1. The first day
This is part of an interactive serial fiction experiment called “A March Story”. Reader contributions are marked as links. To learn more, read the Introduction. To tell me what you think or to get involved, tweet me.
What does one do on their first day of work? Click the mouse, tap the keys, explore the operating system ticking away in this ancient dark grey box. I know all this. One spends the first day of work wanting desperately to be busy. After weeks of not working, and really after years of being removed from the Working World, one wants to be consumed. I want to be consumed. With work.
The computer beeps: Beep beep.
I know that beep. It means “news”. All of the computers in a thirty-foot radius made the same noise. Two insistent beeps, at the cadence of the road runner, passing the coyote. Another salvo of news fired down the wires. I love the beeps.
Okay, so I’m not busy. It took me less than hour to get everything set up: configure my email, change my keyboard preferences, download Chrome and add some bookmarks. I’ve spent the rest of my day sitting here quietly, waiting for someone to come tell me what to do. It’s been a long day. I’ve kept myself occupied by adding story ideas to a yellow legal pad. Every time the computer beeps, I add a story to my list. I’m a “Digital Intern” so I try to put a special “Digital Twist” on each story. But I’d be happy to write anything. Anything that would get my name in print below the New York Dispatch title. (Though that title will likely be pixels and not ink.)
My eyes dart up to the alert bar. The Pope is about to board his Popecopter. Pope ideas take up about half of my list. I’m keeping myself occupied reading Twitter and exchanging IMs with Anna Sørensen. Thanks to her and more than a few plastic bottles of gin I made it through J-school and a man who wasted three months of my life with high-minded sophistry arguing the merits of an open relationship. But then again, that's exactly what you'd expect of a semiotician whose pick-up line includes the word “pulchritude”. That’s behind us. Now Anna and I each have our fancy, expensive masters degrees, eighty thousand dollars in debt and brand new unpaid internships. She’s in Asheville, North Carolina at a local TV station.
“The EP told me I should change my last name if I want to be an anchor,” she writes. “Father would never allow it.” Anna, the daughter of a Danish diplomat, wants to be on television. I am lucky to be spared her vanity. My great ambition is to be a rumpled reporter. No dry cleaning, no expensive haircuts. I barely convinced myself to wear a pair of heels today, my first day at my new job. It’s warm in the city— I just wanted to kick back in some shorts. But the spectre of my mother appeared over my shoulder this morning and she really didn't think flip flops were appropriate for the office.
It’s nearly the end of the day and no one has come to tell me what to do. I want to skip past all this first-day-on-the-job BS. I want to get to the part where I am just working. Where work takes over my life. And not just the first page of the crisp new legal pad. Buzzfeed just posted pictures of the Pope’s cat Contessina. I bet that’s a spoiled-ass cat.
Anna tweets: “Must confess @YnnsPhilippakis of @foalsfoalsfoals is totally rocking my world. And suddenly? It's all about the beard. “ Sigh. More about The Foals. Every day she obsessed more than the last. And she’s tweeting between chats to me. She’s bored. This is interning.
Another chat, this time from my new boss. Finally! He calls me into his office. I grab my legal pad. I’m ready.
Harold Simmons has been at the New York Dispatch for about forever. He’s always worked on the Metro desk and now he runs it and about three or four other orphan divisions including Book Review and “the website”. Mr. Simmons occupies his offices in one of two postures: 1) Feet up on the desk, fingers rubbing against his eyes, making a pained expression; 2) Hunched over his desk, shoulders drooping, hands against his face, making a pained expression. “Monica. Sorry I didn’t have time to chat this morning,” he says by way of introduction.
“No worries, Harold.” He’s already instructed me not to call him Mr. Simmons. He’s definitely not a “Harry”.
He’s in second position, stooped over a forgotten deli sandwich on pumpernickel bread with four giant bite marks in its side. It’s not much more quiet here than in the newsroom, the walls being too thin to contain the frenetic banter of middle-aged men. “You all settled in?” he asks.
“Yessir. My email’s working, my Twitter’s set up, and I’ve carefully placed my special sacapuntas from my abeula.” He cocks one eyebrow. “My grandmother thought I should have a pencil sharpener,” I explain.
He nods. His computer beeps. He looks over to a TweetDeck of six fast-moving columns. No wonder his expression is always pained. “Monica”, he begins before he looks back. “Let’s talk about what you’re going to work on.”
“I’ve put together some ideas,” I say, tapping my pen against my legal pad. “Some web-only stories.” He makes a hand gesture I recognize from kung fu movie battle scenes: bring it. “This sequester thing…”
The door behind me explodes open and in charges a rotund and perspiring man with a demented glare behind owl-eye glasses. “Harold, I want to hold off on publishing. We all know the looming sequester is so much political theater; those Hill bobble-heads will arrange some eleventh hour deal.”
My editor swings his feet up to his desk and begins to rub his eyes. “How long will it take to finish? I want you to push it live immediately. We’ll update it if we have to.”
“It’s the Internet. Have you met Monica LaRosa?” my editor gestures to me. I get a distracted gaze and perfunctory nod and then with a harrumph the reporter leaves and I realize he’s the Dispatch’s star political columnist. Simmons turns to me. “I’ve got a sequester guy already.”
I nod. “What about sequester memes? The sequester movie lines hashtag?” He gestures for me to keep going. No worries, I’ve got a whole legal pad here. Plenty of stuff I think that’s going to resonate on the Web.
“National’s got it.”
“I’ve got three Pope guys. I have a Pope guy in Rome.”
“But the Pope’s Twitter account?”
“They shut it down and deleted the Tweets, so what?”
I raise my pen in the air to make my point. “They actually archived all the Tweets and the account description… get this… it says ‘sede vacante’”. Harold goes back to position number one, releasing a sigh. I know that editor’s sigh. I’m losing him. “I think it would be a good digital story,” I offer, invoking that magical word that separates me (I think) from the regular coffee-fetching type of intern.
“Look, Monica. Your position is technically on the Metro desk. We report on the city. We don’t want to try to be Buzzfeed. And I would take the high road, but there's too much traffic in a long tail of really basic local reporting. Building an archive for SEO. That’s where you come in. Mostly your job is a lot of shit work copying and pasting, but also, I know you can write a bit. And you’re free. So I get to use you to create free content for my long tail. You use this as a chance to hone your craft. Outside of you not getting paid, everybody’s happy.”
“Yep, that’s what I signed up for.”
“Good. Forget this legal pad of yours. Don’t pay any attention to the AP wire. Get outside of this building and find yourself a story. Don’t think about it as news, think about it as exposition. You’re filling in the cracks in explaining New York to people. Got it?” He tapped his temple five times with a beat like a metronome. “Where do you live, Brooklyn?”
He chuckled. “Even Brooklyn is too expensive now. Great. Sunnyside. Maybe find yourself a story out there. You can review your favorite restaurant. Bring me something in a week.” He slides his feet down from the desk and slips his glasses from his hair to his nose, swiveling back to the angry waterfall of Tweetdeck. “I’ll have plenty of shit work for you tomorrow. Get here early.”
And I guess that’s it. I wouldn’t say restaurant reviews are my greatest professional ambition, but at least I’ve got some direction. I gather up my bag and my scarf. Can’t forget my jacket; it’s going to be cold out in Queens.
It’s a pleasant walk to the 7 train. I love this city, the human tide of traffic that sweeps you into a communal speed of walking. A New York City pace. But part of me wants to stroll, unbothered, with jacket over my arm, just enjoying it. To ignore the crowds for a love affair between myself, the city, and no one else.
The train is waiting to begin its journey east when I get on board. I grab a seat next to an old pear-shaped woman with a purple-tinted wig. I’m tucking my Metrocard into my purse when she decides we’re old friends.
“You have your Queenscoat. That’s good. I always forget mine here in the city.” I lift it towards her and make that grimace smile you make when you’re trying not to have a conversation. She continues unabated. “It’s too cold in Queens. Colder every year. Not like Manhattan, the rich people paradise. Rich women walking their dachshunds.”
The conductor speaks: “Please stand clear of the closing doors.” I have a brief fantasy that the moving of the train will lull this talkative lady to sleep. Could I pull my headphones out and flash an amicable smile? Would that be the rudest thing in the history of the planet? I take a surreptitious glance into my purse and see the ratty tangle of the cord. No way. Sigh. New York is about meeting new people.
“I thought that was impossible?” I ask politely.
She leans in, whispering, “Bloomberg is phoning it. I think the heat’s too expensive.”
“It’s his responsibility though. He’s the mayor.”
She makes a sound like steam escaping a pipe and waves her hand in my face. “This is his last term. He’ll let the next mayor worry. The whole system is old. Falling apart like me.”
Suddenly muted sunlight shines through the train as we pass above ground. I’ve got the perfect seat, I know. I scouted it out on my interview. This is the seat that gives you the best skyline view as you pull into Court Square. It’s magnificent, one of my favorite sights in the entire world. The steel and concrete spires of midtown rising as monuments to the human ability to change our world. And above them arcs that singular wonder of our desire to control it: the Dome.
The smooth glassy panels curve high over the city, falling either to the river’s edge or to the edge of another bubble and beginning their ascent again. It glints with the dwindled light of the sun, caught in glass and in steel frame. It’s hard not to wonder if it’s a little less clear than it used to be, dusty and smudged with age.
“See,” the woman next to me gestures across the train and out the window. “It looks old, just like me. It falls apart like me. And just like for me, Mayor doesn’t care.” She barks a laugh.
I think it’s become fashionable to think of the Dome as a symbol of hubris. It seems like an overreach— to have covered the world’s most magnificent city in this series of interlocked glass bubbles. When they built it, New Yorkers were fending off smog and nuclear threat as well as sweltering summers and withering winters. Today the air is cleaner and the Cold War is done and the Dome just keeps Manhattan dry and within a comfortable temperature range. Now it’s just another piece of ageing infrastructure. And it remains the only city Dome in the world. Doha talks of building one, maybe Beijing, but because the Manhattan Dome stands alone in history, it seems awkward in its solitude. Because the Dome is alone in the world it looks like a past vision of a future New York. I love it though. I’m happy to live out here in Queens in the fresh air and the real weather, but when I see the Dome on my morning walk to the train it gives me a little thrill of pride in my species. We made that thing.
The Dome is gone from our view, but the woman next to me is still listing off its faults. “In the hurricane, water came up under Dome and Mayor did nothing!”
I’ve read about this: flooding washed beneath a section of earth on which one edge of the Dome stood and crept into protected neighborhood. Experts said it put the stability of the Dome in no danger and the news was much more focused on the streets abutting the river that were very badly flooded. But the fact that floodwaters had allegedly snuck past the barrier that had protected Manhattan for so long was disconcerting.
The woman leans in for another conspiratorial whisper. “I heard that in the big snow, last month, a child found a snowflake in Manhattan.”
“Interesting.” I’m not really paying attention, but I widen my eyes in what I think is an appropriate expression of surprise. She widens hers back. Then she grips my arm and pulls herself to standing. We’re at her stop. “Snowflakes in Manhattan,” she mutters, walking away and off the 7.
The next stop is mine. I stand and begin the ritual of sliding into my coat and wrapping my scarf around my neck. Maybe the Dome could be my story. Its effect on the city is largely forgotten, all of the human interest stories about the Dome passed with its completion. I could write new ones. How does this famous piece of infrastructure fit into residents’ lives? I can make the Dome my beat.
I hope you enjoyed the first episode of A March Story. Have ideas? Have a word or sentence you want me to include? Tweet me with the hashtag #marchstory. Stay tuned for the next episode in one week.
Update: Episode 2 is now live.