…and they said it was nothing personal, just the unfortunate result of severe cost-cutting measures and the awful state of the economy, the rise of the Internet and the fall of the American newspaper industry in general, not to mention the grave challenges facing the company if it was to survive. Apparently they couldn’t afford me any more. I didn’t realize I was all that expensive, but there you are.

They thanked me for my more than 25 years of loyalty and service to the newspaper. They wished me well. They promised to send me a big severance check. They said I could leave right away and didn’t have to finish my work or stay to clean my desk. I could clean out my desk the next day, Saturday, when almost no one would be there to witness it.

But since no one was forcing me to leave the building just then, I stayed for several more hours and started cleaning. I completed and sent over a couple of final, extremely minor stories to my editor. Any personal items got cleared off my desk and deleted from the computer; the IT people, I’d been told, would scrub the hard drive.

They hadn’t yet cut off my phone or computer access. So I sent out a mass e-mail to a long list of people, mostly professional contacts and other people who weren’t working in the building. I wanted them to know not to expect to find me there at the paper any more, and to tell them where they should send future press releases. And to say where they could find me from now on, if they wanted to.

The reply e-mails began pouring in almost immediately, and before I left there were scores of letters. All of them used the same word to describe their reactions: “shocked.” Of course, that was what I was, too: shocked, or maybe shellshocked.

I was inside an odd, invisible but protective little bubble that kept me working, e-mailing, talking, and hugging every now-former colleague who came by my desk to commiserate. I even joked around with my friends, making black-humored quips, shaking my head sympathetically in shared dismay, shrugging helplessly in mutual disbelief. Every one of them used the same words: shocked, unbelievable, incredible. They were the ones who were hurting; I couldn’t feel anything, not really. I did, however, take mental note of who in the department seemed truly distressed on my behalf, and who seemed to be avoiding me. It’s funny how you can do that, how easily you can keep score, even while in a state of shock.

I didn’t cry once, not that day. It was very much like when you first hear of a sudden death in the family. You experience both a heightened reality, and a strange disconnect from same. 

I started cleaning out scores of old story files and press releases, but then weariness set in, and I could only get so far. I realized I was going to need a lot more than a few tiny wastebaskets, some of which are supposed to be only for recycling paper and not for disposing of plastic bubble wrap, publicists’ CD-ROM presskits, old matchbooks, and all the other detritus of a career in journalism. So I asked for a gondola, which in janitor parlance is not a romantic Venetian boat but rather a big, ugly gray plastic trash cart on wheels. Pretty much the height of unromantic.

As previously requested, I turned in my employee ID and my security-access card to the indifferent minions of HR. I walked through the lobby and hugged the front-desk receptionist in a final goodbye. And then my husband drove up in front of the building, and I walked out and got in the car without looking back. After 31 years at three newspapers, beginning on April Fools’ Day of 1977, my last day as a journalist was officially over.

I came in Saturday to finish up the details. They’d brought the gondola as promised, and I filled it in a two-hour orgy of indiscriminate desk-cleaning. When that was over, we took what was left out to my car in eight cardboard boxes.

Most of those boxes are still stashed in the car trunk, a week later. I suppose I will get around to putting them away in a closet somewhere, someday.

But not today, and not next week. It’ll have to be on a day when I can look inside those boxes again. When I can bear to see my life’s work, written in yellowed, crumbling newsprint, an honorable medium fading so quickly now into the past.

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