The Most Infuriating Journalist I Ever loved

by Bill Brenner on February 25, 2011

The other day I had to replace a ruptured tire on my car. For a few minutes, as I pondered where to go and what to buy, I remembered that damn tire in the garage.

Peter Sugarman gave me that tire about a week before he choked on food, losing oxygen just long enough to render him brain dead. That was in 2004, right before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

His death was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. After losing a brother and another close friend to suicide, the safety pin holding back my insanity was finally out.

In a way, I always expected Peter to die early. He had a lot of health challenges, and he was always in and out of the hospital. Like me, he suffered regular bouts of depression and he let the basic pests of life get to him far too much.

But damn, he was a lot of fun.

The first time I met him was my second day as a reporter for The Stoneham Sun. He was an oddball who wore a jacket and tie to go with his sneakers and sweatpants. He was rail thin with a mustache that could comfortably hide a large salmon.

He wore a a strange-looking hat over a thick mop of hair. I was absolutely certain from Day 1 that the hair was fake, but never asked about it. The first time I saw him without the hair piece was when he was comatose on a hospital bed in the intensive care unit of Lynn Union Hospital. He had a massive bruise around one eye from a fall he had taken a week or so earlier, and the only sign of life were two trembling arms that each ended in a fist.

Sugarman was another older brother who left me before I was ready.

But he taught me some important lessons along the way and — oddly enough — his death was the catalyst for me finally getting the help I needed for what eventually became an OCD diagnosis.

My friendship with Peter really blossomed over the course of 1997, though it was a year earlier when I had first met him. I was in a bad place. My best friend, Sean Marley, had recently died and I had just taken a job as editor of the Lynn Sunday Post, a publication that was doomed long before I got there. I just didn’t realize it when I took the job.

I worked 80 hours a week. To get through the pressure I binge ate like never before and isolated myself. I had no real friends at the time because no one could compete with a dark room and a TV clicker.

Peter was an exception. We were both rather miserable people back then, so we were destined to get along. That is, when we weren’t shouting at each other over the phone.

With him as my only Lynn reporter and me as an editor on the edge of a breakdown, the match was lit in a room full of gasoline.

As reporter’s go, he could be an infuriating fucker. He knew it. He loved it.

His writing could be off the wall and opinionated when I was looking for straight, objective articles from him.

He once wrote about a blind man who, instead of offering a story of inspiration and living large in the face of adversity, led a bitter existence and talked about that bitterness during his interview with Peter. I opened the story on my screen for editing and saw the headline “Blind Man’s No Bluff.” I let the headline go to print, though I shouldn’t have. But the dark side in me thought it was funny, and the higher ups weren’t paying enough attention to The Post to notice.

He would write one story after the next questioning the motives of city councilors and the mayor. He would tag along with firefighters and write glowing narratives portraying them as heroes. That would have been fine if the assigned piece called for opinion. But it didn’t, and I edited it heavily.

That Sunday, I found a voicemail from Peter. He was furious, ripping into me for letting the J-School in me take over and ruin a perfectly good piece of journalistic brilliance.

I quickly got used to getting those messages every Sunday. I even started to look forward to it.

At the same time, we became constant companions. Whenever I left my dark bedroom, it was either to be with Erin, by then my fiance, or Peter. We hung out in every coffee shop in Lynn. He showed me the dangerous neighborhoods, introduced me to the city’s most colorful characters and showed me hidden gems like the Lynn Historical Society, where I was treated to boxes of old correspondence from former Mass. Speaker Tommy McGee, a colorful pol who, like many a Speaker who followed, eventually left the Statehouse under a cloud of corruption. I wrote about the old correspondence and interviewed McGee in his Danvers condominium. I couldn’t help but like the guy.

Peter and his wife, Regina, became constant dinner companions. When I finally escaped from The Post, our friendship deepened. I still hired him for the occasional freelance article in the Billerica paper I was editing. He would show up to cover meetings wearing his colorful collection of hats, including one that had “Yellow Journalist” emblazoned across the front.

He became my favorite person to talk politics with. He was at every family gathering. He and Regina were a constant presence when both our children entered the world. They were at every kid’s birthday party. They were here for our Christmas Eve parties.

Peter was in bad health, though, and was often in the hospital. His colon had been removed long before I met him and he continued to smoke. He was also a ball of stress when traditional J-School editors were tampering with his writing. I would call him and he would rage at whoever the editor was at that moment.

I enjoyed the hell out of it. His tirades always entertained me, whether I was the target or not.

I ultimately came to understand what Peter was all about. He wasn’t in journalism to write the traditional reports people like me were taught to write. He was in it to root out the truth and help the disadvantaged. He was a man on a mission to right the wrongs he saw. And he did so cheerfully. Even when his temper flared, there was a certain cheerfulness about it.

Maybe THE MAN had won the latest round, but Peter was always certain he’d stick it to him next time. Sometimes, he did.

In the months following his death, I really started to come unhinged. The OCD took over everything. Fear and anxiety were constant companions.

I finally reached the deep depth I needed to realize I needed help. In the years that followed, I got it. It hasn’t been easy, but then I can always remember that things weren’t easy for Peter. And yet, he carried on with that warped cheerfulness of his.

I’ve tried to do the same. I’ve also come to understand the value of the writing he tried to do, and have embraced it.

I cover a topic he might not have understood or cared about. But we would have had fun talking about it anyway.

I can picture Peter grousing about my 12-step program of recovery. My understanding is that AA types infuriated him.

I would have had a lot of fun with that.

He’d also be pissed at me today because I don’t value the political process like I used to. The older I get, the more I feel like it doesn’t matter who is in the White House.

We’d have some heated arguments about that, I bet. And they would be fun.

He probably looks down on me regularly, cussing under his breath over the insufferable self-help nut job I’ve become.

That makes me smile.

It would, after all, be a very Peter thing to do.

Hat with Press tag

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bert Knabe May 8, 2014 at 9:45 pm

Thanks for sharing this, Bill. It’s a great tribute to your friendship.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: