Chapter 3—Dan: Meet the newbie

Chapter 3
March 16, 11:29 a.m. Chapter 3
Dan: Zooming in for a meeting

The minute I enter the virtual meeting room I start looking over the patchwork of squares filled with my colleagues’ faces. Damn, don’t they know they’re on camera? Here we are in the middle of the biggest crisis since 9/11 and my fellow reporters seem distracted.

Claire is clearly focused, and polished as ever. Long blonde hair gently pushed off her left shoulder to show her crisply ironed blue shirt. I’d bet ten dollars she isn’t wearing sweatpants like the rest of us probably are. She’s wearing lipstick and her nails are painted a similar peachy shade. 

Our crime reporter, Kazuo, isn’t paying any attention. I can see his fingers dancing away on his game remote. He’s probably already filed his story. He usually has the overnight story done before the rest of us get to work. 

Ed is fiddling with his camera, probably wondering what a photographer can shoot while WFH. That’s our shorthand—it’s probably everybody’s shorthand—for Working From Home.

Carryn, I can’t tell what Carryn is doing but she’s the only grown-up I know who wears a Hello Kitty shirt and that’s mostly what I see. The foreign editor, she’s already been working overtime since news of the epidemic hit China.

What? You’d like to read Chapter 2? Click here. And Chapter 1? Find it here!

Rashima isn’t even at her desk, though I can see her in the corner of her square, feeding her dog. Our intrepid restaurant reviewer might be out of a job until the restaurants re-open. 

Celia is nowhere to be found but I can see her cat, roosting on the keyboard like it’s planning to call the meeting to order. Why do cats do that? 

Ahmed texted me to tell me he isn’t coming. None of the little boxes in the grid contain Jose or Dorotea. Maybe they are out covering a story. Wish I was.

Sian is deep into some novel on his Kindle, probably waiting for Claire to call the meeting to order.

I feel Sophia’s absence but it takes a few minutes to remember she’s gone. It hurts to miss her even though I had no claims on her. She always brought a bubbly sense of humor to the meetings. She knew how to rib us when we took our jobs too seriously. She’s the one who dubbed the place “the nut house.”

I couldn’t help having the worst crush on her. Even if I can’t shake it, I do know it’s meaningless since she has already found the woman of her dreams and followed her to somewhere in the midwest. 

Resigned to a future without Sophia, I look for her replacement. But Jessica Sands doesn’t seem to be here either. Since our phone call I might recognize her voice, cool but with a little sing-song, but I don’t know what she looks like. In any case, there’s no one here I don’t recognize. 

A twelfth square appears and Mr. Okun’s face fills the screen. The boss’s appearance is most unusual. He never attends our team meetings. Everything about this Monday morning is weird.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your attendance. As you see, we are in unpredictable times. I’ve never before walked through our offices when I was the only one there. But this morning, I was all by myself until Ramon came to set up this meeting for me.”

He looks away to a person in the distance behind him. “Thank you, Ramon. As you see, Ramon will be working in the office to keep the system running smoothly. If you have any problems, email or message him and he will be able to help you.”

A doorbell signals a newcomer to the meeting and a flustered woman who already can’t seem to sit quietly appears on screen. Must be Jessica Sands.

Mr. Okun’s face softens to a smile. “I trust everyone is here now?”

The newcomer freezes. She’s been caught and didn’t know it until now. Even though the image is a bit blurry, I can see the embarrassment coloring her cheeks.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Mr. Okun.” Ah, she knows who the boss is. “It took me a few minutes longer than I expected to set up the camera and audio. I’ve never done this before. I thought it would be like FaceTime but it isn’t.”

“We’re glad you’re here. I joined in this morning only to reassure all of you that even if it isn’t business as usual, we will be putting out a newspaper every day. It is my belief that our readers are going to need us like never before. We’ll have to find ways to get to the stories out there, as we all self-isolate, so we can make sure our readers know we’re in this together.”

“Claire,” Mr. Okun peers into his monitor like he’s looking for her and she sits up straighter, if that’s possible. “Ah, Claire. I’ll leave the rest of the meeting to you. Have a good day, all.”

Claire leans into her screen. “Thanks, Tyler. Now would be a good time to introduce Jessica. Dan?”

I’m up. Before I can begin talking, Jessica is fidgeting again. Her attention is scattered to her paperwork, her phone, everywhere but where it should be. 

“Good morning, team.” I pause, hoping to get her attention. “I’d like to introduce you to Jessica Sands. Jessica, the team. Our new hire comes to us from one of the local weeklies. She was there six years and was a school teacher for two years before that. She went to both UB and Harvard.”

Yes, I really say Harvard. Much as I hope no one notices, Jessica jumps on it immediately.

“That’s Hopkins,” she says through gritted teeth. Oh she’s smiling but I can see the annoyance even through the smile on her pretty face.

“Sorry, I knew that. Forgive me. Jessica went to both Maryland and John Hopkins.”

“That’s Johnzzzzz Hopkins,” she interrupts. I can’t believe I messed it up again. One thing, though, I’ve discovered our new hire is rude. 

“Right,” I mutter. “Johnzzzzz Hopkins.”

“Sorry, Dan. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.”

I’ll say it’s some kind of jerk reaction. But I paste on a smile and miss Sophia.

Claire takes up the welcome speech. “Welcome to the Times-Herald, Jessica. As you know, Sophia has moved to Oklahoma City to work for the paper there. I hope you will all help make our newcomer feel welcome, especially in these difficult times.” 

The newbie folds her hands and leans in toward the camera. “Thank you, Claire. I’m proud to be working for this organization. I’ve always wanted to work here so I am a little disappointed that on my first day I’m not walking past those massive pillars on Charles Street to come to the newsroom.”

“We all are,” Claire says. “But we’ll make the best of the situation. The network is up and running and everybody should have no trouble logging in. We’ll use Slack….”

I check out. Claire explained all this on Friday when we had to pack up our desks and prepare for a long period of WFH. 

The little pot of purple flowers seems to laugh at me. I forgot to show them to her Hopkins-ness. Already I can see she’s going to be such a stuck-up snob. That’s Johnzzzz Hopkins, she says. 

“And you’ll be working with Dan on this.” When I hear my name I refocus on my laptop screen. 

“The sound cut out,” I lie. “I missed that last bit, Claire.”

“Mmmm-hmmmm.” She’s pursed her lips so she knows my mind was AWOL. “I was saying we need to ramp up our covid-19 coverage right away. I want you two to get with the city officials about local response. Even though we don’t have many cases yet, we want to know who will be in charge. Police…fire department…health…you get the idea. You’ve already started making calls, right Dan?”

I nod with as much authority as I can muster even though I haven’t even made a list of all the people I need to call after I finish the story due this afternoon. 

I have to look like I’m on top of things. Claire still hasn’t forgiven me for screwing up that quote last week. They mayor already busted my balls about it and we corrected it in the follow-up on Friday. But she’s still giving me grief. “Right. That’s what I’ve been doing all morning.” I hate to lie about it, but I need to get back in her good graces. It was Claire, after all, who decided to hire a lowly sports staff intern right about the time I was losing hope of ever getting a decent newsroom job.

For some reason I can’t fathom, Jessica seems a little flummoxed. I am not looking forward to working with her. I’m not only going to have to double-check my work, now I’m going to have to go over hers. 

“Is this story about local virus cases or how people are responding to the worldwide pandemic?” the newbie asks at last. One glance at Claire’s eyes narrowing to skeptical slits and I know Ms. Sands is in trouble.

“Good question, Jessica. We’re just going to worry today about the city and the county. You’ll focus on city issues. Take a look at our online pages and get up to speed on what we’ve already covered. I’d think you already were reading the paper.” 

Feel that burn, Jessica? I wince as Claire manages to be polite, patient even, while she pokes that you-should-know-this dagger right between our newbie’s ribs. Claire’s good at that—I’ve felt that dagger more times than I can count in the past couple weeks. Maybe the newbie will become her newest target.

 

I’ve written my in-person meet-cute for Dan and Jessica. But I’m thinking of changing it. How would you like them to meet in person during a covid-19 lockdown?

As a single mother, Jessica is trying to help Lori with her first grade lessons. Teachers, parents—I need your advice.  

Add your comments below.

 

Jessica: Wish I could zoom out

Sweat pours down my spine when I realize I’ve said something stupid. The heat rushes to my face like it’s seventh grade and Jimmy Hauser’s laughing at my answer all over again. Of course I knew the capital of Jordan is Amman. It was a simple mispronunciation.

But it didn’t matter once Jimmy howled and jumped out of his seat, “Can I get an Amen, sister?”

I remember Mrs. Brennan looking over those half-glasses she always wore and staring Jimmy down until he shut up and sat down.

No, this is worse. It’s as if Mrs. Brennan was the one who jumped up and laughed at me.

Can I die now?

I pick a piece of lint off the red linen of my jacket as I wait for my face to cool down. My power jacket isn’t doing the job today. I’ve been wearing this jacket to important meetings for years. It always reminded me to stay strong when I had to sit in all-office meetings with the great and powerful Roxanne Moran. A big woman with questioning eyes, she challenged everything the staff said. My supervisor, a good man with a big heart, could turn into a bit of quivering jelly when she turned her gaze on him. That’s when I started wearing my red jacket. It made me feel bold and vibrant as its rosy hue. I got so I could look Roxanne in the eye and stand my ground.

In one quick misstep, the power of my jacket has been ripped away. Worse, I’m wondering if I made a mistake coming here. This all feels so wrong. Claire almost sounds belligerent. Nobody seems friendly. There hasn’t been a single funny remark or quick laugh, like I usually expect at newsroom meetings.

Maybe it’s the online meeting site. It’s hard to get comfortable when I can see how I look to everybody else. I keep fidgeting in my chair, biting my lip or straightening the lapel of my jacket. I look nervous, almost untrustworthy.

I glance through the grid of faces, hoping for a bit of sympathy from the team. Some of them—the ones paying attention—look as stricken as I feel. Claire, on the other hand, is jotting down a note, as if unaware she chided me in front of everybody.

I pick out Dan from the crowd, uncomfortably aware I’m turning into such a stalker. Leaning back in his chair, his fingers flying on his iPhone, his face is unreadable. I can’t tell if he’s bored, doesn’t care that I just got embarrassed, or is playing it close to the vest. I did the same thing Claire did, after all, correct him in front of everybody. I feel a little guilty for doing that, especially after I got the same treatment for something I guess I should have known too.

Great first impression, Jess!

One thing in the frame does make me smile. There’s a little pot of purple flowers sitting at his elbow. He didn’t even mention them but there they are, just as he said. Maybe he’s not as bad as Claire says—even if he did burn me about my education.

I have to cut him some slack since we’re going to be working together. I pay attention to the rest of the meeting without a comment. Since who knows when I’ll have a chance to meet everybody in person, I have to use these moments to get acquainted with my colleagues, put faces to bylines and figure out what everybody covers. Already I’ve realized that I’m pretty low in the pecking order. All right, at the very bottom. But I’m still a reporter and that’s exactly where I want to be.

From here, I can only move up. There are plenty of opportunities for advancement when you start on the bottom rung, right? I have to pay attention, get to know everybody and do a good job on this first project.

Best to put my early worries behind me, forget all about it. I need this job. I’ve wanted it for the longest time. I straighten the lapel of my jacket one more time and remember the power it has had in the past.

Claire ends the meeting with a reminder about tomorrow’s meeting. “Put these meetings on your agenda for every day at eleven-thirty. I’ll sent the invite just before then. Attendance is mandatory.”

Mandatory. That means I have to have a story written and I probably should have another one to propose at tomorrow’s meeting.

First I better message Dan about contacts and check out the online paper. I have a lot to learn about the work.

One more thing I decide I have to do. For tomorrow’s meeting, I’m putting on pants. And make-up. If I have to go to work at my kitchen table, I might as well dress for my job. And find another power jacket. I can’t wear this one every day. I have a black sweater set that always seemed a little severe. Maybe it will help state that I am a serious employee.

Yeah, only thing is, it’s in the laundry. I’ll worry about that later.

First, Lori and I are having lunch.

I’m looking for your ideas!

Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them?

So far the story has had readers from every continent but Antarctica and I’d love to hear how people have coped in places beyond Jessica’s and Dan’s hometown.

I’ve written my in-person meet-cute for Dan and Jessica. But I’m thinking of changing it. How would you like them to meet in person during a covid-19 lockdown?

As a single mother, Jessica is trying to help Lori with her first grade lessons. Teachers, parents—I need your advice.

If you have a suggestion for what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to whathappensnext.19@gmail.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.

Ⓒ 2020 Mary K. Tilghman

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