Before I was eight years old my family had lived in seven different apartments and houses in four cities in two countries. Still to come was the 15-month stretch in which I attended five schools.
This itinerancy may have left an imprint. For haven't my wife and I lived since 1979 in the same house, which I have no interest in leaving? And didn't we enroll all three daughters in the kindergarten of a school they could attend until college? (Only one went there throughout.) Yet it's the contradiction that cinches the case. For despite this apparent desire for roots, haven't I earned my living as a journalist, the epitome of the rootless, unaligned cosmopolite? (Full disclosure: I'm just as likely to attribute my choice of trades to my Swiss heritage, the Swiss being the voyeurs of Europe, watching its great dramas unfold but staying out of them.)
A journalist, yes, but a journalist weirdly attached to one newsroom. Last Wednesday afternoon, minutes before the movers arrived at the Reader building at 11 E. Illinois, the editorial staff emptied a champagne bottle, which everyone then signed and gave to me. For not only was I the single person who'd been around when we moved into the building in 1983, not everyone toasting it with me had even been born then.
I puzzled even myself by staying and staying and staying. Finally Sun-Times Media forced the issue, buying the Reader in May for a song. Certainly they wouldn't be adding us to their string of titles to leave us be: our next home would be the Sun-Times Media suite in the Apparel Center. Packing up suddenly became inevitable and imminent. The new question was where to unpack.
The most wrenching part of a move is the sorting and tossing, a process that turns a person into an archaeologist digging up the lost civilization of his own life. Beneath the heaps of books and papers in my Reader office emerged a dozen or so No. 2 pencils that had vanished the moment I stopped having any need for them (when we stopped editing on paper), so many dust-caked paper clips that I gave up on the pile I'd started to make and swept them into a wastebasket, a pink eraser, boxes of the business cards nobody ever asked for anyway, several of those colorfully floppy discs that stories used to be submitted on back in the day, and some chopsticks.
And so many books! I carried almost all of them to the shelf where we were collecting books for charity, and it didn't matter how interesting they looked—if I hadn't read them yet I probably never would and they deserved a second crack at life. The exceptions were books I've written about, or that were written by colleagues, or that for one reason or another I felt I must either keep or spurn. For instance, The Voyage by Philip Caputo. A long time ago, when Caputo wrote for the Tribune, I knew him a little, and his A Rumor of War is as good a book about war as you'll find. Though I haven't read any of his novels my feeling that I ought to is as strong as it was when he published his first one in 1980.
I've written, sometimes querulously, about Jack Fuller's meditations on journalism, not to mention his central role in the Tribune Company's doomed purchase of Times Mirror. But I did read Fuller's first novel, Convergence (it was a lot smaller than Caputo's), and I was surprised by how good it was. So into the small stack of books to take home went his latest, Abbeville. "A terrific novel," says Scott Turow's cover blurb, which I choose to believe because if it's not true it's a flat-out lie.
And then there was Neil Steinberg's memoir, You Were Never in Chicago, a vaguely insulting title that gets at what constantly redeems Steinberg: his indifference to whether he's annoying. I had no choice but to hang on to this one; its formal publication date isn't until November and you can't give away something that doesn't exist yet.
But the books were secondary. Cleaning out my office ultimately meant doing something about 21 file cabinet drawers stuffed with manila folders, a folder for every column I've written since 1987. Bringing them home would have meant hiring movers, and it would have ended my marriage. Shredding them would have felt like shredding my life.
And I had no intention of taking these files to the Sun-Times. A company besotted with digital aspirations surely has no room or patience for 25 years of manila folders. And it didn't matter if they did. One lively topic of discussion throughout those 25 years was the Sun-Times. The raw record of that reporting couldn't wind up in the Sun-Times's possession. So I called the Newberry Library. And two days before the movers showed up the Newberry came by, boxed the files, and took everything away. Not so bad. A distinguished research library has deemed my career not a complete waste of time. It believes there's archival value in the remains!
I glanced at some of this material before it went out, just to assure myself it could actually be worth keeping. The news clippings won't interest the Newberry, and I'm not so sure about most of the legal documents. But the letters and e-mails are another matter. There are insiders' tips, many of them anonymous. There are malicious rants. One letter begs me to step in and address an injustice; the next aims to sic me on some presumed common enemy. It's going to be painful to reread a lot of this correspondence. I'll find the tips I should have followed up but didn't, the pleas from prisoners claiming innocence whose cases I didn't look into, the wounded retorts from journalists I slammed not just telling me but persuading me I got the story wrong.
Inside every folder is a Word file containing notes of the telephone conversations I held as I reported that week's column. Some of this is material I hope Newberry archivists will judge to be pretty good stuff. But it's interlaced with off-the-record conversations (aka really good stuff that perhaps shouldn't see the light of day for another 50 years, if ever) as well as with stray deep thoughts and inane indulgences, such as this open letter from Mary Godwin to Percy Bysshe Shelley's old girlfriends:
I'm it. His lit-
The Newberry is setting up a workspace, and then it'll be up to me to separate the hush-hush and the gibberish from the material that deserves posterity. Thank God the Newberry has such a generous idea of what will intrigue posterity. For instance, the library is the proud possessor of the world's largest, and I'm willing to guess only, collection of Mike Royko's cigarette butts. And then there's the grimy spatula caked with egg that showed up among the collected remains of Ben Hecht. (Imagine how valuable it would be if someone could show that Helen Hayes used it to cook breakfast for Hecht and Charles MacArthur while they were writing The Front Page!) I'm no Hecht or Royko, but in those dark hours when I'm sure I've produced nothing remotely worthy of the Newberry, I'll remember the spatula.
In short, nothing of mine is going over to the Sun-Times, and that includes me. I'll write from home (as several other Reader staff writers have long been doing) without my files. I don't know how comfortable I'll be continuing to write about the Sun-Times, but it'd be a hell of a lot harder if I ran into those people every day at the coffee machine. But I don't want to work at the Sun-Times for reasons that go beyond the obvious conflicts. It's hard for me to say why. I always have an uneasy feeling about change but I have no real brief against the Reader's new owners. They rescued my paper, after all. My age makes me less willing than my colleagues are to start something new, and I can more easily afford not to. But it doesn't explain why the idea of moving my desk to the Sun-Times immediately filled me with something akin to dread.
There's a dream a lot of people say they have. They're back in school and they can't find their classrooms. They can't remember their lessons. They can't function. They don't know why they're there. People dream this dream with mounting panic, and then they wake up.
I came to Chicago and worked for the Sun-Times from 1970 to 1978. They were wonderful years from long ago, and I no more want to work at the Sun-Times again than I want to wake up back in college. Both were over a long time ago.
Maybe it's the Swiss in me. No sense of whimsy.