April 11, 2004

It's Time

He sat with his elbows on the bar and his head in his hands, staring down into the amber Johnnie Walker Black in his glass. The bar was a dark little hole two blocks down the street from the paper. At night there were usually a few reporters and editors hanging around. When the place opened in the morning the pressmen were there, fresh off the night shift. Jake sat at the bar trying to block out the annoyingly overenthusiastic voice of Dick Vitale who was calling the Illinois – Michigan State game that blared from the TV above the bar.
The bartender was a stout man in his early fifties with a full head of bushy gray hair. He took control of the place about five years prior when the original owner, his uncle, died. He stood at the other end of the bar, wiping the same spot over and over again, trying to appear busy. There was no one in the place but Jake, who couldn’t understand why the bartender felt it necessary to pretend like had something to do. As he cleaned the bar, he looked back over his right shoulder at the TV and muttered under his breath every time the Illini turned the ball over or committed a stupid foul.
On the floor next to Jake’s stool was a cardboard box the kind copy machine paper comes in. It contained an old, dog-eared copy of the AP style manual, countless notebooks and legal pads, a small tape recorder, and a picture frame. The frame was the kind with two hinges that holds three wallet-sized photographs. On the left side was his daughter’s high school senior portrait and on the right his son’s. The middle of the frame was now empty. Years ago his wedding photo occupied the space but he tore it up and threw it out the day his wife called him at the office to tell him she was leaving.
Jake wished he smoked. He wished he could sit there drinking his scotch and smoking a cigarette like those hardnosed investigative reporters in the old black and white noir films. Like Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In all honesty, he hated smoke: the way it smelled and the way it made him cough non-stop when people around him smoked. But today it would have made him feel better.
He downed the last sip of scotch, wincing as it went down, and set the glass down on the bar with a slam that startled him. It caught the bartender’s attention and he turned away from the game and came over to where Jake was sitting. He dropped the rag on the bar and grabbed the empty glass with the other hand.
“One more?” he asked.
“No, thanks, Rick.” He pulled ten dollar out of his pocket and laid it down on the bar. We wanted to get out of there before the other guys from the paper started showing up for their nightly round. Picking up the boy that held the contents of his desk, he walked out the door, pushing it open with his back.
A cool breeze greeted him as he walked out into the twilight. The sky was a blend of pink and purple that reminded him of something out of a Van Gogh. Normally he would have enjoyed his walk to the train on an evening like this. It was unseasonably warm for the first week of March. He felt like everyone was staring at him as he carried his box down the sidewalk. Even the homeless guy on the corner begging for change with a Styrofoam cup felt pity for this loser who was carrying around everything that had accumulated in his desk over the last twenty-five years, he thought. He kept his eyes focused down on the box as he walked, not wanting anyone to see the shame he was sure was radiating from them.
He walked into the train station and past all the people who were rushing home with their brief cases, minds racing about what they had to get done for work the next day. At least he didn’t have to worry about that he thought to himself in a failed attempt to try to remain positive about the situation. He set the box down on the ticket counter and pulled out the five dollars that was left in his wallet.
“Elmhurst, please,” he said to the little, white-haired woman working behind the glass. She took the money, punched his ticket, and passed it to him through the slot at the bottom of the window. Looking at the box, she smiled sympathetically.
“You’ll get through it. Don’t worry. We’ve all been through tough times,” she said, trying to be comforting. He mumbled a response and walk through the revolving door and out onto the platform. Boarding the train, he found two empty seats in the first car. He sat next to the window and placed the box on the seat next to him. He placed his ticket in the clip on his set and sat staring out the window, through his reflection at the city as it rolled by. Jake tried to recall exactly how many times he’d ridden this train. Twice a day, five or six days a week, about fifty weeks a year for the last twenty-five years. What bothered him more was that he couldn’t remember what the face that stared back at him from the train’s window looked like back then. Thinner, more hair, and more brightness in the eyes he guessed, but he couldn’t be sure.
At the first stop, a man got on and stopped right next to the Jake’s seat. Jake looked up at him and waited for him to move further along the train to find an open seat. He realized the man wasn’t going to go any further, so he picked up his box of failure and set it in his lap. The man, probably about thirty-five years old with thinning blond hair and black, thick framed glasses, sat down next to him and glanced at him several times before speaking.
“You’re Jacob Jones, right?” he asked with a mixture of surprise and recognition his voice.
Jake glanced down at the box and then looked at the man who was seated next to him. “Yes,” he replied with hesitation, “yes, I am.”
“I love your column!” the man proclaimed as if he’d just met a celebrity. “I read it every day. It really let’s you see into the lives of the ordinary people around you. I never realized there were so many interesting people the world till I started reading it.”
“Well, thank you,” Jake replied, embarrassed by the man’s enthusiasm.
“I loved that piece you did last week about the little old woman that runs the bingo night down at St. Pat’s. What a sweet lady,” he said.
“Thanks. I really enjoyed doing that one.” He wished this guy had been at the paper that afternoon.

Jake sat at his desk in the office he’d been given ten years ago when he was assigned a daily column. He was working on a piece about a deli down on Pulaski that was a centerpiece of the Polish community in the city and the suburbs. The same family had run it since they arrived here in the twenties. It was now in the hands of the third generation and it was still known to have the best kielbasa, kapusta, and pierogi you could find.
He was sifting through his notes and playing back a portion of the interview he’d done with the owner’s son, who was seventeen and stood to inherit the business when his father retired.
“My family just cares a lot about this community,” said the voice of the young man through the speaker on the tape recorder. “My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather; they always watched out for their friends and neighbors. When people would come here from Poland with no job and no money, they gave them work…”
Jake stopped the tape when he heard a knock at the door. He lifted his keyboard off his lap and set it on the desk. When he opened the door George, the editor, and the business manager walked into the office. George was a large man who looked like he was probably the middle linebacker of his high school football team. He worked at the paper for three or four years longer than Jake. The business manager was a smug young guy who got the job two years ago, right after he got his MBA. He had no experience working with newspapers and it showed.
“Jake, could you have a seat please,” George asked.
“I’m kind of busy right now, George, can you come back later?” he asked. “I’ve got to have this column in by five.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” the business manager remarked.
“Randy, please,” George interrupted.
“George, what’s going on here?” Jake demanded.
George sighed and walked over to Jake’s desk, sitting on the corner. Randy, the smug business manager stood at the door with his arms folded across his chest. “We’re cutting your column, Jake.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I’ve been writing this column for ten years. I’ve worked here almost as long as you have.”
“Look, it’s nothing against you or your writing, Jake” George replied, trying to calm him down. “We have to make some cuts. The paper’s just to big and we don’t have enough readers to sell all the ad space anymore.”
Jake sprang up from his chair and began pacing frantically behind his desk. He loosened his tie and pushed up his sleeves. “I just don’t understand why you’re cutting my column. There are a million other things in this paper you could toss and no one would miss.”
At this point, Randy decided to contribute to the conversation. “Our research shows that the Lifestyles section has the lowest readership out of all the paper’s sections. There are things people expect to see there. We can’t cut Dear Abby or Ann Landers or the comics or the horoscopes or the crossword puzzle because people wouldn’t buy the paper if it didn’t have that stuff,” he explained with an air of condescension. “Your little fluff pieces about Boy Scouts and soup kitchen volunteers might make a few readers feel warm and fuzzy, but they won’t cancel their subscriptions if it’s not there any more.”
“Listen you little business school punk, you don’t know the first thing about newspapers, so why don’t you shut the hell up?” Jake moved quickly toward the door as he said this and Randy backed up till he was almost in the hallway. George jumped up from the corner of the desk and put an arm in front of Jake to stop him.
“Look, Jake,” he said, “we’re not firing you. We just don’t have room for your column anymore. I’m sorry but it’s just not cost effective. We want you to stay though, Jake. You’ve been here twenty-five years. There’s a job for you in the newsroom if you want it.”
Jake turned his glare away from Randy and looked at George, trying to hide his shame. “I’ve worked for this paper for twenty-five years, George. I worked my way up through the ranks of beat reporters till I was finally given a column, after fifteen years. My wife divorced me because this job occupied my whole life. And now you want me to go back to being a newsroom reporter with all those kids fresh out of college?”
Randy stepped fully back into the room. “Jake, come one, listen to the man. He could bounce right out on the street. Take the job, man.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” and with that Jake pushed passed George’s still outstretched arm and punch Randy right in the nose. Blood dripped onto this blue silk tie and he ran out of the room.
George exploded, “What the hell are you thinking, Jake?”
“I’m not taking your demotion. I’ll go somewhere else and find someone who appreciates what I do.”
“Fine, if that’s the way you want it. Have your desk cleared out by three. Security will be here to escort you from the building,” George instructed. He walked out of the room and slammed the door shut behind him.
Jake collapsed into his chair and sat staring at his in disbelief for what felt like an hour. When he could finally will himself to move, he went down to the copy room and got himself an empty box. He began emptying his desk drawers into the box. There were piles of notebooks and legal pads, the notes and interviews and first drafts from almost every column he’d written in the last ten years. He took a disk out of his top left drawer and saved all the files off the computer that he wanted to keep. When had he just finished packing his box, there was a knock at the door.
“Mr. Jones, it’s time,” said the voice on the other side of the door.
Jake carried his box to the door and cradled it in his left arm as he opened the door with his right. Two security guards, young men in their mid-twenties, stood waiting outside. He avoided making eye contact with them. As the escorted him out of the building, walking on either side of him like guards on a prisoner transfer, he felt the eyes of everyone he passed burning into him. They walked him out the front door and stood at the entrance as he walked away from the building.

“So, what’s the next column going to be about? Or do you like to keep your readers in suspense?” asked the eager man sitting beside him on the train.
“Well, I’m afraid they’ll be in suspense forever,” Jake remarked.
“What do you mean?”
“The column won’t be running anymore. They cut it,” lowering his eyes toward the box in his lap.
“Are you serious? I know a lot of people that will be really upset to hear that.”
“I wish the paper knew those people,” he said with an insincere chuckle.
“How could they do that to you? You’ve had that column as long as I can remember. Man, I don’t know what I’m going to do while I drink my coffee and eat my bagel in the morning.”
“Try reading Ann Landers or doing the crossword puzzle,” he replied.
The train came to a halt and the man stood up. “Well, this is my stop. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Jones. I’ll look for your name in the other papers.”
“Thanks.” The man walked down the car and turned left at the door to get off the train. Jake moved the box to the seat next to him again. For the first time he thought about what he was going to do next. He’d been working on a novel for years, but he never wanted to be the kind of journalist who really wants to be a novelist. Now that he was out of a job, he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be the kind of unemployed guy who was working on a novel. He wasn’t sure what to tell his kids but he was sure his ex-wife would find some pleasure in his failure.

Posted by dpetrella at April 11, 2004 10:24 PM
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