Confessions of a Newspaper Nobody

By Peter DeArmond

“Hey, be careful with my stuff and don’t, and don’t bruise my fruit,” yelled the customer as he placed his groceries on the checkout stand. “I mean it, don’t bruise my goddamn fruit! Hey, hey listen, hey, did you, did-did, I mean did you hear me?” 

It was the third time in two months that this belligerent life form arrived at my checkout counter in the Safeway store. If he wasn’t bellowing about bananas, he had some other reason to spew fury at the universe. Privately I called him Mr. Ogre.

I nodded and faked a smile. “I heard you sir. I’ll be sure not to bruise your fruit.”

That was my life in the fall of 1973, feigning courtesy to strange people while working as a stock clerk at the Safeway store in Bakersfield, California, at the corner of Chester Avenue and Brundage Lane. Safeway has long since abandoned southern California, and the building where I worked is something else today. But back then it seemed to be the gravitational hub for people with personality disorders. Whenever I was called upon to help in the checkout stand it seemed that then, and only then, all the odd life forms emerged from the looney aisles to converge on me. 

I had to get out of there. 

So in January, 1974, a few weeks after yet another encounter with Mr. Ogre, I walked into the offices of The Bakersfield Californian, a family-owned daily newspaper, to see if there were any job openings. Silly me.

A career in journalism was not my goal. My intention when I visited The Californian that day was to see if they had any production-related jobs.  I had heard they were getting ready to convert their operation to the new “cold type” process and I had some experience in that area, so I figured I had an outside chance to get an interview, even though I didn’t have a four-year degree at the time. 

It was crazy to think a 20-year-old kid could walk into a newspaper office and get an interview, much less a job. But as the cliché goes, I was in the right place at the right time. I had come to see if I could speak with Jim Tucker, the production manager, who was an old family friend.  Jim wasn’t there, but someone else I talked to knew that the managing editor, Eddie Griffith, was looking to fill a temporary spot in the newsroom. I didn’t know this, and I wouldn’t have applied there even if I had known. 

A phone call was made and the next thing I knew I was sitting across Eddie’s desk, not sure from his grunting if I was being interviewed or reprimanded for having the audacity to show up without an appointment.  No emotion was visible on Eddie’s craggy face, but when he spoke it sounded like an old lion’s raspy warning for everyone to flee while he chomped on his prey. 

What I gleaned from the English phrases between the growls and grunts was this: there were no full-time permanent openings, but there was one possibility.  A person in the lifestyle section was on maternity leave until late March, and if I would be willing to handle “rewrites” of community submissions and simple assignments, I could be considered for that job, so long as I understood it was temporary.

Before I could say yes, no, or ask any questions, Eddie handed me an application form and pointed to a desk in the corner of the newsroom.  “Fill this out now and bring it right back to me,” he said.

What I didn’t know at the time, and learned much later, was that Eddie already knew enough about me to put me in a temporary job. He knew I had been the editor of my high school paper and had worked briefly as a “stringer” for The Californian, reporting on sports. He also knew that when I attended Bakersfield Community College, I was editor of the school’s weekly, the Renegade Rip. 

Bakersfield College had converted to the “cold type” process two years before The Californian, which is really the only reason I thought I had a chance to get a job there.  I didn’t go there to apply for any kind of newsroom job, and I sure wasn’t interested in cleaning up outside submissions for activity announcements from people who didn’t know how to write a declarative sentence.  But I was desperate enough to hope for any job to get away from obnoxious people like Mr. Ogre.  

The desk Eddie told me to use was a total mess, strewn with papers and pieces of papers with notes, phone numbers, last names and illegible scribbles.  Sitting in the middle of the desk was a massive Royale manual typewriter, which looked like it weighed as much as a Sherman tank.  Careful not to disturb anything, I inserted the application form and started typing.  

A few minutes later, as I was pounding away on the Royale, I heard an eerily familiar voice behind me.

“Hey listen, hey-hey listen, you’re at my, you’re at my damn, well anyway you need to get the hell off my desk.”

I turned around, looked up, and saw Mr. Ogre.  That son-of-a-bitch from the Safeway store!  

This can’t be happening, I thought. This guy actually works here? And I’m sitting at his desk?

In shock, I yanked my application form out of his typewriter and found another empty desk.  For a moment I wondered if I should even finish the application.  The obnoxious jackass I was running away from — the reason I was trying to leave the Safeway store — actually worked at the place where I was now trying to get a job.  

In my head, my mother’s voice was saying, you can’t run away from your problems dear.

“This is no time to rub it in, mom,” I muttered to myself. 

Perhaps because I was still in shock over seeing Mr. Ogre, I filled out the rest of the application form with a bit of an attitude, because at that point I didn’t care if I was hired or not.  One of the questions concerned my typing speed, and I wrote “God only knows.”  When I handed the application to Eddie, he saw that line and chuckled in his unique grunt-cackle. From that point on, I think he liked me, but in all the years I worked there, I never could read anything from his demeanor. 

I asked him who was the person who kicked me off his desk.

“Bill McCance,” Eddie said.  “Night reporter, three to midnight shift.  Came in a little early this afternoon.”  

There was no such thing as a chatty interview with Eddie.  For the next 20 minutes he would just look at my application, lift his head to grunt-mumble something, take a phone call, and another, and then glance at my application for a second before taking another call. He took so many calls that I almost fell asleep in front of him. To this day I’m not sure if he really read all of my application form. My mind wandered to the irony of seeing the one person in the world I was trying to avoid. That Ogre had a name, Bill McCance. Maybe this was all just a bad dream. 

The next thing I knew I was hearing Eddie’s voice, much clearer this time:  “It’s an 8-to-5 job, and you’ll report to Judy Clausen (the lifestyle editor) on Monday,” he said. “Remember, this is just a temporary position.”

What? Was he offering me a job? I blurted out something like “Oh.. uh…okay” because I had expected him to send me away by saying, “We’ll talk later.”  I didn’t realize he needed something filled right away, and I was in the right place at the right time.  That’s the only reason I was hired. It was no risk for Eddie; it solved a short-term staffing problem. I was an accidental employee. A temporary accidental employee. Okay, fine. I was going to work at a daily newspaper for a few months in an 8-to-5 job, and after that I’d have to find some other work to pay my rent. I could live with that.  

And then a happy thought occurred to me:  At least I wouldn’t have to work for Bill McCance, the obnoxious ogre who didn’t even recognize me from the store. He might be in the same building, but I wouldn’t have to see him very often because he worked the night shift. This was going to be just fine.  In three months I could find another job and be out of there.

But I performed a little too well in my temporary job, whipping out my assignments quickly and even writing the occasional feature.  Word filtered up to Bill McCance, who had been asking for more help on the nightside — and the next thing I knew… I was taken off my temporary job and assigned to work in a permanent position for Bill McCance on the nightside. 

Yes, the person I wanted to avoid for the rest of my life became my boss. And every night when I turned in a story to him, he would get angry, cuss, and tell me what I got wrong. But within the next year, something interesting happened, something I never could have expected.

But that’s another story.

Copyright © 2024 by Peter DeArmond

No part of this article may be copied or reprinted without the expressed written consent of the author.

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