Suggested Soundtrack: Chinatown (Closing Credits)
<Storyteller's Note: The following account is true, though strictly personal and anecdotal, is true. The names have been changed, masked or omitted to avoid retribution from the guilty.>
<i.>Lou Reed it said well: "Things go from bad to weird." Long story short: Chicago didn't agree with you or the wife. Throwing in the towel didn't feel like an angst-inducing decision....not after three years of slaving for $9.75 an hour for eight hours a day. Three years of getting up by 7:30 a.m. and walking four lengthy blocks to the pigeon shit-splotched bus stop (where you spent an hour day commuting to and from the well-off suburb, where your employer was located). Three years of living in a mouse-turd-infested apartment that your slumlord shrugged off by saying, "Just get some traps."
Bottom line: You and Illinois are breaking up what's now a hate-hate relationship. Funnily enough, the return to Michigan materializes faster than you'd imagine. You apply to several reporting jobs, including one in Holland, whose editor advises that they've just filled that particular spot.
But their sister paper in southeast Michigan has needed somebody for awhile, so it sounds like they won't get terribly picky, the guy suggests: "Want me to send your resume and clips down there?"
"Yeah, sure," I shrug. "Might as well check it out."
What happens next recalls a quote attributed to Hunter S. Thompson: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
<ii.>Compared to some job searches, this one feels more painless than most. You only need a week to work out terms (including two interviews). Your new boss also has you call up somebody to get information on some topic or other, for a story that'll never see the light of day. Obviously, it's your audition, but it's a weird experience, especially when the woman you call waxes suspicious: "If you're a reporter there, how come I've never heard of you?"
Your response is the essence of breezy reassurance: "Oh, don't worry. I'm new to the area. I just started this week, so I'm still getting used to it."
A couple weeks later, you and the wife settle in. You wanted a change? You got it. You're in another small town, though far more rural and right-leaning than those you've experienced. There's no lack of self-styled home churches and militia leaders here. It's the kind of place where even the occasional millage renewal doesn't pass, because people are so suspicious of government (what do them damn revenooers want now with my money?).
It's also a place where you have to get cable, because you're so remote, only one "regular" TV channel comes in. Once the sidewalks roll up, mostly by five or six o'clock, you have to improvise your own snacks and entertainment. That's OK, for now. The low cost of living is enough to convince you that your money will go a lot farther here.
<iii.>Your first few months pass in a haze of the usual city, county and township government meetings, the occasionally interesting feature, and endless busy work -- like typing up briefs or obits, plus cranking out additional articles for tabloid sections (or "tabs," as they're called, an experience you'll mortally despise -- more on that next time).
All the same, things go from bad to weird, and it doesn't take long. Your boss's preferred communication is the bitchy memo that she slaps on your desk, preferably after you've gone home. For example, she gripes that you're only working a 70-hour pay period, instead of the 80-hour mandated one (two weeks, Monday through Friday).
Lunch hours don't count, though you're often working right through them. You never heard about that reality during those interviews, a situation aggravated by your boss's "snipe first, explain later" mode of leadership. You wonder what difference it makes, since you're hardly working a 40-hour week, anyway. The time cards that you turn in are pure fiction.
The Wednesday staff meeting poses another struggle. You must show up by one on the dot (a mistake that you only made once, as it earned you a bitch out). Most weeks, you're lucky to finish by two, even 2:30, depending how long your boss feels like expounding about the lameness of city government, the virtues of time management, or whatever else crosses her sprawling mindset.
It's an interminable gabfest that's barely a notch above your boss's preferred topics: big city paper jobs that she's already worked, big city paper jobs that she's scheming to get, or big city paper jobs that somebody else shouldn't have got. Evidently, the current gig doesn't feel satisfying.
But your boss has it all figured out. Once that fancy job in a bigger town falls in her lap, she'll find a cheap apartment, so she can commute on weekends. That is, if she wants to commute.
"Doesn't your husband get a vote?" you wonder. "Where does he fit into all this?"
Your boss's face pinches into its familiar dismissive sneer: "Oh, he can follow me."
You nod a fake assent, and trudge back to work. Your reflex is that of the consummate lifer: don't go looking for trouble. It's not worth the hassle.
<iv.>That September, your world gets a jolt when your boss resigns, even though there's no big city paper gig waiting. The ad manager has just gotten promoted to publisher, and she's just furious. Why's that, exactly?
Like many who scale the promotional heights, the new publisher has impressive advertising and business credentials, but zero on the journalistic side. Not that he seems to care, since he mastered the part that really matters: the workplace politics Olympiad. The office gossip is that, for years, he "ran" the original publisher, who's now retiring into the sunset.
Not surprisingly, then, your new publisher appears unfazed by his promotion. He seems most excited about the possibility of getting more golfing time with his drinking buddies, who include major advertisers like the local Spartan store. You get the feeling who he'll support, if push comes to shove about a story. That's how Mayberry RFD really works, right?
Still, the itch to resign proves to be one catchy virus. Within weeks, your two coworkers also quit, one to join his wife at a plum teaching job, the other back to her hometown, from which she'd commuted an hour a day. There's no dream gig awaiting her, either, but she's ready for a career rethink.
All these events come off as shocking and dismaying to the night editor, an old friend of my (now) ex-boss. She'll grit her teeth and hang on for another year or so, though not out of any real joy, but the dreary, mechanical grind of "gotta make a living, gotta make a living" ringing in her ears -- and yours, too, for that matter.
The irony's lost on you now, but it'll fall sharply into focus later, as the atmosphere continues its freefall, and your own standing grows ever dicier. As crazy and dysfunctional as the Bad To Weird Era got...as sad as it sounds...soon, you'll realize look back and say, "Those were the good old days." Because your situation is about to get nightmarish. --The Reckoner