Seasoned journalist shares stories

Patrick May has seen a lot. Before he became a staff writer for the San Jose Mercury News in Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, he was a train-hopping, hitchhiking college drop-out.

Drifting through Boston, Alaska and Oregon, and eventually all over the world, working odd jobs like guitar-playing and cab-driving, May would ultimately find himself covering gritty crime beats and international news.

“Basically I get paid to write, which I love,” he said.

It started when the Oakland native headed to Europe with $8,000 of saved taxi fares from working in Seattle.

“The one thing I really wanted to do was see the world,” May said. “I didn’t want to go back to another university, but I wanted to have my university in my mind.”

After meeting an Iranian on the plane over and agreeing to help deliver a new car to Amsterdam, May commenced a seven-year cyclone of travelling through Europe, Turkey, North Africa and pre-revolution Iran. He eventually met an Australian journalist at a youth hostel in Greece.

“He was on assignment, and he was being paid to write and travel,” May said. “I always liked writing stuff – journals, letters back home – and I loved travel, so I asked, ‘How do I become a journalist?’”

Following the Aussie’s advice, May finished his “around-the-world” trip, returning to obtain a degree at San Francisco State University.

“By then I was 30, so it was harder to get a job. There was a lot of competition,” May recalled. “I applied to about 250 newspapers all over the United States. I got one response.”

This started May’s time as a police reporter in Jacksonville, Fla. His work at the Florida Times Union is something May describes as a “crazy adventure, covering plane crashes, homicides, and a lot of mayhem and death.”

Next was the Miami Herald, a 15-year job that had May covering stories like Hurricane Andrew, the Gulf War, and the “cocaine cowboy days” of violent Cuban immigrant crime.

May was hooked. He returned closer to home in San Jose, but is still plugged into major events and oddities throughout the American news scene.

Covering 9/11, he claimed that the smell of death hung in New York for weeks. While 9/11 was bad, his worst experience was reporting on famine-ravaged Kurds in Northern Iraq after the Gulf War.

“It was like a scene in a weird movie,” he said. “All these fathers were bringing their dead kids – who’d died the night before – to put them in this big grave. I was just surrounded by death, and I’d never been in a situation like that before.”

His favorite was a human interest story about a recently deceased homeless man in Miami, which May spent five weeks putting together. “I pieced together his whole life, and the top editor read it and killed it. He said it glorified alcoholism.”

May also writes business news. He compares covering Apple to dealing with CIA secrecy. “They don’t tell you anything,” he said. “They are masters at manipulating the media and masters at getting people all hyped up for the next product launch.”

After covering crime, war and I-Phones, May, 60 years old, is still in the business. Now he deals with a changing industry.

“About ten years ago the newspaper industry started to really get into trouble and shrink,” he said, explaining how Craigslist’s free advertising killed the traditional classified ad revenue of local papers.

“We started having layoffs. We’re getting really lean; everybody’s working a lot harder.” he said. “You’re now expected to write at least a story a day, sometimes more, as opposed to the old days when you could spend a week working on one story. Those days are gone. Everything is going online.”

In any case, May’s portfolio speaks on its own. He’s never shrunk from the tough news. On seeing violence and death, he claims that there’s a sense of getting used to it.

“I know it sounds kind of macabre,” he said, “but those make the best stories.”