Last month, when I began telling people privately that I was going to leave the News & Observer after 28 years, almost everyone reacted with enough genuine shock to surprise me. But that was nothing compared to the response when I put the word out to the world at large.
These past two weeks have been amazing — the most wonderful, depressing, heartbreaking, uplifting and bittersweet experience of my life. I have wept, repeatedly and embarrassingly, in public and private. And every time I think I’m done, here it comes again; seems like I’ve still got some grieving to get through. And while my head knows it’s the right time to leave the N&O, my heart is going to take a little longer to come around.
In all, nine of us left the N&O newsroom, representing around 200 years of total journalistic experience and institutional knowledge. It was a similar story at other McClatchy-owned papers across the country. I think most of us departed more in sorrow than in anger, and I’m hoping for the best for my former co-workers who are still trying to hang in there at the N&O. I’m afraid it’s going to be rough, and it hasn’t exactly been a picnic up to now.
Probably for some byzantine accounting reason, McClatchy is classifying this as “retirement” for everyone leaving. But full-on retirement is not an option for me at this point. I do have a few months of breathing room, with book-writing and Piedmont Laureate activities and a little freelance work to get me through this stretch of time. Nevertheless, I’ll have to figure out a Next Act pretty soon. I’ll keep you posted.
First, though, I’d like to bask just a little while longer in the afterglow of all the love and kindness that’s come my way. I’ve heard from people across social media, in-person and even in my mailbox at home, where various neighbors have left pick-me-up gifts including chocolate, notebooks and cool socks. Jeri Rowe, a longtime friend and colleague from Greensboro, checked in with a written tribute so nice, it’s kind of impossible to feel worthy. It’s been like getting to watch my own funeral, and hearing from so many people has meant a lot.
It reached a crescendo this past Saturday afternoon at Kings nightclub in Raleigh, where my wife Martha Burns orchestrated a lovely going-away bash I’ll remember forever. I’m not great at guessing crowd sizes, but it looked like close to 100 people came by to pay respects, give me a hug, tell a story. Some were kind enough to play a song or two — Caitlin Cary and Matt Douglas, two-thirds of Tres Chicas, Dana Kletter, Ryan Kennemur, The Sirens, Kenny Roby and even our neighborhood super-group Patrick Ward Ramsey leading the crowd in a sing-along version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Peter Blackstock, one of my closest friends for over three decades, came all the way from Austin, Texas, and read a few very entertaining excerpts of our writings back and forth over the years. My old N&O co-worker Bob Langford got on the mike to do a comedic roast of a tribute, showing the perfect onstage timing I’ve always envied. And my BFF Scott Huler…well, I’m including it below because words fail me beyond noting that the thought of it will make me tear up for the foreseeable future.
Scott, of course, was the first creative-non-fiction Piedmont Laureate back in 2011, and I am honored to follow in his footsteps. As it happens, his latest book just came out, “A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas Along the Route of John Lawson’s 1700 Expedition.” He’ll debut it with his first reading on Wednesday, March 6, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. So we’ve made it a “Piedmont Laureate Presents” event — two Laureates for the price of one! — which means I have the honor of introducing Scott and his co-presenter, Tom Earnhardt of UNC-TV’s “Exploring North Carolina.”
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My best friend is David Menconi, so what I have is music.
Menconi watched my life explode in the 1990s, waited for the flames to die down and then came up, dusted me off and said, ‘There’s a band you have to go see.” And then came years of my life where the entire playlist, live and on records, was the Backsliders. Someone who leads you to the Backsliders manifestly has your best interests in mind.
But apart from the local bands David introduced me to are the mixtapes. I once was heading out on a car trip and asked David for a mix, with a few requests. That became mix number 1, and along with that he made a second tape with two albums: On one side, Hollywood Town Hall by the Jayhawks, and on the other The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers. So if you’re keeping score, David introduced me to the Backsliders, the Jayhawks and Gram Parsons.
At some point I began responding with mixes of my own, and we developed a shorthand, the tapes accompanied by song sheets with song titles followed by half-spoken thoughts, staccato comments understood almost subliminally, a personal semaphor — twin talk, a bestie language.
I want to share one of those with you.
When long ago it became clear that the News & Observer and I were going to have to start seeing other people, David made me a mixtape with a title cribbed from a line from “Animal House,” and that tape has some resonance now. The tape is called “Leaving: What a Good Idea.” Subtitle: “The Rearview Mirror at the end of the rope.” The song sheet is no longer with the tape because the song sheet lives in the treasure box on my dresser, with the birth certificates and passports and pictures of the kids. With the stuff I must not lose track of.
It started with the Replacements’ “Hold My Life” — comment, “Because I just might lose it” — followed by “Downtown Venus,” and his crib note reminded me of a drive down Wade Avenue when I had recognized a sample in that song. Menconi’s the music guy, but he’s giving me credit for hearing things. This is the tape that introduced me to Joe Henry’s “Trampoline”: note: “So this time I’m not coming down.” The Elvis Costello song “We Despise You” has only the crib note “hee hee hee,” and the Tom Waits version of the seven dwarf’s marching song (“heigh ho…heigh ho…”) refers to our work turning into toil. David’s comment: “I’ve got this story I’d like you to localize.” Ennio Morricone is there, Shawn Colvin is there, Nirvana is there. Towards the end David gets literal, and we get Willis Alan Ramsey singing “Goodbye Old Missoula,” Booker T and the MGs’ version of “Exodus,” and it ended, perfectly, with the B-52s’ “Follow Your Bliss” and David’s benediction: “may we all find it.”
And now David is leaving — what a good idea! — and I, and we, will manage his departure, though surely not as gracefully as he managed mine.
David has traveled with me and eaten burgers with me, watched endless sports games and movies and kids with me. And in fact, that’s really the whole thing, isn’t it? We’ve been eating lunch together at one place or another at least once a week now for nearly 30 years, and there are times when we barely talk at all because we just know everything the other one has to say, and at the end of that lunch I still feel like I’ve been to therapy. We talk about writing and stuff because we’re writers, but it’s like plumbers talking about plumbing. We just talk.
We both turn for comfort every year to the Christmas specials, and those specials help us communicate, too. One year the annual newspaper awards came out and we got the email with the list, and we both got skunked. I’m a broken, ruined person, with a shriveled black hole where my heart should be, and I desperately need that external validation. But I didn’t even get a chance to get up from my chair before the phone rang. Menconi, in the voice of Charlie-in-the-Box, from “Rudolph”: “I guess we’ll just have to wait til next year.” And suddenly I didn’t need the stinking award because I had Menconi.
We both revere that “Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” and we find in Linus the meaning of friendship. Linus watches Charlie Brown wreck one thing after another, yet Linus just hangs around. Charlie Brown gets no cards, and there’s Linus. Charlie Brown wrecks the play and there’s Linus. Charlie Brown screws up the tree and there’s Linus.
Welcome to my life. I move to Raleigh to start a job and there’s Menconi. My marriage ends and there’s Menconi. His kids come along and there’s Menconi. I leave the paper: Menconi. I get married — Menconi. Kids of my own. Menconi. Lunch every solid stinking week come heat, hell or hurricane — Menconi. And, true enough, the opposite. Menconi’s life hits a speed bump and there I turn out to be, so I guess this works both ways. And Menconi walks away from the N&O, and here I am again.
I have nothing to offer but my company, and nothing to claim but my gratitude for the best friend that I’ve ever had.
I probably should have made a mixtape.
— Scott Huler
March 2, 2019