Saturday, April 08, 2006

Blogging for Books: "Fly on the wall"

It's once again time for Blogging for Books. Head on over to Faster Than Kudzu to learn more and participate. This week's theme is "fly on the wall."

I was, for a brief period, a staff writer for a local community newspaper. The office was arranged so that the advertising and graphics folks worked downstairs on the main floor, while the lowly editorial staff (all four of us) shared a dark space upstairs with a single, low window. It was supposed to be a storage space, and there were wires hanging everywhere and bars on the window. In other words, it was a fire trap.

It made me a bit nervous, this space, although it also played into my tendency toward shyness, so even when everyone else was downstairs, I frequently found myself alone upstairs. Since my workload was minimal, I had a lot of thumb-twiddling time, and I would often sit unseen in the shadows at the top of the narrow stairs, listening and watching the people in the well-lit spaces below.

Many of the employees had worked in the office for more than a decade, and to say that inhibitions were low would be an understatement. Just one example: I once caught the art director, Pete, flossing his teeth and flinging tartar at his assistant while his assistant brushed flakes of sunburnt skin back at Pete. And this with the executive editor and publisher in the room.

Despite persistent flashbacks to junior high, between writing hard-hitting articles on grunion runs and Jiffy Lube openings, I remained a fly on the wall, watching and listening. Increasingly, I focused on Pete, the floss guy. This surprised me, as when I was being introduced around the office on my first day of work, Pete made some quip about the outfit I was wearing--an ensemble I had obsessed over and remained nervous about, as I had no idea how a community reporter was supposed to dress--and I remember thinking to myself, "Stay away from that guy."

Still, in spite of my reservations about him, I kept my eye on Pete. I discovered he was an expert multitasker, laying out the newspaper and dealing with ad reps while screening the phone messages for the singles ads. See, in addition to being the art director, Pete was the paper's telepimp, meaning he had to listen to the phone messages left by people who had taken out singles ads. In order for the newspaper to make money off the ads--the ads' readers called to listen to the messages at an exorbitant per-minute rate--the singles weren't allowed to leave any kind of contact information that would circumvent the singles ad system.

Of course, Pete being Pete, he screened these ads on speakerphone. As a card-carrying Good Girl, it would never have occurred to me to meet someone through a newspaper, but I took some voyeuristic delight in listening to the recordings:

Voice of a white woman in her late 30s or early 40s. Her nervousness is apparent: We are a very clean couple looking for someone for. . .some. . .fun. . .

Deep voice of a man: First off, you should know that I am an older gentleman and have a very hairy chest. Gray hair. Lots of it. Some ladies aren't into that. . .

And so on. Nothing too obscene or explicit, but the range of voices was fascinating and funny and sad. Pete didn't seem to notice as he plugged along on the fictitious business name statements that followed the singles ads.

Pete, it turned out, was a 37-year-old guy with barely a high-school education. He volunteered the fact that he'd been sober for almost a year and that, when his best friend offered him a handful of mysterious pills on his birthday, he turned them down. This was a source of pride for Pete, though I suspect there were days that he returned from lunch a wee bit stoned. I'd never worked with a guy who admitted so easily to being a stoner, and I certainly never pictured sheltered, newly Master's-degreed, 23-year-old me working alongside an addict whose roots stretched to a trailer park in Tucson.

But Pete was brilliant. He told me he had applied for a writing job at the paper 11 years previously. Since his background was in design, the publisher asked Pete if he'd be interested in helping with that aspect of the paper instead. Unfortunately, Pete had zero computer experience, and the job required him to use an early Macintosh and page layout software. Pete volunteered to work for a week without pay as an extended interview for the position. At the end of that week, Pete had not only taught himself to use a mouse and the Mac OS, but he had produced a newspaper.

Meanwhile, I was having trouble getting my cub reporter feet under me. As the lowest writer on the newspaper's totem pole, I was stuck translating press releases into calendar items. Was it date first, then time, or time then date? Argh. I had to write it on a sticky note.

Honestly, I was distracted. While upstairs was a safe haven, downstairs was much more lively and attractive and fresh (literally--I worked in an unventilated space with a chain smoker who, although he took his smoke breaks outside, was, as far as I was concerned, a walking asthma attack because of the stench of his clothes).

Compared to the calendar and the filler pieces I wrote,
next to to the innumerable articles I had to write talking up Long Beach's annual craptastic pollute-a-thon,
in the light of city council news that, in the four generations my family had lived in the city, never got any less stupid,
downstairs, where everyday life took place, events that no one had to market or lobby for, was suddenly where I, professional wallflower, wanted to be.

But I was shy. So I eavesdropped, crept lower and lower on the stairs, let my feet dangle into the light of downstairs so that someone would notice and call me to account.

That person was Pete. Soon--perhaps due to his behind-the-scenes wrangling--I was assigned to show up early twice a week to serve as paste-up monkey (yes, in a digital age, we still did paste-up). We chatted a lot about all kinds of stuff before everyone else showed up for work. Slowly, carefully, Pete transformed me from fly on the wall into Funny Girl Who Worked Upstairs and Graced Us with Her Presence Quite a Bit.

What could I do? A few years, two grad programs, and a handful of short-term jobs later I married the guy with the floss. And I've noticed that he, too, can be tempted to linger in the margins, to be a fly on the wall, and so sometimes, when I'm very lucky, it's my turn to pull him into the light.


Queen of West Procrastination said...

Seriously, Trillwing, this is beautifully written. I love how you take the reader through your changing impressions of Pete, through your changing relationship with the newspaper office. I especially loved the images of you sitting on the stairs (I have done that so many times).

M said...

Grunion runs!! It's been so long!!!

Gorgeously composed.

Tracy Million Simmons said...

I really enjoyed this entry.

Phantom Scribbler said...

This is lovely.

susan said...

I love so many things about this, including the fact that I'd never thought about the work that goes into getting those personal ads into the paper. And of course, the way you develop Pete through the post.

But what is a grunion run?

Leslie M-B said...

Grunion are little fish that swim up out of the water to mate on the sand. They do so for several weeks each year, and some folks like to scoop up the fish after they're done mating and take them home for dinner. My thoughts: Ick on the dinner. But some people consider it romantic to get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the grunion "run."

fin said...

Very cool