A crazy lady story

I suspect everybody in journalism has their own crazy lady story. I was reminded of mine last night when browsing pages in Roger Ebert's memoir, "Life Itself." Ebert was born and raised in Urbana, Ill., where I lived in the 1970s. While our paths never crossed -- he was already working in Chicago at the time -- I was struck by this reference:

"When I was sick it was the best time. I could stay in bed and listen to Our Gal Sunday .... Before that there was a local program Penny for your Thoughts, where people got a penny just for calling up Larry Stewart and talking to him."

Wow. I hadn't thought of Larry Stewart and Penny for your Thoughts for years.

I was working at my first regular daily newspaper job, at the Champaign News-Gazette, while taking classes at the University of Illinois in 1971. Every day the newspaper ran on page 3 a story summarizing and "following up" on topics discussed on Stewart's morning WDWS radio show.

Writing this was a chore regarded in the newsroom as on par with sweeping the floor (which I don't think ever happened).

As the new guy, it fell to me to take a transistor radio into the newsroom library, take notes, and turn in 14 inches of summary. And as the new guy, I was eager and green enough to take seriously the "following up" reference in the blurb that ran with the daily copy.

One day a caller had a unique problem. She had some guinea pigs she needed to give away because she had to move to an apartment where pets weren't allowed. But these were special guinea pigs and she wanted to pass them along to researchers who would care for them properly.

These guinea pigs could talk.

Desperate to write something other than dull stenography from a radio show, I tracked her her down and drove to her Champaign apartment with my camera and notebook.

It was just as sad as you might imagine: the place was a cluttered dump, and she was clearly several bricks short of a full load. The rodents weren't much for posing and even less for talking.

I took notes, returned to the paper and pecked out a short feature, concluding that while I hadn't heard anything from them other than squeaks, I had to admit I wasn't sure I favored talking rodents in the first place, and maybe I was just in denial.

It ran in the paper, because in those days the News-Gazette had virtually no newsroom management. We could work as many hours as we wanted (for $2 an hour) and whatever got written generally found its way into print.

Any rational reader would conclude that the guinea pig lady was a nut case and that maybe I was exploiting her condition, but she decided I was her friend. She found my home phone number and for the next couple of years would call me at odd hours to share her troubles about pets and changing apartments. Eventually I changed addresses and numbers enough that I shook her off my trail.

I don't know what happened to the crazy lady who had conversations with her guinea pigs. I do know there are many people like that in this world. So long as they're not an overt and obvious risk to others, the mentally ill in our so-called advanced society are pretty much left to fend for themselves and for their talking guinea pigs. When the guinea pigs aren't enough, they can get their social interactions by calling in to radio shows -- and today by posting comments on websites.