Friday, September 16, 2011

Observer, Sovacool

Joe Sovacool looked like Jesus and talked like jazz. I had no idea how old he was. Maybe 42, maybe 62. All I knew was that he was the coolest guy in the room. Our newsroom.

Thousands of you heard his voice over the years. If you called the paper looking for somebody, or just to rant at the state of the world, Joe was more often than not the guy who picked up the phone. Charlotte Observer, Sovacool. Or just Observer, Sovacool. We joked that thousands of years from now, when robots ran the earth, Joe would still be there at his desk, soothing the angry robot callers in his soft and low late-night-DJ voice.

Observer, Sovacool.

Joe went and died on us Thursday. (His sister posted the news on Facebook, and I finally learned -- Joseph William Sovacool was 53.) He had been battling lung cancer for a couple of years and then the tumors spread to his brain. He was a little stick of a guy even before he got sick, and the cancer thinned him even more. He lost his Jesus hair. He had trouble with his balance. But he kept working up until a few weeks ago.

Sometimes the place you work becomes home. I'd see Joe outside the office now and then, usually at Thomas Street Tavern, where he'd drink a beer and read a book at the corner of the bar. I know the paper wasn't where he slept. But in my mind, it was always where he lived.

In every office there are one or two people who keep the whole operation from veering into the ditch. They are never the highest-paid people. For years Joe was in charge of the clerks who answered phones, ordered supplies, took obits from funeral homes, kept the copiers running, doled out the mail, and did a hundred other things to make our office go. If you were a panicked reporter in the field (and I've often been a panicked reporter in the field), when you heard Joe's voice on the phone you knew things would be all right. He'd find the editor who had run off to the john. He'd dig out the fax that was buried in the stack. He'd take care of you.

We bonded over Steely Dan. Joe was one of those fans who had heard the Japanese bootleg and the seventh alternate take of the album track. I covered one of their concerts when I was music writer in the mid-90s, and after that he'd send YouTube videos or blog posts he'd run across on the Web. To this day I can't listen to the Dan without hearing Joe talk about them in his hipster patter, man those cats were so tight that night, they laid it out and brought it all the way back...

We've had a lot of heartbreak in our newsroom these last couple of years. Like most companies in this economy, we've let go a lot of good people, and others have let go of us. Every one of those people was a big part of the paper. But no one else was as much a part of our place as Joe. His desk was right there as you walked in the newsroom, and it was so odd these last few weeks to walk in and not see him there. I don't know what it's going to feel like now. I'd just love to hear that voice one more time.

Observer, Sovacool.

Two words. One and the same.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

A few extras for Saturday's 9/11 column

Here's some links and such related to Flight 93:

Reader Tim Collie points out that Sandy Bradshaw, a flight attendant from Greensboro, died on Flight 93. Here's a little more about her.

Frank and Linda Guerra, the subjects of my column this morning, work with a nonprofit called 93 Cents for Flight 93. It's raising money for the permanent memorial that opens in Shanksville today, and it also brings together young kids and senior citizens to talk about Flight 93 and 9/11.

Finally, a quick travel note.

Because this trip is taking me to several different places -- Washington, Shanksville, New York -- I'm driving instead of flying. Which means that after I left Shanksville on Friday, I needed to drive to my hotel in Lower Manhattan.

I'm sure there are places in Jersey where I could've left my car for three days and taken the train into the city. But I didn't get my act together enough to figure that out... plus I sort of liked the challenge of driving in New York City.

I didn't have a GPS. My cell phone mapped out the route, but it didn't follow along like a GPS does; I had to punch a button to figure out where to turn next. Just as I got into the Holland Tunnel, I got the low-battery warning on my cell. And within two minutes after coming out of the tunnel, I had taken a wrong turn.

Pretty soon I had no idea where I was. The optimist part of me said: It's OK, Manhattan is an island, you can't really get THAT lost. The pessimist said: Dude, you are so screwed.

It turns out that, as far as the biggest city in America goes, traffic on Friday night is not that bad. After 15 minutes of rambling around I found a place to pull over and get my bearings. (For the NYC-savvy among you, I was trying to get to the Battery Park area and ended up going the wrong way on West Boulevard.) The phone battery was way down in the red zone now, but at least I had a new route. I got onto Broadway, curved around toward the street I needed... and didn't see a street sign.

My new rule of New York driving: If you come up on a street, and it doesn't have a sign, that's where you should turn.

Instead I hesitated, then kept going straight. Missing your turn in Lower Manhattan is not just a matter of circling the block. I think I made 11 turns before I finally got back to the street with no sign, turned left... and there was my hotel.

I looked down as I pulled in and my phone had just died.

To answer your questions: I did stop and ask a cop. He said "Hmm, I think your street is over that way," pointing directly behind me.

And I probably don't need to drive in Manhattan again. Although, I have to say, by the time I got there I felt a little like Indiana Jones.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Some extras for today's 9/11 story

(Photo: fragments of the wreckage from Flight 93, part of the 9/11 exhibit at the National Museum of American History)

As always, any one piece I write is only a small part of the story, and that's never been more true than this week. My first column on this 9/11 journey came out this morning. Here are a few little extras to fill out the frame.

Here's the 9/11 collection at the National Museum of American History. This includes items that aren't part of the exhibit I saw Thursday. One thing I didn't mention: The artifacts in the exhibit aren't behind glass -- they're simply set down on tables, out in the open. You can't touch them. But somehow the lack of barriers makes the exhibit more intimate.

For another take on objects from 9/11, here's a New York Times slideshow on things people kept from the World Trade Center wreckage.

And here's one more photo I took at the museum. People who went through the exhibit were able to write a note about what they thought and post it on a bulletin board.

Sorry for the blurry photo. Here's what it says above the heart: "I will pray 4 these families even though I am very young I understand what happened. I hope you continue to do this to help people understand what happened now. I'M SO SORRY."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A 9/11 journey

I'm heading out on the road this morning to tell some stories on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Maybe you can help.

Our plan is for me to write for Friday's paper from Washington, D.C., where terrorists attacked the Pentagon; for Saturday from Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed in a field after passengers fought the hijackers; and for Sunday and Monday from New York, where at the World Trade Center site, they are rebuilding.

If you know of 9/11-related things I should see in those cities, or people I should meet, drop me a line in the comments or email (You'll get an automated reply that says I'm out of the office, but I can still read your emails.)

I'm looking for people with connections to both Sept. 11 and North Carolina, especially the Charlotte area.

And if there's anything 9/11-related along the way that I need to see or do, let me know. I hope to post here from time to time in between the bigger stories. Would love to hear any thoughts or ideas... even if it's just what you're thinking about now, 10 years down the road.