Funny, how things work out.
Over the past two decades, I have been invited to tell my story to countless college and high school journalism classes, scores of civic groups, dozens of book clubs, writing seminars, panel discussions and literary salons.
When you tell the same story over and over again, you tend to develop a polished delivery and repertoire, cutting material that doesn't resonate with the audience and fine-tuning accounts and anecdotes that catch their attention, make them listen, make them care.
In my case, I like to make people laugh, too. And so it is that, when I tell my life story, I like to paint a picture of a man on permanent backslide, highlighting the ironic detail of how I seem to be building a resume in reverse.
To explain: I started my journalism career at The Washington Post, one of the world's biggest and most prestigious periodicals, with millions of readers, the ultimate destination for the Best and the Brightest in my field.
After establishing my journalism cred there, I took a job at The Times-Picayune, a respectable mid-sized Southern daily with a circulation of a few hundred thousand — a place where I could hone my journo chops and plot my next move in a business where career advancement more often than not means relocating.
In journalism, the conventional — successful, that is — career arc travels up the circulation ladder, not down. Bigger markets, bigger papers, bigger paychecks. And so the joke I always tell is that, after starting at the top (the Post) and moving to the middle (the T-P), my next stop would likely be some random alternative weekly in some isolated, backwater town.
Funny, how things work out.
I arrived at The Times-Picayune in the summer of the 1984 World's Fair, assigned to the crime beat out of the West Bank bureau in Gretna. A lot has happened since then, the most significant probably being that I never once updated my resume, never again packed up my bags and headed off to the next big paper in the next big town.
A long time ago I realized that success is a relative term. Most folks in my business measure theirs by how large and prestigious is the newspaper where they work, and that's why so many of my Picayune colleagues over the years moved on to Dallas, Chicago, Miami, New York and Washington.
But it became clear to me a long, long time ago that I didn't want to live in Dallas, Chicago, Miami or the rest. I wanted to stay in New Orleans. Hell, I had to stay in New Orleans.
Life marks you here, obviously. It's a story often recounted by the hundreds of thousands of folks like myself who never cashed in the return part of their round-trip ticket to New Orleans. I have found along the way that the longer you live in New Orleans, the more unfit you become to live anywhere else.
This is usually evident just hours — if not minutes — into a trip elsewhere. Even Miami, a swank international uber-resort town peopled by the rich, the beautiful and the bilingual. As Saints fans who traveled there last week can tell you, it's just not New Orleans and nothing else is and other than that it's a fine place to visit, but ...
First of all, the bars close. And — worse — when they do, they make you finish your drink before you leave.
Sure, its beaches are topless, but so are our balconies, so what's so special about that?
And I don't trust air I can't smell. It's a point of pride for many New Orleanians that our coffee is so strong you can stand up a spoon in it. But hell, there are days around here when the humidity is just so, that you don't even need the coffee part. Sometimes you simply wear the atmospheric pressure — or lack thereof — like a layer of clothing.
The best days are the ones where that's all you wear. That's what I like about not working at the office anymore, living the life of the genteel journeyman freelancer.
I don't spend half the day in meetings any more, and there is no conference room in my house. A temptation for me working at home, though, is that — when I have a deadline looming over me — I tend to dawdle and waste time, mostly in the kitchen.
So I moved my writing table into the kitchen, under a window that looks out over an old, overgrown city cemetery where not one tombstone stands erect. (Maybe they should put them in coffee.) And in the morning, I sit on my stoop and tell my stories to the dead.
It's the writing life I always dreamed about having.
I hope I don't fuck it up.
Over the past few years, I've wrestled with some, well ... some "issues." And I missed a few deadlines. But really, they couldn't have been any kinder about it.
If you had told me 25 years ago that I would — or even could — keep a job for two-and-a-half decades, I would have said you were high.
Twenty-five years in one job? That's extreme. But the truth is, I loved working at the Picayune. I love the place, the culture and the product deeply. And I probably could have gone another 25 if I had to.
But I don't have to.
Admittedly, over the past year or two, I have cast about for alternative ideas to the Big City Daily. I'm a newspaperman through and through, a wretched, ink-stained malcontent for whom information is currency and life is spent on one harrowing deadline after another, and I consider the job done well only if you have ruined somebody else's day.
God, I love newspapers.
But recently I have wondered if I had the guts to set out on my own, make it as a freelancer, a day laborer, a hired gun. (I do private parties: For bookings, send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And then the newspaper economy crashed. Badly. And The Times-Picayune has felt the pinch as much as any other paper, but unlike any other paper, they didn't fire anyone. I give them a hell of a lot of credit for that.
Instead, they offered buyouts. It's all the rage in corporate America. And I hate to miss a good trend. So, one Friday afternoon in November, I unknowingly turned in what would be my final story for the Picayune.
It turned out to be a fitting final note. The story was nominally about taking my kids to Nashville to see a Bruce Springsteen concert, but it was more about making spontaneous decisions, living for the moment, asking yourself: If not now, when?
I did not realize that I would not be returning to work the following Monday. The last words in my last story were: "Baby, we were born for fun."
For my first assignment here at Gambit, my editor said to just keep it simple: "Tell how you got here," he said, rather than just pop out a column with no introduction or explanation.
Which works for me, because The Times-Picayune never let me write a goodbye column like they do for most everybody else, unless somebody leaves all pissed off or under questionable circumstances.
Truth is, I was of the opinion that me not writing a farewell column in itself made the circumstances seem questionable. After all, my very public difficulties of recent years have certainly left me fair game for tonic speculation and conjecture. And I can't really gripe about that because, hell, I throw stones for a living. If you put yourself out there — take off your shirt and wrap yourself in roses for all the crowd to witness — well, then ... you know.
Anyway, I would have liked to have recounted my glorious tenure at the paper and doff my hat to the crowd — to the readers — and say thank you. Thank you so very much, and God bless you for letting me hang out in your kitchens and living rooms all these years.
So that's what this column is. This is my hello column for Gambit, but also my belated farewell story from the Picayune. So, to you readers, thank you. Thank you and God bless you for letting me hang around all these years.
So, I left the paper fast. The day they offered the buyout, I said I'm in. Or out, technically speaking. And everyone said, I guess you have a plan, right?
I walked out broke. Gave up health benefits for my three young children. Divorced. A renter at middle age. No car. No assets at all to speak of. And a whole trunk full of what these days they call "pre-existing conditions."
Really, what better time to quit your job?
So people asked me what was my plan? And my answer? Picture that Coors Light ad with Jim Mora at the podium: Plan? Plan? Don't talk to me about a PLAN!"
Yeah, it was kinda like that. The absolute truth is, I had no plan. And here's what happened: I contracted what I can only diagnose as a severe case of journalistic blue balls.
Watching the mayor's race and Saints season from the sidelines was killing me. For the first time in a long time, I didn't have a soapbox from which to rant and rail, holler and wail.
As days turned to weeks turned to months, I realized that if I didn't find a forum from which to throw tomatoes at the world, I was going to end up standing next to that guy down on Canal Street who wears the rainbow umbrella hat and clutches a megaphone through which he opines to any who will listen — and all who won't — on the mysteries of faith and justice.
I could already hear people whispering as they walked by: "Wow, look where Rose ended up."
I didn't want that to happen. So I started making calls, sending emails, writing proposals and knocking on doors. Constantly and all the time. I started trying to hustle up some work. And, in the process, I discovered that being unemployed is a hell of a lot of work.
So I went out and got myself a million little jobs. Something to pass the time.
In addition to writing here at Gambit, I have begun doing twice-a-week commentaries on WVUE-TV, on the 9 p.m. news every Monday and Wednesday night. (And they're archived on the station's Web site, www.fox8live.com.)
Also, I am writing a couple of books. I am going to write my memoirs of 25 years in the newspaper business and try to sell it to Simon & Schuster, the fine folks who published my Katrina memoirs, 1 Dead in Attic.
And I am working with Hornets owner George Shinn, writing a biography of his very interesting life in the NBA. And I am hoping to write an "authorized" biography of another guy in town who also has a lot of great stories to tell, but there's no firm deal yet. (Are you listening, Blaine?)
And I am hoping to get speaking gigs and other freelance gigs and maybe teach — who knows? — I'm open for anything. (For inquiries ... oh, never mind.) And I'm going to do stage shows and theater and generally shine.
And there's other stuff. I dabbled with the notion of hiring on with one of the mayoral candidates a while back but thought better of it.
And I am going to resume my moonlighting life as a painter. I had a show two years ago — brightly colored, abstract paintings on hurricane debris that I found laying on the side of the road — and people seemed to like it and being a painter fits in very well with the life I am contriving as a sorrowfully fading man of arts and letters.
I mean, you can't really put that on your business card — Chris Rose: Sorrowful Man of Arts & Letters — unless you actually do the "art" part.
And, to cement my midlife-crisis status, I finally got myself some wheels. And not just any wheels. I got a huge ass Ford F-150 and, in the process, got to know the folks at a certain Ford dealership in Metairie and, because I like those folks and that truck, I'm going to write and appear in TV and radio ads for them, sort of like being a celebrity spokesperson — except for the celebrity part.
That's right: I'm a corporate shill. A sellout. Like so many tragic stories of formerly respectable newsmen who end up in public relations or advertising, I turned over to the dark side.
But let me tell you something, mister: It's a helluva nice ride, that F-150. Particularly if you are the kind of guy who is prone to braking suddenly and retrieving large-scale architectural debris off the side of the road. Which I am, much to the chagrin of my children who, somewhere along their little learning lives, were persuaded to believe that dumpster-diving is not a proper — or artful — way to make a living.
And a man's got to make a living, I've discovered. You've got to put yourself out there. You've got to do things and go places you never thought you would. Or — maybe, just maybe — you actually always knew you would.
I mean, you never can really "plan" for it. Life just happens and you do your best not to fall down too much.
When you find a pony with a name you think is pretty, you either bet on it. Or ride it.
Funny, how things work out.