Working at the office is better than remotely, if you ask me – Burlington County Times

The radio frothed with chatterbox call-ins explaining why they’d rather work from home than return to the office.  
Some are spooked by coronavirus, even now. Others like the convenience. Others like the cash savings on commuting, given that gas is $5 a gallon.  
But I have reasons to return to the office, full-time, and one is Joe Halberstein.  
For many years Halbo — as he was affectionately called — was an associate editor at the Bucks County Courier Times. He wrote a daily column, a homespun thing of about 500 words that read as if you bumped into Joe on Mill Street in Bristol, or at the hardware store in Langhorne, and spent a few minutes catching up on family, work, vacations or people with problems.   
He talked about the hires he made who went on to stellar careers, helped choose our annual contest entries, and gave great counsel to rookie reporters.  
The first time I was sued for libel (it happened four or five times, and all plaintiffs lost, settled or withdrew), he said, “JD, there are two kinds of reporters: those who are sued and those who will be sued.” 
He was fatherly and reassuring.  
Then one day we were chatting in the old Courier newsroom in Levittown, and he told me this story. 
It was 1960, and he was sports editor at the Gainesville Sun in Florida. A local high school basketball team had gotten into some sort of finals, and was playing a team in Georgia. Joe covered the team and knew the kids well. The team members were Black. 
A bus was chartered to Georgia. Joe traveled with them.  
“There were only two white faces on that bus, me and the driver,” he told me.  
He sat in the last row, a bench seat across the back of the bus. 
Soon after crossing into Georgia, the bus was pulled over by a state trooper. Joe described the cop as “hard boiled guy” who was “six foot six, solid muscle, with a big hat and sunglasses.” 
The cop boarded the bus looked at the kids, then said loudly to the driver, “You getting’ paid to drive this (expletive)?” 
The cop tore into the driver, swears and slurs billowing like Klan robes. The cop turned on Joe, giving him the same treatment as the driver. Which is when the kid sitting next to Joe said, “Leave us alone.” 
Joe recalled the trooper removing his sunglasses, tucking them in his shirt pocket and asking the kid, “What did you say?” 
The kid repeated it.  
The trooper double-timed down the aisle and grabbed the kid by his necktie (coats and ties were worn for the occasion). He dragged the kid up the aisle and off the bus. Joe saw the cop jab the kid in the stomach with his billy club, and the kid collapsed.  
Joe went to the driver. 
“We got to do something,” he said. 
The driver was terrified. Joe never forgot how he gripped the steering wheel with both hands, saying he wasn’t moving. It was a police matter. 
Joe got off the bus and confronted the cop about what he’d done to the kid. For that, the cop gripped his nightstick at either end and shoved it hard and fast and hard into Joe’s chest. Halbo free-fell backward, slamming the rear of his head on the macadam. He thought he blacked out, but wasn’t sure. 
Both Joe and the kid were cited for disorderly conduct. 
Joe said he never took the head injury seriously, something he came to regret, especially after his eyesight grew worse. A few years later, a doctor prescribed a medication, but didn’t tell Joe it was experimental. A bad reaction cost him most of his hearing. His eyesight grew worse, too. He sued, and settled for a piddling $40k, given what he lost. 
I was stunned. Halbo, a gentle soul, took a stand and paid for it. He really didn’t think what he did was remarkable. The only reason he told me the story was to make a larger point to beware quack doctors pushing miracle cures.   
He told me that story on a Saturday morning, when it was (usually) just the two of us in the newsroom. He always came to chat after banging out his Sunday column. It was a quiet conversation and it made me admire Joe for taking a stand when it was dangerous to do so. The vanity of the present generation is that each of us would do what Joe did, when really, 99.999 percent of us would be the frightened bus driver, not mild-mannered Joe Halberstein from Marysville, Ohio. 
I get the convenience of working from home. I get the fear of COVID, though I don’t share it. I get the expense of travel. 
But working from home I never would have heard that story and many others that made me a better reporter and, frankly, a better person. 
At the Courier, as at every well-managed business, I have memories of a happy working life. From office chair races in the hallways, to antics, hijinks, adventures and Halbo. We gathered for food days, birthdays, weddings, births and deaths. In tough times, the first people to call were from work. Do digital nomads get that, even on a Zoom call?  
Trade it all to save a few bucks, OK. But to me the value of these things is more than a year’s worth of gas, even at $5 a gallon plus tolls.
Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or at [email protected]


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