I worked as a house cleaner, babysitter, gymnastics instructor, life guard, and swimming teacher before I found my first professional job. My college boyfriend’s father had served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Now he was a scholar at a Washington, D.C. think tank who had published a book about the Middle East peace process. He needed interns to help him research another book. “My father needs a woman,” my boyfriend said. Before my senior year of college, I spent a lonely summer researching Nixon’s decision-making process during the Yom Kippur War. I met the editor of my school’s foreign affairs journal that summer and she asked me to contribute when I got back in the fall. Years later, after a long career as a journalist, my college boyfriend visited me in New York and asked, “Are you in the CIA?” “No,” I said. “Come on, you can tell me. My father was in the CIA.” Looking back, I wondered if that’s why the CIA tried to recruit me. I had an interview with a woman who had vampire pale skin with unfortunate pock marks. Mercifully, I didn’t get called for another interview. I could have ended up as a spy.
During my last semester of college, I lived in an off-campus house full of Argentine students, including an ex-boyfriend and a PhD student who became a mentor. She had worked as a journalist in Argentina and bravely criticized the military government during the dirty war. She invited me to stay with her in Buenos Aires after graduation. My mother said I could go if I found a job. In Buenos Aires, I went to the Argentine American Chamber of Commerce looking for work, and the editor of the chamber’s publications sent me to the Buenos Aires Herald, an English-language newspaper famous for its coverage of those who had disappeared during the dirty war. The editor of the Herald threw me out of his office. “I’m not hiring any more foreigners.” I left my articles and he called that afternoon. “Can you start tomorrow?” I worked as a staff writer on the business and finance page with Andrea. Parts of her fingers were missing. She was bitter. A retired army general had attempted a coup just before I arrived in the country. Then guerrillas attacked a military garrison outside Buenos Aires. A severe drought caused a shortage of hydroelectric power and the government turned off the power for hours at a time. Strikes left me without mail for weeks. After a year, hyperinflation made my salary almost worthless. It was time to go. When I told Andrea I was leaving, she finally warmed to me. “Now I know who the next New York Times correspondent will be.”
I fell in love with an Israeli soldier on my way to Machu Picchu and he followed me to New York. He asked me to marry him the summer Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He wanted to spend our engagement in Israel so I could get to know his family. The Gulf War broke out soon after I arrived. The raid siren went off, over and over, and we ran to the sealed room and put on gas masks during the Scud missile attacks. I wrote freelance op-eds for my hometown paper in Stamford, Connecticut about the first intifada and the Gulf War. When we got back to New York, we both went to school—I began graduate journalism school at Columbia and he began a combined bachelor’s/master’s program in psychology at City College—but our marriage didn’t survive the trauma of that short, surgical war.
I was newly separated after finishing graduate school when I found a job as the managing editor of the Bronx News, a weekly newspaper covering the northeast Bronx. It was my first week when a conservative columnist for the paper called to say he wanted to send his “henchmen” after me for alleged liberal bias in an article about a congressional race. I was not intimidated. I wrote about a state senator who used education resources as a slush fund; a rigged school board election to hurt minority candidates; a teenager smashed in the head by a brick in a gang attack by a high school; a college student raped, murdered, and stuffed in the trunk of her car. I chain smoked to cope.
After I met my new boyfriend, an artist who worked as a fashion illustrator, I finally quit smoking. We lived in the same building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He convinced me to give up my car to save money on insurance. I began to ride my boyfriend’s beater bike to work. I got a flat tire and missed a school board meeting. My boss paid car expense and after he found out that I was doing my job on my bike he said, “It’s time to part ways.”
While I was still working as the managing editor of the Bronx News, my Columbia classmate started to work as a stringer for the New York Times and he recommended me to the paper. I carried a beeper and the Metro Section editors assigned me to stories. I covered the death of a homeless man outside an emergency room. The emergency medical technician failed to take the man to the hospital and he was fired. I interviewed his girlfriend who was pregnant with his child. The Times didn’t credit stringers back then.
I also covered a woman with a gun to her head who was threatening suicide in Penn Station and a teenager stabbed in a gang assault in the Bronx. I went to the hospital and the Times gave me a number to call his family. I called and a man and woman came to the hospital. The woman looked like an African priestess in all white with beads around her neck. “No es mi hijo,” she said. It wasn’t her son. The Times gave me the wrong number. The next day I bought the Times and looked for my story. Nothing about a boy stabbed in the Bronx. I’d called the police. I’d called the hospital. And I found out he lived. “It was a miracle,” the kind nurse said “All that blood coming out of his side.” It wasn’t news to the Times.
My last assignment for the Times was to cover the mood in Harlem before Christmas. I interviewed a woman who had recently divorced and was on her way to a prayer group; and merchants in the shopping mall who complained that business was down since Mayor Giuliani cleared out street vendors without permits. The Times ran a long story about how business was booming at Macy’s in Midtown without including any of my reporting. The next time the Times beeped me I didn’t respond. My heart was broken.
Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was longlisted for the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award in 2021 and was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. One of her poems was a finalist for the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize in 2021. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction and memoir writing with New York Writers Workshop. Twitter: @karol_neilson
Banner Art: A Postcard for New Times by Robert Frede Kenter (c) 2022. Twitter: @frede_kenter