First, let me say that I was supposed to post this before Thanksgiving. But life got too … um … busy. So, back to the blog post about, yes, busy-ness.
The hours slip away like little boys racing around the corner of the house in a game of tag. I’m always reaching out to snag these hours around the holidays. Rushing here and there to finish to-do lists, buy ingredients for a special recipe, get another bottle of wine. I love Thanksgiving, but I’m not sure if I love the busy-ness of it all.
Am I simply filling hours with unneeded tasks? Do the things I do make a difference? What will I remember about these days?
In early November, I drove almost to the end of the Jersey Turnpike, to visit with former coworkers at The Gloucester County Times — most of whom I had not seen in some 35 years. Facebook has kept us connected and curious about each other’s present lives, and one member, the infamous Tom Wilk, took on the task of inviting us all to return to Woodbury, a town across the river from Philadelphia where we’d spent a good portion of our days and nights together in a smoke-hazed newsroom. Most of us had been right out of college, lucky enough to land a real job in the field we’d actually studied — journalism.
Here was the court reporter, the city reporters, the consumer reporter, the entertainment editor, the news desk and even the staff’s administrative assistant, who’d worked at the newspaper longer than any of us. Some had gone on to work at other newspapers that had quietly folded or been sucked up by corporate publications. Some had turned to other types of writing jobs, and some were retired. The GloCo Times had combined with another newspaper and moved out of Woodbury to new digs farther south. It also had a new name — the South Jersey Times. It was nice to know it still existed — damn! — the building was even newer and nicer! Our old newspaper building near the mostly defunct downtown now houses a coffee company, which seemed oddly appropriate, after surviving decades of bad coffee and powdered creamer.
We met for lunch at one of the few restaurants we used to go to that was still open in the city, and we returned to our cars as the sun was setting. We talked about the people who shaped our careers, the parties in the parking lot, the Friday lunch “meetings” of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Journalists (SPCJ), the league volleyball and baseball teams, the guys in the backshop that cut and pasted the stories and headlines into place, and the advertising team that dressed better than we did. We laughed about the crazy hours, the low pay, 35-hour work weeks (ha!), the attempt to unionize, and the stories we never forgot. We shared old photos and company newsletters and toasted the people who had died too soon. Later, I stayed overnight at a Holiday Inn off the Pike near Swedesboro — 35 years ago, the hotel parking lot would have been a tomato field.
The next day I drove around the county, where I’d lived from 1979 to 1985, just six years. I parked my SUV near a little house in South Harrison Township, with a peach orchard next door, that had once been mine. But the orchard was gone, and the house was being resided. I didn’t recognize it at first — the long stretch of windows on the front porch and sun room had been covered over with gray siding. Rusty disemboweled cars were strewn in back, and I felt embarrassed that the little house had come to this. I apologized aloud to no one.
I didn’t stay long. Soon, I was back on the Turnpike, headed north to the George Washington Bridge and I-95, where I was shocked to see panhandlers standing between the whizzing lanes of traffic after the toll booths. I was used to seeing them with their signs on the islands between coming and going traffic on major roads in Connecticut. But these men were stumbling amid the cars that had just paid their $15 to cross a bridge. How would or could anyone stop to drop some dollar bills into their hands? I felt like I had seen a new level of desperation.
Why am I telling you this?
I guess because it was a weekend that wasn’t about busy-ness. It was wonderful to spend a few hours with people from my past. It was even more enjoyable to know they wanted to share those hours together — traveling from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and all over New Jersey, or even a few blocks down the street.
When I look back at who I was then, I realize how much I was shaped by that place and those people. In so many ways I was blessed because they were kind and funny and smart. Fresh out of college, newly married and almost 1500 miles from the world I knew, I floundered almost every day in the beginning. Too shy, too anxious and too uncertain — about everything. Starting as an education and food (really?!) editor on the features desk, I was supposed to write a feature story and edit local news shorts to fill the Sunday education page, and then write a feature food story and edit recipes to fill the Wednesday food section. I’d done lots of writing and worked on the news desk on the daily college newspaper, but I’d never done layout, except in class. However, I learned quickly by watching Susan “Sooz” Caulfield, who was the features editor and Sunday layout editor for the paper. I had no choice.
And then I came in early to work on the news desk a few mornings a week, where the the masochistic (and misogynistic) news editor ranted and chain-smoked cigarettes on deadline. I was supposed the grab the sheets with headline formats, write them — 6-48-1, 1-24-3, 3-36-2 — as quickly as possible and send them back to him to check. I rarely got more than a “humph!” from him as he churned out the pages and ran out to check them being built by the backshop. My saving grace were people like Fred Petri, the editorial page editor, who worked deadline with me. He was calm and kind — and he probably completed twice as many headlines as I did in those early days. And he never complained. Ever.
Little did I know I would take over the job of news editor just a few short years later. My life became a world of daily, hourly deadlines, and I even got to say, “Stop the presses,” early one Sunday morning in 1983 when we had to change the Sunday’s front page story to include the news of a massive terrorist attack in Lebanon that killed 241 American service members (yes, I had to google that). Again, Fred worked the desk with me along with Tom Wilk — two of the calmest people I have ever met. In. My. Life. And by that time, I knew the guys in the backshop as well as the news team — having spent many a late Saturday night marking up Sunday pages with them. However, coming from the features side, I still felt uncomfortable making decisions about hard news. But again, I was helped by city editors like Bob Bradley and Jimmy Davis, who had years of experience writing and editing news stories.
Enough. Probably more than enough. I’ve rarely thought about those days — such a different life.
After six years in New Jersey, we moved to Rhode Island, where I was a stringer for the Pawtucket Evening Times for about six months. But it was a union newspaper, and I couldn’t write my stories on newsroom computers; instead, I wrote them at home at night (where a baby slept) on a 20-year-old electric typewriter and dropped the stories off at the front desk. I finally gave it up when I wasn’t even allowed to enter the newsroom. Ugh! I also interviewed for a news editor job for a small newspaper in Massachusetts — and I was offered the job. But that world no longer fit into mine. With a husband who traveled for work and a one-year-old daughter, I could no longer spend hours in a newsroom and come home at 3 a.m. Instead, I found another writing job with regular hours and began taking classes at night to be a teacher, shaping a new life that would work for me and my family.
As the present year winds down, I’ve looked back and remembered who I was, so long ago. Sentimental? Maybe. But that’s OK. It tasted good, like a big bowl of buttered popcorn and a brand-new Netflix series to binge-watch.
Thank you, GloCo Times alumni. Thank you for caring about facts and news and ethics and getting it right, and, yes, for being young and dumb enough to work so hard for so little. But, most of all, thanks for the laughter.
That’s what has always saved me.
And always will.