AT THE BUS STOP, I steal a glance at The Washington Star rack, and I am delighted: a story I have written is being promoted on the front page. But when I arrive at work and see the now-familiar crowd gathered around the bulletin board and its job postings, the anxiety returns. This is our final week.
I have been with The Star for 17 years. I joined it as a young man. I stuck it out as the paper and my hair both grew thinner, and I have no regrets; never once did I seriously consider leaving because of The Star's financial troubles. But now we are publishing a paper out of pride, if nothing else.
Over the weekend, I received a call from a stranger, a reader. "You don't know me," she said, "but you've been coming to my house for years, and I know you." The opportunity to have an impact like that is what got me into this business in the first place.
At my desk, I make calls to prospective employers, setting up interviews, hoping for myself and for others. The copying machine clanks nonstop with resumes; a colleague suggests that its manufacturer advertise it as "the machine that survived the demise of The Washington Star."
At lunch, there is subdued chitchat: So-and-so has a nibble, so-and-so has an offer but isn't sure, so-and-so has nothing in sight. A secretary suddenly begins to cry.
In my mailbox is a bizarre letter from Scarsdale: a young woman whom I taught in a college seminar has seen my name in a story about The Star's death and wonders whether I am the same person she knew briefly 22 years ago. I don't know whether to laugh or to cry at the way she has found me.
I leave to meet an old friend visiting Washington and coming to dinner. All evening, I try to be cheerful, but the talk returns obsessively to The Star and the future: its, if any; mine, if any. Tuesday
There is a big job interview scheduled today that may somehow settle my future. I am sleeping too little, drinking too much, eating too poorly; I want the anxiety to end. No luck. The man I am to meet is delayed out of town by the air traffic controllers strike. Thanks, fellas, I needed that.
President Reagan comes to visit The Star and say farewell. What this means to me is that I cannot go to the cafeteria, I cannot use the elevator, I cannot leave the building. He lunches with the brass; does not visit the newsroom. He does wave from the sidewalk, however. Wonderful, Oh, well, he probably won't visit a Pantry Pride when it closes.
I am trying to research a story I have been assigned to write for the last day's paper, but it is hard to concentrate. There are too many other things to think about, too many people I will not see again.
There really was a sense of family about The Star, and that is why I am so disheartened to hear that two of our blue-collar unions are about to make a final effort in court to keep the paper going. There are sudden meetings in the newsroom, and the publisher wanders in to assure us that Time, Inc., wants us privileged white-collar types to get the severance pay our contract provides, but if this court effort succeeds, well, declaring bankruptcy is a possibility, which would mean a long time till that severance check shows up. If it ever does. I have earned that money, damn it, and I am filled with frustration, disappointment and rage at my fellow Star family members. Let us not become the Karen Quinlan of the journalistic world, kept alive artificially. Let us have our death with dignity. We have earned that, too. Wednesday
All that aggravation was over nothing, it turns out. The unions did not go to court, have no plans to do so.I am relieved, and yet, I am chagrined at my relief. Do I really want the paper to fold? Do I really want all those printers, pressmen, cafeteria workers to be ouf of jobs while I collect my severance pay? My feelings about this, as about so much else this week, are a muddle, and that is one of the most unsettling things.
My big job interview has been rescheduled. Parts of it go well, but there is no job offer. I am more disheartened than I wanted to be. Others around me are getting those offeres; I am happy for them, but . . . once more, there is that ambivalence.
After lunch, I try again to write my last story, and find that I, who have an office reputation for writing quickly, have a block. The words won't come.
I take refuge in visiting the room where people have come to tell us about our health insurance, our life insurance, our pension plans. What depressing topics.I decide it's time to clean out my desk and my files.
Each piece of paper reminds me of a story I once wrote. "Hey," I say to myself, "remember the time that . . ." And I pack it away in a box, or dump it in the trash can. Two colleagues, friends for years, help me carry the stuff to my car, and we go out for a drink. Thursday
Nostalgia begins to set in, a relief. The editors have decided, under pressure from below, to permit us some columns of reminiscence in the final paper, and we set to it with gusto. A wave of wonderful stories comes rolling in, and, reading them, I am cleansed of my depression. Maybe newspaper people are not crazier, more interesting and filled with more lovable anecdotes than people in other jobs; maybe, because writing is our profession, we just tell them better. Maybe; but do government workers tell stories like these when they are RIFed? I contribute two or three to the pile, think of a dozen more, laugh heartily at what my colleagues have written, and feel better. I am even able to finish my last major article.
Now I am truly a short-timer, killing the last few hours. I roam the office, visiting friends, exchanging the latest gossip, fill another box with belongings and cart them off to a coworker's house for temporary safekeeping.
On the way back, I find a man selling T-shirts that say "TIME has run out on the Star" and buy one. They had first turned up a day earlier, selling for $5, and quickly disappeared. Now they cost $6; the American entrepenurial spirit is alive and well.
At night, I go to a party for many of the people in my department, Washington Life. It is almost joyous, but I realize as I leave how much I will miss these people. They are pros as journalists, princes and princesses as people. Friday
There is no Star on my news rack at the bust stop, and I wonder whether the circulation drivers just didn't bother this final day. At the office, I discover what is happening: the lobby is filled with strangers, buying bundles of this historic issue, 30 copies at a time, so that they can be scalped on the street. First they buried us, now they are dancing on our grave and making a profit besides. Unable to restrain myself, I scream at them: "Where were you people when we needed you?" Nobody pays any attention.
Inside, it is better. Management has made posters of the last day's front page for all employes, and we rush around like kids about to graduate from high school, signing each other's posters.
The spirit is upbeat, despite what seems like hundreds of TV camera and reporters from other papers. I don't like being part of the news; I'd rather write about it. Occasionally, there is a whoop of joy as one of our people nails down a job. My special pride comes when I learn that my last story is featured in my section.
In the midst of all the chaos, there is one final, symbolically beautiful touch: There is a major breaking story going on; anti-Khomeini Iranians are trying to take over an Iranian office. And so, my newspaper breathes its last as I hoped it would: with reporters on the street chasing down the facts, a rewrite-woman putting a story together, a photographer dashing in with a photo, editors cramming it all into the paper.
We gather round to watch the last papers come tumbling into the newsroom, then are off to our favorite saloon, Jenkins Hill, for a farewell party. It is, I am convinced, a celebration, not a funeral a celebration of ourselves, and of our beloved Washington Star.