Diary of My Former Excited-to-Enter-the-Work-Force Self

I found an old essay I wrote about being a lowly news assistant at the New York Times and want to share my dorkiness with you.

Sep 24, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

I was perusing my Hotmail account recently, looking for a copy of something from way back when I actually used Hotmail, and found an essay I totally forgot I wrote for the internal online community of The New York Times, called "Behind the Times" or something. I sent it to my then-boss, a guy named John, hoping he'd find it in his heart to sorta publish me and then someone like Maureen Dowd or Bill Keller would read it in between winning Pulitzers, think, "That girl's going places," and then I'd instantly become the next big thing. 

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This is me doing some light weight broadcast stuff back in the day.

Of course, none of that happened. I don't even think the essay got published. That is, until today. Like reading your old diary entries (if your mom didn't pack up your high school room and leave the boxes in a flimsy shed out back to get rotten and mildewed) this piece reminded me of how bright-eyed I once was about journalism and life in general. This was 2005. I had a shiny new master's degree and some ambition to burn. This was also before everyone and their mother took a buy-out and magazines took a swan dive:

"I just wanted to let you know, ma’am, that the New York Times is Al Qaeda’s favorite newspaper,” said the woman with the syrupy-thick southern accent that belies her severe critique of the Times, specifically those “Taliban-loving” stories coming out of the Washington bureau. 

I call her the Al Qaeda abominator and this is her third call this month, or maybe this week. 

There’s also crazy-cursing-man (no further explanation needed), the Texas man whose “atomic” clock reads 8:73pm and who wants two young female reporters sent to his house pronto, and, my personal favorite, “My own private Gitmo”-lady.  

The Washington bureau, home to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations into the National Security Agency’s beleaguered eavesdropping program, has no shortage of fans—or haters. We are either bin Laden-sympathizers or champions of the First Amendment. We’ve even had a mini-protest. As the night clerk my shift starts after 4 p.m., so I missed potentially meeting my southern charmer face-to-face, but I heard at least three die-hard haters showed. 

When I first started as a news assistant here last summer, Hurricane Katrina had just wrecked its havoc on the Gulf Coast, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s death was imminent, and Judith Miller was serving time for keeping mum on her confidential sources. Life in Washington was all but tedious and I was quickly thrown into the fray."

It's kinda cray that in nearly 7 years my writing style hasn't changed all that much. I still love a good ending rhyme and a decent pun. 

After the outgoing news assistant’s farewell toast, I was left at the desk—alone. Fear is underrated emotion. Being scared witless can be the catalyst for good work or at least I hope it was back then. For weeks my fingers were cramped into permanent air quotes as I asked question after question. What’s a “playback”, “live copy”, “file report” and “Times Past”?

Now I’m so fluent in journalese I could teach a class. The news assistant lexicon is crammed with exotic new verbs like nexis, Google and Babble-lize. Time stamps change too. Everyone knows the phrase “I’m pushing the button right now” coming out of any reporter’s mouth means you’ll see the story in 10 to 15 minutes. And a Friday is never a Friday. My Friday is Tuesday. The other night clerk’s is Sunday. 

I’m also skilled in the news assistant’s most secret weapon during crunch time—bladder control. 

The ONE time I ran to the bathroom when one of my bosses was in a meeting I got caught. 

When it’s 3:57 pm and Washington has five stories contending for A1 honors, taking a one-minute potty break is not an option. I thought past assistants were exaggerating when they wrote “DO NOT Leave Desk!” on our unofficial training Bible during the deadline hour, but they were right. Editors need stories in CCI instantaneously no matter that program’s finicky relationship with Babble, and reporter’s need to know why their stories weren’t “babbling” no matter how loudly nature is calling. 

I still can't remember what "Babble" is. I think it was our internal publishing tool or something. It's funny all the once-so-important bullshit we can forget in an instant.

In Washington where the question, “So, what do you do?,” comes less than two clicks after “hello,” it’s hard to explain a clerk’s life.   

I could say my job is all emptying coffee machines at 11pm, explaining how the “bold” button works in Microsoft Word, remembering where we keep the plastic forks and remaining one-third of the bureau’s foremost experts on FedEx.  

But there is so much more to it than that. In the spring I stood in the midst of thousands of immigrants shouting “Si Se Puede!” at the National Mall. I asked a Hungarian nun, who’d just come off a day-long bus ride from Milwaukee why she came. “There’s room for all of us,” she said.   

Just last week at the Pentagon observance on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I met Sheila Moody, a survivor who started work at the Pentagon as an accountant for Resource Services on September 10, 2001. 

On her first day of work she met Edward Rowenhorst, whose family was there last Monday. 

“We met on the 10th and he gave us a tour of the building,” said Ms. Moody of Mr. Rowenhorst. “I was able to meet his wife and his brother and his sister-in-law here. It was nice to share how kind he was to me.” 

In the end I want to be a journalist and having the opportunity to meet people like Ms. Moody and Sister Ann Catherine Veierstahler make a few (well perhaps more than a few) calls from fanatical readers all but disappear.    

Awww, isn't that special?

Instead of giving old assistant Helena a swift kick where her legs split, I wanna hug this little ball of excitement. The 25-year-old girl who'd be the first to volunteer (not groan) when an assignment came up that involved actually going outside. The girl who didn't know how hard a writer's life could be. That the laptop jockeys of the coffee shop weren't always the coolest kids in the room. Ah, hindsight.

None of this, obviously, is to say that I don't absolutely love the field I'm in or the work I do, translating my life for the zillion small screens sitting in people's laps. It's actually a necessary reminder of why I choose to do it. Unlike Viola Davis in those trailers for Dangerous Minds Ride Freedom to Lean On Me, I don't get to stand on my couch a shout, "Why do we do it if not for the kids?!" Alls I got is the kid that was me in fifth grade, who hand wrote an awesome 30-page novel that my mom put in a "fancy binder," and the 25-year-old me who was so ready to be a writer -- that's who I do it for. Oh, and y'all too.

Anyone else ever get a reminder of what they're fighting for from 9 to 5?