Believe it or not, I’m only slightly embarrassed to dig this up and show you: It’s been 20 years this summer since I was an intern at the Washington Post. This was the summer between my junior and senior years of college, the same summer I turned 21. In some ways, it feels like five minutes ago, and in some ways it feels like an eternity.
Will you humor me for a minute? It’s my blog, right? I’m feeling blue tonight, and tired, and a little old.
Yes, the hair: More Belinda Carlisle than Bono, right? The glasses don’t help either. And the only reason I’m not smiling is because it’s my first day at work and I am scared shitless.
I was assigned to be a reporter in the Style section. I’d worked on The Maroon, my college weekly, and for an alt-weekly in Oklahoma City before this. The Post was my first experience at a daily paper. It was the first time I’d been sent out to cover a story and had to rush back and file 800 words in an hour or so. I had never even been to Washington, DC, before this. I was a rube with a ponytail.
In 1989, the Post newsroom still somewhat closely resembled the All the President’s Men movie set from the ‘70s. It was crowded and noisy and thrilling. They sent me to cover all sorts of things – the Folklife festival, the plight of Chinese dissidents in Washington (during the Tiananmen protests), a party at the Library of Congress, a bowling tournament for kids. I rode around with an insurance adjuster in Bethesda for a day after one of those summer storms where all the trees fall over. I wrote a profile of Sinbad (remember Sinbad?) and also of Damian Einstein, the WHFS deejay who lost his job because of his stutter. I hung out in Rep. Mickey Leland’s office the day his staff learned he’d been killed in a plane crash.
Janet Duckworth was my editor that summer. When it was all over in late August and I went back to New Orleans for the fall semester, she told me to stay in touch, and I took her seriously, and pestered her for years to read my clips. We became good friends. Janet lives in L.A. now, and when I’m there I love to crash on her couch. We always eat fabulous meals and go to movies or just flake off and listen to records. (Janet has hipped me to so much music that I’d missed or ignored before: Carla Bley, Moondog, Harry Nilsson, Charlie Haden. In the summer of ’89 she lent me a cassette dub of the Pixies Surfer Rosa and Come On Pilgrim albums. I still think of her when I hear “Gigantic.”) She’s still one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and one of the best editors anywhere – writers who’ve worked with her would agree with me.
The other interns and I used to get pretty smashed drinking pitchers at the Post Pub. According to Guild scale, we were paid $421 a week, which after taxes was $295, which I would cash at the Riggs Bank every Wednesday and then dash to my apartment to put it in my sock drawer, certain I would be mugged along the way. I lived in an apartment at 1525 Q St. NW, which I sublet from someone I knew from Loyola who shared it with Rene Sanchez, another Maroon alum a few years older than me who worked at the Post as a reporter. My half of the rent was $525 a month, which seemed astronomical. (I was paying $175 in New Orleans.) About a year ago, that very same apartment was listed for sale in the Sunday Post (asking $549,000!), and I dragged Michael with me to the open house. We stood in the empty bedroom I’d had two decades ago and admired the view from the windows. In ’89, I used to stare out the windows all the time (no Internet — bliss!), fascinated by all the apartments I could see into, the alleys and back decks. It was very time-warpy to stand there again.
That summer I explored a little bit of Washington, but with caution. I read City Paper and the Washington Blade religiously, cover-to-cover.
The crack wars were going on and people kept telling me where not to go – “never go east of 14th Street,” for example (!!). It took all the courage I could muster to go by myself to the old 9:30 Club on F Street to see … I can’t remember now. Camper van Beethoven? They Might Be Giants? (I’ve forgotten at least some things.) I also got up the nerve to go to Tracks in Southeast D.C.
That $295 paycheck had to stretch pretty far. I let myself buy one cassette tape a week at the Kemp Mill in Dupont Circle: Doolittle by the Pixies came out that summer and so did Cosmic Thing by the B-52s. So did Prince’s Batman soundtrack. Every morning I blow-dried my hair to Like a Prayer – don’t make fun. I bought one magazine a week (usually Spy or Esquire or Movieline, sometimes Harper’s) and went to one matinee a week, usually at the Dupont 5. Any books I read that summer were probably borrowed from Rene or turned up on the freebie table at the newsroom. I read Raymond Carver that summer and one or two of those Quarterly anthologies edited by Gordon Lish.
It’s nice to discover, at age 21, the thing you most want to be: Washington Post Style section reporter. It took 10 years, but I got to come back to work at the Post in 1999.
Now it’s been another 10 years. I’ve had a depressing few weeks in the newsroom this summer and I’m as clueless as anyone about what the future holds for the newspaper — or for reporters everywhere. Being a Style writer is still a real gas some days, but obviously a lot has changed. One reason I dug around for this old press badge – it’s one of my few real keepsakes – is that we have two Style interns this summer, Kate Kilpatrick and Ruth McCann, who are both a little further along in life than I was as an intern. I wonder how it’s going for them. There’s been so much change in our department in the last few weeks and I worry that we haven’t given them enough attention and challenging story assignments. I hope they’re having fun. It’s not worth doing if it’s not fun.
I used to think it would be great if I could go back in time and tell the Hank Stuever in this press badge picture that life is going to work out just fine. He worried all the time, about everything.
But now I wonder if that Hank shouldn’t come visit me here and now, and give me the same sort of boost.