Wednesday, January 24, 2007

 

The Resume (A Random Anecdote)



Job #12: Outgoing Intern

Within my first week on the job, I got a promotion.

The following Monday, I found myself in the office of Andy, the assistant editor who had greeted me so enthusiastically my first day. In front of me was a story folder--my first story folder. And it was, alas, mighty thin. I had been assigned to do a personality feature on the living descendents of assorted U.S. presidents. Into the story folder would go any research material--interview notes, clips of stories from other magazines, newspapers, etc. The folder should have been fuller because this had been Andy's story for the past several months, but he'd evidently had better things to do. Aside from a nigh-unintelligible piece of legal paper covered with notes, the only other item in the folder was a stapled clump of photocopies of the book jacket and opening pages of an Elliott Roosevelt mystery.

The story was mine now not because Andy had dropped the ball on researching and reporting, but because Andy was in the hospital. Two days earlier, at a party in the home of some friends who were freelance photographers, Andy went to mix himself a drink of bourbon and water, but the jug of chilled water he pulled from the fridge wasn't chilled water. It was fixer. One gulp of his bourbon-and-fixer cocktail and Andy found himself being rushed to the ER, but only after lavishly redecorating his friends' kitchen with his vomit.

As ingredients in the home-development process go, fixer is apparently quite caustic. Andy was fairly sick for a week and had almost no voice for almost a month thereafter. So his story workload had to be farmed out and, aside from the other assistant editor, Dotty, there was only my boss--Jim the associate editor who'd hired me--to do the work. It was one of those opportunities you hope for when you're young and hungry, the chance to prove yourself. Jim liked me, liked my eagerness, and knew what a reporting slog lay ahead of the person who had to do this piece, so it was an easy assignment to make.

But now as I stared at this slim folder and felt my pulse hammering in my neck, I wasn't so sure that anything else about this story was going to be easy. I had no contacts to get me started. The scribbled notes had no magic phone numbers giving me an inside track to finding any one of literally thousands of people who had descended from our various presidents.

I indulged in a few moments of pure panic, then pulled myself together. I had been training for this moment for years. I had all the basic reporting skills I needed to get this job done. All I needed was a first step to get me going and I'd be fine.

Today, of course, it would be the work of a minute to Google a few presidents or genealogical societies, but back then, we had no Internet. Heck, we had no computers in our offices, only typewriters. Back then, "Google" was called "the library." And so I strode off to the city's excellent public library, where I spent the morning poring over the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, looking for any recent profiles of presidential relatives. While I was in the reference department, I also found a directory that listed all of the presidential libraries in the country and I copied their numbers down, thinking staffers there might have some way to contact other branches of the executive family tree.

By lunch, I had a preliminary call sheet started, which included the libraries, the number for Elliott Roosevelt's publisher, the name of a law firm in New York that counted among its partners one of Thomas Jefferson's great-great-lotsa-great-grandsons, and the talent agency in Hollywood that represented George Washington's great-great-great-great-great-great nephew, John Augustine Washington V (in fact, the image of John that you'll find on this Web site is one of his publicity photos that ended up appearing in my story).

It had never occurred to me then that my morning--or the others like it that I was soon to spend--was remarkable in any way, until I taught a basic journalism course a couple of years ago and realized how little my students knew about the basics of shoe-leather reporting, of scratching up a list of likely starting points and making cold calls to sources. Their first--and often last--stop was online. And granted, I've come to rely on the Web as much as the next guy. But, and this was the question I posed to the class, what's your fallback when Google doesn't pull up the information you need?

Judging from the silence that met my query, the class really couldn't conceive of such a thing happening. But you know, it does all the time. And today I work with freelancers who will occasionally call to bail on a story--or to beg for help from me--because they "can't find any information" about the topic I've assigned. What they mean is, they couldn't find it using a search engine and they lacked the basic enterprising skills needed to be their own search engine. Which is why, whenever I teach journalism courses now, I always include a week or two where I give students assignments to write stories based on topics I have carefully confirmed have almost NO useful information to be gleaned from Google. Then, they have to hand in two items to me when the assignment is due: the story itself, and a brief document that walks me through their discovery process in finding sources for the piece.

Back during my internship, none of my full-time coworkers would have been terribly impressed with my research--after all, that was simply how it was done. But I did make a favorable impression because of what happened during my walk back to the office. By the strangest quirk of fate, it so happened that a presidential relative--the multi-great grandson of one of the children Andrew Jackson adopted--worked in a law office in our city. In fact, as a quick review of the Yellow Pages revealed, the man's office was as close to my publisher's building as the crack house was to my apartment complex. So, since it was literally on the way back, I stopped in at the posh law office, preparing to leave my name and number with a receptionist. Instead, she made me wait while she made a quick phone call, then ushered me into the office of the man himself, a laid-back fellow who just happened to have time for an interview and welcomes the spontaneity of the moment. I'd gone from a morning where I had a nearly empty story folder to an afternoon where I had a bunch of people to call and an interview already in the can.

Jim, the magazine's associate editor, was quite tickled by this, so much so that he brought me into the office of his boss, the managing editor, a woman named Martha who I had not yet met. Martha was even more curt with me than Dotty had been the other day, but when Jim told her that I had tracked down a source right there in town and showed up without an appointment to do an interview, she came to look on me in a new light.

"Well, well," she said, gesturing that we sit down. "Aren't we the go-getter? That's more than our last intern did."

Jim nodded. "Oh yeah. Uri. He was a piece of work."

"What about him?" I asked.

Martha smiled. "Oh, he just didn't do very much. Except make phone calls home. To Russia. On his office phone."

"Then when we caught him and told him to stop, he started making calls at night from Dotty's phone," added Jim. "I guess he thought he was throwing us off the track. I mean, he probably figured we'd never wonder at the coincidence of Dotty suddenly making $400 phone calls to the same town in Russia that Uri was."

"Anyways, he didn't last long. But Dotty's been mighty cool towards interns ever since. Speaking of interns, if you want to move out of the intern cube and set up in Andy's office while he's gone, that would be fine," Martha added. This was a treat. Andy's office was roomier. And he was one of the first round of folks scheduled to get an in-office computer, to be installed any day.

"Oh," I said. "Has he gotten worse? I thought he was going to be okay."

"No, no, he'll be fine. He'll be out of the hospital and home today. But he starts his vacation this Friday. Andy scored an incredible deal--a $250 flight to Africa--and is going for two weeks on safari and in general having all manner of adventures," she said.

"Assuming he doesn't get eaten by a lion or trampled by an elephant," added Jim.

Martha nodded, smiling. "Ol' Andy IS the original bad-luck kid. Anyway, you get set up in his office and keep cranking on this presidential relatives story, MM. You do it up right and we'll keep giving you Andy's assignments to finish."

As I went back to Andy's office, I could hardly believe my luck. I was a de facto assistant editor. I finally had a decent story to work on--with more to come. Best of all, I'd have something with which to hold my own at the lunch table.

Every afternoon, we interns all met downtown at the company café and compared notes about our respective jobs, see, and after the first week, I'd been more than a little jealous of my peers. My roommate Lee, for example, was already making plans to go on a cover shoot to the Rockies with his art director. Langston, my eccentric, fife-playing roomie, was doing profiles of well-known novelists. Her Lovely Self had wrapped up her first week by interviewing that young actor from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Hmm, okay, so maybe spending a day at the library and doing a walk-in interview with a lawyer didn't quite measure up.

But my coworkers were impressed anyway. Like me, they too wanted to get jobs in magazines (although unlike me, most of them still had a year of college left to go, and perhaps didn't have quite the same sense of urgency as yours truly), and so were inspired by anyone who might be on a path of advancement towards that goal, whether by his own merits or by a total accident. I may still have been just a $250-a-week intern, but I was taking on the mantle--desk and all--of a full-time staff editor.

And it was a mantle I'd be taking on for a lot longer than the next two weeks.

Remember that $250 bargain flight of Andy's? Well, poor ol' bad-luck Andy had failed to realize that it was such a great deal because it was a one-way flight, so when he arrived in Africa, he was in some straits, not having a return flight home and all. It was my first exposure to the fact that you didn't have to have a lot of brains or common sense to do well in this field. If it had happened to anyone else, I would have suspected that person of engineering a way to take a longer vacation than usual; however, his coworkers quickly assured me that this kind of blunder was not by design, but was indeed another "Andy Accident." Andy ended up blowing all of his vacation time--and spending a few days on unpaid holiday--on this trip. Plus he had to borrow money from a series of relatives who had to wire him the cash so that he could pay for food and lodging on his unexpectedly extended stay and purchase what turned out to be a significantly more expensive return-trip ticket, and one that went home by way of several obscure and far-flung stopovers. He arrived back in town a sick and broken man, one who vowed never to leave the country again.

But before that happened, I had me one heck of a month.

And I'm not talking about all the work and story opportunities either, alas.

Because a few days after Andy left on his African odyssey, I was sitting in his office, transcribing a phone interview, when with no warning I suddenly felt a white-hot bolt of pain rip through my jaw. I doffed my headphones and clamped my hand to my face. Another wave of pain hit, bringing me off the chair and to my knees.

And it was at just this moment that Jim came striding by the office. Dotty was with him. They passed. But in unison, they stuck their heads back in the door a beat later.

"Uh. Are you okay?" Jim asked.

Before I could answer, another stab of pain caused me to shake and moan. "Oofake!" I cried, holding my jaw while tears streamed down my face.

Dotty just shook her head and looked at Jim. "Told you the bad luck would rub off on him. Looks like we got us a new Andy," she said...



NEXT>>

Comments:
Hmmm, sounds like Andy's spirit was haunting the office in his absence. OK, I know he was still alive and all...perhaps his aura had rubbed off on it or something.

I met Wil once after a reading he did out in Hollywood. He was extremely friendly and nice, which from what I have heard tends to be less common than it should be among celebrities (even minor ones.)
 
Gah!
 
Hmmm, sounds like Andy's spirit was haunting the office in his absence. OK, I know he was still alive and all...perhaps his aura had rubbed off on it or something.

I met Wil once after a reading he did out in Hollywood. He was extremely friendly and nice, which from what I have heard tends to be less common than it should be among celebrities (even minor ones.)
 
A pain in your jaw from Andy's phone? I'm guessing some nasty bugs on a dirty phone, based on the mental picture I've already created of Andy. This story is great...can't wait to see what happens next!
 
I loved research before the age of Google. I never had to track down sources or info for writing, but my first real job out of college was at a translation agency. We had a job once that we ended up translating into about 26 languages. We worked with freelance translators, and we had a pretty wide-ranging database of folks, but none that could translate a document into Navajo, Swahili, or Indonesian. I managed to find translators for all three, and rack up quite a phone bill for the office, too. Eventually got a nice letter from the Indonesian translator, with some clippings and poetry translations he'd done.
 
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