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Vegging Out

by Stephanie Piper

The past is a nice place to visit

There's nostalgia in these waning days of summer. Keats' "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" is right around the corner, of course, and that's good news. And the guys in shoulder pads are passing by the back door of my office again every afternoon, headed for that big white bowl by the river. After 17 years in East Tennessee, this sight cannot fail to stir the blood.

But late August has a deeper, more personal association for me. It was at this time of year a decade ago that I achieved a career milestone. I became Big Vegetable Editor.

Before I began my current gentle, civilized job, I worked for a daily newspaper. I worked in a big, open newsroom with big, noisy reporters and a big, noisy police scanner that blared static-laced accounts of disaster all the livelong day. I had a battered metal desk and a grimy phone and was entitled to half an ashtray.

What I did not have was privacy. Any. Ever. There was no room for privacy. There was no room for coats, or umbrellas, or coke cans or overflowing ashtrays. There was very little room for the 40 or so reporters and editors whose foibles, quirks and personal histories became as familiar to me as those of my own family.

And it goes without saying that there was a real dearth of gentle, civilized behavior.

It's not that newspaper people are actively rude by nature. It's something we worked up to over time. We learned to shout over the scanner and the jangling phones. We learned to slam the tops of our computers when they ate a story and to deal with problems directly, by seeking swift and violent retribution. We learned to tell public relations people that a) we were on deadline or b) we were in a meeting or c) we would never, under any circumstances, write a story about the new pastel yogurt snacks featured in the press kit they sent us. We learned to tell troublesome readers that this was the obituary department and that there was not a living soul to handle their complaints.

So when my newspaper closed and I found myself in a place where people walk quietly in carpeted hallways and greet one another with gracious nods and never raise their voices, it took some adjustment.

Now I have an office with four walls and a door I can close. When the phone rings, the chances are that it may actually be someone I want to talk to. There is absolutely no chance it will be the man who used to call my newsroom extension five times a day to tell me that the TV Log lied, and the Dukes of Hazzard was not on at 5:30, and what was I going to do about it. It will not be a woman from Seymour inviting me to send a photographer to snap her cat, whom she has dressed up for Halloween. And it will not, I regret to say, be the lady in search of the Big Vegetable Editor.

She called one August afternoon looking for the person in charge of stories about giant zucchini squash. She had one in her garden that tipped in at 42 pounds, and she figured this was breaking news. I talked her out of it, but the title stuck. I was Big Vegetable Editor, and my job was secure.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and one that is best used with caution. The newsroom of my past is a nice place to visit, but I don't really want to live there. Here in academe, my Rolaids consumption has declined dramatically. I speak in a normal tone of voice. There are nights when I actually sleep for eight hours. I have an office, and a door I can close, and life is good.

But sometimes, late on August afternoons, I feel a sudden urge to slip out into the corridor and add a line to my pristine nameplate on the wall.

Stephanie Piper, Big Vegetable Editor.

You've got to admit it has a certain ring.

August 31, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 35
© 2000 Metro Pulse