When I joined the Star’s downtown general assignment pool, all the reporters’ desks had been shoved into rows as they renovated the newsroom.
It reminded me of a Grade 8 class at an all-boys school.
Loud-talking guys in wrinkled dress shirts, loosened ties, sitting jowl-to-cheek, ego-to-ego, as they pounded out their stories on 1970s computers, in late stages of decay.
I was seated, temporarily, beside a bulldog of two-way man (meaning he both wrote and took photographs), who immediately showed me the collection of girlie photos he’d amassed on the job. He’d somehow convinced numerous women to pose for photos with their shirts off, and kept a file in his desk, mixed in with pictures of his children (clothed).
He showed me this collection, I guess, to see how I’d react.
I’d just come from the Star’s east bureau, where the bureau chief made quite a show of posting a nude pinup each month on the wall beside his desk. I’d wait until he left and rip the centerfold down and jam it in his trash. I’d recently thrown a beer in a colleagues face for his sexist warblings.
I thought my deskmate was ridiculous. So I took to calling him ‘sexist pig’ and ‘pig dog.’ With a smile on my face. He accused me of knowing the phone number of the Human Rights Commission by heart. I looked the number up and scratched it on my desk— just to bug him.
There were many great colleagues—supportive, fun, wise—to be found among the mostly male editors and reporters. But in those days, the deputy city editor set the tone for the pool of general assignment reporters. To him, women were mostly “bimbos” and gay men were “fags” or “homos.” Every ethnic minority had their own special slur.
Feisty, with finesse
Star women back then were of a type: feisty, but with a “nice touch” when they wrote.
This was conveyed to me before I was even hired. When I applied from Carleton University, I made the short-list on the strength of one ball-busting anecdote. The Star’s city editor had liked the story, which he’d heard from my professor, and asked me to share it with the entire interview panel. Here’s how it went:
In third-year at Carleton (just two months before I developed pleurisy and pericarditis), some guys in the journalism school asked me to play on their intramural basketball team. They planned to enter an all j-school team in the university men’s intramural league.
I’d played Varsity basketball the previous two years and so I didn’t think it was a big deal to play with the guys.
A week before the season was to start, a university official noticed my name on the roster. He told our captain that if I stepped on the court, we would be disqualified.
Sure enough, at the start of our first game, an administrator appeared and told me that if I played, the game would not count in the league standings.
I asked the other team if they would play against us anyways. The refs also agreed to officiate the game, for free. My teammates repeatedly fed me the ball at the top of the key and under the basket. I ended up high scorer.
Our next move changed everything. We told our j-school profs about the disqualification and they called friends in print and TV. Soon, a TV camera was following me around as I sat at a typewriter on campus, shot hoops and scrimmaged with male teammates. The story ran on CTV newscasts across the country, and in the Ottawa Citizen.
The university administration relented. They said equality rights for women were about to be enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In less than two months, they’d have to let me play, so it didn’t seem to make sense to fight me.
I was in! Word spread and other women showed up to play in the league.
What I didn’t share with the hiring panel: the novelty of having a woman on the team faded and I soon became one of the guys scrambling for a loose ball. I also learned there is a price to pay when you play with the boys.
The football team also had a team in the intramural basketball league. Thick necked and tank-like, they seemed determined to teach me a lesson when we faced each other in league play. They relished giving me a hard shoulder in the chest as I fought for the ball and called me a ‘bull dyke’ and ‘bitch.’
I took myself out of the game to avoid serious injury.
Downtown on general assignment at the Star, I used my apparent toughness to shout at potential interview subjects from behind a velvet rope.
When the leaders of the then-G8 met in Toronto in the spring of 1988, I was assigned the “Summit wives,” including Mila Mulroney (Brian) and Nancy Reagan (Ronald). The only way to get quotes from behind the velvet rope that held us was to break decorum and shout questions. “Hey Mrs. Reagan, what have you been discussing?”
“Just girl talk,” came her safe response. I learned that just a few words could be spun into a story. And being a general assignment reporter required tenacity and humility.
When the Italian prime minister’s daughter, Antonia De Mita, went missing for 48 hours I was ordered to find out what she’d been up to. As she entered a formal dinner, I again shouted questions at her from behind a rope.
“I’ve been shopping! In Yorkville! SPORTSWEAR!” she shouted back.
Another time, I was second writer to the celebrated scribbler Rosie DiManno, who I greatly admired, when the Queen Mum attended the Queen’s Plate in Toronto. We figured she must have placed a bet on a horse. Rosie and I had been plotting how to get a quote even though you’re not allowed to talk to Royals unless spoken to first.
After the race, Rosie gave me a hard elbow as the Queen Mum passed, and I shouted (from behind another rope), “Hey, did you win?”
Visibly started, she responded, “I’m afraid not.”
This ended up as: “Queen Mother backs a loser at racetrack.”
Another time, on another Royal visit, I’d stood for three hours with about 50 senior citizens behind a rope waiting for Prince Andrew and his then-wife Sarah Ferguson to show up. It was sweltering 34-degree day and I was losing my enthusiasm for being penned in.
When the Royals got out of their limo, they proceeded past the shriveled seniors. Close to losing it, I shouted at the Royals, “Please don’t go. We’ve waited so many hours in the unbearable heat to see you. Don’t go!!!”
Health wise, I felt great throughout these first months downtown. I was still on 2.5 mg of prednisone, which is a very low dose. I meditated daily to manage my stress levels. And I never mentioned to any of my colleagues that I had an autoimmune disease because it didn’t seem relevant. Or maybe there just didn’t seem to be any room for weakness in the competitive environment.
“I’m fine,” I’d tell my parents in Coquitlam on our weekly calls. And I was.
That first summer downtown, I was assigned to cover marathon swimmer Vicki Keith’s attempt to swim across all five Great Lakes. It was like being sent to summer camp.
When there were seven different editions of each day’s paper, I filed constant updates from dawn to midnight, on Keith’s incremental progress across Erie, Superior and Huron. Cell phones the size of winter boots were a recent technology, often without a signal, so I’d use a ship-to-shore radio.
Then the city editor went on summer holidays, leaving his crusty deputy in charge.
As I prepared to head to Chicago to document Keith’s Lake Michigan crossing, he grumbled about me being “too young” to be gallivanting around North America following the “dyke mermaid.”
I managed to convince him to let me go. But when we were delayed for three days in a small lakeside town in Michigan because of engine problems in her chase boat, he ordered me home. No discussion. Trying to piece together a ride back to Chicago was the most dangerous assignment of the summer, including huge swells and Zodiacs running out of gas.
Back in the newsroom, I overheard the national editor say to the managing editor how much he liked my stories and was wondering what I’d file that day. They had no idea I’d been called home. I didn’t know whether to hide under my desk or wave.
When they saw me, they told me to catch a flight back to Chicago. By that time, I’d literally missed the boat and instead sat on the beach iwaiting for Keith to arrive.
When I got back to the newsroom, the deputy reamed me out for going behind his back.
The pain was back
None of this was good for my health.
Over the course of the Great Lakes conquest, I noticed the joints in my fingers were often stiff and tender. Then it would be the muscles and joints in my quads. Or my elbows. Sometimes, the pain would be gone after a night’s sleep. Sometimes not.
Perhaps it was a result of the demands of the round-the-clock deadlines. Or being in the sun all day. One of my rheumatologists had mentioned that people with lupus were photosensitive, although I didn’t really understand what that meant. (I’ve long since acquired a full wardrobe of protective clothing now that it’s better understood that the sun sparks lupus). I was extremely worried.
During Keith’s double-crossing of Lake Ontario while doing butterfly, I struggled to climb in and out of the Zodiac. When she landed at Toronto’s Cherry Beach, I had to wade to the shore with my Radioshack laptop over my head. I could hardly moved through the water. I felt, once again like the Tin Man in need of an oil can.
The last time I’d had so much pain, it had preceded the inflammation of the lining of my heart and lungs and intensive therapy with 80 mg of prednisone.
After 18 months of decent health, I seemed to be having a flare. In retrospect, the triggers — carelessness, ignorance, unrelenting deadlines, contempt — seem obvious. Not then.