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Wack to Bork; Moving On; Dig Deeper

Wack to Bork

The night before I return, I find my dusty work bag, my dusty passkey to the office, and whatever else my dusty memories remind me that I'll need. I also bring baby pictures.

I work for an accounting magazine, and I've been gone for three months. This was a lengthy leave, half paternity, half emergency as Jill and I struggled to put our home together. I cleaned out my office late one pre-Christmas day. A lot of temps come through my office and use whatever machines are empty. Now it's the last day of February. The days have turned softer, and it's light until 5:30, almost 6. I've never been gone from a job so long and then returned. The leave has been, almost to the day, as long as a summer vacation from school.

I take a new subway line to work; it gets me there in 15 minutes. I walk around the block to kill time until 9, then walk through the same revolving doors. "Twenty-second floor, right?" I ask myself at the elevator. At the door I have to try two passkeys: I reported one lost just a few days before starting my leave but found it on my dresser three weeks ago. One key works, one doesn't. They've put up a new sign on the office door. The carpet has the same stain of tread marks leading to the door.

I glance around a corner to see if my nameplate is still outside my office. It is. First guy I see is my boss. He is a big, thoughtful man, and I was sorry to leave him. Back in December, he never batted an eye about my leave, just helped me get it as quickly as possible. I think he wondered, though, if I was coming back.

I sit in his office with my jacket on. We chat about how things are going, but he's brief and eager to let me move back into the flow. "You'll find mail and some Christmas presents," he says.

"Hope you don't need any bookshelves put up," I joke. It feels like coming back to a school that you left years ago.

Taped to my office door is the picture of Ned I sent to my boss weeks ago. Touching. I open the door. The place is how I left it. Strangely, there is no dust. It's cleaner than if I'd been there. First thing I see are two bright bags of toys: a talking doll for Ned and a bucket of Legos for Alex. On top of each is a memo from my boss, wishing happy holidays. Vendors have sent a coffee cup, a candle, and two big Christmas cookies that by now have turned to rocks. I put three boxes and the packing peanuts aside for Jill. (Since I stood in this room last, she has returned to ebay.)

"Welcome back. Are you back for good?" one colleague asks. "You were gone for what, a month?" another asks.

"How are the kids?"

Hard as it is for me to believe there are people who have never seen Ned, who was born 12 days after I started leave, I'm prepared for the question ("He's good!") and I whip out the pictures. They look at pictures of Alex and Ned and say the two boys look alike. People with whom I rarely chat drop by my office to look at the pictures. "He's big," they say of Alex. "He's cute," they say of Ned. Then they go away again.

My first task is to code an article. This means inserting symbols in the right places to tell the computers in the layout department what to do to make the article look right in print. We never do this for each other's articles, but I am returning to work at the end of a hell month: our annual survey of accounting firms, during which the four persons on our staff have to track down profits and staff totals of about 150 accounting firms nationwide. I confess I didn't miss it this year. It's only fair that I code this article and free my boss.

The article is about time and billing ("T&B!") and practice management software. "Once the time accumulation and bill generation features are taken care of, nice additional features include the ability to manage the flat fee billings that many accounting firms provide some clients." It's been three months. I don't remember the codes. I stare at the article like a cat going to sleep.

Then amid the pile of professional mail, I find half a dozen Christmas cards: best wishes for the new year; may the new year bring happiness. I guess it has so far. (March 2001)

Moving On

They tell us to make sure we put the new address, phone number, and e-mail on our e-mail signature and leave a special message on our voicemail.

They have brought us flattened cartons, and battered, green metal bins that run on flattened wheels and that wobble and creak as if part of a Flintstones cartoon. "Clean out everything," my boss said. "Don't wait until the last minute. And if you find something and you haven't used it in a year, throw it away!"

"That thinking could lead to a lot of divorces," a colleague remarks.

This wasn't supposed to happen. When I left on paternity leave back in early December, the move, they said, was a year away. Summer at the earliest. Instead it's barely spring, and I've had to strip my bulletin board.

At that bulletin board I stared through the tortured calls with doctors during Alex's hospitalization. I stared at those pushpins the day the nurse said on the phone, "Mr. Stimpson, you'd better come to the hospital." I stared when the doctor told me that Jill and I had interfered with Alex's treatment in the NICU "to his detriment." I stared when the nursing home attendant in Tucson told me, "Mr. Stimpson, your mother is actively dying."

A lot of memories in the cartons reaching toward the ceiling. When I open and close my desk drawers, I hear an echo.

"Quote," my boss announces in my doorway, "'Tomorrow you will stop work at 4 p.m. and have everything packed up as detailed below.'" He hands me a piece of paper. I reply that, to show him how motivated I am, I'll stop work at 3.

I was liking this office building. Fifteen minutes from home on the subway; a number of trains I can take, most of them expresses; a $7 haircut/watch repair/shoeshine/cell phone store up the block, run by Russians; eateries cheap and exotic, as well as expensive and plain. I have been here three years. I have an office now, with a door that shuts. I have no windows. This will change.

I start on my cabinets: press releases, folders, slick media kits from exhibitors at trade shows that left my memory the day after they were over. Pounds and pounds of the stuff. It slides out of my grip and splashes across the carpet. You know, somebody sat down at one point and must have thought, "Okay, should we make this stuff slippery or not?" I wrestle the pile and dump it with a satisfying crash into the bin. Look in there. Amazing what people throw out: books that cost hundreds of dollars; unopened packs of business software; and here, this little Velcro padded bag, which I pluck out to carry my JeffsLife disks back and forth from work.

I've cruised the new neighborhood, which is 30 blocks south on 7th Avenue. It has coffee shops and $6 haircut joints; my bank has a branch there; coffee bars sit next to gay leather video stores. There I'll have an office.

When I say "office," I mean "cubicle." I haven't had a cubicle in three years. I never hung so much as a postcard on these white walls, it's true. But I did have an enclosed box, and the sounds all but stopped when I shut my door. Noise floats over the top of cubicles like water flooding over the bulkheads of the Titanic. Cubicles have no doors. Last time I worked in a cubicle, I had to use earplugs and move my workspace twice to keep off the office's main street. I also didn't have Internet access at that job; let's not talk about that.

This move has been easier on me than on some of my co-workers. Before my leave last December, I trucked a lot of personal stuff home. The "Maine-version" Monopoly game that my brother sent me two Christmases ago. JeffsLife business cards, printed with trembling expectation two years ago but that now bear e-mail addresses and URLs hopelessly out of date. Red foil wrapping paper for Jill's birthday in 1999. The shoes I bought for Alex while he was still in the hospital, and which were too small and I never got around to returning. Receipts. Packets of ketchup and packets of soy sauce. Paper clips: My boss loves weird paper clips, and has given me many striped ones. At least he'll still be around.

Into cartons I dump enough paper clips to make a chain from here to the new office, maybe even from here to where I thought my career would be this time in my life.

Everything else, into the wastebasket. Look in there. Look at this place that was and that will never be again. Look at the bulletin board. It's naked cork but for the pushpins. I arrange them to spell "Adios." (April 2001)

Dig Deeper

I'm finally reading All the President's Men. I found the paperback in the laundry room and have always meant to read it.

I was struck first by the photos, the exact ones my father once looked at every day as he rattled his newspaper. Twenty-nine earnest political men, many at microphones, many lying even as the flashbulbs went off, all with hairstyles that take me back. For those too young to remember, the book tells the story of how Washington Post reporters Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (played by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) cracked the story of the Watergate break-in and eventually forced President Nixon to resign. Photos aside, the book is a meticulously-assembled history of how you pin a President to the mat.

My father flew into Watergate. He thought Sam Ervin was a homespun god, and he despised such personages as John and Martha Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, and Bebe Rebozo. I was 12. My journalistic interests extended only to grabbing "Peanuts" after my father was done with the B section. I thought Bebe Rebozo was a cartoon character; I also kept confusing Ehrlichman and Haldeman with Huntley and Brinkley. The senate hearings were on every afternoon that spring of 1974, pre-empting "Star Trek," and my father and I watched.

I think my father would have loved to have seen Nixon crushed. My father died that July. Nixon resigned in August.

Now with a semi-professional's I can look at what Woodward and Bernstein - both were younger during Watergate than I am now - went through. I could never have done what they did. I like to sleep too much.

I remember in the movie Jason Robards, who played the gruff but brilliant editor Ben Bradlee, stood in front of Redford and Hoffman during a slow moment and teased them about being able to go home and take a shower. Turns out that Redford and Hoffman had it easy compared with Woodward and Bernstein.

A normal round of phone calls for the two investigators took hours. They judged success with a source with how many steps they could take into the person's apartment. They got calls at home and got tailed on lunches. They kept every sheet of paper and every note. They took no days off. They tricked their way into hotel rooms with an irony - considering what they were investigating - that I'm sure they were too weary to notice. Though often anonymous, their sources were triple-checked: This process has been documented so long that it's the kind of history you find in a dog-eared paperback in a laundry room, but still I can't figure out how they did it.

Not that I've never been exhausted in the line of duty. My first month on a daily in Ithaca, N.Y., for example, I helped cover a fire that killed five children. Later the paper sent me to interview the aunt of an arrested murderer, and I felt like Hoffman/Bernstein as I sat on her couch, my notebook tucked away, as she rose again and again to answer reporters' phone calls. I offered to go to the store for her so she wouldn't have to face her neighbors.

Eventually, I lost even that edge. When I covered cops in Baltimore, a woman got her throat cut and everyone started whispering "Russian mob." I guess I could have spent all night in some place full of triple-checkable, anonymous Russians, and maybe cracked the case. Instead I just digested the police press releases. (They never caught the killer.) When a depressed man shot his wife and then himself a year later, I again was motivated to visit the relatives' house. I never got as far as their couch, however, and they sure didn't want me to go to any store for them.

My pinnacle as a reporter of human catastrophe did come in Baltimore, when a 14-year-old boy swiped his mother's Chevrolet one spring night and killed himself by driving into a tree. I was re-typing police reports when my editor egged me to dig deeper.

I went to the crash site and studied the skid marks and the gouged bark; I knelt in the roadside gravel. Later, I sat down with the kid's mom and his friends - the mom got us all together; she was looking to sue the boy's one-time mental hospital, and wanted coverage - and I played the sensitive reporter while they replayed the boy's life. Turned out his father had also died when he was little.

I wrote the story and put the family's old snapshots in the paper, and I won an award and a gift certificate to a restaurant. "And see, you didn't want to do the story, did you?" my editor said.

No, much as my father would have been pleased, much as I wanted Redford to play me in the movie. (April 2001)


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