in St. Pete is lovely. The sun burned bright yellow everyday and closed the curtain every evening with a warm glow. The first early morning I walked down the wide avenue on which Poynter is located, I was struck by how radiant the building appeared in the face of the rising sun. It seemed a good omen to the day.
One evening, the institute hosted a dinner and cocktail hour offsite, featuring the legendary Marty Baron of the Washington Post as the guest of honor. I held back during the meet-and-greet at the end, thinking that I would have the opportunity to chat with him even for just a few minutes the next day at the workshop, but as it turned out he was only in town for that one evening, and I missed my chance. I’d known about him for years, had read articles about him, and of course had seen Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of him in the movie Spotlight, so I was appropriately awestruck even just sitting in the same room with him. I’m geeky enough to have blushed and felt a momentary thrill when one of the executives from the institute, who presented Mr. Baron at the dinner, also thanked my employer and myself for attending and participating. When he sought me out in the small audience and mentioned my full name — pronouncing it correctly! — in his acknowledgments, Mr. Baron nodded and smiled in my direction and I returned the gesture with the goofiest smile on my face.
But the most memorable moment of the week for me was when I took a cab to the institute my last morning. I had brought a couple of big boxes containing mugs and other branded swag for the workshop attendees, so I wasn’t about to hoof it the quarter mile to the building. The hotel concierge kindly called me a cab, and within minutes a tall, gangly man in his late fifties or so bounded out of his car and deftly hauled my boxes into the trunk while I slipped into the front seat.
He had a lively story, one of those classic only-in-Florida stories of men washing up from elsewhere on a Florida beach hoping to find both sunshine and fortune. He found plenty of both, but kept one and not the other. Now he’s driving a cab, but he retained a deep affection for St. Pete and its quirky culture and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
When we arrived at the institute, though, and he’d finished helping me bring my boxes inside the lobby, I pulled out my wallet but he waved his hand in dismissal and shook his head.
“No, no, this one’s on me.”
I stood there in confusion. This man just told me his life story and how he’d come to Florida and built a thriving business, only to lose it all through a series of misfortunes and mistakes, and now he’s driving a cab to earn a living. I was not here to dispense charity but to pay for a service he’d so ably and cheerfully rendered.
He shook his head again, then pointed a sunburnt, slender finger to the building behind me, the one that radiated in the morning sun.
“No, the Poynter does good work. You do God’s work here. I love what you do and I love that they’re here, and it’s an honor just to take you here.”
I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually part of the Poynter, that I’m not even a journalist and am part of a company that sponsors the institute, but he continued to shake his head and wave me away. He walked back to the driver’s side and winked at me before sliding back into the seat and driving away.
In this terrifying era where the powers that be expressly point angry fingers at journalists and call them the enemy; when the president of the United States regularly encourages his supporters to see the media as the opposition, even goading them to verbally abuse them, it was a moment of grace and inspiration.