272 Earl Street

I'm going to a party in Kingston today. For a newspaper; or more specifically, for a newspaper culture, born of a newspaper house. Sadly, it's a wrecking ball party.

Along with my friend Greg, I was editor-in-chief of that newspaper for a year: May 2001-April 2002. Managing a staff of 30+ reporters, editors, photographers and business staff, along with hundreds of volunteers, was the most difficult thing I ever did.

Greg and I would often work 12-20 hours a day together in the Journal House on Earl Street. Most nights I'd go home to my third story apartment on King Street, wired or exhausted, feeling like the loneliest person in the world. Mostly I felt I had no control over my existence, because I was locked into this newspaper machine.

In September our computer network caught a virus, and our entire hard drive was wiped out - essentially vapourizing the Journal's computer archives. A couple weeks before that our web site URL had been stolen by internet pirates in Hong Kong. These were unfamiliar waters. Not to mention the constant accusations of racism, sexism, ageism, whatever-ism anytime we published a story someone disagreed with. We had many tense confrontations with the Human Rights Office - it became a running joke actually. These were the weeks directly following Sept 11, and folks in general were a bit hysterical.

I should stress that at no time as a newspaper editor did I consider myself a 'real journalist', though I had worked for a summer as a reporter for the city daily. I was just some guy, a comedian who had landed on an unfamiliar stage. I was surrounded by real newspaper types though. I was/am so proud of all of them. More than half a dozen of my co-editors are currently writing for major print publications - like Greg, who writes for the Globe. I knew they were going far, but I would wander still. I was some sort of vagabond/eccentric and not future reporter material, this much I already knew - but I put my head down, wrote, edited, managed, tried to act like a leader, and got every last drop out of the experience. It was the best year of my life, and it almost killed me.

By November it had become clear that our advertising dollars (90% of our revenue) had gone to shit. We were losing buckets of money. It was right after 9/11, and no big national advertisers were buying ads in university papers. We had long pissed off the student government with our stories about them, so they were less than sympathetic. To maintain our autonomy, we decided to cut our own salaries - by 25per cent. It was either cut costs, or risk being shut down by the finance board. Greg and I had to make the decision, to cut the salaries of the people who worked alongside us, 12-20 hours a day, who all but bled for the paper. We called a meeting and I tried to explain to my best friends why I was no longer able to pay them. Someone at the meeting made a comment and I broke down. People at the meeting started to cry. The next day when I woke up, I realized that I couldn't walk.

I was physically in tatters and emotionally annihilated. And still I was producing a 30-page newspaper twice a week. Looking back now it doesn't seem so serious, but the stress at the time was literally crippling. For three months I wobbled around campus on a cane. I was 23 years old and trying to graduate from university for the second time. I had a girlfriend living 1500 miles away.

I came home one night, looked out my window onto King Street and wrote 30 minutes of glorious horseshit without stopping to look at the screen:

I wish I could quit my day job, he said with a coffee breath and a tired smile. I miss the madness that made me mirthful. It’s been the longest while, this nine-month trial. You’ll be a new man soon, this builds character you see. For too long I have been sitting in such pain; when your guitar stops making music and there’s too much responsibility to bear. And your friends all wonder where you’ve gone, and when you reappear it’s like you’re no longer there. And the weather gets colder and you worry about the holes in your socks, and your mother phones and asks how you’re doing, but you can never tell her, tell her the truth that something somewhere along the way drove you mad. And all you have left to show the world you still have sanity intact is blazing intelligence, which most fear, and others ask no questions because they are afraid you may answer. And music is your only salvation, and the things that eat at you aren’t half as unsettling as the things you are eating for breakfast lunch and dinner, and no, man there is certainly not enough fibre in your diet. And the only solace you have is the book in your drawer which takes you to another planet and there it is that you are warm and surrounded by good things again, and what is it really that bothers you man? Is it the pain in your neck that reminds you that you are mortal? There is no really good metaphor in your head and you are drowning in abstractions like a centipede in a toilet bowl, so much good do your hundred flailing limbs do you. And what can one person do to fix the world? You may as well admit that you are feeble and that change may or may not come, but it certainly won’t be at your behest for it is fate that determines your course in life and any choice you thought you had control over, well the illusion of that crumbled along with so many others the day those giant flaming gas tanks flew into those towers. And now there are so many babies crying, so many more than yesterday, and they will grow up stunted and without any illusions which is the cruelest thing of all to have to face reality at such an early age. Or wait, maybe it is crueler still to have illusions to have them all your life and then one day they vanish and you wake up and even though there are hundreds suffering and even a few laughing along beside you, you still have to realize that you are alone, and it is then, and only then, and you rue this moment for it shatters your aura of invincibility, and it is this one thing: that you need God, but where is He? And you look for meaning in the events that you can’t believed even happened, and it is futile to try to explain so you do your best to hold on tightly to those around you, even though they can’t look into your head and see how deeply you need them. And someday I will understand what it is that one-year-olds giggle about. Until then I cry, so much older for my realizations, so much at a disadvantage for the more I understand, and I wish my brain would stop its wicked neurological consciousness as I seek to reclaim the spirit that possessed me as a young man who knew nothing. And so many changes overtake me and it is all I can do to try to relax, and we go out for beers you and I and you tell me about your ex-boyfriend and I could care less, but polite as we are we must nod and smile and pretend that we aren’t two solitudes and I don’t even speak the same language as most of my countrymen. And we discuss academics as though we were scholars but the moment we shut our books we already begin to forget, for all education is an attempt to stave off the decay, moral and intellectual that reverts the human in us to the animals that gave birth to our intelligence. And the price of intelligence is that one day our brains will stop ticking and our hearts will stop beating and our bodies will decompose and will go back to being mulch for future cornfields and other plants that future generations of doomed humans will eat to survive momentarily, but alas I digress, for what I meant is that the irony of intelligence and understanding is that we die. For to lack consciousness is to be immortal, for we never wake up one day, fresh from the womb, blessed with a starting point but altogether doomed to suffer through an end point. We crave immortality but it never will come now will it.


By February I could walk again. The paper stopped losing buckets of money (we ended up $28K in the red - much better than it could have been), and the staff got 40 per cent of their money back. I got to suck up to John Ralston Saul and lambaste Men with Brooms all in the same year.

I love Kingston. I miss the newspaper and my fellow Journalists. I wouldn't have quit that particular day job for the world. Now they're knocking down the Journal House, my 'JoHo'. The paper lives on in a new building, but I'll pay my respects to the House that - for one year - was the entire universe, and was mine.

1 comment:

The Mighty Kat said...

Condolences. I understand completely. I was a reporter at a weekly at that very time (the publisher was a crazy old coot who fired the whole newsroom the day after press day the following summer; but that's another story). There's no place like a newsroom and no people like newspaper newsies. The times can be so grueling and wringing, but inside the newsroom - the banter, the intelligent, witty, pun-loving newsies - that's what gets you through to the next press day and what you relish when you look back on it.

It's so sad they're tearing it down.

One thing stuck out to me in this post: under all that stress, when the last thing anyone in your shoes would've wanted to do was write when they got home, you wrote. You wrote a creative piece. If that doesn't say who you are, I don't know what does.