Saturday, March 31
Sitting in the nearly empty parking lot at San Juan College, looking down over the valley of the river of the same name.
When you come into town on Main Street, Farmington appears as a wonderland of commercial sprawl. It appears that way because it is a wonderland of commercial sprawl.
It is anchored, after all, by Walmart installations on the east and west ends of Main Street.
It looks more than anything like the place the Southwest deposits all its junk so it can go on being so charming and all.
The view’s not bad from here. Might just the nicest view in the whole damned town.
Mesas in the distance lend a tawny comeliness to a landscape marred by cheap development and not redeemed by the purifying adobe look that dominates central New Mexico.
I had just spent an hour and half in the community college library pursuing a small slice of personal history. I’ve been here before.
As we drove U.S. 64 between Bloomfield and Farmington last night, something struck me about the countryside. I was touched by a vague chord of memory. I once made a trip in rural darkness here to do a feature story on a family that had suffered some kind of unspeakable sadness. I couldn’t remember any of the particulars.
It was 17 years ago, Feb. 9-11, 1995. I had responded to an ad in a hard-copy edition of Editor & Publisher, for a reporting job at The Daily Times. They flew me out for an interview. But it wasn’t really an interview, it was more of an on-the-job tryout.
My salient memories of Farmington: Before I got here, city editor Julia Duin told me I would work on stories Thursday and Friday, and if all went well, they’d rent me a car Saturday morning so I could tour the area before flying out later in the day. I can’t remember the deal exactly. I think if they didn’t hire me, I’d get nominal freelance pay. If I got the job, I wouldn’t really get paid for my work.
On Friday afternoon I was called into a meeting with Duin and managing editor Jack Swickard, wherein I was offered a position, though I don’t remember much enthusiasm from any of the involved parties.
When Saturday came, I sat in the office. There was no rental car, no keys, no Shiprock, no countryside, no nothing. Not even an excursion to the fabled Four Corners.
And as I sat there that Saturday, doing God knows what, I heard steps trudging up the stairs. And what did my wondering ears hear? The person trudging up the stairs whistled a song I knew well from my days at the United Methodist Church of Paoli: “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Turns out it just wasn’t any person, it was the publisher, Eliot O’Brien.
That, in a nutshell, was the Daily Times of Farmington, N.M., circa 1995.
O’Brien was a fundamentalist missionary masquerading as a newspaper publisher. He’d inherited his money and his newspaper from his father. He got his business acumen from his hairdresser and Jesus.
After accepting the offer without any sort of passion, I flew home to Philadelphia. Then I hemmed a little, hawed some, and continued in such fashion until I succeeded in annoying the folks back in Farmington. Ms. Duin called, insisting I write letter documenting my intent to relocate to Farmington and get it notarized.
I responded by procrastinating some more.
Eventually I got a letter, which somehow hd taken eight days to get from the Daily Times office and into my mailbox. The offer, Ms. Duin informed me, had been rescinded. The reason: I had not complied promptly to their demands.
Fortunately, somewhere in the midst of my stalling routine I received a call from Mike Shepard, who offered me a job with the twice-weekly Central Kitsap Reporter in western Washington.
Meanwhile, things in Farmington unraveled quickly. Swickard was fired in November 1995. Duin parlayed her newsroom position as good Christian soldier into a religion reporting job at the Washington Times (after getting fired there she caught on as a religion blogger at the Washington Post, where she ran afoul of Rube’s pal Lauri Lebo). One reporter, Malcolm Brenner, filed a discrimination lawsuit, alleging he was fired in 1994 for being a witch.
In 1997, a story, written by Stacy Jones, appeared in Editor & Publisher chronicling the strange doings in the Farmington newsroom.
This is the second paragraph:
“Something unholy appears to be happening at the Daily Times in Farmington, N.M., where employee turnover is rampant, a lawsuit has been filed and there are charges the publisher strolls throughout the newsroom singing ‘praise Jesus.'”
By then I was working at the Sun in Bremerton, and I got a note in the mail from Shepard. He included a clipping from the E&P story and wry message reminding me I owed him big-time.|
While I was hashing about this stuff, I considered calling Swickard, who lives in Roswell after retiring as general manager of the Roswell Daily Record.
Swickard, it turns out, is a regular Thursday guest on the morning show of some right-wing crackpot (I had considered editing out “crackpot” for a less-judgmental noun, then I saw where he’s pushing this song on his Facebook page. Yep, crackpot.) named “Harvey T.,” who holds court on Christian community radio in Ruidoso, N.M.
Turns out O’Brien died in August. He was 63. On the following Thursday, Harvey T. took up the question of O’Brien’s legacy.
Swickard just laughed ironically upon invitation to discuss O’Brien. He said O’Brien had fired him based on dream he’d had that included all his department heads except Swickard.
“It was a message from God to fire me,” Swickard said. “It was never phrased that way, but I could’ve believed it.”
Then he said something I couldn’t believe.
“The reporters were making very good money, about two-to-three times as much as reporters at other papers around the state,” he said. “He was very generous in paying his help.”
Upon hearing this, I wanted to 1) punch myself in the face and 2) get Mike Shepard on the line and say thanks.
Very good money! I was offered a full-time job there in the spring of 1995 that would’ve paid $18,000 per year. To think that I could’ve found job in Roswell or Rio Rancho or Ruidoso making $9,000! Or $6,000, even. Hard to believe, Jack!
Instead I moved to Washington, where I’d been offered $20,000 to work at a weekly paper. In a little more than year I was in Bremerton, a town roughly the same size as Farmington, making nearly twice the $18,000 I was offered by Mssrs. O’Brien and Swickard.
Anyway, I thought it might be interesting, if not a little depressing, to look up the work I did in my brief visit here. First we visited the sprawling, state-of-the-art-looking public library at 2101 Farmington Ave. Unfortunately, they didn’t have microfilm editions of the Daily Times in their collection. The librarian told me they’re over at San Juan College.
“They open today?” I ask.
“No,” he replies, shaking his head with mock disappointment.
Saddened but undeterred, I thought maybe this fuck didn’t know what he was talking about. I looked up San Juan College’s library online, which clearly indicated it was open Saturdays till 5.
We got there a little before 4. I left Becky and Max in the behemoth and found my way to the second-floor library. Mary Evelyn took me back to the microfilm machine and got me started and I looked for a half-hour without finding anything. For some reason I thought the trip occurred in late February. I was off by two weeks.
With despair mounting, I stumbled on this anonymous piece on Page A1:
No byline, but something about that second paragraph made me stop. Probably it was the pretentious imagery wherein the “afternoon sun glinting off the unwieldy train of grocery carts.” Yes, that could’ve been me.
And I’m glad it was me. You have to love the wonderful symmetry of a newspaper using a job applicant to write story about minimum wage.
Then I went to the inside story on Page B7, which afforded employers a place to express dissenting views on the wisdom of raising the state’s minimum wage. My byline was on that story. The story actually offers something of a tutorial in the ways of fair-and-balanced corporate journalism.
The first expert quoted in the piece was Gerry Bradley, an economist at the New Mexico Department of Labor. His first thought on the ramifications of a statewide minimum-wage boost, at least as it appears in the story?
“Our literature leads us to think there would be a small negative impact on teen-age employment in New Mexico.”
Hmm. That sounds bad!
Then, and only if for some reason you hadn’t been bored out of your skull and kept reading, you’d see where Bradley allowed that the negative effect on teen jobs would be more than offset by a “dramatic drop in the number of people living below the poverty level.” Some 15,000-20,000 New Mexicans could be lifted above the poverty line by a minimum-wage increase of 75 cents to a dollar.
Striving to remain objective, fair and balanced, Bradley conceded that “both sides have a case to make.” Oh, the horror.
In all, I wrote five stories in two days, which is pretty good production for a non-employee. On Sunday’s A1, there was the story I half-remembered, under the headline “Broken Heart.”
Fuckers had sent me to Bloomfield, to interview grieving Tom and Renee Welts. Their 12-year-old daughter, Lorraine, had died only two weeks before during surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.
All I can say is they must’ve edited the shit out of this one. Where did all my insouciant prose? Whither the flowery phrases? It’s under my byline, but it doesn’t sound like me at all. Too straightforward, to the point. Oh well.
And that is my Farmington tale.