My first day on the job

Our newspaper offices this summer have been filled with bright, energetic young men and women, all fresh from fine university programs, looking for a bit of experience in daily journalism. And considering that, for a while there, just about the whole darn northern half of the county seemed to be on fire, I’d say our intern class has gotten a bit of seasoning.

Still, it’s always been my philosophy that an essential part of an aspiring journalist’s on-the-job education is to listen to some broken-down old reporter grumble about the way things used to be. So, in their service, I’m planning to sit down with all our interns, pass around a few sarsaparillas, snap my suspenders and stroke my whiskers, and, by cracky, tell these young’uns what’s what.

Sure, I figure there’s a good percentage of them that I’ll send running from the room, and by extension, the journalism profession. And maybe there’ll be a few I bore to death, or a state that looks a lot like it. But those who stick it out will hear how I started in this business.

I bring this up only because I’ve got a big personal anniversary coming up. This fall will mark the 20th year I’ve been engaged in daily newspapering. I remember it because I can’t forget it. My first day at work was Oct. 17, 1989.

Yes, it’s true. If you know anybody in Santa Cruz County over 40, you’ve probably heard an earthquake story or three, and most such stories are likely to send you reaching for your iPod ear buds or straight into the loving arms of cable TV.

But we’re about to be deluged with stories of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, so I figure I’ll get mine in while the getting’s good.

I didn’t hook up with the Sentinel until 1991, but before that, I worked at the small daily over in Gilroy, the Dispatch. I took the job in the fall of ’89, blissfully ignorant of where I was or what I was getting into. At the time, I thought Gilroy was the name of George Jetson’s son.

My first day of work was meant to be Oct. 16, a Monday. But I dragged in the office with my Subaru full of my stuff, having just moved from Humboldt County. I was staying at a former girlfriend’s place in San Francisco, thinking that was a commute I could handle for a while until I found an apartment or something of my own. The drive down that Monday morning quickly convinced me otherwise.

My editor, bless her heart, had pity on me. “Tell you what,” she said. “Why don’t you just go out and find a place to stay, and come on back tomorrow morning?”

So that’s what I did. The best I could do that day was to take a room at a local motel just off the freeway, and then, the next morning, it was time to step on that first rung of the ladder that led inexorably to the editorial pages of the New York Times.

That Tuesday was long and awkward and humiliating, as all first days are. But at least I could look forward to watching the Giants-A’s World Series in the evening. I was, in fact, on the freeway when the quake itself hit. “Great,” I remember thinking at the moment. “On top of everything else, my steering column just broke in half.” As I pulled over to the side of the freeway, I was shocked to see others pulling over as well. Wait, how did everyone’s steering column break at the same time? What kind of weird place is this?

A bit later, having figured out what had happened, I arrived back at the newspaper. Parking lot is almost empty. Nobody’s around. The power’s out. It’s still blistering hot outside. I walk in the cave of the Dispatch building, and see a lone figure sitting at a desk, silhouetted against the window. It’s the paper’s city editor, a mountainous man with a serious Lou Grant menace to him. I’m trembling like the Scarecrow before Oz.

He doesn’t even remember my name. I’m just the New Guy. Before the door closes behind me, he’s pouring forth orders at me. Go to this street, this neighborhood, talk to these people, etc. I’m about as familiar with Gilroy as I am with Katmandu. But I only nod, thinking, “Geez, I wish someone would hurry up and invent Google Maps.”

That evening, I wandered  through a strange town, watching strange scenarios unfold. I hung out with a panicked liquor-store merchant as he sat perched on a stool with a baseball bat in his hand, the stench of a hundred broken liquor bottles wafting out from where his front window used to be. I walked the neighborhoods where homeowners were camping on their own front lawns, pressing me for news.

Deeper into the night, I went back to the paper, poured out my observations in my writing, shared a late-night beer with reporters I had never met 24 hours before. Past midnight, I took a ride with another reporter down to Hollister where we heard the damage was greater, and then to Watsonville where it was greater still. I arrived back at the motel where I was staying somewhere around 4 a.m. only to see the second-floor balcony totally separated from the building.

But the next day, the Dispatch trumpeted its enormous headline – “7.0 MONSTER” – and that was an artifact that I, aka “New Guy,” had contributed to. I had about three minutes to reflect, then it was back to work on the next day’s paper.

And, young’uns, I’ve never been bored in this profession since. Now, finish your sarsaparilla.

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