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Observe & Report 

Selections from a reporter's notebook

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I love newspapers. My history with them began at age 14. Every afternoon, pedaling my bicycle along the sidewalks of a leafy Sugar House neighborhood, I tossed the Deseret News onto the porches of 80 houses. Ten years later, I had a job that brought me within earshot of a noisy linotype machine as reporters’ words were cast in hot lead. After that, I wrote my share of news stories on an IBM Selectric typewriter, the iMac of its day.

Over the years, I have come to admire the people who produce newspapers, especially reporters who are able to write coherently and gracefully on deadline—a skill I never mastered. I did learn to write a tolerable lead paragraph, but my favorite journalistic convention was “the reporter’s notebook.” It is typically the residue of a published story. Quotations, anecdotes, data, descriptive detail—many too telling to discard—were sometimes printed as a sidebar headlined “Reporter’s Notebook.” I don’t call myself a reporter, but I do dabble in reporting to fill this space. As a result, I have my own notebook in which I save the odd, the whimsical, the amusing and the interesting. Many are seeds of stories lying dormant. Some find their way into other columns. Here is a sample:

In February, in a scrum of people outside the door of the Senate chambers, I wait in a delegation of first-time lobbyists bent on the passage of Senate Bill 128, a bill to prohibit minors from using cell phones while driving. The decibel level is such that I have to be told twice: “There’s Gayle Ruzicka.” I push my way through the crowd toward the woman who looks more schoolmarm than harpy. I introduce myself. I tell her I have read about her for years. “You wield great power,” I say. She laughs. “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” I can’t resist adding, “They say terrible things about you.” She laughs again. I ask whether or not she favors SB128, adding that I believe no driver of any age should be talking on a phone. She demurs. Well, she says, then you would have to ban coffee cups, mascara, newspapers—all those things you see in a driver’s hand.

I met a guy who pressed a complaint about the lack of money in the Salt Lake County budget for bicycle commuting, an outrage compounded by the fact that the Equestrian Park in South Jordan was slated to get millions. My curiosity usually fades when confronted by spreadsheets, but I did scan the pages of the county’s 2012 budget. I found two line items for the Equestrian Park—$1.4 million and $894,697 to build a cover over an outdoor arena—but no mention of bicycle infrastructure. An e-mail from Patrick Leahy, director of Public Works, put me straight. It described $230,000 earmarked for bike facility
improvements and additional money to hire a full-time bicycle-transportation coordinator. Salt Lake City is 43 on Bicycling Magazine’s list of bike-friendly cities. Were there a Horse Owners magazine, would our fair city make the Top 10?

A University of Utah study found that 20 percent of teens use cell phones to take and trade explicit photos. The received wisdom is that adolescents who engage in sexting don’t appreciate “the legal and social consequences of this risky behavior” in Utah, where it is illegal. Frankly, I am surprised the percentage isn’t higher. Had the technology been available when I was a teenager, we would have amused ourselves with anonymous photos. Instead, while cruising State Street on Saturday night, we mooned passing cars. Then, streaking became so fashionable that a naked man interrupted the 1974 Academy Awards broadcast.

One of the few disadvantages of tree-lined streets is heaved-up sidewalks. As the tree roots jack up slabs of concrete, they create tripping hazards. The remarkable remedy is a hand grinder powered by a generator. A solitary city employee spends his workdays on his knees in a maelstrom of dust and noise grinding down the uneven edges.

A Ph.D. candidate regards the 9th & 9th Coffee Garden as her office. She conducts her business there by laptop for hours at a time. Many others do the same, so laptop-free tables are hard to find. Meanwhile, at Einstein Bros. Bagels in the Olympus Hills Shopping Center, the scene is dramatically different. More social club than office, the eatery is a place like Cheers, where everyone knows your name. The cast of regulars includes a man in a wheelchair, attended by his wife, and a delicate, smiling woman assigned small chores by the Einstein staff. Other walk-ins greet each other warmly. They sit together, chatting, drinking coffee and reading newspapers. Sometimes, a foursome breaks off to play bridge at a nearby table. At the Einstein Bros. on Highland Drive, men and women gather at a large table on weekday mornings and drink coffee. They converse in Greek. Given the sad state of their homeland, they have much to talk about.

Over a lifetime, from cotton field to rag bag, a pair of blue jeans uses more than 900 gallons of water. As a water-saving measure, Levi Strauss, the maker of denim clothing since 1873, recommends that you don’t launder your jeans. Instead, put the funky ones in a freezer to kill odor-causing bacteria.

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