Realizing that the man he’d be working under was a “stone-cold dickhead,” S. Grady Barrett wonders if his best will be enough to help him cope in this strange new town.
Author’s Note: This is the fourth part of a six-part story written from memory, and as memory is an unreliable source, I cannot say this story is entirely true, nor that it’s completely false. As a result, people’s names, the name of the newspaper and the town in which the newspaper is located do not appear in this story. Nor should they.
4: THE WEATHER MAKES THE NEWS
The day of the interview started like any other, I suppose, except that I wore a dark gray suit, as opposed to the usual ensemble of jeans and a t-shirt. After eating breakfast, I made my way out to the car and paused for a moment in the parking lot to look around. Soft flakes of snow were swirling and fluttering with the pace of the wind. Snow in April, I thought. New Mexico is like Chicago after all.
Then it was off to the newspaper and the interview and the day of reporting. I arrived early, so I sat in the car, staring at that decrepit office building and telling myself over and over again that I’d be fine, that I could do this.
The only time I had ever spent in a newsroom was in graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, or whatever they’re calling it these days. It was located in downtown Chicago, and everyone in the master’s program had to spend one quarter working a beat. Although it was supposed to be run like a real newsroom, it was more a close simulation of what a newsroom is supposed to be. Instead of a cranky, ego-maniacal editor, we had skeptical professors, all of them former reporters for major newspapers—The San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune.
I didn’t remember any of them ever really disparaging my work. None of them ever pulled me aside to say that, perhaps, I wasn’t cut out for this profession. Still, self-doubt is a persistent mental invader and while I sat in the car, whittling away the minutes before I went into a real newsroom for an insignificant regional newspaper, I wondered if all those professors were simply playing a cruel joke on me, a long con of some sort, and that today would be the punch line.
After a while, I decided that arriving a few minutes early would be better than arriving a few minutes late. So I walked the length of the gray asphalt parking lot and entered the building. I guess I was expecting a burst of activity: reporters with telephone receivers cradled in the crook between their necks and shoulders yelling to the editor, “Hey, chief! I got a hot lede!” or the editor exploding out of his office, shouting, “We’ve got a triple homicide out on the edge of town! I need someone out there now!” And every reporter would jump over his or her desk to get the assignment sheet.
But when I entered the building, there was little indication that anyone was inside. So I stood there, looking around, taking a step in one direction, then deciding, no, that corridor doesn’t look like the right place to go. I stood in place again, looking around, waiting for someone to appear.
In terms of quality, the interior of the building wasn’t much different than the exterior. A thin layer of beige, thread-worn carpet was stretched across the floor. The walls were off-white, highlighted with dark scrapes and scratches. Two women finally appeared. I must have been an unusual sight, because they both stopped in their tracks when they saw me standing there with a confused look on my face. “May I help you?” asked one of the women.
I told her that I was there for an interview. She nodded then told me to go upstairs. I hadn’t yet noticed the staircase, and if the woman hadn’t gestured toward the staircase with a wave of her hand, I would have missed it.
As I went up the stairs, I took another deep breath, trying to calm myself and have a moment of quiet before the storm, but the old, wood frame of the carpet-covered stairs creaked with each step I took. They knew I was coming.
When I reached the next floor, I saw three men sitting at small desks staring into small computer screens. A blonde woman with a slight frame and soft face emerged from an office and said, “S.?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m A., the managing editor.”
“Hi,” I said, as I shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“We’ll start the interview in a few minutes. Why don’t we get you set up?”
“Great,” I said.
She led me to an empty desk with scattered papers, a dusty cream-colored phone with a yellowed plastic covering over the speed dial buttons and an Apple computer that looked to be about eight years old. “You can put your stuff here,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
I sat down and looked around the room. Everyone was trying not to look at the new guy, keeping their eyes on their computers, or fidgeting with some papers or a piece of equipment on their desks. I was looking for one of the reporters, a guy named J. He went to Medill too, and a professor who knew both of us told him that I’d be coming down for an interview. But J. wasn’t around, so I settled into my chair. A few moments later, A. returned. “O.K.,” she said. “This is the first story you’ll be working on.”
She handed me a press release from the local police department. “Go ahead and take a look at it,” she instructed. “And don’t worry too much about sources. I have the contact information for the people you need to call. If you find someone on your own, all the better.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’ll come get you when we’re ready for the interview.”
As I read through the release, my mind raced through the options of who I should call for comment, or if I’d have to venture out into the wild, hunt someone down for a quote and get back to the office to file the story. Those concerns were quickly set aside when the managing editor returned and told me to join her in the editor’s office.
The editor was a khaki-pants-and-blue-button-down-shirt wearing Southerner from Alabama. He was balding and stout and had a cheerful disposition. However, it was the disposition of a good ol’ fashioned Southern hypocrite, someone who would look you in the eye and smile and say he’d help you as much as he was able. Then he’d go off and do the exact opposite.
The interview went well. The managing editor said very little. She only spoke when spoken to. The editor laid out his credentials and asked me a few questions about myself, including why I got into journalism.
Other than a basic love of writing, and an enduring curiosity about the world, I can’t honestly say why I ever considered a career as a journalist. Maybe it was because of Alex Kotlowitz, Charles Whitaker, and the long-form, beautifully and painstakingly written true stories that no one writes anymore but I hoped one day that I would. But a dreamer never gets the job, does he? Pragmatic answers belong to pragmatic people, so I launched into a rambling response that every journalism school graduate says, to one degree or another: The pursuit of truth! Journalism is the bedrock of democracy! Protecting the people from corruption! Blah! Blah! Blah! Blather!
“You know,” said the editor. “I offered this job to a young lady. And do you know what she told me? She told me she didn’t want to move out here because she didn’t think she could find a boyfriend! Now, does that sound like a journalist to you?”
At first, I was taken aback by his admission that he’d already offered the job to another person. How rude. Then I realized that he just told me she turned it down too, probably for a better reason than what she told him. “No,” I said, collecting myself. “Not really. It’s none of my business though.”
“You want to move out here?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. Lies! All lies!
“Good! That’s what I want to hear,” he said.
I know, I thought.
After a bit more discussion about the newspaper’s importance to the local community, he left me to get started on my article. “We’ll get lunch,” he said. “We can talk more later.”
I went back to my desk and started making phone calls. The room was small enough that even if I spoke in a quiet voice, the other reporters could hear everything I said. I wondered if they were quietly judging me, saying to themselves, “What a stupid question. Rookie.” But the self-consciousness soon faded away and I made good progress on the story. Lunch time came quickly.
The editor and the managing editor both showed up at my desk promptly at noon. We walked down the stairs one-by-one in succession of suspected importance: the editor, the managing editor, me. We walked past the faded parking lot to Main Street, then to a small pizzeria in an old, weather-worn and wood-framed building. Along the way, the editor made small talk, while the managing editor said almost nothing. I answered the editor’s questions as thoroughly as I could and asked as many questions as I could muster.
After we sat down and ordered our food, two teenage boys entered the establishment and a smile crossed the editor’s face. “Boys! How are you?”
The two awkward teenagers sidled up to our table and said hello to the editor. He told me earlier, during the interview in his office, that he coached the local high school baseball team. I assumed the boys were played on the team. They didn’t bother to introduce themselves, as awkward teenage boys are prone to do, so the editor took it upon himself. “Boys,” he said. “This fella here is a sports agent from Chicago.”
Is he making fun of my suit? I thought.
This, of course, put me in an awkward position. I didn’t want to ruin the joke, nor did I want to be a joke. The boys seemed not to make too much of it, not questioning what the editor said, but somehow knowing he couldn’t possibly be serious. “Hi,” I said, slightly rolling my eyes at the joke. “Nice to meet you.”
The editor spoke to the boys a bit longer, then they ambled off to get their lunch before returning to school. When they were out of earshot, the editor leaned across the table and said to me, “Hey, why don’t you come to baseball practice after school? You can wear that suit and I can tell the whole team you’re a big sports agent from Chicago! How’s that sound? It’ll be fun!”
I smiled. “I’m sure it would,” I said, trying to smile back at him. “But, no. I don’t think it would be appropriate.”
The editor leaned back. “Yeah, I guess not.” He looked out the window for a few moments. “Boy that snow is coming down,” he said, as he turned his head to the managing editor. “Maybe we should do a story about it?”
“We can do that,” said the managing editor meekly.
“I don’t know,” said the editor. He turned to me: “What do you think?”
“I can do what you need,” I said, not wanting to do the story.
The editor nodded but didn’t say anything else.
After lunch, as we went back to the office, the editor walked out ahead of the managing editor and me. The wind blew hard and made the light snow come down in white, linear bursts. The editor turned around and looked at the managing editor, “We should do a story on the snow,” he declared. “Give it to him.” Then he said to me: “Do a few man-on-the-street interviews. See if you can get someone’s reaction to the snow. Make it lively.” Then he proceeded to walk out ahead of us, as if he were Caesar who had issued a proclamation.
So, I had the answer to a lingering question: the editor was a stone-cold dickhead. Weather stories aren’t that hard, but they’re a nuisance. They’re a goddamned hazing ritual editors throw on reporters for whatever petty reason an editor has to do such a thing.
When I sat back down at my desk, I spent a few minutes cursing that son of a bitch in my head, whipping up the word “shithead” as I imagined kicking his ass up and down Main Street. It wasn’t the weather story that bothered me; it was the editor’s act of superiority that came along with it. As I shouted out a motherfucker in my mind, the managing editor appeared next to my desk. “Here’s the number for the National Weather Service,” she said. “Don’t worry about doing any other interviews. It stopped snowing. People wouldn’t know what you’re talking about any way.”
I smiled up at her. “Sure, no problem,” I said. “Thanks.”
The rest of the afternoon, if I wasn’t making phone calls or interviewing someone for the story about the stolen oil rig thing-a-ma-bob, I was making phone calls and gathering information about the snow story. Eventually, I finished both, although the weather story didn’t help with the quality of the other.
After turning in both stories, the managing editor told me to stick around for a little while, in case she had any changes. The editor had already left for the day. She didn’t take very long. The story about the well site needed some work, she said. Some of the comments were style issues, others were basic reporting. Put the address where the theft occurred, she said. It occurred out on a highway, I thought. There wasn’t really a specific address, as much as a location off the highway. But good point. My bad.
I took note of her comments and went back to my desk. As I gathered my things, J. asked me if I wanted to get a beer. “Sure,” I said. Another reporter was finishing up as well, and J. asked him if he wanted to go. He did.
We went back to the same pizzeria, the one at which I had lunch with the editor, which apparently was also a small brew pub. This time, we stayed in the bar area. We ordered our drinks and started talking about life at the paper. In a spectacularly short amount of time, both guys acknowledged that the editor had some personality deficiencies. “Yeah,” said J. “He’s a fucking asshole.”
We talked a little more before J. dropped a bomb on me: “He wants to hire a woman, you know.”
“Really?” I said, half incredulously.
“He announced it to the newsroom a few weeks ago,” said J. “I’m surprised he brought you down here.”
“Yeah, he hired a woman but she didn’t want to come down here,” said the other reporter.
“Who can blame her?” said J. “This town’s a shithole.”
“Well, maybe he’s keeping an open mind,” I said.
J. shrugged. “Maybe, but you probably don’t want this job anyway.”
He motioned around the room with his head. “Why do you think most of these people are missing teeth?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Oh.” I looked at the ragged faces that were playing pool, sitting at tables and standing by the jukebox. The light went on in my head. I knew about the area’s drug problem, but seeing it out in the open was alarming.
“You’re not dealing with sophisticated people here. You’ll get your fill of crime stories, but….” He trailed off.
“Fair enough,” I said.
We continued talking about where to go in the area and what to do. Slowly, the two reporters eased off their comments about the area and how bad it is. J. assured me that there’s plenty to do, if you’re outdoor inclined. But he held on to an important point: After coming from Chicago, living down here would certainly be a culture change. Both reporters also warned me not to drink and drive. Be real careful about that, they said. The cops will pull anyone over they see coming out of the bar and getting into a car.
Their warning meant I’d be doing a lot of drinking at home. Add that to the list of things R. wouldn’t like about this town.
Not wanting to write a first-person story about being arrested for drunk driving, I finished my second beer and excused myself. The two other reporters said they were leaving soon too. But they might have another round, they said.
When I returned to the hotel room, I called R. and told her how the day went. I also told her what the other reporters told me. After we bandied about J.’s comments for a little while, she said, “Well, you’re there. Do the best you can. The rest will sort itself out.”
I went to sleep that night with those words echoing in my skull, and I wondered if my best would be enough.
—Photo by ChrisGampat/Flickr