“Reporting on my local bar. I had to be a pest.”

From an Inside The Times story by Jack Nicas headlined “I Reported On My Local Bar. It Was Heat-Wrenching”:

Perhaps nothing has ever challenged my objectivity as a reporter like covering the near death of my neighborhood bar.

Yes, I reported on my local watering hole for three months. If that sounds like a plum assignment, consider that it was closed almost the entire time.

Typically I cover Silicon Valley. But when the coronavirus arrived, I quickly began searching for connected angles, leading me to wild tales about massive stockpiles of hand sanitizer and reality-show stars tangling with fraudsters over masks. After officials in the San Francisco Bay Area announced the nation’s first broad shelter-in-place order, I wanted to follow one small business over the course of the lockdown to show its economic toll. I knew some of the local joints I loved might not survive, and naturally, my mind went to my bar.

The Hatch is a community hangout in Oakland, Calif., a narrow two-story den just off the intersection of the city’s two main drags, Broadway and Telegraph Avenue. The crowd is diverse and the vibe is friendly, fostered by an easygoing staff. I had been going there for years, crowding around the tables upstairs with friends and meeting friendly strangers at the bar, but I wasn’t on a first-name basis with the staff. Still, when I sat down the night before the lockdown and asked them to open their lives to me, the response was basically: “Sure.”. . .

On the first night, I interviewed eight workers. Over the next week, I spoke with almost all 17. But I couldn’t jump between that many characters in the story, so I homed in on a few compelling tales. I followed the Hatch’s owner, Louwenda “Pancho” Kachingwe, as he tried to save the bar, and three of his employees — a bartender, a cook and a cleaner — as they tried to make their rent.

To report the piece, I had to be a pest. I called at least once a week, and often more. Most times, they were happy to chat. Others, my calls went to voice mail after a few rings. I was grateful to have a skilled and patient partner on the project, Jim Wilson, a photographer for The Times since 1980.

The cleaner, Maria, was particularly wary. She is undocumented and doesn’t speak English. Now a stranger on the phone was asking private questions in mediocre Spanish to put in the newspaper. (Thankfully, I often had translators, including my wife, to smooth out any misunderstandings.) Over time, Maria opened up, sometimes calling me and venting about President Trump. . . .

After Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus law in late March, my reporting picked up steam — and illustrated a stark inequality in our country. While my interviews with Maria and Santos, the cook, grew bleaker, Abel Oleson, the bartender, texted me that he had suddenly received a fat unemployment check. With the stimulus funds, he was making twice as much as he earned at the bar.

Grateful, Mr. Oleson replaced his broken laptop and paid off debts. But Maria and Santos weren’t eligible for the funds because of their tax or immigration statuses, which was also why we agreed to not use their last names. Maria spent money she had saved for her daughter’s graduation gift on rent instead. Santos stopped paying his car insurance and eventually missed rent altogether.

The reporting was deeply distressing. As journalists, we keep a distance from the subjects of our stories, but we are human. Feeling compassion is natural, and I believe it is often better to recognize and embrace our emotions than deny them. While I rooted for the staff, I believe I was still able to provide a cleareyed account of their plight.

And now, I have an even stronger connection to the Hatch and the people who make it great. If it one day reopens, I’ll be near the front of the line for a beer.

Jack Nicas covers technology from San Francisco. Before joining The Times, he spent seven years at The Wall Street Journal covering technology, aviation and national news.

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