Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me. “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”
“Yeah,” I said.
A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.
“No,” the bus driver said.
Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place. In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems. How can you be a poet when you have no poems? So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.
It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday. “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.
So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”
Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.
It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life. Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph. I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”
The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position. Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all. Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within. Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.
The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.
I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.” My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now. But that’s what I was thinking.
As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt. Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously. Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care. I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.
If they live that long.
I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.
As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.
Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on. They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”
More so, I think.
My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook. I typed:
Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.
That was it. I hit “send.” I figured a dozen or so friends might reply. Sooo sorry Dude, let’s have beers, I’ll buy… But if you’re reading this, you maybe know what happened next. Hundreds of people responded to my post. Other people added their own Facebook posts, and people responded to them as well. I can’t count how many people joined conversations. A thousand? More? I don’t know how many people read those posts. The Rochester Fringe even posted a statement that began, “Yesterday, we were devastated to learn of the layoff of Jeff Spevak, a true champion for the arts…” As of Friday morning, 13,000 people had viewed it.
I don’t know what to make of it. A city’s arts community responding with outrage to the news that the daily newspaper had dismissed its single remaining arts reporter. People cancelling their subscriptions. Praising my writing as though I’m some kind of keyboard savant. I inspired people? Musicians valued my judgment? People, I used to be a sportswriter, for chrissakes! I haven’t been able to read most of these hundreds of comments yet. What I have read thus far – and I will read every word, even if it takes me into next week – has made me laugh out loud and cry. I love you all. The arts fighting back. My unemployment tragedy is social media genius.
It will all probably go away this weekend. I’m sure the Democrat and Chronicle hopes that is the case. But for now, I’m enjoying my obituary moment.
I’m already recovering some of me that has gone missing. You’re looking at a piece of it. I’d given up blogging for a while, telling myself I would resume when I finished the novel I was writing. The book took a lot longer than I expected. A half a year ago, I stopped getting up at 6 a.m. to crank out the words. I was wearing out. I staggered to the finish line a month or two ago.
But I love how it came out.
Now I have all kinds of time on my hands. No excuse to not blog. And now that I have your attention, unintentional as it may be, I hope you’ll follow The Critical Mass. Dammit, I’m gonna get something out of this. I promise The Critical Mass will maintain the high degree of irreverence that defined it in the past.
I’ve started writing another novel. I’m on chapter two already. It’s coming back to me!
It goes back to Paterson. The Japanese tourist, the William Carlos Williams fan, is so pleased with the conversation that he leaves the bus-driving poet a gift. It is a beautifully bound notebook. He flips through the pages. They are all blank. He must fill them. The bus-driving poet is a poet once again.