This is what it’s like to get laid off

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I got laid off last Tuesday.

One of the well-dressed shiny-toothed businessmen (they actually call this one “Chiclets” because of his teeth) who governs our company announced they had decided it would make more business sense to close our local news and daily print operations, and go for a weekly political magazine.

I’m not sure it actually makes more business sense. Our paper was a pet project to begin with, and I think it still is. I think the owner just decided he could influence the country more with a national political magazine. I get that. It’s his paper. He can do what he wants with it.

But it’s sad for journalism, and it’s sad for democracy. It’s sad that the city that still reelects a man who was caught doing crack while mayor will only have one daily print publication — and that will be behind a paywall.

But putting aside my wailings and mournings for my paper, I thought it might be interesting if I shared what exactly getting laid off is like. So here goes.

On Monday, every employee in our office got an email: “Staff meeting… Your attendance is required.”

Typically our staff meetings go something like this: “Write more blog posts” or “We’re all making videos now.” I thought it would be one of those, but my fellow reporters smelled something fishy, mostly because they realized some people’s emails said the meeting was in the newsroom, and others’ said the meeting was in the conference room. Two groups.

I still figured it was going to be something unimportant, until I went to the gym that night. (The gym is a recent thing… wedding pictures and all that, you know.) There I got a text from a friend who used to work at my paper: “Are you alright?” Well yes, of course I’m all right. I’m huffing and puffing on this stupid treadmill and I HATE RUNNING, but of course I’m alright. Why? “I’m hearing all these rumors that they’re axing local. Everyone is freaking out.”

I remained unconvinced until I got further information: a fellow reporter on maternity leave was also coming in tomorrow. Then I guessed.

But I still didn’t know, and I tried to remain calm, praying that I would trust God and thinking that if I got fired that day I could go work at Hank’s Oyster Bar.

The next day the tension in the office was palpable. No one could work. Everyone sat around talking about what was going to happen.

Finally the shiny-toothed executive came. He told us the paper was closing, but that we had work until mid-June, when we would publish our last issue. Several people cried. Everyone was grim, somber.

Two human resources employees told us to line up and give our last names as they handed us manila envelopes — our severance packages.

The political reporters, who had been kept for the new magazine, came back from their other meeting, I think feeling guilty they were still employed.

87 people lost their jobs that day. All my editors, most of my fellow reporters, and many more people who put together the print version of the paper in our Virginia offices.

My heart breaks for them.

But you know what? I’m not really angry, and I’m not really worried. After four years in college wrestling with God’s providence, facing mystery after mystery and coming away with only tears and a pile of questions for my religion professor, I’ve finally reconciled with his sovereignty. I see how he’s answered prayer in this — Homère was asking God that I would be able to leave my job before our wedding, for reasons I won’t share here. Also the timing is impeccable — exactly two weeks before our wedding will be my last day of work, if I don’t find something else before then. And I know that somehow, through the decisions of men, and the seeming whims of the world, God is working out an achingly beautiful, unforeseeable master plan. That’s something to remember on this quiet day between Good Friday and Easter.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28


Vice presidential curse words and rainy day Turkish pop

The other day this thought drifted across my mind: “My life isn’t very exciting.” My mind immediately jumped out of its front porch rocking chair and said: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Not that there aren’t days that are very, very slow… (the other day I found myself googling: “Funny bunny pictures”….) or weeks when I feel like all I do is work, go home, eat, read, go to sleep, repeat…

But some days I get told stuff like this:

“Hey, you wanna go see Biden tomorrow?”

Now, I know that as a D.C. resident and journalist I’m supposed to be all jaded and used this kind of thing, and I convinced myself I was for a while, but at some point sitting in that big room waiting for the VP to show up, I got tingles. I’m going to see the vice president of the entire United States of America in person! I felt like a little girl on a field trip.

Awaiting the VP

He was just as goofy as they say he is. The whole room was decked out, police officers’ boots and badges shiny, Aaron Copeland symphonies playing while they waited — a certain sense of grand expectation. And then in walks Biden with a ridiculous lop-sided grin on his face to give a speech that I’m sure had to be more dignified in its original form, but when it came out of his mouth sounded like a talk he was just givin’ the boys over donuts. Maybe that’s his gift.

Also, in case you were wondering, the only inappropriate word he uttered in that speech was “hell” — as in “How the hell are you going to do that [police streets without funding]? Excuse me, how the heck.”

Those pesky broadcast journalists

While we were waiting for the VP, a Virginia congressman I sometimes write about came over and started talking to the woman on my right. Then he turned to me and introduced himself and shook my hand and said: “I wanted to meet you because I see you’re reading All the King’s Men.” It gave me a little a hope for the world that he, too, has read a good book and loved it.

“And now for something entirely different,” as they say. (Pop culture reference!) Yesterday I went to the D.C. Turkish festival with my friend James. I think we both decided we could die happy when, after crooning Turkish love songs ad nauseum, the tan Turkish pop star with the too-tight jacket and slightly unbuttoned white shirt started singing “We will, we will rock you.” I kind of wanted to go touch his hand and swoon with all the other front-row females, but didn’t. I also got to meet some Ottoman impersonators (the historical regime, not the furniture), pet a Turkish kitty, pick up a slightly creepy Turkish airlines magnet with a picture of a pretty woman with hairline problems, and see and smell little reminders of my trip to Turkey last year… scarves, plates, calligraphy, doners, baklava.

"It was fun," as Mehmet would say

And the last picture is for Juls, because I know she would disapprove of me taking pictures of children I don’t know… This polka-dot-covered baby was getting bounced to the beat of Queen and seemed to like it.

Nothing like polka dots to go with your pop music

A favorite story

At my current job I write mostly hard news, quick stories, usually between 350-400 words. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s what’s necessary for the paper I work for. But I really miss writing features, which are longer, more nuanced pieces with details and descriptions. I was looking back at some of the articles I wrote for The Collegian, and I came across this one. I think it’s my favorite story I wrote in college, so I thought I would share. Enjoy.

Working under a steel umbrella

To shake your hand, Shawn Anderson takes his gloves off. They are stained black — the color of the tattoo on his forearm, the color that has smeared most of his work clothing.

{photo by Andrew Dodson/The Collegian}

By Liz Essley

Monday, February 9, 2009

The 40-year-old mechanic has spent most of the day looking up at the greasy underbelly of a minivan. It drips melted snow along its side, making Shawn Anderson look like he works under a giant steel umbrella.

“See that? The gasket is bad right there,” he says as he points out a part in the underbelly.

Anderson, of Hillsdale’s Apex Automotive, has been fixing cars for 24 years. He started when he was 16. He has no specialty – he works on everything. And he’s good at what he does. He can remove and replace a V6 engine in five hours. It takes other mechanics around 10 to 15.

His task today is to replace the gasket and do some exhaust work on the vehicle above him.

To help him, he has a giant red toolbox, over six feet high and three feet wide. It’s not for child’s play.

“I keep my tools at work so [my son] can’t tinker with stuff,” he says.

Anderson has helped to raise eight children from two different relationships, but only his youngest son, Kenneth Taylor, 10, is at home now. “The little one” dreams big, Anderson says, and wants to be either a country singer or a mechanic when he grows up.

“He’s got a wild imagination,” Anderson says, smiling slightly.

Both Anderson and his wife work to support Kenneth.

“It’s tight, but money’s not everything. We’re poor but we’re happy,” Anderson says.

Anderson started working as a mechanic after he dropped out of school in eighth grade and started hanging around the Midas shop near his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was there he made the friends who taught him the basics of the trade.

“I used to hang out with the guys, started sweeping floors, and worked my way up from there,” he says.

He is self-employed at Apex, and can come and go when he chooses, but he usually ends up working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Three other mechanics work at the shop; each has his projects lined up against different corners of the large garage.

Tim Bills, the owner of Apex, says Anderson has a huge amount of knowledge about his work and takes pride in it.

“The thing about Shawn is, he doesn’t really make it look hard. He’s quick,” Bills says.

Anderson took a big pay cut when he moved to Hillsdale two years ago, he says, but it was worth it for the “quiet community.”

“I love it here,” Anderson says. “I wanted to move to a place where you can leave your keys in the car when you go to the grocery store.”

Anderson lived in Hillsdale for a few years as a small child and remembered it as a peaceful place. Now he likes spending time at Lake Bawbeese in his spare hours, fishing and grilling out.

But he likes fixing cars, and doesn’t plan to leave it anytime soon. When will he quit?

“Once I hit the lottery.”

A reporter looks for sandbags and finds…

I wonder if hurricanes can blow facts the way they can blow houses — if the wind bends and whips reality as much as it does tree branches.

I was forced to wonder this Saturday, when I was sent out to report on Hurricane Irene. The D.C. government was supposedly handing out sandbags at RFK Stadium, so thither I dutifully went, unfortunately attired in a skirt and flats. I got very wet.

After a walk from the Metro through the rain (with a brief detour to get lost), I arrived at the soccer stadium and was impressed by its size. A couple holding hands arrived about the same time I did; I asked if they were looking for sandbags. They seemed confused, and said they were there for the game, which showed they were really confused. It was obviously canceled. They headed clockwise round the stadium to search for a refund, while I went counterclockwise. There were no signs for these supposed sandbags. How very frustrating, I thought. Maybe I’ll report on that — no signs.

I found an unlocked door, and went through it to find some kind of administrative office. No one was there. I descended some stairs and found myself in a concrete tunnel below the stadium — cavernous and dank. I found another unlocked door and entered a white tunnel that led to various rooms. I walked past the press room, the locker room, the visitor’s locker room, the manager’s office, the laundry room, etc. Some of these I poked my head in. Absolutely no living being in sight.

I walked out the players’ tunnel to the field. Rain and wet everywhere, but no sandbags. I caught sight of the couple holding hands and shouted to them that the tunnels were open if they wanted to go see them.

I crossed the field, climbed a staircase and then walked various ramps and tunnels, still finding no one. It began to feel a bit like a horror movie. I was expecting a giant soggy spider to come up behind me any minute.

I finally figured out, after texting a friend, that I should call the city’s information line, 311, and ask where the sandbags were. The lady on the phone told me Parking Lot 7. That was all well and good, but I still had no idea where Parking Lot 7 was. The only maps in the place didn’t show the parking lots.

After wandering around for another 15 minutes in a vain attempt to find an exit to Lot 7, I finally ran into a real, live human being. He was young and strong and looked like a soccer player. Maybe he was famous. It didn’t really matter — he wasn’t very nice. He didn’t know where Lot 7 was, and he hastily drove off through the tunnel in his white SUV.

A while later I made it to the outside of the stadium. I started walking counterclockwise again and then I saw it: a white van. With some kind of official seal on the side. I ran up to the van and found a very nice woman in a yellow rain slicker inside. She told me to keep going counterclockwise to find the sandbags.

The next person I found was wearing a red raincoat, standing next to a red Radio Flyer wagon. It had sandbags in it. This was a good sign. I stopped to talk to her, and she told me the nicest little story — one of those pieces of “good news” our grandmothers are always saying the media should talk about more. Her car’s brakes were bad, so she had wheeled a cart on the Metro to RFK to pick up sandbags. But after haggling with the officials who wouldn’t give her sandbags at first because she didn’t have a car, the wheel broke on her cart. She was about to give up and just let her Georgetown basement get flooded, when a complete stranger — an elderly man—  walked up and offered her his red Radio Flyer wagon. He, too, had come on foot, but he thought she needed the wagon more than he did. “He was just going to give it to me!” she told me, astonished. She promised to return it to him; he said that would be nice because it was his granddaughter’s.I thanked the woman for her story, and we parted ways. I headed in the direction she had come from, determined to find these sandbags and the people clamoring for them.

And here’s where reality begins to muddle.

Because in only 5 short minutes (I estimated I was on the opposite side of the huge stadium from where I had entered) I was back to where I started, where I first met the couple holding hands. This confused me. It confused me even more when I saw the woman in the red rain coat trudging up a nearby sidewalk with her wagon. We had gone in opposite directions. There was no possible way we could have met each other again in so short a time. To top it off, there was the couple holding hands, running into the woman with the red wagon and exchanging pleasantries.

I set my confusion aside in my determination to find the elusive sandbags. I called 311 again. Where is Lot 7?, I asked.
-Lot 7?, said the man.
-You know, the place where they’re giving out sandbags at RFK?, I said.
-They’re not giving out sandbags at RFK, ma’am, he said.
-Oh yes they are. I just met a woman with some, I said.
-No, they’re only giving out sandbags at the department of public works.

Again, the wind had swept away reality — or at least seriously rattled someone’s wits.

I made one last foray on my sandbag quest, determined to get to the bottom of this. I found a man in a booth guarding an entrance to the stadium. He, like the woman in the van, had a yellow slicker.
-Where are they handing out sandbags?, I asked.
-Oh, darlin’, they moved that over the highway. To Oklahoma and….
Somewhere I could not walk.

At this point, I gave up, uncertain whether these sandbags ever existed, whether the woman in the red raincoat was just a figment of my imagination (though she couldn’t have been, because I took a picture), and wet and tired from all that pointless wandering.

I got back to the office, and there, on the flat screen TV, was an NBC reporter, surrounded by people hauling sandbags. At RFK Stadium.

Oh Irene! Oh Lot 7! You are such stuff as dreams are made on — I guess.