Jay Rowland died on May 5, 2020. His name was listed between Olga Masterson and Stefan Stuart in a Herald News story entitled, “Area Nursing Homes Ravaged by Coronavirus.”
Jay’s nickname was “Dog Ears.”
For as long as there have been newsrooms, reporters, especially the men, have given each other nicknames like “Scoop,” “Super Scoop,” and “Gonzo.” Jay, it was rumored, could hear another reporter whisper the name of a secret source from clear across a noisy newsroom. And then, watch out, he might steal your source from you and claim that person as his own, especially if he didn’t like you. Or he might dart a loud missive at you, “That’s your source? That guy’s an asshole.” And here’s the thing about Jay. Not too many people challenged him. People folded under him, as in total dog submission.
Before I even met him, I knew Jay would be my major competition. When, in June 2001, the Associated News hired me to report on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I researched all my future coworkers. I was particularly struck by Jay. I knew his byline and his beat. I knew he had won two Pulitzers.
The morning we were introduced, I had just moved to Washington, D.C., from my hometown of San Diego, where I had been a reporter for the Union Tribune. I was only a few years out of college, but already a shining star in the next generation of reporters. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. In my second year at the paper, I uncovered a sex scandal in the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, which brought me to national attention. I was even interviewed on CNN, described by one nighttime host as a “a long-haired beauty and a relentless reporter.” Then I started getting phone calls from recruiters, enticing me to report in Cleveland, Seattle, and, finally, Washington, D.C., where I’d always hoped to land. I tried not to brag to my coworkers when I gave my notice. But, admittedly, getting recruited can twist your mind a little, pump up your ego before your realize what kind of person you’ve become in the process.
Before I drove across the country, I said a brisk goodbye to my mother, my father having long since skipped out on us.
“Ruthie,” she said. “Make friends. Don’t think all you need is your career. Everyone needs more than that.” I gave her a cool kiss on the cheek and didn’t tell her I would, most likely, ignore her advice, because generally that’s what I did back then.
I drove thousands of miles away from her, eager to get to the nation’s capital and my new big-time job. I was skivvying out of my skin to be noticed. I was one of those – the gold medal go-getters. I was the reporter who knocked on grieving widows’ doors to force them to talk about their murdered husbands. I never cried. I once overheard an older reporter saying that I was missing my “empathy chip.”
It was a blindingly bright July day when I hustled into the Associated News office building, gripping the stiff leather of my new briefcase.
Sully, the bureau chief, introduced me to everyone in the light-glazed newsroom, down one row of desks and back up the other. Jay was smack dab in the middle of the newsroom, slouched over a hodgepodge of television and computer screens, crumpled papers, pens, and an old-school tape recorder. He didn’t even look up at me. I was used to having people, men, appraise me, generally underestimate me. But I wasn’t used to having them too busy to eyeball me. It was, after all, still mostly men in newsrooms, and I would catch them sliding their gazes from my face to my legs, then back again, sometimes with a sneaky grin, sometimes with hostile presumption. But Jay showed no interest in me on any level. I was a fly, a gnat, less than a gnat. And being that he was the biggest name in the room, I wanted him to acknowledge my existence.
Jay was dressed in old man journalist attire – a combination of messy, grey-speckled hair, wrinkled khakis, and an ill-fitting button-down shirt over a pot belly, developed presumably from late nights drinking from a bottle of whiskey hidden in his desk drawer. He smelled of bacon, Old Spice and a tinge of early morning summer sweat. I knew enough of old men journalists to recognize them for what they were: survivors who could donkey-ram their way to the best stories because of old-fashioned hit-the-streets grit. Old men journalists knew how to pester – or inexplicably charm – a person into giving up secrets. And they knew how to ignore a person too, when they felt like it.
I stood before him, against the ticking of the clock, the rustling and tussling of the journalists around us, phones being slammed down, laughter, typing, television sets at every desk, with the same anchor saying the same thing, “And now turning to a happier story….” Jay said nothing, and Sully tapped my shoulder to move me along. I stood there for a moment longer, wondering why Jay thought I wasn’t worthy of even a glimpse of greeting. And then my hands clenched in anger. I hadn’t toughed it out with my mother all those years, delivered pizza to get myself through college, just to be belittled by some old man. Or had I?
As I turned, Jay said, “Hello, newbie,” to me as he continued typing, glancing from paper to monitor and back again.
“Hello,” I said, then walked away.
My desk ended up being diagonal to his, which made sense because he reported on the U.S. Justice Department. Our beats overlapped, which meant we would either fight over stories or somehow collaborate. Officially, reporters from the same news agency aren’t supposed to be working against each other. We have plenty of outside competition upon which to focus. But unofficially, newsroom turf wars are common. Always have been. I figured we were headed in that direction, and girded myself for battle.
For the first few weeks, he didn’t even talk to me. Sometimes Jay was yapping away on the phone, flattering old sources, what we call “making the rounds.” He practically vibrated in his seat. He slurped coffee and gobbled Tums. I listened to him scream at an editor over words that she wanted him to cut from his stories. She succumbed to his demands, eventually, with a huff of resignation. But he also surprised me. He called his wife several times a day. He helped a hapless intern conquer the copy machine. He brought flowers for a reporter who had returned from leave after losing her husband. He occasionally stopped working, stretched, and shouted, “Today is a beautiful day,” to nobody in particular.
Sometimes Jay disappeared, but then again so did I. Knowing that covering a beat meant meeting people, befriending them and getting them to trust you, I started off by visiting the FBI, figuring out where the agents ate lunch and where they drank at night. And I had a huge learning curve. A lot had happened on my beat just before I arrived. President Bush had just selected Robert S. Mueller III, a former Marine and well-known prosecutor, to be the new FBI Director, but there were rumors that not everyone was pleased about the new leadership. In addition, FBI agent Robert Hanssen had just pled guilty to espionage. And, in my first week of work, the FBI admitted that 184 laptops had been stolen, some containing classified information. It was a delightful mess for a reporter looking for scandal.
I began pitching stories to Sully, such as an investigative piece on the tension between FBI agents in the Washington, D.C., office and the Manhattan office, but was shot down.
“That’s probably a bigger bite than you can chew at this point,” Sully said.
And when the FBI arrested a former Air Force master sergeant for offering to sell secrets to foreign governments, I jumped at the chance to cover the story. Sully said I could write it.
“But make sure Dog Ears reads it first,” Sully said. “He’s got more institutional knowledge.”
I did what I was told, resentful of every change Jay made on my copy and every question he asked me to make sure I hadn’t gotten any facts confused. Jay responded tersely, ordering me to rewrite the first paragraph three times before he was satisfied that it was good enough to send to the editor. He even berated me for using the word “which” when I should have written “that.”
“Who taught you to write, Newbie?” he said dismissively, while I fumed.
Things got worse in late August, when our beats collided on a major story. Justice Department prosecutors were trying a case against a white supremacist accused of conspiring against the U.S. FBI agents were going to testify, and I planned to be in that courtroom every day. Apparently so did Jay. I watched him lumber out of the newsroom to walk the half mile or so from our office building to the federal courthouse. He didn’t even look back to see if I was following him. For all he knew, I didn’t know how to get there, considering I’d only lived in D.C. for a month. To me, it was just another insult. Obviously, I wasn’t important enough for him to even care if I made it or not. He could, after all, write the story himself. I wondered why they even bothered to hire me – what purpose did I serve when this Goliath of the newsroom could handle his beat, plus mine?
But I knew one thing – I was faster and, at the very least, I could beat him to the courtroom. In fact, I had already figured out back routes that maybe he’d never even bothered to find.
Propelled by fury, I ran in my heels down several streets and then a few alleyways, past trashcans, trucks and even a wailing cat to propel myself into the courthouse, past the security check, and up two flights of stairs to the courtroom. I sat down in the last row, so he could see my back when he finally arrived, heaving his body through the heavy wooden doors. He plodded in several minutes after me, sat himself down a few rows ahead of me, then turned around to look me in the face for the first time. I gave him a little wave.
For the remainder of the trial, we sat in separate sections of the courtroom. We didn’t walk together, but we had to work together each afternoon, sharing a byline on each story. The trial lasted two weeks. Every day, I got back first, flung down my purse and notebook and started typing right away. That way, I forced him to stand behind me. I got to be the lead writer, and he was temporarily demoted to my helper. I half expected Sully to intervene, but he didn’t. Maybe he just expected power plays between reporters. Maybe he didn’t care, so long as we wrote decent stories.
Every afternoon, Jay looked over my shoulder, paced back and forth, then looked over my shoulder again. Sometimes I could hear him call his wife, his voice suddenly so low that I could barely make out his words, even though he was practically breathing on my hair.
When he wasn’t on the phone, Jay argued with me over words, questioned my legal knowledge, and raised his voice when I refused to agree with one of his changes. The other reporters and editors gradually huddled around us to watch when they could, as if our spats were afternoon entertainment. One young reporter stopped me in the bathroom and said, “Just so you know, I’m rooting for you.”
On the morning of the jury verdict, I wanted to get there early as usual, but Sully grabbed me before I left the newsroom. He wanted to discuss in his droning voice the best methods of reporting on a jury verdict, as if I never covered one before. By the time I wriggled away and ran down to the courthouse, I landed behind Jay in the security line. Jay greeted each officer, gesticulating, chummy.
“Hey Leonardo,” said Jay to the first officer. “How’s it going? How’s that wife of yours?”
“She’s the same. Could be worse.”
“How’s yours?” Leonardo asked, cocking his head and squinting with concern.
“The same. Some days are hard. But she’s got spirit, you know. Real Midwestern attitude.”
Leonardo nodded and sighed, then motioned for us to continue past him.
Jay ambled through the security process, smiling at everyone he met and asking them about their families. They responded with open faces and friendly shoulder punches, like he was everyone’s favorite baseball player.
That afternoon, we bickered wildly over every word in our story.
Sully stood over us briefly, tapping his foot. The editor who was waiting for us shouted, “Can you guys just finish up, for God’s sake?” The other reporters trailed out of the newsroom, headed home or to bars, laughing in groups as they left. A few looked back at us, giving me thumbs up encouragement. But not everyone was on my side. Jay had his crew of people who thought he was an icon to be treasured, who patted him on the back as they filed out the door. They had followed his work since the Eisenhower days, after Jay had come back from fighting in the Korean War.
“No, that’s not right! There were no gasps from any of the wives when the verdict was read,” Jay growled at my back, into the silent newsroom. “That’s just ridiculous melodrama.”
“You’re so fucking wrong,” I spat back. “I heard them gasp. Audibly. Maybe you should get your hearing checked? Dog Ears, my ass.”
“Don’t you want to go home?” he countered. “Just agree with me and we can be done.”
“I have just as much time as you do,” I said. “More. I have nowhere to go.”
“Nowhere to go? What’s the matter with you?” Jay was abruptly quiet for a minute, then said grudgingly, “So have it your way. They gasped, okay?”
I uneasily twisted my neck to look up at him. He shrugged. For the first time, I wondered what was going on with his wife. Did he have grandchildren and was my stubbornness keeping him from them? Together, we finished the story, sent it to the editor, and left for the Metro, silently keeping pace together, the setting sun layering a film over office buildings, restaurant signs, and street vendors packing up for the night.
It was a temporary truce. Our biggest battle came about a week later, on a cool, September morning, as the country fell into grief and shock.
Minutes after the first plane hit the first World Trade Center tower, I was flying into the newsroom. The smoke billowed from every television on every desk in the newsroom. Then the second plane hit the second tower, and the newsroom fell into a stunned silence. Sully turned to Jay, who cradled his head in his hands. Jay looked up, and there were tears running down his face.
“Dog Ears, take the lead on a story about how this is the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil,” Sully said. “Ruth, find out what the FBI knows and doesn’t know and thinks it knows and thinks it doesn’t know.”
“Is it?” I said, still dazed. “The biggest attack on U.S. soil?”
Jay looked at the television. “It will be.” Of course, he was right, as it didn’t take that long for another plane to hit the Pentagon, and a fourth plane to crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
I could hear Jay leaving messages for his wife, asking her to call him back so he could hear her voice. Then he popped some Tums and started calling his sources.
My ear squeezed against the phone, I tried to reach my newly acquired sources at the FBI, but at first, I couldn’t get through to anyone. I just kept pressing the redial button, frenetically, until I connected with Pete at FBI headquarters.
“Pete,” I said. “What’s happening?”
Pete’s voice wavered, “I don’t know yet. I don’t know.” And then he added, “This is so crazy. I don’t know where my kids are.”
I thanked him but slammed the phone down, annoyed that calling Pete had been a waste of my time.
I called another FBI agent I had met, a few notches up from Pete, hoping that he knew something, anything. He told me what he knew, which wasn’t much. “Planes came from Logan Airport.” I wrote it down.
As I called more FBI sources, I twisted and tightened the phone wire around my fingers. On the television, men and women, some on fire, jumped to their deaths, falling, falling, spinning, their bodies thumping on the ground, where later the towers would crumble over them, shrouding them in smoke and dust. What were they thinking as they were falling? Why did it look like they were jumping? Was that an act of cowardice or bravery, a choice or instinct? Facing a wall of fire, what would I do? If I jumped, would I think about my mother as I fell to my death? What about my father packing his bags to leave us, me grabbing his legs to stop him? After my father left, I grew steely tough. Anytime fear put her suffocating, spongy hands on my throat, I removed her with the calloused fingers I had developed once I realized my father was never coming home.
Jay was typing, pounding on each letter, as he somehow formed words, sentences, paragraphs. I slow marched to his desk to feed him the information I had finally culled from my FBI sources. Jay started barking orders at me. His voice quavered. He seemed rattled, and I contemplated that maybe he was too emotional to be in charge. Then I asked myself, why was he automatically the lead writer on this story? The FBI, which would be conducting the investigation, was my beat, after all.
There was iron in my belly – a cool hardness that traveled its way up and down my body to hands, mouth, feet. While reporters around me quietly sobbed, I stood firm, grounded in my resolve. I approached Sully.
“Sir,” I said. “Why is Jay lead on this story?”
I let my voice grow louder.
“The FBI is my beat,” I said. “I should be the lead on this story.”
Jay, who got up to follow me, loitered nearby, looking at his shoelaces. Sully’s bald head grew red and he enunciated each word carefully, thinly, “You have got to be kidding.” He spat the rest. “People are dying, and we are under attack, and what you are worried about is whether your name is first on the byline? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
I breathed in slowly, then out. “I’m the fucking reporter you hired to cover the FBI. This investigation, it’s my story, and I won’t be bigfooted.”
Sully stormed away, without giving me an answer.
Jay and I circled each other in the middle of the newsroom, shouting insults. Who would win, the old man or the tiny young woman, vicious in heels?
“You are one cold, hard bitch,” Jay observed.
“Would you say that if I were a man?” I snapped back. “And how am I any different than you…except younger? What makes you think you are so much better than me? You would dig through trash for a story, just like me. You would knock down a child if it got you a story first, just like me. Am I wrong?”
I had him there. Jay deflated, growing smaller, sagging. I had seen Jay roar at editors and bellow at other reporters. I had never seen him so beaten down, broken.
“Okay, Ruthless, you’re the lead.” And then he added, “But I don’t know if we really are as alike as you say.”
But instead of my blood rushing to my head with triumph, my teeth ached. I couldn’t look Jay in the eyes because I was afraid of what I would see reflected in them.
I sat down, with Jay behind me, and we reported on the FBI’s desperate search to understand how terrorists had coordinated their attacks and whether they planned any more.
Once we finished the last version of our story, I decided I needed some air and walked about two miles to my apartment. The streets were empty, except for military Humvees on strategically placed corners. I realized I had never called my mother to tell her I was still alive, to let her hear my voice. That night, in my apartment, I called her. She cried and begged me to come home. I knew I should feel something, grief, excitement, fear, but at that moment, I just wanted to sleep.
The next day, Jay and I both got to work early. His eyes were rimmed with exhaustion. Together, we wrote about how the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania likely had been aimed at the White House, and started learning more about the men who’d hijacked the four planes and their motivation for doing so.
The names of the dead started trickling into the newsroom. Patrick Adams. Alejandro Castano. Yang Der Lee. Barbara Olson, the wife of the Justice Department solicitor general, placed two calls to her husband from American Airlines Flight 77 before it crashed into the Pentagon. Jay told me he had known her, and he threw down his pen and stormed out of the office when he heard the details of her death. He came back ten minutes later, saying, roughly, “Let’s keep going.”
On September 14, President Bush declared a national day of mourning. He stood on rubble from the towers and vowed that the terrorists responsible would hear from us soon. We collected more names of the dead.
My name was first on every story that we wrote, attached to our calm recitation of the chaos engulfing us. We still fought, but we also developed a rhythm together, a camaraderie. In the end, my name being first made a difference – my career eventually skyrocketed. But for those weeks we worked together, it felt like no matter how much we bickered, we were also on a mission together. I had never had that before.
We took breaks, especially in the evening. Jay and I talked about what it meant to be a journalist and the sacrifices we made, such as earning a decent salary, to do it. Jay said our job, especially during this time, was to show the world the truth, make them face it, uncover it for them, no matter how complicated and terrible the truth turned out to be. He also regaled me with stories from eras past, such as President Reagan’s infamous memory, and then his ultimate mental deterioration, evident to every reporter who covered him.
I eventually asked Jay about his wife. He told me she had multiple sclerosis. They had two sons, one a troubled alcoholic whom he hadn’t heard from in years. Jay grew up poor in Stamford, Connecticut, living in a trailer, fighting with two older brothers. His father hadn’t left him like mine, but his mother died when he was nine years old.
One night we shared a bottle of whiskey and talked about loss and death. It turns out that it’s not hard not to reveal the cracks in your heart to somebody just as wounded. And there’s something about the smell of fresh death in the air that makes a person willing to be vulnerable.
“My dad used to say that he didn’t want a lingering death, that he wanted to die in a quick blow to the back of the head,” I said.
“Huh,” Jay said. “You don’t talk about your father much.”
“What’s to tell? He left us, got married, started a new family, never looked back.”
But telling him even that much left me feeling like I had just unshackled something inside me.
I asked Jay if he ever felt like leaving his wife. Caring for her sounded so challenging. He shook his head emphatically. “Why would I do that? She’s my wife.” His voice got quiet. “I’m a lucky old man. I have had a job I loved and a family I adore, no matter how much it hurts sometimes.”
“You said a job you loved,” I challenged. “Don’t you still love it?”
Jay grimaced. “Sometimes it’s just too much. You’ll see. Maybe you don’t feel it heavy on you yet, but you will.”
On another night, exhausted, I packed up to leave, but Jay sat fidgeting at his desk, poring over hundreds of photos we had collected of the dead.
“What are you doing, Jay?” I asked, sitting down at the edge of his desk.
“I’m trying to write a summary of each person who died in the attacks. Did you know that Carol here was an emergency room secretary?” He handed me a photo of her.
“Jay, this is too much work,” I said. “There are thousands of people.”
“What are we doing here if we aren’t shining a light on their lives?”
I looked at the photos carefully. There was one of a young couple, bodies pressed together against a giddy toddler, all of them oblivious to their violent end. I looked at Jay, knowing he wouldn’t quit until he’d finished. I thought about his wife, waiting at home for him. I looked at the photo again.
“I’ll help you,” I said, and night after night, we worked on the profiles, most of which were never published. But by writing their stories, Jay said, we sent a message to the universe that each person, no matter their job, their age, their family or friends, or lack thereof, had been here on this earth and mattered.
Jay retired not too many months later. We held a party for him at a local bar, and we did shots of whiskey together. Many shots.
“Do you know who I am?” Jay mumbled to a group of us gathered around him. “Who am I, really?”
“You’re a dinosaur,” I joked.
“Yes,” he said, taking another mournful shot. “Exactly. I’m the last of the dinosaurs, destined to be extinct and forgotten.”
When Jay was ready to leave, I walked him outside the bar. I hugged him tightly, wrapping my arms around him. I pressed my cheek against his chest, breathing in the scent of the brisk night and the lingering alcohol on his breath. I felt the supple leather of his worn jacket. For a brief moment, I wanted to bury myself inside his beating heart. Slowly I let go.
I watched Jay’s back as he walked unsteadily toward the Metro, his bulky frame highlighted by the streetlights. He turned the corner and, for a moment, I stared into the empty space he left behind.
Every year, on September 11, I participate in the solemn remembrances. I pray for the dead during a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit the first tower. Sometimes I go over the profiles Jay and I wrote. Over the years, I have interviewed some of the widows, widowers, children and parents of the dead. A few times, I have even held hands with them and cried, but never for very long. There’s only so long I can carry the weight of their pain on my own shoulders.
The September 11 attacks were an American tragedy. Jay, along with hundreds of thousands of people in this country, died during another tragedy, a worldwide pandemic. So far, we’ve had no national day of mourning. The flags have not flown at half-staff. Like so many others, I soldier on with my life.
But for Jay, I open my heart long enough to tell the universe who he was, at least from my perspective, and about how, briefly, his story and mine intertwined. And he mattered.
Jay Rowland was one of 2435 individuals reported to have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. on May 5, 2020.