TOP STORIES: Haunted houses, glass birds and taxes

This was my first full year at Salem Reporter. If I could describe it in two words, it would be “payroll tax.”

Kidding. Though I did write 30-something articles on the tax measure’s journey from birth in the budget committee to death at the ballot, a lot more happened this year. 

From haunted houses to town halls and scavenger hunts, my favorite stories from 2023 represent fun times, learning experiences and community gatherings that showed me what Salem is all about.

1. I drove a bus

Early this year, I opened my inbox to the question “Growing up as a child, did you ever dream of getting behind a 40-foot bus?” from Cherriots’ spokeswoman Patricia Feeny. It made me laugh out loud.

Cherriots was allowing any interested applicant to get behind the wheel of a bus, and extended the invitation to me. My editor tasked me with describing the experience to readers first-person, which meant that I had to avoid crashing the largest vehicle I had ever steered while trying to remember sensory details. It was a blast. 

2. Getting nerdy about transit history

Getting to talk with several local historians, including one who had an hour-long slideshow presentation ready for me, was an absolute treat. I love writing articles that consider how decisions made decades ago impact our lives today. The story about how Salem had, lost, and is looking to revive a commuter streetcar system was a fascinating one, and I certainly went down a rabbit hole with my reporting.

3. More than buttons

This story started with an email from Ivan Gomez, who said a button changed his life for the better. He said that as a veteran with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, being able to put a bold message on his chest asking people to respect his personal space had made trips to the grocery store easier.

When meeting Salem’s button maestro, Becka Brisbin, I learned that buttons had changed her life for the better, too. Her store brings people of all ages an affordable way to craft and express themselves. We had a lovely conversation about what buttons mean to her.

4. I got scared

This was the first time I’d visited a haunted house since middle school, when I got so scared at Fright Town in Portland that I went out the maze’s emergency exit and wasted my $35 entry fee. In the days leading up to this story, which I had pitched without knowing Ed Roberts would offer a private tour of the Nightmare Factory, I was full of anxiety.

I had a great time. It helped that my interview with Roberts took place as I walked through the haunted house. I’d scream at something and immediately distract myself by asking “so, do you like horror movies?” I filled my notepad with unintelligible phrases like “laser night at the laser swamp” peppered with random pencil marks from flinching.

I left with a greater appreciation for haunted houses, having seen the art and intention behind it, and in awe of the work these kids put into this every year. And even though I was scared out of my wits, no emergency exit was needed.

5. I became a tax expert

At Salem Reporter’s town hall, I joked that I had had dreams about the payroll tax. It was true. For most of the year, I had at least a story a week about the controversial measure, following it from the budget committee, to being one of the first people who learned the referendum was headed to the ballot, to its demise in the November election.

Being a writer, I never expected that this reporting would lead me to speaking in front of the community at the Elsinore Theatre or on local access television, which was an informative experience.

Though I had over 30 articles to choose from on the subject of the tax, this one where I spoke to most members of the budget committee is a personal favorite and one that I think remains relevant as the city moves into discussions of what to do next. Though no one on the committee had the same opinion on the tax, I think they all had considered it carefully and had worthwhile perspectives.

6. Honoring Willie Richardson

The “Hattitude” event honoring Willie Richardson was wonderful. I didn’t get the chance to meet her, but hearing her loved ones talk about her lifetime of service to Salem, her love of hats and her legacy was really special.

7. Little glass birds

One of my favorite parts about journalism is getting a peek behind the curtain to find the unexpected. For instance, behind Art Obendorf’s unassuming garage door is a 2,000 degree furnace.

He gave me a demonstration of how he made the glass birds that were distributed throughout Salem parks this summer. The project was the brainchild of Pamela Garland, who wanted to do something to get Salemites outside and using their local parks. It was a whimsical project that brought a lot of joy to people.

8. Celebrating Marshallese sovereignty

I learned a lot about the Marshall Islands this past Constitution Day, which celebrates the day in 1979 that the South Pacific islands became self-governing. This was a joyful occasion, but underscored by the hardships the community continues to face due to colonization, military testing and pollution. 

9. I met the sign makers

I grew up in Oregon City, where several wooden signs throughout town mark locations where something historically significant happened. I took them for granted as just another feature of living at the end of the Oregon Trail.

I didn’t know until this year that the signs were maintained by a group of volunteers from a Salem retirement community, who travel the entire state care for over a hundred of them.

10. An ode to local movie theaters

I love movies, and I especially love local theaters. As a teen I went to B-Movie Bingo at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre. While working as a reporter in Astoria, I spent most Fridays seeing whatever The Columbian was playing which introduced me to some new favorites.

In Salem, I recently watched the extended editions of The Lord of The Rings movies at Northern Lights Theatre Pub, and saw Barbie at Salem Cinema.

I loved talking about the theater experience and favorite films with the people of Salem Cinema. This story made me think about how much I’ve gained from experiencing movies with my community.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.