Sunday, October 16, 2011

A page from the past

The farewell party held for former PI employees made me think of the Titanic, of the band that played to the end before sinking into the sea forever. Perhaps that’s because The Seattle Post Intelligencer was akin to that great ship – no one thought it would ever go down. There weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone. Yes, there are survivors.

Freelancers were invited as were the employees, former employees and their families; the media was not. I dithered as to whether or not I should go. Though I’d written a column for 13 years as a free-lance writer I still felt like an outsider. I knew only two employees, one I had never met in person yet I was compelled to attend.

The employees didn’t know – and it doesn’t matter now – that my grandfather, Edwin J. Dalby wrote a column for the PI back in the 1930s, early 1940s nor that my parents met there. It didn’t matter that I’d applied there for a secretarial position in the early 1990s and almost got hired. I’d wanted to work for the PI more than anything in the world.

When that phone call came from GJ back in 1996 asking if I’d like to try my hand at writing “Hike of the Week” I thought it was a joke but he’d read my writing in regional magazines and liked my style. An opportunity to write for the PI was one no writer could resist.

We didn’t know the column would last 13 years; neither of us knew that the PI had already struck an iceberg in the dark, the beginning of the digital age. The damage would only be discovered too late. The ship sailed bravely on in the fog of a new age.

The ship began taking on water in the early 2000s. By then I was no longer sending diskettes, slides and negatives to GJ. Digital cameras replaced the Pentax, the Kodak slides, the strips of negatives. That was heady stuff. Little did we know that the digital era was the perfect storm, enough to sink a great ship like the Seattle Post Intellencer, just one of floundering ships in a sea of pixels and html.

Was it 2005 or later that we felt the first shudders of our sinking craft? Bravely, we carried on, meeting our deadlines. I still scrounged the bottom of the literal barrel looking for winter hikes to write up and pickings were slim. I’d beg GJ for ideas; he always came through.

The digital cameras improved, the dinosaur of dial-up replaced by broadband and other means of doing everything faster and faster. We noticed that the PI seemed to be ailing, getting skinnier by the day; some of the columnists had fallen overboard. I was still in the lifeboat; still believing, hoping we wouldn’t go down.

Then, a sinister change - an on-line edition stealthily appeared on The Internet. My columns – as were other columnists – were in the printed edition as well as on-line but I didn’t pay much attention to the on-line edition. I barely glanced at all the digital photographs in the on-line edition; I was too busy writing a column. But the printed edition continued to shrink as the on-line edition grew.

In January we knew our vessel had been struck a lethal blow. We knew we were going down but the band played on. Business as normal was the word that came down from the powers-that-be. That’s what you do when a ship goes down. You just carry on. Climb into a lifeboat if you can and if not, help other survivors and if you go down hope you are brave until the end.

There were not enough lifeboats for everyone. Only a few survived this disaster, the ones that “got it” early on and forged ahead into the digital age, unafraid of the creation of ever-faster technological devices. Word came down to me weeks before that my column was “dead”; it hadn’t got enough on-line “clicks”. That hurt; I didn’t even know that my future had depended on the number of clicks from on-line readers.

There were a lot of people at the party; they were resolute and hearty though you could see the distance in their eyes. I met JE, tall as a captain who gently said he was cutting all ties and moving on. He said he was one of the lucky ones. He was ready to retire. I watched DH, dashing in a tuxedo. We listened to DH and his band play “Twist and Shout” in the lounge. People were dancing, I tapped my feet in rhythm to the music, looking in on a world I’d had only a glimpse of.

I met DM, a warm and charming man. I met JO and told him how much I loved his recipes, especially his oyster stew. I saw AT and like DG, my guest and “date”, was surprised he was so tall. We’d both imagined him being short.

A wall was lined with photographs taken by the paper’s employees – they would go in an auction to the highest bidder. I wanted all of them. There were artifacts – an old canvas bag used by a paper carrier. There was food and drink– but I wasn’t hungry. I felt almost faint, feverish, swooning in the voices of the growing crowd, their voices rising and falling like waves on a shore.

Faces stood out in the crowd; faces of people I wish I’d known. Who was that old man that resembled George Bernard Shaw sitting on a bench, his gnarled hands gripping a polished wooden cane? Who was the slightly rumpled PI employee wearing an apron with faded lettering reading “The Seattle Post Intelligencer”? I spotted a photographer I recognized from a photograph but did not know. Too shy to speak, I gazed at him, hoping he’d gaze back.

As the night wore on people were dancing, laughing, embracing, reminiscing but with their eyes still on the horizon, looking ahead, not back. Though we didn’t know many of these fine folks, we belonged there too. We, too, would climb out of the lifeboat determined to survive.

Last fall while strolling through Warren G. Magnuson Park with my camera, I spotted something red and shiny nearly hidden in a thicket of brambles. It was two abandoned newspaper boxes. Empty, bent, broken and crumpled – one for The Seattle Post Intelligencer, the other for The Seattle Times. For some odd reason I felt compelled to take a photograph. I posted the photo of the box for The Seattle Post Intelligencer when I knew it was dying.

I haven’t posted the image of The Seattle Times’ battered box. The Seattle Times is still hanging on; I hope they can ride out the storm.

Update: October 16, 2011

The Seattle Times is still sailing; so am I.


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