Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My First Job - Part 1

I don't know what I was thinking, or what I wasn't thinking, but about three weeks before I graduated from LSU's School of Journalism, I realized I needed a job. I had been too busy being the student newspaper's managing editor to worry about such trifles as future employment. But graduation loomed, and I went looking.

I dropped off resumes and actually interviewed at a couple of television stations in Baton Rouge, and my father suggested I talk to the people at Shell Oil in New Orleans. He did a considerable amount of their printing and mailing work, and I knew most of the people in the PR department from making deliveries and picking up mailing labels. So I did, and actually got to talk with an institution there, a woman named Carolyn Sonnier. Other people might have had better sounding titles, but she ruled PR in New Orleans. There were no openings, but she said she'd send my resume on to headquarters in Houston. (Ten months later, Shell in Houston called; they had a job and the recommendation by Ms. Sonnier clinched it.)

Things were now looking desperate. It wasn't just a job for me; there was this girl I'd met and we had started talking about getting married (we did, almost four months later). One afternoon, as I walked past the bulletin board in the J-School, I saw a job posting. Things being what they were, I took it down. No, I tore it down and hid it in my books so no one else would see it.

It was an opening for a copy editor at the Beaumont, Texas, Enterprise, a daily newspaper with three editions (East Texas, Southwest Louisiana and Home). There was also an afternoon paper, the Beaumont Journal, that operated out of the same building but had separate ownership. I called the contact name, the managing editor, and got an interview right away. I should have wondered at the speed at which that happened, but I didn't. I thought he sounded anxious, but I was exceedingly thankful.

My girlfriend/fiancee and I drove over to Beaumont from Baton Rouge, and she waited outside (in the heat) while I did my interview. Downtown Beaumont then looked nothing like downtown Beaumont today. Then, it was still living off the dreams of the 1901 oil gusher at Spindletop, and the dreams had played out about 30 years earlier. Downtown was in serious need of major urban renewal.

I remember three things from my interview.

First was the smell of the place -- like ink and newsprint and glue from paste-up. I never forgot the smell. It's universal to all newspapers, I think. It was the same smell at the Houston Chronicle where my wife worked after we moved there, and the same smell at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post, and several other newspapers I've visited.

Second was the receptionist. She was likely somewhere in her early to mid-40s. Her jet black hair was teased at least 18 inches above her head (the copy desk would often break out in a stirring rendition of "Stand By Your Man" whenever she was out of earshot). She wore white go-go boots. And a mini-skirt. Always a mini-skirt. Every day a mini-skirt. And she shouldn't have.

The third thing I remember was, after offering me the sumptuous salary of $125 a week, near poverty-level even for the early 1970s, the managing editor walked me to the copy desk to introduce me to the people I would be working with. They were polite. And in their eyes I saw pity.

Yep, another desperate sucker.

But I had a job. Before we drove back to Baton Rouge, I found an apartment, which I always referred to as the posh Northway-Gaylynn Luxury Apartments. There was nothing posh or luxury about them. Their chief selling point was that they were furnished, or mostly furnished. My apartment shared a building with three other units, and sat amidst scores of other identical buildings. Think of the complex as incipient slum. Mine was upstairs. My neighbor was a young woman named Kitt; I remember her last name, too. She worked at a nearby bank, and she was far more respectable than anyone who worked at a newspaper, including me. I remember she had a white Westmoreland terrier. We were both engaged, but I got married first. She was as nice a neighbor as you might find.

I graduated a couple of weeks later and drove to Beaumont the next day, a Sunday. I drove straight to the apartment office to get my key -- and naturally, the office was closed. This was when most places of business, including grocery stores, shopping malls and apartment complexes, closed on Sundays. I had a car packed with stuff, a rented apartment, and no key to open the door. And I had to start work the next day.

After a few hours, I managed to find the handyman for the complex (he often had to work on Sundays; broken air conditioners and hot water heaters didn't care a fig about the Blue Laws). He let me in. I had no key and no food, but I did manage to find an open convenience store.

But life didn't get better than that for an almost 22-year-old soon-to-be a copy editor -- my own place to sleep, some awful food on my stomach, and all of the books I'd brought with me. In fact, after I ate the food (a TV dinner, if I recall correctly), the first thing I did was set up my pine board and cinder block bookshelves. Then I worried about the sheets for the bed.

The next day promptly at 3 p.m., I walked in the door of my first job.

The awakening would be abrupt and rude.

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