The Kid came home from a four day trip to Washington DC this morning. As a souvenir, she brought me back what she called a “gag gift;” a button that reads “Trust me…I’m a reporter.” The gift did the trick. It made me gag…
It takes a really bad job to be able to appreciate a really good one. And I’ve had my fair share of really bad ones.
I landed my very first job at the age of 15 at a now defunct local steakhouse. It was this job where I held the notable title of “Salad girl.” Every Friday and Saturday night, I was tasked with preparing fresh salads for local patrons. There I learned the variations of salad, from garden to Greek and from Caesar to chef. My job involved washing, cutting, and preparing various vegetables and placing them in a pseudo-salad assembly line then constructing salads for more than 5 hours each night. I always dreaded the Caesar salad order because that meant I had to go to the cooler and fetch the stainless steel container where the anchovies were stored –floating in stinky grey fish water. Sometimes I forgot the anchovies on purpose and most of the time I justified my intentional forgetfulness by convincing myself that the patron who ordered the Caesar simply forgot to ask for no anchovies. Who in the hell would want that shit on their salad in the first place? I reality, I was doing our customers a favor.
I also worked at a local shoe store once. It wasn’t one of those upscale; fancy shoe places that don’t carry any size over an 8. Instead, it was the type of store where they hide the second shoe in the back storeroom so if you steal you only get away with one shoe. One of my tasks for this shit-hole of a job was to “style” shoes; a task I never quite got the hang of. Shoes had to be arranged by size, style, and color. I always found a way to completely fuck this up. I never knew if the sandals went before the sling backs or if brown came before black. Then there was the cash register which even members of Mensa would have had a difficult time learning to operate. “Press F2 for a cash sale and F8 if it’s credit, F4 for athletic shoes and F9 for handbags and other accessories. If the customer plans to write a check, press F2 then F7 then F5, but not before you type 421874629811097366302757 into the check verification machine.” Holy hell! You have to be shitting me? I avoided the cash register like the plague. I only lasted for about 3 weeks, too.
Then there was the worst job ever.
I had gone back to school and was looking for something with a little flexibility that would accommodate both my school schedule and me being a single mother. I had always enjoyed writing so I was stoked when I ran across an ad for a news reporter for a local news website. The website was still in the start-up stages which I liked. I could help shape and mold what could become a pretty valuable service to the local community.
Now, I wasn’t a journalist by any means. I hadn’t been to J-school and had never even heard of AP style. I was also a self-proclaimed comma sprinkler; the kind of writer who writes a paragraph then goes back and sprinkles that paragraph with commas where they might need to be (I’m still a comma sprinkler). I didn’t know the difference between feature writing and hard news and while I grew up in the town where I would be working as a reporter, I didn’t have the type of well-developed relationships with the community that a news reporter needs to have to get the job done. My boss didn’t have any journalism experience either, so if I was going to learn I was going to have to teach myself.
I spent a great deal of time studying the writing styles of reporters from our local newspaper. I paid close attention to headlines and ledes, and to how the writers ordered their information. I also looked for where they placed their commas. I ordered several journalism books from Amazon: the Associated Press Stylebook, The Idiots Guide to Feature Writing, a random grammar book. When my new boss saw these books sitting on my desk one afternoon he told me I need not worry about my style of writing. “We are a different type of news,” he said. “We don’t want to be like the other guys.” It was that moment that I knew this was going to be the worst job ever.
Before I began working for the news site there were many naysayers, perhaps old newspaper men who hated to see print news trend toward the digital realm. Not that the site had not given the naysayers plenty of reasons to criticize, however. During the site’s genesis, there were plenty of shit stories, really bad grammar, and articles written to look like articles even though they were advertisements for sponsors of the site. All I really wanted was to bring real news to the site. I wanted to create a sense of credibility and legitimacy to the news I was putting out there. After all, my name was going to be attached to those stories. And although I made plenty of mistakes, I tried. I tried very, very hard. My boss, however, consistently got in the way.
When I wanted to write feature articles on the defunct mill sites around town and the EPA requirements for getting them cleaned up, my boss wanted articles written on the local tire dealer who recently purchased an ad on the site. When I wanted to write about the inner workings of our county’s government, my boss wanted an article on his daughter who won another beauty pageant. He wanted articles on how Nickelodeon’s line-up was far too mature for children after 9pm and an article on why there was an ice cream truck circling the mill village during the month of December. He wanted articles on his father, who was running for a school board seat in a neighboring town, and articles on that town’s choice to build a new school when he personally believed the old schools were salvageable.
Occasionally he would write stories of his own. Once he spent weeks writing something about how website commenters should be made by website moderators to use their real names. That story was his way of justifying his refusal to allow critical comments about the site on the site. Believe me, there were plenty. Then there was the time he wrote a story about his friend who’d been in a physical altercation one weekend. He wrote the story because he wanted to expose the man with whom his friend had been in a fight. He asked me to read over his hand-written story before he typed it and I shit you not, this was one of the sentences:
“The victim took holt of the man’s shirt and swung him around till he fell on the ground.”
I thought I would choke. Was I going to have to tell him “holt” isn’t even a word? What about “till?” “How did this happen,” I thought? “How in the hell did I ever get mixed up with this guy, with this fly-by-night company?”
The website wasn’t about news. It wasn’t about creating a source for the community to get their news in a fast or factual manner. It wasn’t even about being fair in the reporting of news. The site was about my boss’ personal agenda. It was just another one of his get rich quick ideas and he just happened to use it to settle personal scores and to air his personal vendettas.
My boss’ antics completely under minded each time I got out of the bed at 2 A.M. to cover a house fire or murder suicide. His self-serving conducts diluted every car accident death I ever wrote about and every hour I spent writing 2000 word articles during government budget seasons. My boss was a joke. The site was a joke. My job was a joke. But I did it because I was a single mother who needed a job, even a joke of a job, very badly.
As many bad experiences as I had as a reporter, there were many good. During my time trying to report news I had the opportunity to experience things I never would have if not for my job. I had the opportunity to do ride-alongs with local drug enforcement teams on warrant roundups. I got to take part in a DUI training course for law enforcement officers where I was the one under the influence (literally, they got me wasted) and officers used me to practice administering field sobriety tests (don’t drink and drive). I’ve met presidential candidates, NASCAR drivers, and everyday heroes. I’ve sat among the bravest of souls, from firefighters to cancer patients. I’ve watched parents find out their children are dead and children mourn the loss of their parents. I’ve shaken hands with both honest men and liars and I’ve been fooled by the corrupt. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of children, war veterans, motorcycle gangs, Senators, the dying, criminals, and the innocent man who stands accused. I made new friends and I learned to respect a business, that when done right, is as admirable as a newspaper man’s days are long.
So, thank you, to my horrible, horrible boss for giving me these opportunities. Thank you for teaching me that a man’s honor lies in what of himself he is willing to sacrifice for the good of others. Thank you for teaching me what news is not, so that I can appreciate what it is. Thank you for showing me that there is no such things as getting rich quick. And thank you for helping me realize that my job as a salad girl wasn’t that bad after all.