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“Hey, Deb, can you file some of these music photos?” asks one of my editors, a large visage appearing over the top of the intern cubicle. “When you get a chance,” he continues. “The pile is getting pretty high.”
A sense of doom rushes through me. I have been trying my hardest to stay away from that out-of-control, crazy-looking pile of photos over in the corner of the Washington City Paper editorial office.
“Shit…” I say to myself.
“Sure!” I respond to
Ha. As an intern, there is no such thing as “when you get a chance.” Please. If they wait for me to get a chance to file, it won’t happen. What headmaster in charge really means is, “File now, lowly intern, or suffer the consequences later.” With dread in my heart, I trudge over to the monstrous pile of confusion and begin.
“I’m paying my dues,” I say to myself, as I commence cussing under my breath after slicing open yet another cuticle on the sharp-ass file folders stuffed so tightly into the drawers.
“Yep, paying my dues; that’s what I’m doing. And it’s all gonna pay off one day. And then I can tell some other poor child to do this…”
I’ve wanted to be a writer all my life. Well, at least as long as I can remember, anyway. I scribbled in my diaries as a little girl, jotting down cornybut always heartfeltlittle notes about the kinky-headed little boy down the street I had a crush on. As I got older, my “diaries” became the more ambitiously titled “journals.” The writing became more insightful and always managed to read like a Jackie Collinsno, scratch thatTerry McMillan novel. Pure drama.
“I need to do this for a living. Really, someone else has to enjoy this…” And so I proceeded to make it my absolute goal in life to become a writer. It was either that or a veterinarianor a tornado chaser. And recalling how my mother would look at me when I mentioned the latter, I settled on the power of the pen.
Once in college, it was gospel to obtain an internshipas many as possiblein your major and field of choice. I rambled around town and up to New York trying to get a spot at various newspapers and magazines, had internships here and there, some better than others, but actually found myself done with college when I landed my internship at City Paper. I truly didn’t care. As a local girl, it had long been a wish of mine to write for this paper. Although City Paper isn’t exactly known as the headquarters of black intellectual life, I’m from the school of politically incorrect journalism. You know, where you can write what you really want, use an occasional cuss word (or two or three, in my case), and lots of humor. Can’t do that at the Times. So here I was, in my dream internship; I was ready to roll.
I arrived for my first day and quickly found out that I and the two other interns would be enjoying each other’s company in the designated white-and-teal “intern” cubicle.
“It’s a little tight up in here,” I’d mutter, as the three of us would continually trip over one another to reach the phone or the computer. As close as the quarters were, our little cubbyhole soon became a place where secrets were shared, visions and dreams for the future discussed, and buddyships made. The two of them were pretty cool, but my supposed-to-be-partners-in-suffering always managed to disappear when it was time to file or send off tear sheets.
Anyway, the adventure had begun, and I was out of the gate and running, pressed (extremely eager) to get a story in the infamous City Paper, the paper me and my friends always got a kick out of, the paper that would land you cool points if you wrote for it, the paper everyone would flip to the back of to check out the personal ads (while faking like they were reading Help Wanted). I was poised on the cusp of stardom.
A couple of things happened on the way to my brilliant career. I had story ideas rejected, my ego crunched a few times, but there was nothing I remember more vividly than the times I found myself having to explain to Mr. Editor what some of the black slang that I so often used in my stories meant.
“What exactly is a bama?” Mr. Editor (a.k.a. Mr. Pure White Man) would question with baffled curiosity, a wrinkled brow, and slight grin. I had forgotten that he and I were from different sides of the world, and that I had some explaining to do.
“Er…umm…it means someone who is tacky…someone who is behind the times,” I attempted to explain, “someone who is just kinda wack…”
Oh damn, another word he probably wouldn’t get.
But, whadda ya know, he understood what “wack” meantor did he?
“It’s short for ‘wacky,’ right?” he asked, as he reached for the Webster’s and actually looked up “wacky” in the dictionary to make certain it coincided with the meaning I was trying to convey in my sentence. I remember looking at this guy and thinking, “I know he has to be joking…”
However, Mr. Editor’s keen eye for details of other sorts made my stories better, and his exposure to my version of black culture assisted in hipping Mr. Whitebread to another side of life. And I must admit I was baffled at some of the words he often used in his writing; I realized I had a bit to learn outside of my world as well.
Before long I began to understand exactly what a City Paper story was, and gained some confidence in my writing. After hearing my first “Go for it” from my editor after pitching a story idea, I remember the adrenaline rushing through me as I stood and grinned at him like a goofball, thrilled that I was about to embark on my first escapade as an actual reporter.
How cool it was to go to clubs and radio stations, follow cute guys and cool people around (well people who you thought were cool, at least), get up in their biz a little bit, and write a story about it.
I felt like somewhat of a geek on my first couple of interviews, unsure and uncertain as to what I was doing and how my subjects would respond to me. I felt as if I were imitating a reporter rather than being one. A true intern.
See, at this place, there are no formal intern talks or how-tos; you basically get your butt out there and “just do it.” Which proved to be good and bad for me. Although I am definitely one who hates to be watched and bothered about what I’m doing, I swear I needed a little more guidance. However, I eventually got the flow of things, and soon enough no one could tell me nothin’. I was finally a writer!
There was no joy that could match the rush of that first byline. A real byline in a real newspaper. With a photo next to it, even! As I gleefully held up my article for my fellow interns to check out, I decided my editor was pretty damn cool after all.
And was I actually looking at the file cabinet with a little less disdain?
Deborah Rouse currently works at City Paper as an editorial assistant. Her primary duties include filing photos.