I’d like to say I spent the past too-depressing-to-count months in a coma, a jail or a particularly Dickensian mental institution.
I’d like to have some low-hanging excuse at the ready to explain away the past 76 days. I don’t. I have only a void.
I have no credible medical excuse for inaction, just an inexplicable malaise, a low-grade depression, a barren netherworld where the days of my increasingly questionable existence go to die.
But I have a wife and a 5-year-old boy, so I can’t give up. The two of them are much, much better than I deserve. And they deserve much more from me.
We’re inching closer to leaving western Washington and embarking upon a journey that at some indefinite point will return us to southeastern Pennsylvania. That’s a trek of more than 2,800 miles by carbon-burning vehicle. It is an unfathomable distance in the tortuous landscape of the psyche.
We are running away from a broken home, or at least a broken mortgage. We are running, nay, shuffling toward the great maw of uncertainty. Which I suppose doesn’t make us a whole lot different from a lot of people who are scuffling across uncertain terrain as the 21st century stretches deeper into its second decade.
We’re still in the process of trying to peddle our dog-eared belongings to strangers via yard sales, eBay auctions and craigslist dalliances. We’re shedding the scales of our material existence, pawning them off piecemeal on passers-by, both of the physical and virtual variety. In any case, an extended economic downturn creates a favorable business climate for a peddler of old and careworn belongings.
Today is Monday. Columbus Day. Which is another story, but I must hold fast to my trivial little narrative for the moment. Earlier today I went to the shed out back of our broken house, and pulled out a sack made of sturdy plastic. It is full of pulp and ink.
It was an archival relic: The entire run, or close as is extant, of The West Chester Paper. And just by happenstance of the calendar, today marks the 19th anniversary of the weekly’s debut. It also marks my debut as a journalist, or something very much like it.
Nineteen years. I was 30 then, and I thought I was getting old.
Time passes quickly. No expression is more trite. None is more terrifying in its ontological truth.
Time, at least as we experience it, is a frightful will-o’-the-wisp. It is fleeting, flickering and unfathomable. It is intractable and unknowable, indifferent and unthinkable.
But that, again, is another story.
Oct. 8, 1993. Nineteen years before that, President Gerald Ford gave a speech before Congress urging Americans to “Whip Inflation Now.” Nineteen years before that, Oct. 8, 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.
I can’t stand many more 19-year increments.
But I pile digression upon digression. Back to The West Chester Paper, where I was hired mainly because I had a pulse and few other options. The $15,000 annual salary didn’t scare me off as it had most other applicants.
Looking back, it’s hard not to consider the enterprise doomed from inception. In the opening editorial, our publisher, Jamie Blaine, referenced the Gettysburg Address in saying “the world my little note nor long remember what we write here.”
Never, I imagine, was a Lincoln allusion more fitting. And proper.
The portents of doom came swinging in at us from all directions before we got our feet underneath us. There were ghosts in the machine, it seemed.
They were right there for all to see, screaming from the front page of the inaugural edition. A photo tease to an inside photo spread anchored the page with the headline, “Up the creek.”
That can be interpreted as gallows-humor commentary on the paper, the town or the story beneath it, which announced the impending demise of the local F.W. Woolworth store. Woolworth’s had anchored the town’s most prominent intersection at the corner of Gay and High for 68 years. We would barely make it past our first birthday.
We had a small but valiant staff, including an editor (Chris Biondi); an assistant editor (Lauri Rakoff, now Lebo); and two reporters, Robert Koepcke, a 22-year-old whiz kid straight out of Boston University, and myself.
We were also blessed with an obsessive-compulsive receptionist and two sales people. One of them, a grizzled, sardonic veteran named Emory Zimmerman, returned to the office one afternoon with a defeated look on his face. He brandished an early edition of the paper and cried, “I’m selling a bag of hot air.”
If only he knew. One day not too far down the road we got a call from the local office of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where an employee had discovered thousands of our papers nestled safely in a Dumpster, where our circulation contractor had deposited them.
Soon Chris and I were making early-morning runs hurling papers out of his baby-blue pickup and laughing with self-mockery at the absurdity of our predicament.
When finances got worse, the cutting began. Emory was first to go. We moved to a smaller, less-auspicious office. Then Janet, the surviving sales person, followed him out the door.
Soon after that, Chris showed up at the office in a business suit, ready to try his luck in the ad game. He trudged dutifully to the corner of Market and Gay to court the favor of Charlie Swope, the town’s most powerful banker.
“Everything is going to be great!” Charlie promised Chris.
Easy for Charlie to say, as he was the top man at the First National Bank of Chester County.
I knew for sure the end was nigh the day Jamie stopped by the office and went to his knees to unearth paper clips from beneath my desk. The business failure of The West Chester Paper had driven him to his knees.
It was a surreal scene. James G. Blaine, scion and namesake of a onetime newspaperman who rose to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Secretary of State and nearly president into the bargain, holding a single paper clip aloft and gently scolding me for my prodigal ways.
Not long after that I found myself riding shotgun alongside Chris on a cold November afternoon in 1994. The leaves had already begun to fall from the trees along the Brandywine Creek, and winter was in the air. We were returning from Kennett Square, site of our sister paper, where we had delivered some furniture which had survived the wreckage of The West Chester Paper.
The journey was over. It was a hell of a ride, however brief. It would turn out to be the best newspaper job I ever had. It was the only one where the editorial product was the sole and consuming concern of the publisher, which I am forced to concede is not without its perilous aspects.
We lasted 13 months. In that time I’d enjoyed all the freedom, support and encouragement a reporter could ever dream of having. I only wish I had been blessed with the experience and perspective to make the most of it.
So it goes.
Happy birthday, West Chester Paper, wherever you are.