Showed up at junior high Career Day this morning without a career.
I didn’t plan it that way, of course. I had a career when they asked me to come back again this year. Actually, I had a career yesterday. Or was it two days ago? It’s all sort of a blur at this point.
My 13-year-old daughter’s instructions were pretty clear on how to address her fellow eighth graders, this being the first time she and I had ever collided on the Career Day circuit.
“Please,” she said with real feeling. “Please, don’t be boring.”
And then for added dramatic effect, “Really.”
This was pressure beyond any deadline I have ever encountered. But so as not to leave the impression that she is somehow insensitive, she said this before I was let go from the Tribune. Let go? Is that how you say it? My husband says “laid off” is OK, much better than fired.
Anyway, after my daughter learned I was laid off, after I made a crack about going to Career Day without a career and after she hugged me and expressed her sympathy, she added worriedly, “But really, what are you going to do?”
Whatever it was, it seemed it would be OK with her as long as I wasn’t boring. That I would not embarrass her was understood, not that I would comply with that one.
I struggled a bit with whether or not to mention the fact that I was no longer a Tribune employee, briefly considered pointing my finger at the kids and warning them that if they followed their dreams, they would get their little hearts broken, that it was a cruel, cruel world.
But then I figured that might get me laid off from the Career Day circuit and though no one is paying me, you never know where it could lead.
I actually spoke nicely about the Tribune, more out of habit than anything. Told the kids, as I always do, how superior newspapers have always been as a news source as opposed to much of the alternative.
I even told one of my favorite stories about Mike Royko, though for the last several years I’ve sadly been getting blank stares in return when I mention his name.
I was in college, early eighties, working part-time during vacations answering phones in the sports department of the Sun-Times, and once again I found myself inside Billy Goat’s Tavern, hoping for a glimpse of my journalistic idol.
Royko was a regular but I always seemed to miss him until this one particular Friday, as he walked in and settled behind the bar. For an hour, maybe more, I worked up my courage to approach him, rehearsed what I would say (“Mr. Royko, I’ve always been a great admirer of your work” seemed like a good start). And finally, I actually got out of my chair and started in his direction.
My arm was out-stretched, ready to make my move, when a drunken patron cut me off.
“Hey Royko, that column of yours today was a load of crap,” the guy slurred.
But before he could go on, Royko reached into his pocket, pulled out a quarter and flicked it in the guy’s face.
“There’s your money back,” Royko snarled. “Now, f— off.”
Not long after engineering a quick about-face and shooting back to the safety of my table, I marveled at the brilliance of that move.
For a quarter, we got Mike Royko. We got his Pulitzer Prize-winning wit and cynical best in its perfect literary simplicity. We got a lot more for a quarter and for a while, we got it for 50 cents and then 75 cents, still a lot more bang for the buck than your average bottle of fake spring water.
I believed that with all my heart. And so I would tell the story to kids, imploring them to get into the habit of reading the newspaper, even just glance at the headlines.
I found myself telling them that again Friday and the kids didn’t even look too bored. I was quite pleased with myself actually, as I snuck a glance at my daughter, who looked at me almost approvingly.
“It wasn’t too bad,” she said afterward in one of those proud mother-daughter moments to savor.
“Next time though,” she added as she walked out the door, “you really need to talk more about Michael Jordan.”