Around the household, November 10, 2008 has become to be euphemistically referred to as the day I got shot in the head.
It’s funny, how 36 years of doing something you love can come to such a crashing, sudden close.
On one end of the line about 8:15 that morning, Tampa Tribune Managing Editor Duke Maas was telling me that a group of my co-workers were going to be laid off that day, myself included.
But as Duke spoke, going through the bureaucrat-speak of explaining the mechanics of terminating my employment at the paper my mind was rolling the tape backwards. In more than three decades as a professional scribbler I had worked as a police reporter, political reporter, investigative reporter, critic, and for the past 16 years at the Tribune, a columnist.
I had watched a man bleed to death on a barroom floor, helped put people in prison, helped get them out, interviewed presidents, governors, big shots, celebrities, peasants and serial killers. I had flown the Concorde, visited the only remaining Jewish synagogue in Vienna on the 100th birthday of Adolf Hitler, covered the 20th anniversary of Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and yes, blessedly yes, delightfully annoyed, belittled and ridiculed all manner of politicians.
Oh yes, I also was honored to count during my years at The Chicago-Sun-Times, Mike Royko as a Billy Goat drinking companion – and friend.
As a newspaperman, for years I have always said I could literally count on one hand the number of days I had awakened and thought to myself, “Sheesh, I gotta go to work today.” November 10 was one of those days. You pick which digit.
If you are expecting some sort of angry payback screed railing against my former employer, you’ll be sadly disappointed. For some 25 years of my three-plus decades in this craft, The Tampa Tribune was not where I went to work. It was my career home.
Until very recently, The Tribune offered me a platform four days a week to vent against the insanity of life, goofy government decisions and hapless politicians. I never had a column killed, never was told what I could, or couldn’t write about. If you can find a better day job than that, aside from being Secretariat, let me know.
But it also all too true that last two years have been incredibly stressful as wave after wave of lay-offs began to sweep through the newsroom. The painful fact is we could be having this conversation in literally every city across the country as newspapers have had to struggle with an industry recession within a national recession.
My fate is hardly unique. I have watched countless friends and colleagues walk that last mile to the Human Resources office to learn their lives, their futures, their identities were about to – get shot in the head.
On my last day, 17 other newsroom employees were given their walking papers, including such veteran journalists as Larry Fletcher, Pat Mitchell and my old friend Phil Morgan, as talented a writer and the most decent human being you’ll ever meet. Phil and I began at the Tribune together as young reporters and as fate would have it, we walked out of the paper together.
As my death certificate was being prepared in Human Resources (odd term isn’t it?), I asked if I would be allowed to write a final column. The answer was no. And let’s face it when you’re in the process of being told to go away, you don’t have much leverage. So I’m grateful for this opportunity.
All I ever wanted to be was a newspaperman. For me, doing this work was a license to perpetual adolescence, an e-ticket to tell stories, meet interesting people, witness events first-hand, irritate the living bejabbers out of readers and victims and actually get paid for it all.
I had discovered at an early age, considering how many times I was sent to the principal’s office, that I possessed this arcane skill for making blood boil, raising the odd hackle and otherwise inflicting twisted fuming, fulminating ire. What a joy.
It was also probably helpful that I’m probably best described a functional recluse. It mattered little to me if I offended some clueless pol, or some community hotsy-tot. I had no interest in being their friend, or invited to their parties, or included in a social circle.
Rather, more importantly, I have been more fortunate than I deserve during this time to be married to a woman who has been unbelievably supportive in this “for better or WORSE” moment in our lives.
My fealty was to the reader, the newspaper, the column. And as a professional smart aleck my obligation was to produce an intellectually honest 118 lines of copy that intrigued, stimulated, provoked and hopefully entertained the customer who was willing to plop down his or her two bits to read what I had to say.
My friend and mentor former Tribune publisher, Doyle Harvill only gave me two pieces of advice when I started writing the column. First, Doyle said he wanted me to go out and puncture the egos and lambaste the hypocritical phonies of the community.
“And have fun,” he urged. Could anyone have a better job description?
Second, Doyle imposed only one rule. If you are going to hammer someone in print, Doyle counseled, you must first ask a simple question. Before you write the first word of the column you have to ask yourself, if after you’ve drawn and quartered the subject of the column if you run into them the next day can you walk up to them, look them in the eye, shake their hand and ask about the family?
And if the answer to that question is no, then you are writing the column for all the wrong reasons. You’re writing it simply for the sake of vindictiveness, or spite, or peevishness and if so, you are no better than the oaf you are about to take to task for being wrong, or incompetent, or dense.
In the thousands of columns I wrote for the Tribune, I asked myself that question every time I sat down at the keyboard. So in case you’re wondering, the answer is no, I wouldn’t take back a single word I ever wrote about Jeb Bush, or George Bush, or Bill Clinton, or Malcolm Glazer and his imps, Take The Money and Run..
To you these people may be public officials, to me they were annuities. Question asked. Question answered.
There is no doubt I miss my life going to work every day for a newspaper. There are too, too many things to note what I miss already the most. But especially, of course it s the people, those rare folks who still believe print makes a difference, should make a difference, needs to make a difference.
And of course I’ll miss the odd-balls, the eccentrics, the crazies who populate a newsroom.
A day or so after I first arrived at the Chicago Sun-Times, I noticed a man sitting a few desks away who repeatedly loudly blurted out “Mwawk! Mwawk! Mwawk!” about every 30 seconds. Finally I asked a co-worker: “Uh, what the &^%$#*# is that all about?”
She looked up briefly and gently explained: “Oh that’s Chip. He thinks he’s a re-incarnated penguin.” Of course! I should have known.
Chip was a brilliant, middle-aged guy who was a superb re-write man, itself a lost art in newspapers. There was a time when even certifiably insane people who thought they were re-incarnated penguins could still find gainful employment in a newsroom.
And that is my greatest fear.
As newspapers shrink, as readers dwindle, as revenues decline – where do the penguins go?