The Duration: Quitting Time

 

My first month in the Washington, D.C., bureau, one of the old hands took me out to lunch to give me advice and take my measure. When we sat down at the restaurant, he told me to run my hand underneath the table. What did I feel?

Nothing.

Exactly! No fossilized gum. It’s a new place, you see. The places where the power guys lunched, the places that had been serving steaks to senators since Lyndon was wet behind the ears, they had gum under the table. You knew you were invited into the inner circle when you found yourself at a place with lots of gum under the table.

“Ah!” he said when the waiter arrived. “I’ll have my appetizer.” The waiter went away and came back with a double scotch. He had something to eat, but also requested his “main course,” which was another double scotch. After we had cleared our plates, he gave a bright smile and said, “It’s time for dessert.” The waiter brought another ration of Dewar’s.

In the old days the old hand might sleep it off, wake at two, hit the Bunn-O-Matic for some acrid jake, then bang out the story on a manual Royal. But a new wind was whistling through the office, and post-lunch siestas were discouraged. (The only fellow who could sleep at his desk was an elderly columnist from the Times Picayune, a gentle and courtly man named Edgar Allen Poe.) In fact, most of the staff belonged to a new generation, and they did not liquor up at lunch. 

Quitting time was another matter. 

The bureau was located in an office complex built around a block of row houses. It had a long atrium with shops and restaurants. Several newspaper bureaus had offices in the building, as well as independent journalists. (My first day on the job, Art Buchwald came into the office to get the bathroom key. He really had to go.) Our watering hole was Wollensky’s, a woody bar in the classic style. When the whistle blew and we all slid down the dinosaur’s tail, we landed here for a bump before we went home — some by taxi, some by car, some by subway, some on foot. We argued and complained, congratulated and gossiped, plotted and confessed. I can still see them and name their poisons: rum for El Jefe, Jameson for Irish Mary, Beam Black for me. The workday was over when the waiter set the glasses on the napkins and everyone lit up. El Jefe clinked the Zippo and lit us all, clanked it shut, and raised a glass in a toast: To Tuesday.

Newspapering in the nineties. The days when the morning Washington Post was so thick you had to forklift it off the stoop. 

Spin the clock forward 30 years. At the office today I heard … voices. A rare sound. Our breaking-news guy is in a few days a week, but he’s on the other side of the floor. Once a week our classic sports columnist comes in, and I can hear him growling and laughing. Two days ago, some graphics folks came in for a photo shoot and did some collaboration in the break room, both masked. Most days I have the place to myself. 

Turns out one of the top editors had dropped in. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and we chatted about this and that in the hub — that’s the ring of desks around a central media station, where the newspaper used to be assembled. Online editors, print editors, photo editors, everyone working around a central monolith that had flat-screens turned to every channel. Another wall of monitors showed traffic to the site, news feeds, updates. You could walk through the hub and feel like you were in the middle of an electrical generator. Now the monitors are dark and the batteries on the remotes are dead.

“When is everyone coming back?” I asked. She said it was looking like January, but even so, you know. Cases are still high. The new paradigm was flexibility.

I understood; I used to make the same argument. Doesn’t matter where I am as long as I’m doing the work, and hey, the best newsroom is one that’s empty at 2 p.m., because everyone’s out getting stuff.

But this feels different. You think: It’s never coming back. 

It’s one thing to age out and see the world change, continue on in a morphed form with some remnant wraiths that seem familiar. It’s another to watch it fall away completely, almost all at once.  There was March of 2020, and then there was two weeks, and it’s still two weeks.

You know it can’t be quitting time, because the clocks are striking 13.

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  1. JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery Thatcher
    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery
    @JosePluma

    James Lileks: When the whistle blew and we all slid down the dinosaur’s tail

    ;-{)

    • #1
  2. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    James Lileks:

    My first month in the Washington DC bureau, one of the old hands took me out to lunch to give me advice and take my measure. When we sat down at the restaurant he told me to run my hand underneath the table. What did I feel?

    Nothing.

    Exactly! No fossilized gum. It’s a new place, you see. The places where the power guys lunched, the places that had been serving steaks to Senators since Lyndon was wet behind the ears, they had gum under the table. You knew you were invited into the inner circle when you found yourself at a place with lots of gum under the table.

    Gum?  I would have figured they’d be looking for the places with full spittoons.

    Well, maybe half-full.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    James Lileks: At the office today I heard . . . voices.

    The lab bay across the aisle had voices coming out of it yesterday. There were people in there.

    They went away after a while.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    James Lileks: But this feels different. You think: It’s never coming back.

    A lot of people do want it that way. Otherwise, they’d be suiting up and coming in each day.

    • #4
  5. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    People don’t believe me when I tell them: we few, we happy few, we band of second lieutenants, would meet for a lunch of pizza and beer in the basement of the officer’s club. And be entertained by an exotic dancer.

    The past isn’t another country. It’s another dimension.

     

    • #5
  6. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    Cases are still high? A “top editor” believes that?

    • #6
  7. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    “When is everyone coming back?” I asked. She said it was looking like January, but even so, you know. Cases are still high. The new paradigm was flexibility.

    I understood; I used to make the same argument. Doesn’t matter where I am as long as I’m doing the work, and hey, the best newsroom is one that’s empty at 2 PM, because everyone’s out getting stuff.

    But this feels different. You think: It’s never coming back. 

     

     

    In our IT organization for a manufacturing company, we’re finding it very hard to hire new people.  Nobody wants to relocate, they want to work from home, and we want people in the office at least a few days/week.

    • #7
  8. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    John H. (View Comment):

    Cases are still high? A “top editor” believes that?

    I the senior guy at the local AP desk once asked me to do a subtraction problem for him, because “Me and math don’t get along.”

    • #8
  9. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    You’re bathing yourself in it: the feeling of being the last Roman wandering among the columns of the empty buildings. Reading your stuff about the lobbies and walkways and desperate remaining businesses is irresistible. You paint the picture vividly. And even though you never say so, I sense an enormous sadness underlying it all, because you truly loved the way it was, and you fear it will never be anything comparable again.

    Many, perhaps most of us share that feeling, adjusted to the particular locale or situation that we loved that has changed beyond recognition, almost beyond belief. The past is gone, but that doesn’t make us treasure it any less. The future is inhabited by people who don’t really believe us old folks when we talk about the way it was…why should they? It’s not part of the world they’ve experienced, so it’s not real. So we sigh, we adjust, and we value the people who will listen to us as if they cared, because who knows, maybe some of them do.

    • #9
  10. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    James Lileks:

    But this feels different. You think: It’s never coming back. 

    It’s one thing to age out and see the world change, continue on in a morphed form with some remnant wraiths that seem familiar. It’s another to watch it fall away completely, almost all at once.  There was March of 2020, and then there was two weeks, and it’s still two weeks.

    You know it can’t be quitting time, because the clocks are striking Thirteen.

    Well, now instead of having scotches at lunch, you can have them all day long as one works at the man cave room set aside for work.  ;)

    • #10
  11. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    “When is everyone coming back?” I asked. She said it was looking like January, but even so, you know. Cases are still high. The new paradigm was flexibility.

    I understood; I used to make the same argument. Doesn’t matter where I am as long as I’m doing the work, and hey, the best newsroom is one that’s empty at 2 PM, because everyone’s out getting stuff.

    But this feels different. You think: It’s never coming back.

     

     

    In our IT organization for a manufacturing company, we’re finding it very hard to hire new people. Nobody wants to relocate, they want to work from home, and we want people in the office at least a few days/week.

    About six or seven weeks ago my job stipulated that all supervisors and above had to return full time in the office by October 18th.  Within two weeks it was rescinded and the claim was because the Delta variant had become an issue.  I suspect after the holidays we return if the next few months don’t show a high contagious rate, but if we do it could be the spring.  Talking to other people, no one wants to go back to the office.  This has become too comfortable.  I certainly don’t want to go back to commuting.  

    • #11
  12. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Manny (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    “When is everyone coming back?” I asked. She said it was looking like January, but even so, you know. Cases are still high. The new paradigm was flexibility.

    I understood; I used to make the same argument. Doesn’t matter where I am as long as I’m doing the work, and hey, the best newsroom is one that’s empty at 2 PM, because everyone’s out getting stuff.

    But this feels different. You think: It’s never coming back.

     

     

    In our IT organization for a manufacturing company, we’re finding it very hard to hire new people. Nobody wants to relocate, they want to work from home, and we want people in the office at least a few days/week.

    About six or seven weeks ago my job stipulated that all supervisors and above had to return full time in the office by October 18th. Within two weeks it was rescinded and the claim was because the Delta variant had become an issue. I suspect after the holidays we return if the next few months don’t show a high contagious rate, but if we do it could be the spring. Talking to other people, no one wants to go back to the office. This has become too comfortable. I certainly don’t want to go back to commuting.

    We have everybody back on “permanent” schedules* as of Labor Day.  I’m back in the office 3 days a week, which is about what most of our organization seems to be doing.  I actually missed my commute – it creates a good separation between “home” and “work”.  and I’m WAY behind on podcasts.

     

    *With a *lot* of variability and flexibility. I’m missing office days because I have to chauffer my wife to PT appointments a couple days a week.

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    I actually missed my commute – it creates a good separation between “home” and “work”.

    My commute has been ten steps from bedside to office chair for years, since long before CoViD-19. I have never missed a commute. Nor do I miss having co-workers. But again, my situation was not caused by governmental destruction of jobs, opportunities, and businesses. I work alone. Were I collaborating, I would prefer to work together in person.

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Well put as usual

    • #14
  15. Hugh Member
    Hugh
    @Hugh

    My kids come to me and talk about how things have changed and “its all different”.

    You can hear it in their voices.

    I think: “you are too young to be filled with melancholy about the past”.

    • #15
  16. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    People don’t believe me when I tell them: we few, we happy few, we band of second lieutenants, would meet for a lunch of pizza and beer in the basement of the officer’s club. And be entertained by an exotic dancer.

    The past isn’t another country. It’s another dimension.

     

    Roger, that. Fort Benning, 1984. The Foxhole, the down-in-basement “informal” lounge of the Officer’s Club. The favorite haunt of my fellow ne’er-do-well Infantry buddies (IOBC 3-84).

     

    • #16
  17. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    As always, a delightful read, @jameslileks. This would be a great piece to use for a “Ramble” podcast. (I’m just sayin’…)

    • #17
  18. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    I may have mentioned I’ve gone back to work for the first time in 25 years. I work part time in an essential industry. Everyone is in the office, unmasked, vaxxed and unvaxxed. I’m enjoying it immensely. Wish you were here.

    • #18
  19. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    I never closed my office.  It’s just me and my one employee in separate offices.  And I’m away a lot.  Essential business, too, so never asked to lock down.  My clients are manufacturers, so no shutdowns among them, either.  Masks in some places, and covid theater on some trips, but work carries on.

    Be glad if you have to go to work.  I predict that those who can truly work remote full time will come under enormous downsizing pressure in the coming decade.  Or outsourcing pressure.  Full-time work-from-home is a curse disguised as a blessing.

    • #19
  20. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    I never closed my office. It’s just me and my one employee in separate offices. And I’m away a lot. Essential business, too, so never asked to lock down. My clients are manufacturers, so no shutdowns among them, either. Masks in some places, and covid theater on some trips, but work carries on.

    Be glad if you have to go to work. I predict that those who can truly work remote full time will come under enormous downsizing pressure in the coming decade. Or outsourcing pressure. Full-time work-from-home is a curse disguised as a blessing.

    That’s a good point too.  If you can do the work from home for maybe $30/hour, someone in India may be able to do it for $10/hour.  Or less.  And with no health coverage cost, etc.

    • #20
  21. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    I never closed my office. It’s just me and my one employee in separate offices. And I’m away a lot. Essential business, too, so never asked to lock down. My clients are manufacturers, so no shutdowns among them, either. Masks in some places, and covid theater on some trips, but work carries on.

    Be glad if you have to go to work. I predict that those who can truly work remote full time will come under enormous downsizing pressure in the coming decade. Or outsourcing pressure. Full-time work-from-home is a curse disguised as a blessing.

    That’s a good point too. If you can do the work from home for maybe $30/hour, someone in India may be able to do it for $10/hour. Or less. And with no health coverage cost, etc.

    $3-$5.  I haven’t priced recently, but 10 year ago you could buy Indian PhD programmers’ time retail at $5/hour, buying only 5-10 hours at a time.

    • #21
  22. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    James Lileks: You know it can’t be quitting time, because the clocks are striking 13.

    It’s not even April.

    • #22
  23. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    You’re bathing yourself in it: the feeling of being the last Roman wandering among the columns of the empty buildings. Reading your stuff about the lobbies and walkways and desperate remaining businesses is irresistible. You paint the picture vividly. And even though you never say so, I sense an enormous sadness underlying it all, because you truly loved the way it was, and you fear it will never be anything comparable again.

    That’s it. Sometimes it’s just a mood; other times it’s a certainty. 

    • #23
  24. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    For the past 20 years, I have worked solely in factories.  My “temp” job that was supposed to last one month is at the end of week 13, with no end in sight.  No masks required, but some wear them anyway.  Last year, on my job of 12 years duration, I went in to work every single day, except for the 2-week plant shutdown.  I hated to have to wear a mask when away from my desk, and the old place still requires masks of everyone indoors, regardless of vaccination status.  I am actually looking forward to this temp job ending, so I can go back to being retired.  The company I work for is having trouble hiring machinists, though, and could accept more work if they had enough employees.

    • #24
  25. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    James Lileks: The bureau was located in an office complex built around a block of row houses.

    Red Lion Row. I had many happy lunches at Wollensky’s, followed by a visit to Tower Records. 

    • #25
  26. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    People don’t believe me when I tell them: we few, we happy few, we band of second lieutenants, would meet for a lunch of pizza and beer in the basement of the officer’s club. And be entertained by an exotic dancer.

    The past isn’t another country. It’s another dimension.

     

    Roger, that. Fort Benning, 1984. The Foxhole, the down-in-basement “informal” lounge of the Officer’s Club. The favorite haunt of my fellow ne’er-do-well Infantry buddies (IOBC 3-84).

    I think the Fort Bliss O-Club go-go  dancers did not know quite what to make of my ADA OBC class showing up for beer on Friday afternoon. We were, after all, the first gender integrated class. We heard tell that a general’s wife, or a group of colonels’ wives, did away with the go-go dancers before we came back four years later for the advanced course.

    • #26
  27. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    People don’t believe me when I tell them: we few, we happy few, we band of second lieutenants, would meet for a lunch of pizza and beer in the basement of the officer’s club. And be entertained by an exotic dancer.

    The past isn’t another country. It’s another dimension.

     

    Roger, that. Fort Benning, 1984. The Foxhole, the down-in-basement “informal” lounge of the Officer’s Club. The favorite haunt of my fellow ne’er-do-well Infantry buddies (IOBC 3-84).

    I think the Fort Bliss O-Club go-go dancers did not know quite what to make of my ADA OBC class showing up for beer on Friday afternoon. We were, after all, the first gender integrated class. We heard tell that a general’s wife, or a group of colonels’ wives, did away with the go-go dancers before we came back four years later for the advanced course.

    How many colonel’s wives equal a general’s wife?  :-)

    • #27
  28. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    People don’t believe me when I tell them: we few, we happy few, we band of second lieutenants, would meet for a lunch of pizza and beer in the basement of the officer’s club. And be entertained by an exotic dancer.

    The past isn’t another country. It’s another dimension.

     

    Roger, that. Fort Benning, 1984. The Foxhole, the down-in-basement “informal” lounge of the Officer’s Club. The favorite haunt of my fellow ne’er-do-well Infantry buddies (IOBC 3-84).

    I think the Fort Bliss O-Club go-go dancers did not know quite what to make of my ADA OBC class showing up for beer on Friday afternoon. We were, after all, the first gender integrated class. We heard tell that a general’s wife, or a group of colonels’ wives, did away with the go-go dancers before we came back four years later for the advanced course.

    How many colonel’s wives equal a general’s wife? :-)

    Each one of them, of course.

    • #28
  29. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    James Lileks: The bureau was located in an office complex built around a block of row houses.

    Red Lion Row. I had many happy lunches at Wollensky’s, followed by a visit to Tower Records.

    That’s the place! Lindy’s Red Lion for burgers. Not just Tower Records, but Tower video on the other side of the building. A newsstand run by a guy who walked out of a 40s New York movie, Au Bon Pain, little knick-knack and fashion shops, Kincaid’s for expense account lunches. 

     

    • #29
  30. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    You’re bathing yourself in it: the feeling of being the last Roman wandering among the columns of the empty buildings. Reading your stuff about the lobbies and walkways and desperate remaining businesses is irresistible. You paint the picture vividly. And even though you never say so, I sense an enormous sadness underlying it all, because you truly loved the way it was, and you fear it will never be anything comparable again.

    That’s it. Sometimes it’s just a mood; other times it’s a certainty.

    So we cling to what we can, and hope to get the chance to help bring some of it back. Your documenting the way things were is vitally important. 

    • #30