09 April 2016

death notices

The first real job I had out of college, not counting waiting tables or pounding nails with the Amish carpenters working on my parents' new house, was writing for the public relations department at Kenyon.  The Office of Public Affairs, to be precise.  The job was Assistant to the News Director, and it was half-time and paid a princely eight-something an hour, but I managed to live on that plus the half-time, four dollars an hour the Mount Vernon News paid me to be their local education reporter.

The duties, as outlined in the job posting, were principally writing press releases, articles for the Alumni Bulletin, and obituaries.  The first turned out to be fun and useful and a good lesson in writing engagingly and concisely, which you may argue I have largely ignored since.  The last was - well, in my early days on the job it was a punchline at cocktail parties.

It was mentioned in the job posting, I think, to weed out the applicants who might be creeped out by writing about dead people.  It did seem creepy to me, but I needed a job that was better than delivering massive trays of chicken wings to college kids on dime-a-wing night at the Brown Jug.  So I swore not to be fazed by it.  Mieke Bomann, the News Director who was hiring me, pressed me on the point by making clear that an essential part of the responsibility of writing obituaries would be calling people - Kenyon being a former men's college, generally aged widows - and asking about the cause of death.  No problem, I said, apparently convincingly enough.

Somewhat to my surprise, it wasn't a problem.  Well, the first couple of times, yes.  I'd suck in my breath, look at the name and phone number I'd pulled from the alumni files, pick up the receiver and punch in the digits.  I tended to reach those aged widows on the first try.  I would explain who I was and why I was calling, and express sorrow to them for their losses.  

And then we would proceed to have lovely conversations.  At twenty-three, I was far too untraveled to realize that there are few gifts more welcome to a grieving spouse then to spend half an hour talking with her about her former life partner.  It's funny - what did I expect?  That they would say, "Ugh!" and slam down the phone in pain?  I think maybe I did expect that.  Instead, I found myself spending too much of my four hours a day talking about the small details that make up ordinary mens' lives: their fraternity memberships, the ordinary jobs that they gave themselves to, their sports heroics, their love of their families.  

The one phone call I can recall most distinctly was about an alumnus for whom the files held almost nothing.  No information about family, no news clippings, little even about his days on the Hill.  We might have found out about his death from a returned piece of mail - that was pretty common.  I needed something, so I looked up where he had worked and called, blindly, hoping for some little detail or anecdote.  I ended up speaking a former colleague, maybe the guy who worked at the next desk.  There still wasn't much.  

And yet - there was someone on the other end of the wire who felt his loss.  You know, I suppose I might have dismissed the guy, written three sentences and moved on, but I didn't understand the job that way.  I don't think I've cared about getting any job I've had right as much as I did writing those little obituaries of ordinary men.  So the fellow on the line told me how his old colleague would often speak fondly of Kenyon, and I noted it down, and when it came time to write I made sure to include that little phrase.  It felt like placing a little flower in remembrance.  

It landed on Mieke's cutting room floor.  Which was probably the right call, editorially, and didn't really bother me.  In truth, I hadn't written that sentence for anyone who might have read it.

I had that job for about eight months.  In many ways, I feel as if everything I've written since - everything creative, anyway - has been a kind of obituary: of a place, of a time in my life, of a job I once had.  A way both of remembering and of moving on.  Whether that's true or not, I've always had an appreciation for the art, and the Times of course bears the standard.  When I used to get paper copies, I would never skip them; today, in digital form, they're easier to miss.  But every now and then you come across a standout.  The one linked here is a spectacular example, of a spectacular life.