In my 20th year, I did something that will make young writer-hopefuls all over the world – along with the older writer I have become – want to kick me.
I was given a chance to spend the summer working at a hip alternative newspaper, and I threw it away. Twenty years down the road, I know I squandered a golden opportunity. But not in the way you might expect.
The paper was one of the “it reads” in our college community, full of music reviews, interviews with local bands, scathing editorials and social commentary. When they advertised for a summer intern, I jumped at the chance, as did a ton of other students who worked with me at our campus newspaper. When I got the call saying I had the job, I squealed and bounced around our makeshift newsroom like an Energizer Bunny on crack, basking in the congrats and the envy of my friends.
I envisioned myself tagging along behind reporters as they interviewed local artists, writers and bands. I saw myself attending meetings with reporters and editors, soaking in their knowledge, wit and pithy writing style like a sponge Sure, I knew I’d probably also have to fetch coffee and maybe write classifieds and obituaries, but I was more than up for that.
I showed up for my first day at the office, dressed in my most professional skirt and summer shirt. Hell, I even wore hose, because back then they were still part of the dreaded “professional dress code.” I strutted in carrying a briefcase I’d gotten at a thrift store, doing my damndest to look older and worldlier than my 20 years. Hard to imagine trying to look OLDER now.
I was given a brief tour of the building, including the hub of tables and cubicles where the writers and editors worked their magic. Then I was taken into another room. There, the desks were polished wood instead of scratched metal, and the lighting was soft lamplight. I was shown to “my” desk, and thought I’d hit the jackpot. Damn, I was so good I was being given space in this quiet little haven instead of being stuffed into some corner in the hot and noisy hub outside.
When we are young, we are oh-so-special in our own minds. As I set up “my desk,” I honestly believed I was there because the editors had liked the clips I’d sent with my internship application so much that they were giving me some kind of princess treatment.
Then in came my new boss.
I forget his name. He was ancient to me then, but probably younger than I am now. He wore a wrinkled white shirt and no tie, and sat at the desk beside mine. It was early, but his sweat was already leaking through his white-collar getup. He didn’t have the energized, inspired look I expected someone who worked at an alternative paper to wear like a second skin. Instead, he looked harried, annoyed and just a bit hungover.
He explained that this was the “business office,” and he was the manager. His role was to sell advertisements and classifieds. He had a part-time assistant who did the books, but even so it wasn’t enough. He was so busy selling ad space that he didn’t have time to chase down those advertisers who hadn’t paid up. That would be the job of Guess Who, at least for the next 3 months.
As I listened, I felt my hopes start to crumble. I would not be spending my summer editing copy, tagging along behind writers like an eager puppy, or even writing obituaries. I’d be sitting here in this air-conditioned office at this admittedly nice desk, making collections calls.
Youth is also hopeful. I swallowed my disappointment and my pride. Maybe if I aced this and got the overdue money rolling in, they’d give me a shot at writing something. I’d get to know the reporters in the breakroom, and they’d invite me out for drinks after work. Steeling myself with these daydreams, I put a brave smile on my face as he handed me the list of unpaid accounts.
A lot of local bars, restaurants, quirky shops and artistic outlets advertised in the paper. So did a boatload of porn shops, strip clubs and phone sex hotlines.
Guess which ones dominated the “overdue” list?
In the blink of an eye, I went from rising journalistic star to a shaky-voiced worker bee with an ancient, grumbling computer and a telephone. The boss listened as I made my first call to an X-rated video store. When I was done, he looked at me like I was a bug that had crawled into the office – one about to be squished under a shoe.
“They’ll eat you for lunch if you sound like that. You come off as a scared little girl. Take deep breaths and keep your voice firm. Don’t get shaken up.”
Damn, and that had been my response when talking to a machine. Imagine what a real person would do to me.
He left then. Maybe he went off in search of new accounts. Maybe he went to the corner bar or to sit in one of those strip clubs that hadn’t paid up. I’ll never know.
I tried, I really did. As that morning droned on, I left countless squeaky, shaky voice messages. Every now and then, I got a live body on the line. That’s when it really got interesting.
A woman at one of the phone sex companies told me she’d relay my message about the paper’s bill to “the boss,” and then said “I had the voice for her line of work and if I wanted to make some REAL money, I should come work for them.” Guess there’s something sexy about a squeaky-voiced wannabe journalist who sounds like she’s about to piss herself.
A guy at a strip club said that if my body was halfway as decent as my voice, they might be able to hook me up as a fill-in stripper. That was after he told me the paper could go F*** itself as far as the bill went, since as best he could tell the ad hadn’t generated any new business.
A woman at a porn shop who had a voice that sounded like the Marlboro man and his horse were sitting on her tonsils and both chain-smoking called me the C-word I reserve for people who really, really, REALLY piss me off.
A guy who ran a sex toy shop joked that business was bad and money was tight, but if I wanted he’d send me a free dildo.
Those were the interesting responses. Most just hung up on me as soon as I told them where I was calling from.
Noon rolled around, and there was still no sign of the boss. I found a post-it pad and left a note that I was going to lunch on his computer. That was all I intended to do.
When I got outside, sunlight and summertime greeted me like old friends. Instead of ducking into a carry-out or fast-food joint for some lunch, I sat for a while and watched happy tourists milling about my city. Then I started walking, with no particular destination in mind. It wasn’t until I found myself at the bus stop that I realized I was going home.
On the way, I passed a porn shop. There was a haggard old woman on the front steps, smoking a cigarette and watching the world with bulging, froglike eyes. I wondered if she was the one who had called me the C-word, and kept walking.
When I got home, I took a long, hot shower.
I’m sure a burned a bridge that day. I didn’t even resign in person – I sent a letter. I’m guessing that after I went to lunch and never came back, they wouldn’t have wanted me anyway.
I spent that 20th summer jobless. It was the first one I’d had free since I was 16, and the last one I’ll probably ever have until I hit retirement age.
That part I don’t regret at all. When we grow up and wear our adult responsibilities like too-tight jeans even in the searing heat of August, memories of our younger carefree summer days are like cool drinks of water.
But I do regret throwing away what that summer might have done for my writing. Sure, there was the off-chance I’d get to actually do some writerly work or at least network with and observe the professionals. But that’s not what I mean. By the time I’d finished college, I had decided journalism wasn’t for me, that if I did write for a living I wanted it to be as a fiction writer, not a reporter.
No, what I regret is the stories I let slip away. How many characters could I have collected if I’d spent the summer on that dreaded phone? Hell, it may have made a memoir in and of itself.
My 20-year-old writer self was young and scared and skeezed out by a morning of talking to strip club managers, porn shop owners and phone sex hotline operators. My thicker-skinned and more inquisitive 40-year old self would have been scribbling story notes with one hand while she cradled the phone with the other. Live and learn.
That’s not to say I’m interested in a job if you’re looking for a collections agent … just in case you were wondering.