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.”
It is 4:30 in the morning and I have spent the last two hours reciting my memoirs in my head, the last half hour going through my buddy list and asking everyone without an away message: “Are you up?”
Apparently, I am not the only one to remain logged on without an away message as the 10 people I have asked are either not up or a little scared of me.
I always thought that whole first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life thing was one of the lamer clichés. But this is it. And I don’t think sleepless and swollen-eyed is exactly the way it was intended to be interpreted.
Today is supposed to be my last day at the Chicago Tribune. But does anyone finish out their shift after being laid off? Actually, I guess I did. My first thought after being given the news in a phone call yesterday morning was to hang up and think, damn, I had two good story ideas I was working on. One interview I did that won’t see the light of day.
And so I wrote. Not because I needed to finish a shift but because that is what we do. In nearly all of life’s circumstances. Sometimes it takes a little while to gather it up. But it always ends here, in front of the keyboard, a writer’s best friend regardless of where his words end up.
I want to be angry. But right now I am merely sad and sentimental after 19 years and four months at the Tribune. I keep flashing back to that day in mid-January, 1990, standing inside the lobby of the Tower, looking up at all of the famous quotations inscribed in the marble of the walls above me, awe-inspiring and frightening, as chills washed over me.
I remember at age 28, walking outside and seeing my childhood friend Mark, who worked across the street at the Wrigley Building at the time, waiting for me to see if I got the job. And I remember us hugging and crying and him swinging me around like Mary Tyler Moore without the hat.
I am remembering a lot of things, which pleases me since I often have trouble remembering if I put on deodorant each morning.
I will continue writing because that is what we do and because it makes me feel better, like I have not been robbed of the love of my life. But I do wonder how I will ever adjust to identifying myself as anyone but “Melissa Isaacson from the Chicago Tribune.” It is who I am, with or without my employee ID card. It is my identity. It was not a job.
Who am I without that? Am I still a sportswriter? A journalist? Being “Melissa Isaacson from the Chicago Tribune,” gave me the confidence I did not always possess on my own, a veneer of credibility I had not yet earned. And I wonder, rather pathetically, I suppose, after 26 years in the business, if my name can stand up on its own.
I never changed it when I got married, a week past my 30th birthday, because my editor at the time said he didn’t want any of those ridiculous long hyphenated bylines and because I thought it would break my father’s heart not to see our name in the paper any more.
So I agonized over the decision and cried to my husband that I did not want a different last name from him and my future children but that I felt I had to keep it. He laughed and never gave it a second thought, or if he did, he never let on.
I am Melissa Isaacson in the paper and on airline tickets and hotel registries so people who have to, can find me. I am Missy Mawrence everywhere else and Missy Mawrence is really who I am. A mother with two beautiful children, both of whom cried for me yesterday. A wife with a husband so wonderful I do not deserve him.
That’s what I need to remember.