Honest Labor by C.E. Snow

We were newspapermen. I didn’t classify myself as “woman” then because I had grown up with the imagery of some man, somewhere, chain smoking and nailing authority figures to a verbal cross. He’d be wearing tweed of course. We worked as small town reporters in the Appalachian foothills of Northeast Georgia, turn of the century. The space where 9/11 made us patriots and 3 megapixel digital cameras revolutionized our newsrooms. Brad and I made $8 an hour, we fought like cats until something gave and I was invited to hang out at his townhome along the creek.

“How do you pay for this?”

“My dad gives me $400 a month.”

I rented a small room from professors at Clemson and the small Bible college in town, balancing out the rest of my pay with night shifts at a diner owned by a Muslim family from Egypt. Popular, as you can imagine in small town Georgia after those towers fell. I liked the family and they sent me home with baked ziti and chicken tenders. They liked me because I didn’t flinch scrubbing toilets or cleaning up kid puke.

Ask me what my occupation was in that era, I identified as writer. “I am working on a book”, I’d say at parties passing on the Busch Light and swirling questionable punch in a cup. Writer. I’m writing a novel. Ask me what I have written in that era, I have to cop to being a general assignments reporter at a twice weekly newspaper. Press me a little more; I was also a Pigskin Picker, an elite media personality in a town of 7,000.

You want Clemson.

Probably Auburn.

Hell I don’t know.

Do I have to pitch in for the pizza?

During the week of 9/11 Brad and I got in trouble for ripping off the vending machine at work. Newspaper paste-up stations rendered useless when the new iMacs came in for digital layout, we used the shiny pica poles to commit the petty crimes.

The method involved Brad shoving the thin ruler between the frame of the vending machine and the Plexiglas. Peanut M&Ms beamed like bags of yellow sunshine from the top row and we knocked off two a day. My job was simple; collect the snacks from the bottom slot with my little hands.

We justified it as adaptive solutions to pad out the $8 an hour for the noble occupation of being honest newsmen, but ask me now and I think we were a couple of entitled shits avoiding writing up the police blotter. If you know anything about working the crime desk in the Deep South, you spend most your time paraphrasing domestic violence police reports into two, concise sentences.

The victim told the police she was leaving the apartments on Woods St. when her boyfriend cut her on her left arm with a pocketknife. The altercation was over division of the couple’s labradoodle. *

(*This is a mere example of a police blotter, the accuracy of which a labradoodle crossbreed existing in 2001 in the smallest pockets of blue collar Georgia would be questionable.)

There were other concessions for our financial blight; most the staff strolled in hours past the 8 am start time. Our duct-taped chairs sitting empty until near lunchtime, the long smoke breaks, the Wendy’s 99¢ Menu (the pioneer in introducing standard fast food value menus), we never went out. We didn’t buy high school football tickets, simply waving our white reporter notebooks and flashing badges to skip the $3 game ticket. No need to purchase albums at the mall; Napster has you covered. I can and will download “The Thong Song” at my leisure because I am poor, overworked and deserving of this enchanting work without compensating the artist.

The town we worked in was poor with one of the lowest rated education systems in the state. Situated among the prettiest of landscapes in the United States just miles away from Deliverance country. The primary employer was the Super Walmart that decommissioned the entire downtown, spurning the county into an economic depression.

To put it plainly, the public I was working for had it way worse than me at $4.75 an hour and they had families. Transportation from remote mountain homesteads to the public school proved challenging and hope infused Friday night football games as the ticket out. Otherwise, go see your Marine recruiter next to the Super Walmart because they need you in Afghanistan now.

That week the rise of Internet publications also had our publisher in a tizzy.

“Snow get on in here, do you think people want to pay for newspapers anymore?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Snow, go take one of those digital cameras and take pictures of cute kids, people buy newspapers when cute kids are in them.”

We were desperate. The powers that be figuring out how to monetize the twice weekly online keep the web presses rolling, keep everyone paid. We tabled the discussion on September 11th when I reported to my duct tape chair on time and afraid.

“Snow go to the airport, they grounded everything get some quotes.”

I borrowed my friend’s three-speed, yellow 70s Jeep to navigate the gravel to the rural airport where I met a pharmaceutical company private pilot enroute from Florida, grounded in our county.

“I just got off the phone, my mom is worried about me.”

Hulking over me with an aviator’s sunburn and cordless phone with antenna sticking out of his pocket, he directs me to the small television in the airport lobby. We watch that gray cloud of dust swallow up New Yorkers. Stunned silent, we hear our breath and an old BUNN coffee pot crackling on the magazine rack.

I return to the newspaper office to write my story, we are all quiet today, hastily repaired office chairs methodically squeaking in time to our typing. It’s past lunch but no one has the nerve to steal M&Ms, we recognize the moral violation, everything reframed. There’s a loud rumble at the back of the newspaper offices followed by a structure-cracking crash. In this moment we really believe the building is under attack after being conditioned all morning by the television news.

We walk from the front of the building in a clumsy clump, pushing on one another through the back bottlenecks and corridors. Tom, our boss has sweat rings on his usually tidy blue shirt, dark against his sides. He flicks on the light and the fluorescent bulbs warm up in part of the room; the ceiling has collapsed from a week of rain over our print archives.

The newspapers in perfect piles on top of fold out tables from several years, waiting to find their home in the file cabinets. Small town newspaper staff with no assistants doesn’t have time for such endeavors. The light from the vending machine casts a low energy glow on the concrete ground where clumps of drywall sit.

“Well. Shoot. We may not be able to replace some of these. They never got put away. Shoot. Some people pay for old archives too. Everyone get a broom.” Our publisher ascends down concrete stairs to where the printing presses used to be, now outsourced to a larger facility to keep the paper in production.

On Wednesday morning I’m several hours late to work.

“Snow, get in my office now.”

Tom is looking at me like a disappointed father. Like I just drove his truck drunk and he caught boys in my room after 10 pm.

“You want to be a writer? You want to work here? Well you start by being to work on time. You also stop ripping off the vending machine in the back because that’s a family running the vending machine and you’re stealing from someone doing honest labor.”

Honest labor. You’re supposed to be paid for honest labor, but there’s no guarantee of what that looks like. The Walmart employee, the family that stocks the vending machines, the small town newspaper reporter, the soldier freshly minted into Afghanistan’s mountain. Writers, artists, mothers, philosophers– the expectation of doling out some kind of service with no expectation of keeping the electricity on.

Some years later I’m visiting the National Gallery in Washington D.C. a large room with golden frames tucked around Monet’s renditions of countrysides and swamp lilies. Everyone is here for the Monet. The selfies with Monet, the Monet clad journals and posters in the Smithsonian gift shops. He never made any money. I turn my back on the paintings and face the main thoroughfare through the gallery, watching pristine D.C. elite families zip by in boat shoes and designer sunglasses. I wonder how they’re more worth it. What their contribution is.

Honest labor and the business of truth telling is the work of devoted volunteers. I still steal M&Ms on occasion.

C.E. Snow is a seminary dropout writing about religion, sex and bicycling. Her first memoir Friction & Momentum is forthcoming from Microcosm Publishing. She tweets @Books_and_Velo