I DISMANTLE my part of the "office" in our home and move desk top, filing cabinets, lamp, stationery, files and miscellaneous accoutrements into the living room. This will be the first time in our 32 years of marriage that I have not had something that served as a desk at home.
Heretofore, over three decades of writing and related efforts for various employers, paychecks arrived in a rhythmic progression, like waves to the seashore. No more. In what will surely become known as the Great RIF of '79, the National Trust for Historic Preservation eliminated my job as director of the media services division and quite a few others.
I am preparing to move these things to the first office I have ever taken on my own. It is now an empty third-floor room in Wise's Tavern, a handsome 1780s structure in Old Town Alexandria that has been adapted to house offices and shops.
My wife and I pick our way through the jumble in the living room and sit down.
"You are going to focus entirely on your office now," she says.
I am upset by these actions today. Somehow the opening of a business bank account, signing a year's lease for the office and arranging for a business telephone had not carried the impact of this jumble.
"No," I say, "I'm going to work hard during the day in that office and come home for dinner, and I won't go back more than one or two nights a week, if that. But I just can't write around the house. This is something I have to do."
It's clear to both of us; this is a serious commitment, a new adventure at age 55. No regular paychecks, no company retirement plan, no externally-imposed deadlines. r Sunday:
We make two trips to the office building, moving everything to Wise's Tavern. The floor of my office is carpeted; the walls are bare; the windows have plastic shades. Curtains or drapes will have to wait until I can afford them. The $1,000 worth of furniture and fixtures, charged last Thursday and due to arrive day after tomorrow, weighs heavily on my mind.
I make a third trip, this one alone, to clean up my desk lamp and the glass on framed artwork, magazine covers carrying my photographs and awards.
Back home, I find that my wife has rearranged our "office" to make it possible for me to share her desk. The typewriter stands at one end where either of us can us it. Monday:
Arriving at the office at 8:50, I await the telephone installer. Picture frames are stacked against the wall. The Norfolk Island pine sits uneasily in the middle of the floor.
I start this journal, retype my resume to include those fortgotten awards and compose a postcard announcement of my new status as free-lance writer and photojournalist, along with my business address. What a great address: Wise's Tavern.
It's quiet and lonesome, despite Bill Cerri's "A.M." program on WETA-FM. All others in the building, all of them strangers, are working away behind closed doors. I wonder what effect my typing is having on the folk directly below. This old Underwood manual clatters and thumps, making a bass drum-like sound at each stroke of a key and click of the space bar. Soon, most likely, someone will appear to ask for a sound-cushioning mat under this old clunker.
My office neighbor, a graphics designer, introduces himself and welcomes me.
"It's a great building, even though the floors are all crooked," he says.
The telephone man arrives; I give specific directions for placement of the instrument. A first during my working life, a room over which I have total control. Nobody to satisfy but me.
The phone is in. My name is on the office directory just inside the front door, and on the mailbox in the entryway. I'm here, for better or for worse. Much conflicting advice to consider -- too late, now of course -- as the telephone and I join the Norfolk Island pine in the middle of the floor. t
"Go very, very slow," advised a dear and good friend, a hard-working free-lance news photographer; "free-lancing is terribly hard." A new friend, fellow member of the Alexandria Tourist Council and proprietor of shops in both Old Town and Georgetown, told me, "You gotta be hungry to be in business for yourself." Counseled my wife, "Go ahead and get yourself set up right." Brave words, because she will join me in swallowing whatever losses come if this proves to be a disaster. So, I'm hungry! Tuesday:
A day of tension. The furniture arrives; arranging it and hanging the picture frames consumes hours. But looks good. Is it really ME? Probably.
Silent telepone. I walk north to a typing service to have my revised resume typed for reproduction. Afoot in Old Town, I experience a feeling I lost upon leaving newspaper reporting in 1961. This is "my" town. Fellow pedestrians smile and speak.
Workday ends with my beginning to compile a mailing list for the announcement postcards.
After dinner, at my invitation, my wife visits the office. "It looks good," she says; "it really looks nice." Wednesday:
No more excuses; no pencils to sharpen, no more supplies to obtain, in short, no semi-legitimate reason to postpone the fell act of writing. I write letters suggesting articles I could write, notes telling of this new status, spreading the word. The more people who know, the better the chance of referrals.
Busy and lonesome -- from time to time the miseries force up the lid and leer out at me. Why? Why now? Why not when I was told that my job at the National Trust was being eliminated?
Tomorrow I must start on that handbook writing job for which I will be well paid.
I pick up my typed resume, carry it to a quick print shop, get 10 xerographic copies made and order 200 printed. "They'll be ready tomorrow afternoon," says the fellow at the counter. Thursday:
Lunch at the raw bar of the fish market in Old Town Alexandria on a dark day of light, continuing rain. The help outnumber the customers. The bartender, who, I assume, is the owner or a co-owner, paces back and forth. "Where is everybody?" he asks. The other customer, seated at the bar, says, "I don't think I've ever seen it this slow." A couple pauses on the sidewalk, looks in. "Come in," says the bartender, sotto voce. They walk on.
Two hours poring over old maps of Alexandria at the Public Library for an article I will write and try to peddle. Strange how a map makes historical markers more believable -- Arlington Mills, and the canal that ran from opposite Georgetown to the north end of Alexandria, for example.
Call the quick print shop -- are the resumes ready, yet? "They'll be ready tomorrow at 9:30," the voice says.
Work 2 1/2 hours on the handbook.
A day most drear. Hard work. Actually I hate to write, but I do surely love having written. Friday:
Stop by the print shop to pick up resumes. "They'll be ready in an hour," the clerk tells me. "Cancel the order and give me back my copy," I say and, paper in hand, walk out. Great gesture; but no printed resumes. I'll get them next time I'm in downtown Washington.
Five and one-half hours' work on the handbook. Sure is lonesome. Sure is uneasy-making with only eight hours spent the entire week on a task for which I'm guaranteed payment.
Freelancer's Newsletter arrives. It reports that "we are standing on the threshold of the page-by-page personalized magazine age." Oh, fine! Just what we need -- more insularity in the society.
This handbook job requires that I translate jargon (time out for a ramble through Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary and still one more attempt to memorize the distinctions among dialect, vernacular, lingo, jargon, cant, argot and slang) into straight-forward prose comprehensible to the uninitiated.
New Year's and New Decade's Resolution: Just keep on writing clear exposition and hope for the best.