I just got off the phone with the subject of my next book. We schedule hour-long calls twice a week, and these have become my favorite moments of the week. He simply shares his experiences as a Jewish kid growing up in a primitive Iranian village, and I listen with wide eyes and occasional gasps. The theme of many of his stories is how, in the face of utter hopelessness, God provides. Right when he thought he might just starve, someone gives him a free meal. Just when he thinks he might not get a Visa because his English is lacking, a stranger volunteers to teach him. Right when his tuition bill is due, his employer gives him a hefty raise.
“What was your reaction?” I asked him today about one of these unexpected windfalls.
“Either by luck or God is watching out for me, I don’t know. But there is always—always—some helpful, nice person who would give a helping hand. And it just works out.”
He asked me if I’ve ever had one of those experiences in my life, an unexplained windfall. Yes, I told him. Definitely, yes. And then I told him about how I landed an internship at a daily newspaper in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic.
About a month after Dad died and two months before graduation, my super unhelpful advisor told me I’d better hurry up and land an internship. It wasn’t a graduation requirement, she noted, but getting my byline in professional newspapers was a must if I ever wanted a job in journalism. “Your articles in the college paper won’t cut it,” she added.
So I spent the next week mailing my sparse resume and a few of my bylined articles to newspapers throughout the tri-state area. I figured this last-ditch effort wouldn’t yield much, and I’d be moving back to my mother’s basement with a fresh bachelor's degree and no job.
Then I got a call. The man on the other line said he was an editor at the Rochester Post-Bulletin—and I got the internship. “It doesn’t pay much. Ten dollars an hour, just enough to buy ramen and gas money, but you’re welcome to it.” (That is an exact quote. I specifically remember him saying the pay and that it would cover my costs for instant-noodle dinners.)
I was in. Another intern and I moved into the cheapest apartment we could find and got to work. From day one, they treated us like salaried reporters. I wrote about everything from the county fair and business openings to a trial of a teacher sleeping with her student that made national headlines. I covered all of this with wide eyes and occasional gasps. After three months, the paper invited the whole staff to an end-of-summer company picnic, which doubled as a send-off for the seasonal interns.
Brian, the editor who had first called me, stood up, tapped his fork to his glass, and said he had a story to share. “Thank you, interns, for your great work this summer. But I want to tell you, one of you wasn’t supposed to get this gig,” he said. What? “Danielle, out of a stack of more than a hundred resumes, I meant to call a guy named Daniel. When I heard a female voice on the other line, I knew I’d goofed. But there was no turning back.”
I grimaced. This story was being shared in front of dozens of journalists I admired so much I couldn’t muster a sentence to them. And now they all knew I was a hack, a fraud. A lucky fraud, but a fraud nonetheless. But then he added. “But I think you were the right person for the job. There’s not once this summer I regretted that mistake. Thank you.”
Two months later, it happened again. I was hired at a newspaper in Tracy, California, by an editor who had received hundreds of applications. She later told me she chose to invite me in for an interview for one reason. I didn’t go to a great school. I had no one of note as my reference. But it was my hometown that caught her attention. She had had a pen pal as a kid from Watertown, SD, a town of 22,000 people that few outside of the state have heard of.