I pulled out of Britt’s, a little smoke in my head and a couple of beers in my belly, and I was feeling a little bit better. The prostration had not yet subsided, not by a long shot, but I’d already told everybody – my wife, my mother and my brother, who I’d had to talk out of coming to the office and causing a ruckus. But the beers were a good idea, a little mind relaxer before getting home to shake it off and bathe my daughter and put her to bed. I cut on the radio, preferring to hear some sad country song over Dick Estelle’s beautiful, but monotone, rendition of some obscure book’s story of a family’s hunt to find the deceased man whom their child had spent his previous life as…
“I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden, Along with the sunshine, There’s gotta be a little rain sometimes,” was the reply from the local country station.
I got a direct call on my office phone as I was in the middle of formatting the opinion page and throwing together a couple of taglines for cellphone photos of kids at one field trip or another. A few things happened that should have alerted me beforehand – the fact that Mitch, the Editor at the newspaper stationed in our company’s corporate headquarters in Alex City, had shown up only a half an hour before and spoke with Shannon with the door open; the fact that the company over the HQ in Alex City had announced its recently purchased daily in Nowhere, Virginia or some other God-forsaken plane; the fact that Shannon hadn’t laughed, hadn’t joked, hadn’t smiled. The phone rang, extension 302, it was Shannon.
“Adam, could you come in here for a second?”
“No problem. Just a minute.”
A couple of strokes on the keyboard, the last with a plastic pop, and I was out of my chair and headed to the boss lady’s office. Shannon’s office was nicer than the rest of the newsroom. While the reporters and ad reps worked in fluorescent lights reflected against gray-green walls and cinder blocks, Shannon’s office was a deep wooden texture, complete with a shined desk, cushy purple seats and a dim, woody illumination. The lighting was just as fluorescent on this day. I took my place at the front of the desk, as I always did when Shannon and I met, and Mitch was posted in the farthest seat from the desk, darkened beneath the shade of the office’s corner.
“Adam,” he said, leaning forward in his seat and glaring his pleasant, patient smile in my direction. “There’s no easy way to say this.”
My legs tensed, a sensation that wouldn’t subside for days afterward. My heart pounded, my brow perspired, my fists clenched.
“Production costs….double coverage…Overlaps…Cutting overhead….Had to cut a position…”
I couldn’t keep up. I knew well what was happening, no explanation was needed. He provided one nonetheless, though the ins and outs of the thing are an uncertainty to me. I thought about my daughter and my wife, whose belly was fat with our incoming son; I thought about bills and formula and diapers and daycare; I thought about not coming back to the newsroom, not shaking hands with people and asking them questions, not snapping photos and receiving hate mail concerning one of my weekly columns, not indulging in the tawdry conversations held between a staff writer, a copy editor and a sports guy over a box of cheap cheese pizza.
“Do you have any questions?” he mused. “I don’t know too much, but I’ll tell you what I can. Do you need some kind of clarification?”
“No,” I replied, solemnly. “Seems pretty clear. I’ll go ahead and get my stuff together.”
“It’s effective at the end of the day today,” he said. “I know the timing is awful.”
“You mean two months before my baby’s supposed to be born?”
He grimaced, an expression meant to look like empathy but lacking the human characteristics required for such a connection.
“You don’t have to do it right now,” Mitch said, reaching out as if he were going to put an arm on my shoulder, but not standing up to make the connection possible.”You can wait and do it after-hours if you’d prefer.”
“No, I’ll go ahead and get it done.”
“I want you to know, you’re a great guy,” he continued. “You’re a helluva journalist and everybody likes you, it’s just one of those things, ya know?”
“I’m a nice guy, but I ain’t got no desk, do I, Mitch?” I thought to myself.
I nodded and walked out of the office. I dumped a couple of reams of paper out of a box and walked toward my desk, giving Cory and Kevin the silent nod as I started throwing my shit into the box – photos, a stack of ragged pens and notepads, old replicas of radio mics and cameras, a pile of newspapers and magazines. Kevin and Cory were called in right after me, I’m sure to discuss who was going to pick up the slack now that the guy who covered politics and education and the whole city of Eclectic was being relinquished of his duties.
Writing for those newspapers had become so much more than an occupation to me – it had become who I was, it was a badge I wore proudly on my sleeve, everywhere I went, that carried the names and faces and stories of all the people I’d met along the way. I’d started at the Tribune in December of 2013 and, over the next year or so, had worked in every office the company owned. And the fact that the big boss had just returned from a family sojourn to Europe only to dispense of the staff writer making $11 an hour stung in ways I can’t begin to adequately describe. Nor would I care to.
But that’s business, something I grasp but I don’t wholly understand. Just business. To me, it wasn’t – it was my craft and my art, it was a public service and a constitutionally protected trade. In the days of Edward R. Murrow, the man who went to war with the atrocities of McCarthyism, the news wasn’t even intended to make a profit, TV stations ran news programs simply because it was a service to the people, the sacred task of keeping the masses informed about the injustices of those in power, the struggles of those abroad and the desperation of those living just down the way.
Now I sit in front of the computer, Bloody Mary in hand, scouring the web for freelance gigs or some desperate weekly looking for a dedicated wordsmith. It reminds me of how I got on with TPI in the first place, how I inched my way from one freelance job to the next before I found room and board in a stable newsroom. And I tell myself, it’s not so bad – I could string together a few freelance gigs, bring in a little money working from home, and have plenty of time to write for pleasure and spend afternoons with my daughter. But I know as well as any newsman that a newsroom is like a narcotic – the deadlines and formatting issues and press days and editorial budgets are all part of the mind-numbing high that makes a newsman feel vanquished, yet satisfied, at the end of every day. Wishing that the news business was viewed by those who run it through the same lens as those who make it run is as futile an effort as wishing your place beneath the sunshine would never find shade – such is the nature of sunshine, those who bask beneath it without moving will eventually find themselves in the dark and the cold. And such is the nature of the news business, or any business where artists are utilized beneath the thumb of money counters.
“So smile for a while and let’s be jolly, Love shouldn’t be so melancholy, Come along and share the good times while we can…”