It must have been February. The streets were deserted, a freezing rain came down hard and I was standing outside of some warehouse in Brooklyn waiting for a union guy to show up and talk to me about the cleanup at the World Trade Center and asbestos. I wasn’t even sure he would show up. I banged on the metal door until my hand hurt. Nothing. I reached into the pocket of my flimsy coat for my cell phone and dialed Elaine.
Voicemail. I left her a message along the lines of: I want you to know I’m freezing my ass off in front of a warehouse in Brooklyn waiting for a source to show up. You were right.
Elaine Rivera had once told me that I couldn’t call myself a real reporter until I knew what it was like to stake out a place, to hunt a source down, and to endure bitter weather for a story. Later that day she called, concerned about me because the message was unintelligible. I’m sure my lips were slightly frozen or my voice had cracked from trying to yell into the phone above the rain.
I would later call Elaine while I drove around a busted industrial town in New Jersey while on a tryout for a newspaper, exhilarated because I had somehow fashioned a story from walking the streets and talking with people. Just the tryout alone was a huge milestone. Without a degree from Columbia University or unpaid internships at media institutions with heft, my public radio credentials were all but worthless. Elaine had found someone who could give me a chance and as many of you know, just getting a shot in this business is priceless.
The story turned out to be an ode to the working class, its diminished prestige and resilience in the face of indignities and indifference. It was an Elaine story. Months later Elaine was there to reassure me when those editors informed me that I couldn’t write. She helped me feel less alone when I figured out that their complaint centered on my insistence that I write about the marginalized working class as something other than a curiosity for the surrounding suburbanites who they considered our core readership. With unfailing loyalty, tough love–Michelle, you’re trying to live a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget!– and passion, she was there, always.
Over the weekend, Elaine Rivera passed away in New York City. She was 54 years old. An exceptional person with a beautiful heart and gorgeous smile and a fierce loyalty, Elaine was a legend and a great among a disappearing breed of journalists. After I got word of her passing I struggled to define what went with her. It’s true she was the consummate reporter, a dear friend to many and cherished mentor to countless others. Simply scanning the obits offers for a glimpse:
Elaine Rivera Dies, Wrote About Underdogs-Maynard Institute
Elaine Rivera, a veteran New York journalist who often wrote about the marginalized and the voiceless, has died. –AP/WSJ
“Elaine Rivera had an enormous heart and a commitment to social justice that was reflected in her illuminating journalism,” Evelyn Hernandez said in an e-mail. “Her voice will be greatly missed.”–WNYC.org (NPR public radio station in NYC)
“Terrific, passionate reporter, friend to dispossessed, and funny, wonderful intelligent woman, has left us far too soon.”-Michael Powell/NYTimes wrote on twitter
With her passing we have a lost a person of ethic, a reporter who sided with the working class, the dispossessed and marginalized. And despite what the advertisers and the pols would have us believe, that is most of the population – people who work for their checks. Granted, there are reporters who concern themselves with the working poor, journalists who venture into those streets often sniffing for a story and an award.
But Elaine stood apart because she honored the dignity and pride of her beat and the people in it. Hers was a journalism of City Hall and land commissioners and city bureaucracy, whose actions and decisions had a direct impact on the people whose back she had. Hers was a journalism of service.
Several years back she hit on a silent crisis. Latinas had the highest rate of depression and suicide attempts among girls of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Her editors didn’t want it. She took it to editors at another job; they didn’t want it either saying there was no story. After she left that gig, she made the crisis among Latinas a reported series for El Diario/La Prensa. Her report later led to an editorial in the New York Times. She defended her story, but just as importantly, she defended Latina girls against the cruelty of indifference.
Early on in my career, our mutual friend Sylvia Moreno, then a reporter for The Washington Post, nicknamed me “little Elaine” and I wore the title like a badge of honor and it was humbling. Elaine was a legend when I met her, and with time, I came to understand that the conviction and character behind her journalism did not originate from ideology, which is easily shakeable, but was born from a singular commitment that time or self-interest or changing tastes could never strip away.
And that explains the shivering in the cold, waiting for a source. For Elaine journalism was a responsibility, one that a reporter came to appreciate and honor through the lived experience of building the trust of our sources and earning (and fighting for) a story.
The last time I saw Elaine was at my going away party in New York City. When I told her I was off to Mexico City to work on a book she looked at me, her gaze loaded with time, and remarked that I was all grown up now. I smiled and replied, “You know I’m still ‘little Elaine.’” And in saying so, like knowing her, I was filled me with a sense of purpose and humility that are the hallmarks and the legacy of Elaine.