A Times-Picayune veteran’s farewell

Many staffers at the Time-Picayune and Newshouse’s Alabama newspapers are saying their goodbyes to colleagues today. Bruce Nolan posted this essay on the Friends of the Times-Picayune Facebook page. It’s a closed group, but Nolan gave permission to share the piece with my readers.

In 1973, at the age of 25, I knelt behind the cover of a fire engine in the middle of Loyola Avenue as the police sharpshooter next to me repeatedly fired his .30-06 into a window of the Howard Johnson’s hotel. Around us, dozens of crouching New Orleans policemen joined in; their massed gunfire echoed among the downtown buildings. A sniper was hiding in the hotel.

I had a license to attend.

In 1984, at 36, I stood on a barge anchored mid-stream in the Mississippi River and watched a floating crane precariously, impossibly, lift a 66-ton steel truss high overhead. Ironworkers from Pennsylvania and New York building a massive new bridge reached down to guide the steel into place. An engineer explained the technique, the tolerances and the risks. How they did this; why they did that. Later, I drank with the ironworkers; they told me their stories.

I had a license to be there.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II descended from his 747 to greet Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Miami. There came a moment when the pope looked past them and caught my eye, standing a few yards away. I gave him a discrete thumbs-up, close to the chest. He nodded an acknowledgment and offered a slight smile: Yes, back at ya, it said in Polish.

I had a license to be there.

Twenty years later, I sat on an overturned bucket in the front yard of a home ruined by Hurricane Katrina. I shared sandwiches with three wilting, paint-spattered volunteers from a tiny church in Ohio. I asked why they were spending vacation on their third trip to the flood zone. “Because we are the hands and feet of Christ,” they said.

I had a license to be there.

That license expires today, after 41 years at the Times-Picayune./CONTINUES

In my callow youth, I dreaded going to a job each day locked in a boring and predicable routine. I wanted a fresh start every day.

The news business promised that. And it delivered.

And I have been doubly lucky; the bonus was living the culture of newspapering.

I arrived at the Times-Picayune at the end of the hot-type era, technology not much changed since the era of Mark Twain.

At 24 I encountered a newsroom populated by cadaverous smokers, hopeful novelists, skirt-chasers, functional alcoholics and one eccentric spinster who wore her hat indoors. Every desk bore the scorch marks of cigarette burns. A photo darkroom was set aside for cocktails on Friday afternoons. Most staffers had high school educations; maybe a little college.

At first I thought I was among flawed geniuses. I was half-right – but usually not about the genius part.

But the place began to change. That generation quickly yielded to another. College degrees became the norm. The bottles disappeared; smoking was banned. Masters degrees proliferated.

We became gentrified, sophisticated, and finally computer-driven and digitized.

But something about the culture remained.

Across the years, reporters, editors and photographers worked because they were curious and passionate. They cultivated cynicism, but retained the right to stay permanently offended at the dismal performances of the people they covered, people with public obligations.

And they cherished the license to ask questions and bear witness.

It’s what made the job different than selling insurance or accountancy.

I’ll turn in my license today.

I used the license to ask questions: (How do they make the two halves of a bridge join in the middle like that?) and meet people with stories to tell.

It is no knock on the American president I chatted with that I was considerably more taken by Glendoria Smoot, an aging former prostitute who for years awakened before dawn one day each week to cook, in her tiny kitchen, a full hot meal for 200 homeless men at a local mission. For free, because she said she saw her Lord in the rubble of their faces.

I had a license to be there.

It’s true that after 41 years the end at the Times-Picayune is ragged and traumatic. Half the newsroom has been laid off in service to a head-long publishing experiment that feels poorly thought out and risky in the extreme.

People are badly hurt and anxious. A few are hopeful. Each receives a constant stream of encouragement from friends, as I have, that there is not only life after the Times-Picayune, but actual happiness as well.

Today the layoffs take effect.

At first I was among the many let go. I later turned down an offer to return. No anger or ideology at work there; it was just too late: By then I had devoted too much energy to preparing for separation and the years to come.

I have voluntarily retired.

Time to turn in the license.

I took care to honor it. In return it provided me a better career than I had a right to expect.

Time for others to use it.

I’m grateful for having been able to borrow it.