Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Aunty Christ and the paper wars: Part 1

Well, and as much as we’d like it to, it simply won’t do to have that depressing shit above the fold for the next week. Yeah, that’s right: For the next week, I’ll be in beautiful, tropical, sunny … Chicago. Ugh. Kinda makes one wish that one’s parents would just hurry up and move—well, anywhere, really. Anywhere it doesn’t snow or, really, since you asked, drop below 70 degrees, I mean.

All week I’ve been mulling over a new blog post, based on the idea that, when times are bad, when you feel down, the best thing to do, often, is to recount a tale of a time that was probably even worse, but through the passing of time and the killing off of brain cells has come to seem passable. Or fun, even. Which brings us to the summer (and a bit of the spring and fall) of 2001, when I was still living in Nameless, CO, with my boyfriend, Scorpio, and a small thug dawg, working—at the start of the story, anyway, long hours for a few cents over minimum wage at a newspaper—one of three that covered roughly the same, 3,000-odd-reader beat. I got the job when I first moved to town, the fall before, which, coincidentally, was only a few weeks after all the former employees of said paper picked up and left to start their own paper. Something about—well, they said it was because they didn’t like the editorial direction the new management was taking, but, considering one of the evacuees was the editor, that excuse always struck me as a little fishy. More realistically, the five who left didn’t like having anyone else in the office to report to, and under new management they did: a large, bearded man with a soft voice and thoroughly unpleasant demeanor, the managing editor, Rocky. While I was there, anyway, Rocky had almost nothing to say about editorial direction, writing style, point of view. He managed, nonetheless, to be the office black hole—sucking in creativity and whatever little bit of joy we had managed to create whenever he was sitting dourly at his desk. Luckily, that was hardly ever, and, quite frankly, if he had taken issue with any article published in the paper—well, for one thing, I doubt he even read our paper, but if he had—he would have been at a loss as to which one of us to blame. By which I mean to say that he had no idea who any of his employees were—in a philosophical sense, yes, but even more fundamentally, he didn’t even know our fucking names.

But that’s all—more or less—irrelevant. Point is, five employees—the editor, assistant editor, sportsguy, photographer, and office manager—left one paper and started a new one on their parents’ dime, leaving lots and lots of vacant positions, one of which became mine: copy editor, and arts/culture/society writer. I reviewed plays, went to symposiums, interviewed People You Should Know—anything that wasn’t news but might be published in a newspaper was my purview. Important? No. But it was a job, and as I do for every job I have (for less than two years) I tried damn hard.

Now to set the scene: It was after April Fool’s Day, I know, because we had recently published our April Fool’s Day issue—a kind of homegrown Onion knockoff, except not terribly clever. And it was before—right before—the ski area closed for the season. So, mid- to late-April, most likely. It was a Thursday, and on any other Thursday the office would have been mostly empty. Mondays were for writing, research, typing, and meetings, Tuesdays were for finishing up, Wednesdays were for copy editing and layout, and Thursdays we ate breakfast together, smacked each other on the backs supportively, sneered at the other two papers’ headlines, brainstormed story ideas for the next week, and then went home and napped and woke to watch Jeopardy and then napped again until Scorpio woke us for a glass of wine. Or I did, anyway. But Rocky had told us that we should all come in on this particular Thursday. It was known that he was going to meet with the publishers, two unknowns who none of us had ever met, let alone seen, and who we did not even know the names of. I personally was hoping that somehow, if the meeting was about some kind of rearranging of positions in the office, it would lead to my getting the assistant editor position that would presumably be up for grabs after our assistant editor was suitably vetted to take over for our interim editor, who was leaving shortly to go back to his wife in the Four Corners region. It seemed unlikely that our paper’s mystery owners would be involved in the decision, but then, perhaps they were rethinking Rocky’s position in the company, and he would be moved back to wherever he was from (which was almost certainly somewhere more urban than Nameless, since he cursed daily the provinciality that had brought Scorpio and I there), and I would be discovered by his more astute replacement as the bright young thing I knew I was. And, to be honest, there was a sense of despair over the office that day. Everyone was tense. Employees don’t get called in on their day off to talk about a meeting that hasn’t happened unless the outcome of the meeting is likely to be disastrous.

On the other hand, I had nothing else to do that day, Scorpio having headed to Denver that morning for an intelligence/charm exam to see if he would make a suitable quiz show contestant. Ah—remember quiz shows? Maybe the resurgence in those things’ popularity was confined to our apartment, now that I stop to consider, but it seemed like, all that winter, it was all anyone was talking about: How many questions did you get right on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? hotline? Oh, but I didn’t have too many friends who didn’t live in my apartment and weren’t Scorpio, so perhaps that’s not a large enough sampling for a fair assessment. But point is, I had been woken early and, without the large heat-generating device that I’d grown accustomed to in my bed, found it difficult to go back to sleep. So, whatever. Even if my presence there hadn’t been demanded, I might have ended up in the office anyway.

But the day was rather slow, it being a day on which no one was used to doing work, and not a whole lot of work got done. Oh, it was all sunshine and butterflies, it was. Well, except for the butterflies part. Sunshine and … us downstairs denizens, Sylvan and N.O. and Laurel and me, trading potshots and insults, more like. I was getting a few things lined up for the next week, though, when Rocky called us upstairs for a meeting. “I don’t have all the details right now, but what I’ve been told is that the paper has been bought by an unknown source and we all need to clear out of here by four o’clock.” It was 3:20. “The buyers want to keep on N.O. [advertising saleswoman] and Luna [classifieds]. The rest of us are let go.” And that was the only time I’ve ever been fired from a job, and I can’t do justice to how I felt, truly, truly I cannot. My face was flushed, and I wanted to cry. My first concern was this: So I’m not getting the assistant editor position. And then I thought about my checking account and how empty it was, and then how hard we had worked to make our paper a good paper, competitive with the other two papers in our tiny town. And how hard I had worked personally—the long nights, all-nighters, how interesting I had tried to make my articles, and how much better they were than anything either of the other papers ever printed. Oh, it was a knife to the heart—it wasn’t just a job, or a paycheck. I had made it bigger than that. I had let it matter—and that was the mistake.

I cleared my desk, deleted files from my computer, and walked out to the car, crying. On the way, I stopped at the photo-processing lab across the parking lot from the newspaper offices, to let the man who worked there know that we wouldn’t be developing our negatives there any longer. Morgan was a little older than me, bearded, balding, and I had always sensed that he had a bit of a crush on me.

I said hello to him when I walked into the store, and waited for him to notice that my cheeks were glossy with tears and snot. “So, we’ve been bought out. And they fired everyone. They gave us less than an hour’s notice to clear out.”

“Oh, yeah,” Morgan said, kind of looking away from me. “I’m sorry about that.”

Something was off, and it occurred to me suddenly that he already knew about the sale; that he had known before I did; that perhaps everyone in town knew and yet didn’t warn us. Because we were outsiders—running a paper for less than a year. Or because they preferred the other papers to ours. The reason didn’t even matter. We were being fired not just by some unnamed corporate buyer, but by our community—the community we had worked to represent and serve. Stung deeply by that realization, I said goodbye to Morgan and drove home, where I sobbed into Gallant’s fur and wished Scorpio was home.

Five years later, of course, everyone had figured out that the other papers sucked just as bad. But that’s another story for another time.

The phone rang. It was Kristen, my (former) chief rival for the assistant editor position. I wailed into the phone, knowing she’d understand my pain, my loss.

“It’s only a job, Aunty. Come on! We’re all at Crotch-Eater’s—get your ass down here.”

And I can’t say that my sorrow and pain just ended then. It took several days of fretting before I finally came to terms with the fact that I had lost my identity as a journalist, and as a person who spends way too much time at work, and as a thinker and writer of Big Important Thoughts. And after a few days of worrying, Granny Christ came through with a hefty sum of money, enough to get me through nearly half a year of unemployment (only part of it uncomfortably), so that was another worry off my plate. But what Kristen did for me, effectively, was give me a nice, affirming punch to the jaw—which, not incidentally, I really fucking needed at that moment. It was just the thing.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there.”

“You sure? I’ll send Sylvan up after you if we don’t see you in ten minutes.”

“I’m sure. Yeah, I could use a drink.”

To be continued.


Snooze said...


Aunty Christ said...

Well, yeah--to be sure, it stunk. But honestly, it was a good life lesson for a self-important little jerk. Not to say that I'm no longer a self-important little jerk, but far less so, I hope. Or at least I realize it now--and knowing is half the battle. Um, yeah.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

An experience like that could leave a lot of people scarred and bitter. Glad to see you were able to dodge that bullet. ;^)

Looking forward to part deux, where I predict our heroine finds affirmation in a bookclub/writers workshop that celebrates the cathartic power of the hoo-ha.