Ties that were older than me, Aristotle, Cigarettes, Old Cranks and Dog Portraits. A remembrance of things past, Part One

I did not want to write an obituary, but a close, very dear friend died recently.  I’ve decided to use this blog as a bit of a memoir.  People have always told me I should write a memoir, so I guess this is a kind of first draft of that.  And hey, maybe this will go viral.  But it probably won’t.  It doesn’t cover my entire life.  We’ll cover what led up to me starting my career in Washington DC, where I met Herman Ayayo, the dear friend and mentor I lost recently.  

This is part I, sorta the backstory of my life the first few years directly after college. Buckle up.  

I guess the story really starts in 1997.  As I’ve talked about before, I studied abroad in Denmark in 1997 and that basically turned my life upside down.  

I returned to college and I knew one thing.  I did not want to go to school anymore.  I was really uninterested in studying anymore.  But well, I wasn’t exactly calling the shots and the person who paid for my college education was kinda insisting I finish.  I still remember going to see my advisor and saying — I don’t want to study anymore.  He goes — well, you could go to Washington.  We have this internship program.  Well, that’s not what he actually said.  He said — have you ever taken a trip across the country?  Go do that, keep a journal and I’ll give you the 8 credits you need.  I would have preferred that option, but well, more level headed people prevailed.  Thank God.  

I applied and got in and ended up doing a really outstanding internship at the Voice of America.  On the first day of the internship, one of my new coworkers came up to me and said — I heard you were from Chicago.  I said — no.  I’m from New York.  We lived in Chicago when I was a little kid.  The guy looks at me and goes — you??? LITTLE KID??? I have ties that are older than you.  And that dear friends is how that internship started.  

Despite this seemingly inauspicious beginning, the internship was great.  I learned so much at that internship at the Voice of America.  My boss was this diminutive Texan who reminded me of Ross Perot in manner.  The guy had a bust of Aristotle and a plaque with an armadillo on it.  He swore Aristotle used to wink at him occasionally.  And the plaque of the armadillo was from a beauty contest the critters had participated in.  The Texan had a really deep Texas accent.  One time someone called and asked for the website for the service. This is before the web had seeped deeply into our collective consciousness.  I remember the Texas boss saying “our website is dubya dubya dubya dot VOA dot gov.  It took about half an hour for him to say this.  

Needless to say, everyone was decades older than me.  The Texas boss enlisted me to work on these crime alerts, kind of an America’s most wanted for international criminals.  The Texan was vehement about this stuff, kind of like an old fashioned sheriff.  I actually really liked it.  The crime alerts were for international broadcast and that to me was pretty cool.  I got to know all about what kind of alerts Interpol puts out about criminals.  A random piece of information if I ever heard of it.  They also did editorials, which were a little bit more difficult.  At first it was supposed to be one editorial during the whole internship but I think it turned into five or so of the editorials.  I also got to work on a television show, sitting in the control room running a teleprompter.  The guests were some pretty heavy hitters policy wise.  I remember going to the front of the building to pick up the Dalai Lama’s personal representative to the United States, a jovial man who shook my hand with a lot of enthusiasm.  

They were giving me pretty simple tasks but they couldn’t be sure about what my skills were and I understood that.  I was treated like their daughter.  I went back to them for years afterwards for references for jobs and educational opportunities. I learned so much from all of them and am and will be eternally grateful for everything they taught me.

I also learned things from them that went beyond the professional world.  There were four of them in the office.  Two of them were completely on the right, one of them a total lefty and another one who was a veteran journalist.  They weren’t just civil to each other, they were friends.  There were never any big disagreements between them.  They got along really well.  What I learned was beyond politics.  I learned a level of civility towards other people that needed to be there in situations, something that served me well in the future.

After the internship ended, I went back to college to graduate, as I was still in my last semester of college.  

It would make a great story if everything just worked out after that, but I’m leaving out the part about being dumped.  Yup.  The ritual post college dumping.  It’s not you, it’s me honey.  Yeah, ewwwww…. I mean I was a lot better off in the long run but it sure did not feel that way at the time.  It took me forever to figure out why I got dumped and I eventually realized that it didn’t actually have anything to do with me.  And I was absolutely better off without this guy.  

I graduated from college and took off for another summer in Europe, another odd chapter of the wilderness years.  A summer that saw me ending up in some truly odd situations.  This was at the height of the wildness years, where I had no fixed place where I was all the time but I hadn’t found my home yet.

It was still the phase of things were I was running away from life, not towards it.  

The people who gave me the first internship recommended me for a second internship.  The second one was, um, interesting.  I guess that’s a good way to explain it.  The internship was based in the Northeast quadrant of Washington DC, on Capitol Hill.  The office for the internship was in one of the old row houses.  

I walked into the office at the internship and it was like a time capsule.  I don’t even think the guy who managed the whole thing even had a computer.  But what was the funniest thing was that the guy was there smoking.  In an office.  In 1999.  I mean I knew people had smoked in offices.  But that was in the times when men called women “broads,” men wore hats, red meat was good for you and women had few if any rights.  Something told me they would have loved to harken back to those wonderful days.  

Then there was the internship.  Behind the smoke filled room was another room filled with these ancient computers.  We’re not talking DOS here but they were in desperate need of an upgrade.  None of them could even display most websites properly.  I remember trying to check my email and it wouldn’t even display.  

The building had its own let’s call them quirks.  Quirks.  The floor in the upstairs was slightly warped.  The staircase kinda leaned.  The quirky characters matched their setting. Come to think of it, I never really saw them outside of this time warped structure we all inhabited.

The women in the internship program lived together in housing provided by the organization next door to its headquarters.  There were eight or nine of us living in this three story intern house.  There were bunk beds.  Incredibly we had no cable, no internet hook up and we shared a phone.  All eight or nine of us.  One phone.  What was funny was that the house was directly next to the headquarters of the internship, separated by a fence.  My big decision was to just cross over the fence or walk around it.  The decisions you make as a 22 year old.  

Our neighbor was an old man named Finnegan.  Finnegan.  Another old crank.  Finnegan was a photographer.  Who photographed the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  We’ll get to the origin story of that joke in a little while.  I’m kidding, but only slightly.  The guy had photographed Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.  Teddy may have been a little before his time.  But only slightly.  He had photographed Eisenhower and probably every president after that.  

And boy Finnegan was cranky.  Vintage cranky.  He has ties older than me cranky.  When I found out that Finnegan was a photographer, I thought I could pick his brain about that.  Finnegan though was having absolutely none of that.  Absolutely none of it.  He told me curtly that back in his day, of daguerreotypes and magnesium flare flashes, you got two tries to get a picture right.  I’m kidding about Finnegan making daguerrotypes but he wasn’t that far removed from that.  Finnegan had a lot of grievances about modern photography.  I mean what what this bullshit about having 36 exposure film????  In Finnegan’s day, with his Graflex Speed Graphic, he got his ten shots and he didn’t complain.  A journalist had come to interview Finnegan about being a historical figure on Capitol Hill.  That person had taken ten rolls of 36 exposure film.  Finnegan was completely horrified by this.  

Then there was our stipend.  The condition was that we had to keep the place clean and we all got the princely sum of $263 a week.  We would receive a check that could only be cashed at an ancient bank on Capitol Hill.  The bank was near Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, so on payday, you’d have a bunch of 22 year olds with nearly $250 dollars in cash on them.  I mean direct deposit already existed.  People weren’t getting physical checks anymore.  But as I said, the place wanted to hang on to ancient ways of doing things and no, they were not looking to change anything.  

We were all assigned these news stories to research, things that the two who ran the internship wanted us to report about, I guess.  The topics were, um, weird.  Let’s say they were to the right of what I believed, what I currently believe.  My topic was about press leaks and Ken Starr.  Ken Starr and his office leaking things to the press.  Ken Starr leaking.  I don’t even remember.  And Ken Starr.  Who ever remembers that name?  It was that long ago.  The topics definitely had a certain stance to them, let’s put it that way.  A certain right leaning stance.  Yes.  Let’s definitely put it that way.

There was this unpleasant little man who worked there as well.  One day I did say that I had no interest in the topic I had been assigned.  This little unpleasant man said that journalism was about writing about things you have no interest in.  I said eventually I wanted to write about my opinions.  This person said that opinions were like buttholes.  Everyone has them.  Except he used a different, more colorful term.  This was the first time anyone ever said this to me and unfortunately not the last.

The internship had these weekly meetings, these forums.  I can only remember two of these forums.  One was a guy who came to talk to us worked for C-Span.  I had read a magazine article about how C-Span had the worst green room of all of the television stations in Washington.  My fellow internship mates dared me to ask this semi obnoxious question.  I’m 22, have zero brains, few inhibitions and aim to be outrageous.  Remember the prefrontal cortex isn’t done developing until you are 25 and we were a ways off from that. So I asked him why this magazine said that C-Span had the worst green room of all of the television stations in DC. The guy who was there though was very gracious and answered my question very well, talking about how C-Span did so much with such a tiny budget.  In a weird way, it was my first lesson in maturity and being diplomatic.  I remembered this lesson for a long time after that.

Another session was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  We were supposed to write up the sessions in a journalistic way.  Well I found this out later.  So the unpleasant man I had mentioned before looked at something I had written and had all sorts of negative comments.  Eye rolls.  He sits there and goes — you put all the important stuff at the bottom.  Proceeds to give me a dressing down.  Lengthy dressing down.    “Here.  You did this all wrong.”  “Put THIS at the top, not THIS.” Audible eye roll. I call this my introduction to journalism. Spectacular.  How auspicious.

I’m making the internship out to be a miserable experience but really absolutely it was not.  I mean parts of it weren’t great but a lot of it was a lot of fun.  We went out constantly because there was absolutely nothing to do in that house.  Remember, this was the era before smartphones.  Smartphones were called “going out.”  Wow.  I sound really bitter and old.  

Anyway, we did in fact have a lot of fun.  One of my fellow interns, still an extremely dear friend of mine, was working for Robert “Prince of Darkness” Novak, a Washington DC pundit and columnist.  Yes, that was his real nickname. Yes.  Novak was a total Washington character.  A veteran of smoke filed rooms and dinners at the Old Ebbitt Grill.

Through my friend, Novak invited the interns to a taping of his show, the Capital Gang.  Novak was part of this weekly political round table with other aged pundits.  There were liberals Al Hunt and Mark Shields.  Novak was on the opposite side with old Pat Buchanan, veteran of the Nixon and Reagan White House’s and a guy who got into a fist fight with a Washington DC police officer.  

For the show taping, the interns had to sit on the side of the studio.  I remember basically sitting on the floor.  Novak kept calling my friend, who was his intern, by the wrong name.  Amani???? Amoni???? Novak might have had a really fierce nickname but he wasn’t so fierce in person.  We all thought what Novak was doing was pretty fun.  

The banter on the Capital Gang was really premium.  To sound like an old codger here for a second, people like Laura Ingram and Tucker Carlson are such imposters compared to people like Novak, Hunt and Shields.  I can’t imagine Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingram going toe to toe with a rank and file Democratic pundit now.  It wouldn’t be a discussion of any real issues.    

The proceedings at the show taping were really fun.  Hunt, Shields and Novak kinda sat there and play-fought during the show taping.  There was nothing hateful or malicious about any of them.  At one point, Hunt turns to Novak and says — Bob, you remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  I mean you were there, right??? I have continually repeated this line since then.  Thank you Al Hunt for making this joke.  Those guys were FUNNY.  Meanwhile, the interns were given strict instructions not to laugh because it would interfere with the taping of the show.  Did we laugh??? Of course we did.  

The other thing that I remember was that Novak, Hunt and Shields were actually nice to us.  Novak, for all of his bluster and his unfriendly nickname was actually a pretty nice guy.  We all took a picture together as well, which is unfortunately lost to the sands of time.  

I had joined up with this internship program that promised that I could an internship in a place like CNN.  I got there and they said (and I will never forget this) that we can get you into the Alexandria Gazette Packet.  I am in no way dragging that newspaper but it was really disappointing as they had advertised themselves as a place that could place you in all of these really impressive news organizations.  I ended up at the Herndon Connection.

Once I got the assignment though, it did turn out to be fortuitous.  It 1999, I guess the waning years of big journalism, before social media took everything over and media started to crater.  The news room at Connection Newspaper was buzzing.  I still remember.  It was in this anonymous building in Northern Virginia, among a lot of those buildings that look like overturned shoe boxes.  There were scores of people working there, old style newspaper editors.  I got paired up with this classic journalism crank named Sanford Horn.  Oh was Sanford ever cranky.  If you could harness the crankiness of this man, you could power a city.  He would pick up the phone and say “SANFORD HORN” right into the phone, almost as if speaking in capital letters.  For some reason, they put me with Sanford.  On one of my first day shadowing Sanford, Sanford handed me a folder of stories and said — these are my dogs.  What Sanford meant was that these were the stories Sanford had no interest in writing.  

Still, I was undeterred.  I had always loved to write and thought of myself as quite good at it.  It was a skill I had gotten quite good at very quickly and could do it with relative ease.  Could I drive a car or keep a house organized?  Can I not answer in the interest of not incriminating myself?  But I could always write.  That was a solid skill for me.

The whole point of the Connection experience was to get “clips.”  Clips, for the younger audience, are samples with your name on them with your writing.  Samples containing your byline.  Backtracking here for a minute, the colorful characters at my post college internship told me that the writing I had done at my wonderful college internship didn’t officially count as clips.  Because my name wasn’t on them.  

Connection turned out to be a really good career move, as much as I thought I was “too good” to work in a local newspaper.  HA!!!  Honestly I paid no attention to Sanford’s editorializing about the stories.  I interviewed a bunch of retired women about the bike ride they took around Scandinavia.  I interviewed another guy about his butterfly collection.  I went to a high school band concert.  It was real community journalism.  In my mind, there’s something so innocent and idyllic about that time in my life.

There was a big group of us over there.  We would all go out to lunch with another intern over there named Jesse.  He had a Volkswagen Beetle that had holes in the floor.  He loved telling us that the car was an antique and didn’t need to follow any modern car standards, including the holes in the backseat floor where you could see the road.  At lunch time, we would fight to see who got to sit in the back so we could observe the holes.  

So I left with six or seven clips.  I’m not talking that those were my six or seven best.  I had six or seven clips total.  

Again I cannot overstate how confusing the post college time is.  It felt like to me that there was absolutely nothing.  I cannot put into words how confused I was about what I was supposed to do or where I was even supposed to work.  I returned to New York to live with my parents and work at truly one of the most horrible jobs I have ever worked at.  

At that time the prevailing narrative was that needing your parents or even being close to them was for the stupids.  I was 22, going on 23.  The whole thing, at least among the group I belonged to, was that listening to your parents or going to them for advice made you childish.  

No one, no ever tells you how hard the post college time is.  You are done with the first part of your schooling and you are not really sure what is coming next.  Its that uncertainty that causes the maximum amount of anxiety.

Little Edie, who I have talked about before, had talked me into moving back to Washington.  I mean I don’t know if I needed much convincing.  I had wanted to stay in DC but I had also wanted to be close to my parents.  Or maybe I didn’t want to be close.  I had no idea.  

I moved back to DC.  The place I lived in was miserable.  It really was.  It turns out Little Edie had sorta conned me into moving there.  As soon as I moved down there, she vanished.  She was gone to her boyfriend’s and I was alone.  At that age though, it felt like I was alone, always alone.  

The awfulness of the place cannot be overstated.  I remember sitting in the living room.  There was this absolutely pathetic red futon.  There was a tv on the floor, an old white television.  It was an old, beat up television.  There was no furniture other than that.  I had a bed with no bed frame and no box spring.  My bed was held up by a stack of bricks.  The carpet in my room was filthy.  The shower was broken and consistently leaked into the living room, to the point where I put a large bucket underneath the area it leaked into so the floor wouldn’t warp more than it already had.  The toilet hadn’t been installed properly, so the floor underneath it sagged a bit.  From downstairs, you could see the ceiling sagging where the toilet was.  Oh and I almost forgot the hole in the ceiling.  Giant hole.  And little Edie’s role in all of this???  Zero.  She was gone.

I remember thinking — I’m going to have to earn furniture.  I’m going to have to earn a couch, a coffee table, a shelf.  Needless to say, again, Little Edie played no part in any of this.

Oh and I didn’t have a job when I moved there.  I had some savings and the rent was insanely cheap, $400 a month.  

So I was sending out job applications.  I sound like an ancient person but applying for a job wasn’t like it is now, where you use some stupid system with some name like Bullfrog or Simple but the name has a Q in the middle to upload your resume and then re-type what is in your resume.  Companies were just getting email.  I remember applying to a job via fax.  One big Washington publication called Congressional Quarterly actually required that you mail them the application.  Mail.  With a stamp.  Those were the days.  

There was a job board in the Hill newspaper and Journalism Jobs.  I dutifully sat in a Kinkos on Capitol Hill, using their computer to send out applications.  I sent out so many applications and had quite a few interviews, most of which I don’t remember.

But there was one that I do remember.  It was some kind of a non profit near Pennsylvania Avenue.  I got out of the interview and I had a voicemail from the office manager from some place called Tax Analysts or Tax Notes.  I don’t remember which she even said.  Yeah I had a cell phone.  It made phone calls.  That was its bell and whistle.  Notice I used the singular.

And yet again in a moment that could only happen in Washington DC, the day I got the call to go to Tax Analysts, when I was on Pennsylvania Avenue, everyone, I mean EVERYONE on the street was staring at something.  Suddenly a car slows down and the window rolls down and we see President Bill Clinton.  Clinton was over there laughing and waving at everyone.  Somehow after all of this turmoil, this felt good.    

Back to this tax place.  I remember applying for the job.  I remember it was based in Northern Virginia.  Everything else was based in DC.  This was the only thing outside of the city.  I remember thinking — watch.  This is the job I’ll actually get.  

I had no clue about the area.  I was disappointed because it wasn’t DC.  Northern Virginia.  What was that exactly? 

I got up early for the interview and actually got there early.  The orange line to West Falls Church.  I think that was the terminus for the orange line then.  The place was at East Falls Church.  The building was on Lee Highway.  I actually got there way before the interview.  These were the days when there wasn’t a Starbucks on every corner.  Lee Highway didn’t have anything for that matter.  So I walked into a bar at 10am and asked for a cup of coffee.  

I got to the interview.  I looked around at this place.  There was this wood paneling around the whole place.  It wasn’t sleek.  It resembled a den.  I had an interview with Chris Bergin, who was the editor of the magazine at the time.  The whole editorial staff was there at the time.  A very pleasant looking blond woman.  A bespectacled guy with brown hair.  And a guy who looked slightly upset to be there, wearing athletic shorts and a t-shirt with a drawing of a basketball on it.  This was a formal job interview??  Basketball shorts????

The interview was kinda fun.  I went with my six clips from connection newspapers, the six I had.  They told me I would be working as a formatter, whatever that was.  In my overeagerness to find a job that I had applied for a reporting position, which I was absolutely not ready for.  According to them, it would be formatting with reporting opportunities.  They reassured me that when the reporting opportunities came, I could ask any question I needed about tax law and they would answer them.  Whatever this formatting job was, I was ready for it.  23 and eager to please.  

It seemed like they were going to hire me so we took a short walk around the office.  I would be a formatter for a magazine called Highlights and Documents, H&D.  I’m being shown around and the office kinda looks like a teenager’s bedroom.  An edgy teenager.  There was some kind of stuffed animal attached to the wall.  There was a 1960s movie poster for a movie where the tag line was “Come to Susanne, both sacred and profane.”  There was a bottle of a substance called “Go Away Evil.”  That substance was rapidly dissolving so I guess the level of evil was rising.  There was a couch that had seen much better days.  There was one of those televisions in that room that was the size of a small suitcase.  I’m not sure of the last time that television had even been turned on.  It was one of those televisions that people turn into fish tanks now.

There was a profoundly sacrilegious sign on the wall. Right there in front of me was a sign that said — Warren A* Rojas.  Underneath that, next to an asterisk, it said “The A stands for Anti-christ.”  If that wasn’t funny enough, underneath that it said “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” For years I had no idea where that quote came from. I thought maybe it was from the Bible. No. It turned out to be from Conan the Barbarian.

But the thing that really sold me on the job was a picture of two dachshunds on the wall.  It was a very formal portrait, like something you’d see of a person’s kids but it was of dogs.  Those dogs belonged to Herman Ayayo, the guy in the athletic shorts.  I thought — this is where I want to work. That picture was what did it for me.

And this is the end of part one. Stay tuned for part two, which is currently being drafted.

Oh and some pictures. I have thousands of pictures that have never been displayed up here, as they are from the time before I had the blog. They are from the time before blogs in general. Some of them are DC-ish. Some of them are not. I guess this goes with my tendency to photograph everything, whether its interesting or not. Here you go:


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