Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Party

By Saturday afternoon, I still wasn’t sure of my plans for later that evening.
I figured I had two options: I could do what I always do - hang around the ranch here, watch some TV, read, rummage through the fridge for dinner. Or I could go to a party at the home of Craig and Tara Morgan.
Scott Bordow, the sports columnist at the EV Tribune, had offered to give me a ride and I was waiting for him to call and confirm when he would pick me up. I was also trying to decide if I was going to beg off going to the party.
Nothing against the Morgans. I love their company and their parties are always a pleasure. They have a natural gift for entertaining and always assemble a group of lively, intelligent, fun guests - present company somewhat excluded.
No doubt, it would be a wonderful party. The Morgans’ parties always are.
Why, then, my ambivalence? Well, it’s a personal thing. I’ve seen the Morgans probably a half-dozen times since I headed off to prison in disgrace on March 2, 2007. When I got out of prison 18 months ago, I was certain that, by now, I would be well on the way toward rebuilding my life. I naturally assumed that I’d find a writing position at a newspaper or magazine, that I’d be well on my way to rebuilding my life.
But it hasn’t turned out that way at all. I am still in pretty much the same situation I found myself in when I walked through the gates at Florence West prison on July 2, 2007. And I feel a sense of shame, a pervasive sense of failure, when I encounter old friends who are eager to know how I am doing.
My attitude was similar to that held by people who chose not to attend a class reunion. It’s not that they don’t want to see their old classmates; it’s more a matter of assuming that those classmates have gone on to achieve some manner of success while they themselves have not done much of anything worthwhile.
Scott called at 2 p.m.
“I’ll pick you up around 6:15,’’ he said.
“I’ll be ready,’’ I said.
The previous Morgan parties I have attended have usually been small, intimate affairs - eight to 10 guests - so I was surprised to see the street out front of their home near Queen Creek lined with cars.
There must have been 50 or more guests, and as many of half of them were my former colleagues at the Tribune. Some I had seen from time to time- Scott, Craig, Bob Romantic, all who worked directly with me when I was the sports editor at the Tribune.
Many others, I had not seen since my abrupt, awkward exit in 2007, people like Michael Grady, the gifted features writer; Jerry Brown, whose clever writing and dour personality I have always found endearing; Carrie White, another feature writer who escaped the Tribune well before the onset of the Tribune’s decline; and Amanda Young, the sweet, idealistic features writer who I viewed as sort of a surrogate daughter.
It was an delight to see them and my previous preoccupation with my sorry state seemed not to matter so very much.
After all, most of my old colleagues are in the same boat, I‘m just a little farther from the shore.
The Tribune is dying, there is little question about it. Earlier this month, the paper became a free publication. It now has limited home delivery and publishes a print edition just four days a week. It’s a disaster and it gives me no pleasure to say it.
Many of the Trib people at the party were let go when the paper converted to its truncated semi-daily product. When I left as sports editor, I had 18 full-time employees in my department. Now, there are five - Bob, who succeeded me as sports editor, Scott and three high school writers. That’s it.
Amanda Young is the features department.
As the evening progressed, I told someone it seemed as though everyone at the party had stepped into a Time Machine and had been transported back to the 1930s. The first words out of every guest’s mouth seemed to be, “Are you working?’’ or “What are you going to do?’’
Even the handful of Tribune people who are still employed find themselves uneasy about the future.
“I’ve discovered two things,’’ Amanda said. “I hate my job and I’m not good at it.’’
But Amanda is only half right. I have no doubt she hates her job. And, to me, that is tragic. I had never seen a young reporter who loved working at a newspaper more than Amanda. And now, she hates it and the experience has robbed her of both her passion and her self-confidence. That’s a shame.
Grady, whose talent I esteem above all others, was part of that group of recently fired employees. He’s trying to finish up his novel about the civil war while he looks around for work.
“The novel is longer than the actual war,’’ he said. “I’m using this time to try get some control over it and get it finished.’’
I suggested that he have the South win the war in his novel; it would be an unexpected twist on an old story. As a Southerner, I’d read it, for sure.
Craig is staying at home with his two young daughters, while Tara goes off to work each day. He is also trying to pursue a career as a free-lance writer. “It’s hard getting a business off the ground,’’ he confessed.
Most of the writers who have been displaced are hopeful that they can survive, maybe even flourish, as free-lance writers. If any succeed, it will be Craig, I suspect. He had the right make-up for it.
Another of my former sports employees (I’ll refrain from using his name so as not to appear insensitive), stood stoically in the center of the room, had little to say and disappeared without goodbyes.
“Where did he go?’’ someone asked.
“I don’t know,’’ another said. “He was here and then he wasn’t.’’
“How is he doing?’’ I asked Jerry.
“Not good,’’ he said. “You know, all of us have talked about how we loved what we did at the Tribune, that it was our passion. But for him, it really was everything. He worked his way up the ranks to the job that was all he ever wanted. And then, he was out the door. Of all the people who lost their jobs, he has taken it the hardest, I think.’’
Of all the people there, those who had lost their jobs and those who were certain they faced a similar plight in the not-too-distant future, no one seemed to have a firm footing.
That didn’t make me feel any better about my situation. But it didn’t make me feel any worse, either. And I found that I didn’t really have to put up a brave, confident front. I am worried. And these old colleagues understood. Many can sympathize; they can empathize. I can tell them how frustrated and fearful I am. They get it.
Among the group, there were no bold assertions of future success, only a stubborn sense of hope, buoyed by a unquenchable sense of humor.
It was after 11 p.m. when I left the party to go home. As we said our goodbyes, the hugs were longer, a little tighter, perhaps to convey feelings of support and sympathy that words seemed hard to capture, even for a bunch of people who made their careers out of words.
Tara locked her arm in mine as I stood in the driveway of her home and I think we both had trouble finding the words to say. I’ll see the Morgans again, of course, but somehow this was different.
The future is clouded. Prospects are uncertain. Desperate thoughts encroach on hope.
We wished each other well and encouraged each other. We laughed. We said goodbye and promised to do a better job of staying in touch.
It was a great party.
I’m glad I went.


J said...

Slim, I've had you & your plight on my mind alot. Have you ever thought of grant writing? Certainly will be the thing in this year with most money coming from government. Everyone's going to be looking for grant writers. Just a thought. Hope you don't mind my prying! :) Julie

gempix said...

I wish you well in your quest for meaningful work. You are a very good writer. Such talent should not go to waste.