The other day I was cleaning out a closet, where I have stacked too many boxes of papers and notebooks filled with interviews from two decades (or more) ago. A photo I had not seen for many years spilled out. The photo shows a young man dressed in sequined pants, a sequined outer robe type garment, and a turban. On his face is a look of bemusement as a pretty young woman is apparently putting money in a parking meter. That photo ran on the front feature page of the Pottstown( Pennsylvania) Mercury, June 18, 1968. I wrote the story. My first professional byline. It was also probably the most outrageous story I ever wrote. In today’s world it would be seen as insensitive, and perhaps even tinged with racial profiling. The young man wearing those sequined clothes is me.
Just two weeks earlier I had graduated from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism. My first interview had been with the Philadelphia Bulletin. Sam Boyle, the paper’s managing editor, said he had no openings, but that I should go see his brother, the editor of the Mercury in Pottstown, about 25 miles away.
Robert Boyle was a throwback to a newspaper style that said cover all the news, but never hesitate to make news if it would cause readers to talk and hopefully buy the paper. He was a Navy vet of World War 2, and had climbed the ranks from reporter to city editor to editor. He’d been there over ten years and his world view then was seen by many as eccentric, but today I am sure he’s have his own reality TV show. He made news across the country when he wrote a check from the paper to cover the entire military budget of the tiny principality of Andorra–$5. He never hesitated to put reporters in uncomfortable positions, as long as a story emerged. He hired me, starting at a shade under $90 a week. This was on a Wednesday June 5, the night of the Democratic Primary in California. My first day would be Monday June 17.
At shortly past midnight, Robert Kennedy gave a victory speech to his cheering supporters at the Ambassador Hotel, then threaded his way through a narrow kitchen corridor. Waiting with a .22 caliber revolver was a young Jordanian man named Sirhan Sirhan. Three shots rang out and Robert Kennedy lay mortally wounded.
A few days later Robert Boyle called me. He told me to meet him at Sara Swann’s Costume shop in Pottstown. He gave no details and hung up. At the costume shop he told me his plan. “Nobody knows you,” he said. “Not at the paper. Not in town.” He looked at me. I had Middle Eastern features from grandparents who came from the region. “A Jordanian merchant in the Midwest was killed the other day,” he said. “People are pretty raw.” He picked out a blue satin turban, a blue satin robe, and blue satin pants—all sequined as if they belonged in an illustration of Arabian Nights, or at the very least some club in Vegas.
“Come in wearing these,” he said. “I’m telling people you came in here. You are lost. You have no I.d. You’re from Jordan. Walk around, see what people do. And one more thing,’ he said. “I want you to try and buy a gun. A .22 caliber revolver.”
I arrived early. Boyle was alone in his office. I knew two phrases from hearing my grandparents speak growing up: Yalla! (come on, hurry up) and Sabah El-Khair (good morning.) That was the extent of my vocabulary. Just when I was about to see what happened in town, Barbara Montgomery walked in. She was a blond haired college student who would be spending another summer as a reporter. I could see Boyle change plans. “Bobbi,” he said, “ this young man is lost and we’re trying to figure out what to do. Show him around town for awhile. Entertain him.”
So off we went. I told her my name was Matalon, my grandfather’s last name. I said I did not speak English. I kept repeating Yalla and Sabah El-Khair as if they held a secret to my life. We had coffee, and I acted as if I thought the salt was sugar. A woman came over and asked who I was. Barbara Montgomery, all smiles, said she didn’t know much about me, but that I spoke no English. “Well love is the same in all languages,” she said.
I did not know what to say next so I went right to the assignment.
“Guns. I like guns,” I said. “Can I see guns.” She ushered me to Bechtels Sports Shop with their glass cases filled with rifles, shotguns, and revolvers. The clerk did not bat an eye when I gestured to the revolver. He handed it to me.
“Buy?” I said. “No,” he replied. “Only for American citizens.
In time, we thankfully returned to the office. Boyle looked at us. He asked Barbara Montgomery if she had met the new reporter, Mel Allen. She said no. he looked over at me, and took off my turban.
“Now you have,” he said.
He told me to write my account and told Barbara to write hers. It was my first professional byline. The title was “Jordanian visitor comes to town.” In it I wrote that everyone seemed curious about this strangely clad person, but everyone had been polite, even friendly. A clothing store owner had offered to give me American clothes even.
A few months later I left the paper to join the Peace Corps. I was in Bogota, Colombia when I saw a copy of an American newspaper. I noticed a dateline on a story: Pottstown, Pennsylvania. It seemed a young man had gone to the Philadelphia International Airport and tried to buy a ticket. He had a parachute strapped to his back. Of course. He was a reporter for the Pottstown Mercury.