By Shannon Yang, Mosaic Staff Writer
Yesterday was pretty eventful.
First, I realized that one of my sources of my story about a computer science summer program bailed on me. Twice. I had to keep bugging him over the phone. I also counted my money from my stipend and apparently, I had already burned through most of my food money for the week. (I probably bought too much pearl milk tea and other indulgences.)
Even worse, my SJSU wifi didn’t work and I couldn’t use my phone’s data because I was running out of that, too. This meant that I couldn’t check my email or my iMessages or work on my story from by phone. Pretty much torture.
Basically, I was stuck.
We had a photojournalism slideshow last night with Togo’s sandwiches. Brian Nguyen and Josie Lepe walked us through their work and major takeaways. Even though I’m not a photographer, it was fascinating and there were things that just applied to all journalists.
After the slideshow, practically everyone decided to stop at the dorms and go get milkshakes. I was really tired, but milkshakes. What could be better?
When we got to My Milkshake, though, many of us decided it looked good… but was way too expensive (we already blew too much of our money anyway). So a group of us went to CREAM instead. But I think we got a little lost, which is why we walked by the corner of First and Santa Clara.
It was a bustling area. There were many homeless people on that street. And when we got to that street corner, there was someone being taken away by firemen on a stretcher covered in white cloth. There was an ambulance: a little blue and yellow Santa Clara County EMS Paramedics truck.
What was going on?
Our journalists’ instincts told us to cover the event. I was dying to do so, to get another byline and report on what could be a major thing.
But our human instincts said, “It might not be safe. And we came out here to get ice cream.” So with that, we crossed the street and went to CREAM.
Standing outside the shop, though, we decided we were first and foremost journalists. Kaitlyn, Adele, and I went back to the scene, but everyone had already left. The blue and yellow truck was still there, but there were no firemen or police in sight. Only one old man in a wheelchair. He wore glasses and a bandana, and his beard was white. His outfit, all black, was supplemented by a black backpack, and he guarded a shopping cart filled with a suitcase piled on several other things.
We asked him about what just happened, and he told us that his friend had gotten a heart attack so he called 911. Then he told us about his life: how he went to prison but soon turned his life around, how he is featured in books and on YouTube, how he has six kids between the ages of 17 and 43 around the country that he was going to visit once he got his money. He recounted the story of scars on his belly and a fight he had.
To demonstrate his point, he pulled out a knife. In the middle of our interview. Kaitlyn gasped. Adele kept calm, held her phone, and kept recording the interview. I squirmed and straggled against the wall of the big building we were next to, trying not to be obvious that I was a little scared.
He kept talking. When he stopped, Kaitlyn and Adele said later, they were ready to leave. But I asked another question: what the moment was that turned his life around. Because it didn’t make sense to me that he had been charged with several murders and went to prison, but he became a drug counselor and now was a homeless guy with a knife. I wanted to know his story.
After the interview, it felt like something was off in our souls. We didn’t even end up going to CREAM. We went back to the dorm and consulted Joe, our dorm dad, to talk about what would have been the best course of action. By this time, we were pestering ourselves with questions.
Should we have covered the event at all? Should we have left when he pulled out his knife? Should I have asked another question?
I didn’t suspect this at all until it was brought up, but through our conversation we concluded that this man may very well be mentally ill or crazy. His story might not be credible. He suggested that if we find more people, we could do a story on that street corner.
But the three of us, coming from very sheltered communities, were still fixated on safety, and that knife. Adele lives in Fremont, Kaitlyn lives in Pleasanton, and I come from the “Grand Duchy of Palo Alto,” as Joe calls it. And another story idea came out of this fear: the need for homeless people to carry around knives in order to defend themselves. Joe told us to just walk in downtown San Jose, go to St. James Park, and we’ll realize that homelessness or a crazy story isn’t just in one guy. It’s everywhere.
This incident was scary. I will remember it for a long time. It’s about how to stay safe and find the balance between being a journalist and being human. It’s about credibility and craziness. And it’s about learning from our mistakes. So last night, I learned a lot. It’s more than anything I could learn by staying in the classroom. Even the newsroom. It isn’t traditional learning, and this week I have called several people to write a real story, but you can go one step further. The incident has made me think about privilege, about the untamed world of “the streets,” about how we can help people like the man we met.
Sometimes you just have to step out of your comfort zone.