Every day I'd leave high school about noon, take the subway to 23rd Street, run down to the basement cafeteria for a nutritious company meal, and then sort and deliver mail. My favorite route was the 40th to 30th floors, up there with the higher-flying Manhattan pigeons.
The job was my
transition to the adult world. I especially loved the secretaries
in their late-1950s sheath skirts. They would flirt with me because
I was safe. "If only you were a few years older," they would coo.
And I would imagine the paradise if I were a few years older.
I'd gotten the job through the pull of Mr. Dixon, my
friend Joey's father. On his last day at work, we joined Mr. Dixon
in the third sub-basement to ride the subway back to Queens with
him in celebration of his retirement. He was standing at his
locker, changing into street clothes, reflecting on his life:
"I came here during the Depression for a year or two,
until things got better. I never dreamt I'd spend my whole life
I was shocked. A grown man living in the apartment
upstairs had spent his life working as a guard for Metropolitan
Life Insurance at a job he didn't want.
In 1974, I was in
the same trap as an associate professor of physics in New Jersey. I
liked the students and my commute. But I hated physics. Like Mr.
Dixon, I'd chosen a trade for its economic potential.
Amid much terror, I quit, and with two children in tow, we headed
West. There, in rural western Colorado, we got lucky. Betsy and I
started a small-town weekly, North Fork Times. So long as we worked
our tails off, it thrived.
After six years, exhausted, we
sold it and got lucky again in 1983, when we took over High Country
News, a regional environmental paper. Using the same brute-force
formula, it also thrived. I was that luckiest of people. I loved
writing. I saw myself as a carpenter or mason, laying up a wall or
a building. Very occasionally, I thought ahead.
first year as a reporter, I drove up to a local coal mine to cover
a retirement. Instead of telling me how much he was looking forward
to his golden years, the miner ran from me, moving frantically
along the conveyor belt with a shovel, tidying up the coal as it
fell off. He was in a panic. What would he do when they took his
I pitied the man. I loved a Los Angeles
Times story headlined: "95, and still working 9 to 5," about people
who kept at their trades until they were within spitting distance
of their centenaries. I didn't understand people who weren't
driven, who didn't drive themselves.
Until I found that
my hide had become tougher than my whip hand. Unlike Joey's dad,
with his mandatory retirement age, I was my own boss. So it took a
year to ease myself out of the way. Out of administration, which I
never learned to like or be good at, even though 20 people depended
on my skill at it.
Like the miner, I wanted to leave
quietly. But you can't leave a job you've done for 19 years without
notice being paid. My successor Paul Larmer wrote a nice piece
about my tenure at High Country News. It has been a wonderful ride.
In the 1980s, High Country News was a traditional environmental
newspaper, dividing the West into White Hats and Black Hats.
Environmentalists were fighting their way from helpless, pariah
status in small Western towns into forces to be reckoned with.
But in the 1990s, I recognized that you could have too
much of a good thing, and that, however just it would be, we had to
go beyond the bayoneting of dying natural-resource economies. The
paper began a search for common ground among Westerners.
So praise was welcome. But I also remembered the panicked coal
miner who ran from me when I came to memorialize his work life. He
ran because the satisfaction is in the doing, and not in the having
done. Better a has-been than a never-been. But neither is
Plus, like Mr. Dixon, I have my regrets. I
regret the time I spent calling meetings, attending other people's
meetings, looking at budgets and strategic plans. They are all
necessary. But what a way for a writer in a unique small town, in a
fascinating region, to spend time.
the coal miner, in place of a gold watch, I am again gripping my
shovel handle as a roving journalist, preparing to explore how to
save from asphalt the 200,000 square miles of land that is still in
ranching. And how - with a sense of deja vu - to protect tens of
thousands of square miles from that Attila-the-Hun industry known
as coal-bed methane.