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Sunday Journal: A fired reporter spirals into the unknown

She wanted to be a dancer or an actor and was lovely enough to be either. Instead, she became a newspaper reporter and a damn fine one.

But she looked nothing like the woman I once knew as she sat next to me the other evening at the Hub, the inveterate bar in downtown Tampa; puffier, sadder, disheveled, speaking in jumbled threads of thought that only another drug addict or a patiently sympathetic ear can understand. She fumbled in her purse for lord knows what, knocking over the rum and Coke.

I had yet to recognize her when she proudly declared that she had three job interviews the next day. I asked what kind of work she did before. She said she was a Tampa Tribune reporter until being fired two years ago.

"What was your byline?" I asked. She told me her name and I reminded her of mine. We were friends back then. More tears from her, and a hug of recognition and perhaps relief in finding a friendly face. I reminded myself to wipe the shocked expression off mine.

Without being asked, she caught me up on what happened to the woman I knew. The firing devastated her, and around the same time a boyfriend introduced her to crack cocaine. "I've talked to heroin junkies and they all tell me it's 10 times easier to put down the needle than to put down the pipe," she said. She claimed to be drug-free for 16 months now, using only the booze and too much of that sometimes.

She said her boyfriend regularly locked her inside their apartment, at times handcuffed to the bed, because he was paranoid that she'd find someone else with better crack. She told me her entire 401(k) literally went up in smoke. Twice, she was arrested for shoplifting food. Friends at the Trib stopped returning her calls and invitations to visit.

Breaking away from the boyfriend didn't help. She ended up homeless, sleeping for months behind a convenience store, a bank and a golf course. Oddly, she said her training as a dancer made curling up in hiding places easier, as she silently prayed to get through the nights without incident. It didn't always happen that way. She spoke of men urinating on her, beating her or offering to exchange drugs for sex, which she said she never accepted.

She wants a normal life again but realizes that's impossible. She'll settle for landing one of those jobs she's interviewing for. She would especially like the one at a shelter for homeless women, a segment of society's underbelly that she says doesn't get as much assistance as homeless men. People figure women can always find someone to hook up with for shelter, even if it enables their addictions. Listening to her talking that way was the only evidence of the sharp reporter I once knew.

She'd still like to write, and said that another friend, who's a St. Petersburg Times columnist, suggested she tell her story but she isn't sure. She asked what I thought about the idea and I said it was a good one. But first she needs to get a job, any job, to give her story the ending it deserves, that she deserves.

I had to leave, heading to a journalism class at the University of Tampa that I'd been invited to address. Our goodbye hug had the tightness of desperation, and I wished her luck with her job interviews. I didn't know what else to say except, "You can do it, baby." On my way to the car, I knew it wasn't enough and felt terrible about that.

My encounter was still heavy on my mind when I got to the class. I began speaking about my profession to a small group of bright-eyed students who would love to have the chance that was yanked from her.

I told the students that I had to get something off my chest before I could continue. I told them her story, purging it so I wouldn't be distracted for the next two hours. I guess that's what I'm doing now, writing this, before jumping back into writing about escapist summer movies. That's my job, and I hope to heaven that she gets hers soon.

Steve Persall is the Times' film critic. He can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.

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Sunday Journal: A fired reporter spirals into the unknown 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 4:30am]

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