Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{July 24, 2009}   The final days

All right, so this has been more of a “last days of The Ann Arbor News” blog more than a theater blog so far, but the paucity of shows opening paired with what is a major event in my professional life have conspired to make this so. But for those hoping I’ll get over it and just get on with life, this is my last News-related post. Promise.

I thought I’d just provide some brief glimpses of the last few days…

– Shortly after I came into the office Tuesday, a co-worker, Arnie, shared the news that he had just become a grandfather. People from all around the newsroom instantly gathered around his computer to see photos of the new baby, and Arnie’s daughter, Maya, holding the baby, and then everyone applauded. It was a lovely way to start one of my last shifts – hope and renewal in the face of an unwanted end.

– In the late morning Tuesday, we all gathered in front of the building for a group photo. The staff in the building by this point was drastically reduced from a year ago, but it was still sobering to see the sheer number of people that would now be facing an uncertain future. Former News photographer Bob Chase climbed up a ladder to take the shots, and there was a strange giddiness among us. Mildly funny ripostes got big laughs, and when a car, and later a FedEx truck, drove into the lot and between us and Bob, we all broke out into applause, confusing the driver each time. Everything was feeling pretty odd and surreal at this point.

– After the photo, word of free AAN swag got out, and several of us newsroom folk flocked to the second floor to load up. We soon got politely shooed away, though, and told that the store wouldn’t be open for business until the party/grill-out lunch began. Free stuff makes people a little crazy, doesn’t it? Anyway, we all eventually stocked up on umbrellas, coffee mugs, photos, pencils (with the wrong phone number), DVDs, books, carrier bags, and other random items that probably wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. Then we chowed down on chips, burgers, hot dogs, etc., provided by a wonderful group of volunteers called the Sunshine Committee (thank you all). I ate at my desk and started the long, emotional task of cleaning out my drawers and removing the photos and personal odds and ends from my workspace (signed Tim Gunn bobblehead that reads “Make it work” included). I deflected a possible assignment – I didn’t think I’d be able to focus on it, anyway – and salvaged my notes from my most memorable interviews: Patrick Stewart, Jim Gaffigan, Tom Hulce, Emily Saliers (of Indigo Girls), John Waters, etc. I went home lugging a box and a packed carrier bag full of stuff.

– Upon entering the newsroom Wednesday, I spotted some people gathered around a radio, and I went to join them. Reporters Tracy Davis, Geoff Larcom, and Jo Mathis were being interviewed by Lucy Ann Lance. The radio reception on this old boom box was terrible – copyeditor Domenica Trevor held the antenna in position in order for us to hear it at all over the static – so we stood and sat around the radio, listening to our colleagues. There was something very World War II about the whole experience, and the irony, of course, was that the reporters were talking about the shift in the journalism industry due to rapidly advancing technology. Yes. And yet we’re all huddled around this crappy radio. In any case, our colleagues did us proud, and Tracy said something particularly on point when she articulated how the newsroom, over the past few months, had taken on a weird, last-day-of-school vibe, where people are acting sillier and giddier than usual, but that everyone’s also stealing away to the bathroom to cry now and then, too. Right on the money, Tracy. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but the description was exactly right. She said it was one of the most bizarre things she’s ever gone through.

– I had my last “entertainment staff meeting” lunch at the Blue Tractor with Roger Lelievre and Leah DuMouchel on Wednesday. We sat outside, braving potential showers, and had a marvelous time chatting and gossiping. I’ll miss them both so much. Even typing their names just now made me tear up. (See theater folks? I’m NOT completely dead inside. :))

– On Thursday, the final day of publication, I came in at 10 a.m. to see two copydesk folks “boxing” via a Wii gaming system on the large-screen television. The deadline had been 8 a.m., so everyone was tying up loose ends and hanging out. Unfortunately, I’d missed seeing off one of our graphics folks, Sonia Gottfried, who’d left to have her scheduled C-section. (I told Joe about this earlier in the week – that she’d scheduled her son’s birth so she could take part in laying out the last day’s paper. “Sounds like my wife,” Joe said, and he’s right. I would have made the same choice.) Nobody stayed for long, though, since nearby Cafe Louie had been talked into opening an hour early, at 10 a.m., in order to accommodate us. So folks started making their way there in dribs and drabs.

I turned in my parking pass for the Tally Hall parking garage (a painful, difficult thing in and of itself – God, I’ll miss my parking spot in downtown AA), took care of some last things on my computer and headed over to Cafe Louie. When I arrived, applause broke out among those already there, and though I bowed in confusion, as I always do on the rare occasion this happens, I soon figured out that every News employee who came in got this greeting. The later you arrived, the more raucous the greeting (I would’ve lingered in the newsroom longer had I known). But it was a wonderful final salute from everyone TO everyone. This wasn’t about mourning the paper; this was about celebrating each other and the work the people in all departments did to keep this paper rolling off the presses until the final day. (And at one point, Dave Holzman held up his phone and announced that Sonia’s son, Rocco, had been born and reported the stats, to cheers all around.)

After hanging out and chatting for a couple of hours, some slipped away quietly (I couldn’t find Roger and Leah to say goodbye, unfortunately), and I decided to start making the rounds to leave. It was at this point that I pretty much started sobbing, particularly while trying to say goodbye to Leisa Thompson. She ended up telling me all these wonderfully nice things that I wanted to say to her but couldn’t for all the tears and the lump in my throat and the irregular breathing. (So if you’re reading this, Leisa, back at ya.)

This behavior continued for much of the commute home. When news of the paper’s closing first came down, I immediately mourned the job I’d loved, but that was only part of it, I’ve since learned. Because as luck would have it, I’ll be doing essentially the same kind of work at, and so my high emotions yesterday pointed to the fact that WHO I worked with, and the work environment at the News, was just as important, if not more so, than the interviews I conducted and performances I watched and the writing I did in the line of duty.

As I wrote on Facebook a few days ago, a few of the specific things I’ll miss about the newsroom are: talking “Project Runway” with illustrator Tammie Graves and Colleen Erickson of the copy desk; columnist Geoff Larcom’s piercing finger-snap; reporter Judy McGovern’s boisterous laugh; photographer Leisa Thompson’s Pippi Longstocking braids and great hats; working on a play review late at night while the sports guys are plugging away; casual chats that turn into meaningful conversations, with photographers and others; and those two lovable knuckleheads who sit across from me, Roger and Leah.

This is a newsroom full of people who threw me an unbelievably nice baby shower (thanks again, Sonia) before Lily was born, and who sent cards and covered for me when my mother suddenly passed away in January. They organize food drop-offs when people are facing serious illness, but they also respect each person’s wishes and privacy. It’s no wonder this crowd so completely won me over and caused me to have a crying-commute home on Thursday (and I am NOT a regular crier – just ask any of my friends). Thankfully, though, I know myself well enough to know that a long run gets me out of my head, so when I finally reached Farmington, I changed into my running shoes and headed out into a steamy, pre-rain afternoon.

I know I’ll be OK – we all have to be OK, somehow. But I will miss these people terribly. They’ve been my work-family in a way I never had previous to working at the News, and this year particularly, that’s come to mean the world to me. So all I can say to my talented, terrific co-workers is that I love you all and thank you, thank you, a million times thank you. For EVERYTHING.

News final days 017

Roger Lelievre and Leah DuMouchel

Roger Lelievre and Leah DuMouchel

Leah DuMouchel, Molly Wiltse, Tammie Graves

Roger LeLievre says:

Back atcha Jenn. I feel exactly the same way about you and Leah.

I took the opportunity to sneak out with Leah about 12:30. I hate those long teary goodbyes. Plus it’s not like we’ll never see each other again! We will get together and often. Meanwhile, think of this phase as just “another openin’ another show…”

(Plus you’re my man on the inside at youknowwhere. I want all the dirt!)

Heather says:

You interviewed Tom Hulce? I don’t remember hearing about that one.

[…] how we all took turns playing video games – on a giant, wall-mounted TV – with each other on the daily newspaper’s last day of business (July 9, 2009); and how, when meeting up at a local bar for drinks later that day, staffers […]

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