Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summery Judgment

I had some goofy summer jobs as a kid -- lugging stereo equipment, delivering repaired sportscars, waiting tables (most famous customer: Richard Simmons). But then came the internship at the Winston-Salem Journal before my senior year of college.  When I scanned this photo I took of myself back then, I discovered that my eyes were closed.

Which strikes me as funny. Because sometimes when you're experiencing a "perfect summer" and the job that changes your hobby to your profession, your eyes aren't open to it till later.

The job itself was  a fluke. Though many people on my college paper
were so pre-professional they barely left the offices  to attend classes, my participation was limited to writing movie and record reviews -- what an undergraduate does when full of opinions and seeking free product and screenings.

So when I applied for a dozen city paper internships, I was rejected from 11. The only place that took me was the Journal, and I think they only took me as a lark to teach a "yankee" a lesson. (The other three interns were all from UNC Chapel Hill J-school).

I had only applied for the job because my then-girlfriend went to Duke. By the time I arrived in town with my first car -- a used Honda my dad had sprung for -- she had broken up with me, and I didn't know a soul within 500 miles.

But I lucked into great housing on a 100-acre farm outside of town, with an acquaintance's family whose patriarch had recently relocated them from Long Island to become the staff doctor for RJ Reynolds. So I could work in tobacco country during the day, then retreat to my yankee haven, replete with swimming pool, fresh corn, hay rides, cows, stepparents and their rotation of seven (!) adoptive siblings.

While my fellow interns were given "real" jobs covering police blotter and local politics, I was relegated to the "Women's Pages" which meant "soft" news. It was a blessing, because I had no interest in council meetings and such, and I was able to learn my craft with the mentorship of a tireless reporter, Janice Gaston, and a great editor, Nell Perry, who tolerated my outsider's story ideas -- "Ten percent of North Carolinans live in trailer parks?" "People watch stock car racing?" "A guy up my street made a mechanical waving man out of wood!"

After graduating, through Nell, I was considered for a reporting job at the Raleigh News. I flew in for an interview and did a tryout story on people who rode the bus. (I was reminded how futile this was on a recent "This American Life" podcast when a reporter traversed the country by bus and couldn't get a single usable story from his fellow passengers.)

I tapdanced as best I could, and was offered the job -- at $15,000. I turned it down.

My parents thought I was crazy. They had connected me with Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow's famed producer then at the Columbia J-school, whose wife had been my brother's fourth grade teacher. He advised me that to be a real journalist I needed to go to someplace like Cincinnati, work five years, then move up to a bigger market, eventually getting to New York. I didn't have the patience. Instead I lived with my parents for a year, temped and freelanced my way into magazines, and stayed in New York.

But there was something magical and unrepeatable about that summer experience, the combination of unformed hunger, romantic despair, a home away from home, and hitting upon something I could do well. When you're a student (or an academic), the summer looms as a wide open horizon. For most of the rest of the world, you try to pull together a few weeks here or there and maximize weekends. That summer, work, play, and adventure were all one big package. With all the corn I could eat.

Because of TV writing, my recent summers have been either nonexistent -- TV jobs begin Memorial Day, and work through till Thanksgiving and Christmas -- or cobbled together. (When you don't land a job, you don't know you have a summer till it's already Memorial Day -- and then the line between vacation and unemployment is uneasily blurry.) But in my mind I'm going to Carolina.

1 comment:

jeff said...

Fred's other rule at the j-school was if you were a woman and sat in the front row wearing a short skirt he might help you realize your potential.

I once had a job as an ice cream man, lasted four days. Taught me a great lesson that capitalism wasn't in my future. I also worked for a while as a groundskeeper at a mafia-owned golf club (whitey ford used to play there) where they used to tell us about who we'd see on the course, "You better be quiet or you'll be under the the Motor Parkway."