You probably already know that reporters are not allowed to take freebies. It is pounded into us from our first day on our first job that we must avoid the appearance of favoritism or of impropriety.
When I was in Duluth, that basically translated to: You can't accept anything that's worth more than a cup of coffee.
This is more of a balancing act than you might think. It's easy to turn down PR people who want to give you lavish gift baskets from their clients, but what if it's a sweet little old lady on the Iron Range who is so happy that you're writing a story about her prize quilts that she tries to give you one? You don't want to be rude. But you have to turn her down. Nicely.
I could tell you many stories about people trying to give me things, and how stunned and embarrassed they always looked when I told them no. Sometimes they got angry, because the implication, of course, was that they were trying to buy me. It got very tricky sometimes.
Easier was when stuff just showed up over the transom, in the mail. Our standard procedure was to call the PR firm, let them know that we couldn't accept whatever it was they had sent us, and then we'd trot it down to the homeless shelter at the Damiano Center a few blocks away.
Anyway, all of this is background for the following story:
Katy and Mike were reporters in Duluth. Katy was one of my best friends, Mike was one of Doug's. After a few years they moved on, to New Orleans. They wrote fabulous letters--or Katy did, anyway; I never saw a letter from Mike--about living right on the streetcar line, and of warm weather and Spanish moss dripping from the trees in Audubon Park, and colorful characters in the neighborhood, and picnics of Dixie Beer and fresh gulf shrimp.
It felt about as far away from Duluth as you could possibly get.
The letters dropped off after a while as we all settled back into life. Months went by. And then one day a box showed up in the newsroom--a huge flat box. Inside was a big purple and green cake. It came from a bakery in New Orleans, and it was addressed to the newsroom.
Most of us never even saw the cake. The managing editor, in his righteous way, intercepted it. "Send this to the Damiano Center!" he told the newsroom clerk, who bundled up in her coat, boots, hat, scarf, gloves (it was, after all, February) and lugged the giant cake six blocks away, where it made a fine dessert for the First Street unfortunates.
Time passed. Life went on. February turned into March. Katy and Mike began to feel a little, well, peevish. Was nobody going to thank them for the cake? Because it was, of course, from them. It was not payola from a bakery in New Orleans looking for favorable press coverage from an obscure newspaper in northern Minnesota. No, it was a gift from former reporters, sent to their old newsroom. The cake was a Mardi Gras tradition (which none of us had ever heard of)--a King Cake, baked with a trinket inside for fortune telling. You have to eat carefully, feeling around in your mouth for the tiny plastic baby, which makes whoever finds it king for the day.
Katy and Mike had spent a considerable amount of money, ordering the cake and having it shipped up north. And we had summarily dispatched it to the homeless center.
When they finally found out the fate of their gift, they were both amused and annoyed. And I, who loves cake, felt cheated. And feel cheated still: that cake was rightfully ours! And I never got a chance to taste it. It still feels wrong. Give me cake!
Katy said she just hoped that the homeless people didn't choke to death on the trinket. And that maybe, someone at the Damiano Center knew of the Mardi Gras tradition, and crowned that person king for the day.