Dying Alone

Rebecca Woolington: The obituary ran six days after the death of Madaline Christine Pitkin. It recalled the sunny early October evening she was born. It told stories from her childhood, the time she wanted to jump rope like the older girls, the way she loved all animals except spiders.

It said she spent her time taking black-and-white photographs. It described her as spunky, candid, independent.

It didn’t say how or where she died — only that she “passed away unexpectedly.”

Her parents didn’t know much more then.

On the afternoon of April 24, 2014, a chaplain and deputy had come to the door of the family’s tan-and-brick bungalow in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood. Mary Pitkin was alone, cleaning in the dining room. Russell Pitkin was at work, so the deputy met him at his office, told him the news, then drove him home.

The Pitkins’ 26-year-old daughter had dropped dead inside a jail cell earlier that day. No one could revive her.

The parents remember thinking: There had to be a mistake. How could this happen?

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name

NiemanStoryboard launched an eight-week project showcasing the work of Michael Brick, which is collected in Everybody Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories. Here’s a Q and A about the book. And here’s the first story, with an essay from Wright:

The story of Mr. Todd Fatjo’s departure from his truly dope duplex loft is one of those rare pieces that manages to capture a subculture in a moment of transition, and were that all the story did, it would be a success. Most people wouldn’t have seen a flier and understood that modern anthropology begins, and often ends, with noticing something hiding in plain sight. In this recognition, and the mental hop-scotch from there to the wide angle lens, Michael Brick shows his reporting virtuosity. But there’s something else, a subversive undercurrent laced beneath the story, managing to both be a newspaper trend piece while also subtly poking fun at the entire conceit. The voice and language is confident, and reading it always makes me picture a young man, running flat out and roaring, in complete control. Even the use of the New York Times’ honorific isn’t perfunctory; he turns a stodgy rule of style into another weapon in his arsenal. There’s a line by singer-songwriter Jason Isbell that comes to mind when I get to the last sentence about building the city on rock n roll: “A vandal’s smile,” Isbell sings, and that’s what I imagine on Brick’s face when he finished typing this dispatch. He’d completely captured a world, avoiding the tropes so common with similar trend stories, and while evoking hipster Brooklyn and Mr. Fatjo’s transition from a DJ to “some guy with a job,” he’d left behind a finger in the eye of those who’d sling cartoons and clichés. He wrote a flawless story, while managing to spray-paint his name on the worst impulses of journalists, doing both at the same time. It is nearly perfect.
—Wright Thompson