Ken's Second Act
Unemployed reporter accepts job in small desert town
Note to readers: I have revised the first chapter of my novel in the works with the intent of not making it strictly chronological, or linear, in nature. It could be subject to future revisions.
Cal Sinai woke up in a sweat. He dreamt about bodysurfing at the beach, only to be attacked not by a shark but by the wood scissors that the Backwater Chamber of Commerce used for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. He tried to swim away as the scissors approached him, then woke up from his nightmare.
Cal, a reporter for the Backwater Republican Advertiser Gazette, dreaded taking photos of ribbon cuttings, checks being passed and other assignments that he deemed of questionable news value. He was pressed for time, working as the sole news reporter for a paper that came out two days a week.
Education, public safety and business were his primary beats, and he wrote features and took photos. He realized management assigned him to take the dreaded ribbon-cutting and other staged photos to please the chamber and other small-town boosters, who supported The BRAG with their advertising dollars.
One of the biggest advertisers, the Backwater Ford Dealership, enjoyed near-sacred cow status. The BRAG historically downplayed or ignored consumer complaints, state investigations and lawsuits stemming from BFD’s business practices. The newspaper’s general manager, Penny Presley, went out of her way to please the dealer’s owner, Miles Lowe, whom the chamber of commerce staff nicknamed “All Smiles Miles.” Penny insisted on reading all stories involving BFD before publication.
Ever the publicity seeker, Miles called Penny to request coverage of him speaking at a Sept. 11 ceremony on this Sunday and giving away 911 miniature American flags throughout the event. Miles would take the stage on the civic center grounds with a number of dignitaries. Editor Ward Hogg assigned Cal to cover the event.
Cal saw Lowe at best as a shameless self-promoter and at worse as a sleazeball. However, he learned during his decade-long newspaper career that he had to deal with people whom he liked and respected as well as others whom he detested, both within his employer and outside in the community.
Cal arrived at The BRAG after a long job search that followed a layoff from a small daily in suburban Los Angeles, the Temperance Times. He remembered receiving an email in his inbox advising him of a mandatory meeting with his editors and human resources director for 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
His newspaper had not recovered from the Great Recession that struck two years earlier. Management in recent months had not replaced reporters and page designers who had quit, creating a number of empty desks.
Cal and his colleagues walked into the afternoon meeting with trepidation. The H.R. director and editor wasted no time in announcing the bad news: an October surprise. They gave Cal and three peers two days of notice that their jobs were ending. Two of his female peers cried while Cal expressed little emotion. At 35 he had come to realize in his 10-year career that unemployment was an occupational hazard for newspaper journalists.
On Friday, Cal cleaned his desk and hugged his peers, including those who were spared the budget ax. They wished each other good luck and said, “Stay in touch.”
For the next six months Cal vigorously applied for jobs and scraped a few freelance assignments. He followed ads in the California Newspaper Publishers Bulletin and JournalismJobs.com. Willing to leave California, he applied to newspapers in other Western states as well as in Texas and Florida. He received mostly terse emails that the positions had been filled, if he received a response at all. He went on five job interviews in California and Arizona, and fielded an additional five phone calls from more distant states. None of them led to hires.
In desperation as his unemployment benefits were about ready to run out, he applied to a twice-weekly paper in the remote desert outpost of Backwater, Calif., near the Arizona border, population 5,150. The ad in JournalismJobs.com said the Backwater Republican Advertiser Gazette was looking for a “hands-on, self-starting reporter willing to cover the small along with the big stories. Experience preferred, but will consider a recent college graduate.” Trying perhaps to appeal to applicants from the Midwest and back East, the ad said Backwater was within a weekend trip to San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Cal submitted a cover letter with a resume and six clips in pdf formats via email. A week later, he received a call from then-editor Maureen “Mo” Payne. Speaking in a gravelly voice, Payne asked Cal why he would be interested in coming to work for The BRAG, which is much smaller in circulation and staff than the Temperance Times, where Cal had worked for five years. Cal agreed to come for an interview the following Monday, and Mo gave him directions to the office from the interstate. Backwater was about a 300-mile drive, and Cal made plans to spend the night by booking a room at Motel 6.
Cal put on slacks, shirt, tie, suit jacket and dress shoes, and packed enough personal effects for a night’s stay. He drove through a vast stretch of desert terrain, and past a freeway exit for a state prison with a sign warning “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” Creosote bushes, smoke trees, cacti, palo verde trees and bare ground eventually gave way to fields of hay and lettuce and of homes and buildings.
He stopped for lunch at a diner, the Backwater Café, with a parking lot full of pickups off the Backwater Boulevard exit of the interstate. Upon arrival, Cal stood out from patrons who wore jeans, cowboy hats and boots. He ordered a sandwich, fries and a soft drink. The other patrons looked at him guardedly. He told a man sitting at the next table that he came to town for a job interview at the newspaper.
The man scoffed and said, “I read that rag from time to time. I don’t have any use for the editor, Mo Payne.”
Why not? Cal asked.
“She’s a lib. She’s a bulldog dyke,” the man whispered.
Not a nice thing to say, Cal thought.
Cal had an hour to kill, so he went for a walk downtown after parking in front of The BRAG office, a nondescript, single-story building across the street from city hall and the police station. He walked by a sandwich shop, clothing store and several empty storefronts, and headed back to the newspaper 15 minutes before his appointment. He went to the front desk to announce his presence. The receptionist went in back to the newsroom, returned and said, “Miss Payne will be with you in a few minutes.”
He grabbed a copy of Friday’s edition and read the lead story, about the city council mulling bids for a new fire station. He looked up and saw a 40-something woman with brown hair and glasses. While weighing about 300 pounds, she appeared to have more muscle than fat.
“Hi, Cal. I’m Mo. Come on back to my office.”
They headed past a cramped newsroom into the editor’s office with a desk stacked with newspapers, stale coffee cups and a computer. A framed color photo of Mo and her girlfriend appeared on the desk. There was room for only two other chairs, and Cal sat in one of them.
Mo said, “I looked at your resume and your clips are solid. I understand you were laid off from your past job. We’ve cut staff as well. We are down from two reporters. We have a lifestyle editor who does features, recipes, engagements and weddings and obits, and a sports guy who covers high school sports, and youth and adult leagues.”
She discussed his responsibilities if hired: covering cops and fires, the Backwater Unified School and Backwater Area Water districts as well as features. He also would handle breaking news and occasional assignments from across the Colorado River in the unincorporated community of Leachfield Springs. Mo covered city hall, wrote editorials and a weekly column, and edited copy and paginated (designed on a computer) The BRAG, published Wednesdays and Fridays.
She continued, “We don’t have a photographer. Everybody knows how to use a camera. Are you comfortable using a digital camera?”
“I took photos on occasion when a photographer could not make it to an assignment at my previous jobs,” Cal responded. “I also used my smartphone for mug shots.”
Mo asked, “Are you OK working at a smaller newspaper? We don’t have wire copy to fill space.”
“Sure,” Cal said unenthusiastically, not telling her that his options were limited.
“But while we are small, we are part of Southern California Arizona Media Inc., so you will have opportunities to move on to our small dailies,” Mo said.
“The weather is nice eight months of the year, but the needle rises above 100 degrees many days during the summer,” Mo continued. “Can you handle the desert heat?”
“I grew up in Southern California, and my parents retired to Arizona,” Cal said. “I’ll adapt.”
Mo asked a typical question. “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”
Cal laughed and said, “I don’t know what I will be doing in six months. Hopefully, I’ll be working at a bigger newspaper.”
Cal did not ask about pay, which he assumed would be less than his past job
Mo wrapped up the interview and Cal gave a list of three references.
“I will have one more candidate to interview, on Wednesday, and I will make up my mind by the end of the week,” Mo said. “Thanks for coming by.”
He checked into his room at Motel 6 and read copies of the newspaper. He noticed stories tended to be longer and The BRAG had a folksy feel. He read Mo’s weekly column, “The Mo Hill,” that included gossipy items about the goings-on in Backwater along with thumbs up and thumbs down offering praise and criticism. The column shared space on the editorial page with a J.P. Doodles cartoon. The Friday paper also contained a message from a local minister and a Bible verse for the day. He stopped for dinner at Denny’s across from the interstate offramp.
Cal got a good night’s sleep and headed back to Denny’s for a grand slam breakfast the next morning. He noticed the server seemed guarded and tried to avoid looking at him.
He paid the tab and returned to the motel. But before Cal checked out of the motel, a plainclothes detective showed up in the lobby, called out his name, showed his badge and said he wanted to question Cal about a string of indecent exposures at local restaurants.
“My name is pronounced ‘Sigh Nigh,’ not Cy N Nide,” Cal said.
“You match the composite of the perp,” the detective said. The suspect was a white man in his 30s, medium build and 6 feet tall.
“I have been in town only since Monday afternoon, and ate out three times,” Cal said.
“What are you doing here?” the detective asked.
“I came for a job interview at the newspaper.”
“No. A reporter.”
The detective sighed, asked to see Cal’s driver’s license and took down his cellphone number.
‘I’ll call if I have any more questions,” the detective said. “The case remains under investigation.”
Shaken and fearful the incident could cost him the job, Cal left a message for Mo before driving home. Cal arrived home that afternoon. He searched online for other jobs, knowing that he could not depend on Mo hiring him. We went about other daily duties: afternoon walks, trips to the library and shopping.
His phone rang Thursday morning, and he recognized Mo was calling.
“Hi, Cal. Mo here. How are you doing?”
“Fine. How about you?”
“The final candidate was a no-show, and I’ve got good news for you. I’m offering you a job. Pay will start at $25,000 a year, and you will be eligible for benefits in three months. How soon can you start? Can you be here in two or three weeks—before Memorial Day?”
“I’ll have to give notice to my landlord, but she knows my situation,” Cal said. “I’ll need to look for a place to live. I’ll do my best.”
Cal returned to Backwater on the following Monday, and dropped by The BRAG to pick up the Friday issue to read and look at the classified section. Mo saw him enter and invited him to meet the rest of the staff: sports editor Paul Pika and lifestyle editor Missy Meek. Paul, in his late 20s, wore jeans, athletic shoes and a baseball cap. A framed caricature of him identified Paul as “Sports Dude,” along with a bobblehead bearing his likeness. General Manager Penny Presley was at a company meeting out of town.
Missy, who has about 50 and pale, looked up from her computer and said hello. Both Missy and Paul grew up in Backwater.
“This is a great small town to raise a family,” Missy told Cal, who was single and unattached. “I hope you like it here.”
Cal left to check out rentals, determined not to spend more than $500 a month, and realized the selection was limited. He ruled out two rentals based on their outward appearance and location, and called the landlord of a one-bedroom unit at a small apartment complex that looked more promising. It was close to a school and within a mile from the office.
Mildred, pale and in her 60s, arrived in about 15 minutes and gave him a quick look at the furnished apartment unit. It had worn furniture along with a stove, dishwasher, garbage disposal and swamp cooler.
“What do you think?” Mildred asked.
“I’ll take it,” Cal said.
Mildred asked for personal references and said she needed to do a credit check on Cal. She said she let him know by the end of the day—and kept her word. He said he left his checkbook at home and would bring a check—and a carload of his personal effects—to move in later in the week.