Camaraderie in the newsroom

01:48, Sep 19 2013

It was a Friday night conversation that could have easily taken place three months ago.

I was biting my nails, slumped in a chair, frowning, looking at photos on my camera and trying to figure out what the story was here and who was to blame.

Beside me was Southland Times reporter Collette Devlin, on her iphone, rapid-fire texting, while telling me she is done already, without looking up. How far away was I from being finished?

Not far, I told her, also not looking up, and pressed send on a carefully composed text that was about the same length as a small news story. There, I said, throwing phone into purse, and packing up camera, and standing up triumphantly. Finished.

We grabbed our purses and shook off the stress.

If this was three months ago, we could have been buttoning up our coats, wrapping scarves around our necks, putting hats and gloves on as we thundered downstairs, already wincing as we opened the door to Esk Street.


We would have been found about five minutes later, just around the corner at The Kiln, or down the street at Level One, beers in hand, minds fizzled.  

We would have a moan about all the people that hung up on us that day, feel kind of bad about the people that we hung up on, make a pact to cut people some slack, but somehow also be fiercer, try harder, write faster.

Then we would stare at the big screen TV and watch sports or music videos, or infomercials, until our bad moods had dissipated enough for us to be tolerated in our homes for dinner.

And that would be a Friday night three months ago.

But tonight? No.

Tonight we were thousands of kilometres and an ocean away from Esk Street, and winter, and we were marching out the door and into a late summer evening in shorts, summery shirts and sunglasses to the happiest place on earth, actually, which made me chuckle endlessly, as our arms rose up under palm trees to hail the shuttle bus that would take us to the gates of Disneyland.

I was here because Collette had managed to score two tickets to the theme park during her stay in Los Angeles, which included a journalism conference and a placement at the Los Angeles Times.

And then disaster hit. I was driving my dad's car south on the 101 freeway and in bumper to bumper traffic earlier that day when I had my first true blue L.A. car collision.

It was minor, and involved a sudden stop from the car in front, and me ramming into the back. We pulled over, exchanged information, and  I took a photo of the damage and asked if I could just take care of this without getting the car insurance company involved.

My stomach was churning. In my head I was adding up the costs against the dwindling reserves in my New Zealand bank account.

I must have been shaking a little bit, because the woman, named Manal, who wore a headscarf - as did the woman in the passenger seat with her - grasped both my arms and said in a Middle Eastern accent that everything would be fine.

She would take care of this if I was short on cash. She gave me her cell phone number and said if she didn't hear from me by Monday she would understand - that would be okay, she assured me, because she had a good mechanic.

Then she gave me a hug. Her daughter had scratched the side of the car backing it out of the driveway last week, see? This was nothing.

''We don't have to tell our husbands,'' she said.

I agreed, husband-less, nodding. We definitely didn't.

Three hours later, within about five minutes of meeting up with Collette - who was dealing with a broken laptop screen the day before her journalism conference began, and was scrambling to find some place nearby that could fix it by 9am the next morning  - it was like no time had passed since we had sat next to each other in the newsroom in late June.

We hugged, had a quick, frazzled catchup, then came clean with having something that needed to be taken care of ASAP before we took off to Disneyland.

We marched down to the hotel reception, collapsed on the couch, fired up our appliances, and were once again, side by side, at work, separately, and still kind of together, working on a project.

She even absently handed over her leftover turkey sandwich so I could stress eat while writing a text to Manal and forwarded the photos of the crash, just for both of us to have on record (I also googled Manal's full name, out of curiosity, and was subsequently thrilled by the possibility that I had just collided - and then split a bill for dented bumper - with a Saudi Arabian women's rights activist).

It was just like old times, I thought tenderly, wiping mustard from my mouth with the back of my hand, looking over at Collette doing her own research, overwhelmed by a sudden rush of warm feelings for that camaraderie in the newsroom.

I had seen Disneyland before (growing up three hours north, and with a brother who spent his university summers as Buzz Lightyear, it's a hard place to avoid) and its hard for me to get super excited about waiting in line for an hour to be twirled around in a tea cup.

But I loved being side by side with Collette, once again, and this time on the other side of the equator and in an environment that works so damned hard to make you happy - how could we cranky old journos not be?

Drinking non-alcoholic mint juleps at the Blue Bayou, watching the boats glide towards the Pirates of the Caribbean in artificial darkness and candlelight, we talked about the holiday time we were both in  - for me in California; for Collette in Ireland and Europe - and what was ahead for us.

For Collette, the conference and newspaper placement was chance to meet and work with top journalists from around the United States before coming back to the Southland Times. For me, what started out as a holiday had become a move into a time of uncertainty - do I carry on in journalism? And if so, where?

It was so good to bounce all these ideas and plans off Collette, just like I had been before leaving the newsroom.

I said goodbye to her in the doorway of a conference room the next morning, and I have to say Collette - dressed in heels and a suit, surrounded by representatives from pretty much all the newsrooms I had dreamed of working in my whole life - look like she belonged there.

I welled up a bit, watching her stride into the gathering of people, a part of me wishing I could also slip on heels and a suit and follow her in, but knowing that's just not where I am right now.

So from my place in the hallway, dressed in jeans and jandals, with no career direction, I wave you on Collette - it was lovely to sit there and write and research next to you one last time, scream like crazy coming down Splash Mountain, and then watch you walk into that room the next morning.

Who knows - maybe we will be grumpy old journalists in a newsroom somewhere else in the world someday.

The Southland Times