Last week’s call for content for 90s nostalgia pieces shifts now to the band New Order, and today’s featured writer Ross Murray. Ross helped me a lot when I started on WordPress and has promoted and supported many other would-be writers, a real mensch. I enjoy his bent take on life, and I’m about to enjoy his new book, which you can also link to at the end of his story below.
Note: this series ends Saturday, and I regret I’m no longer accepting submissions.
by Ross Murray
I was working in production at a suburban Montreal newspaper named, appropriately, The Suburban. It was 1991, and our first daughter had been born that summer – not an accident, we would later say to her, but a surprise, like we’d won something. We were awfully young.
After earning my first freelance writing gigs and in a fit of self-delusion, I quit the paper. The freelance gigs didn’t necessarily follow.
By the fall of 1992, things were feeling desperate. Claiming I knew Illustrator (I did not), I had faked my way into a design firm ruled over by a man whose managerial style could be described as yelling and sweating. It wouldn’t last. I had to find a real job.
Thankfully, I had enough bylines by then to apply for a job as news editor at The Stanstead Journal, a small English weekly on the Quebec-Vermont border. With virtually no newsroom experience, I got the job.
That newsroom, it would turn out, would consist of me and a part-timer who would fax in her copy, so really just me. It was that kind of newspaper. The entire staff could fit in my office. The Journal was located in half of a building known as Pat’s Mini-Mall. Pat was the landlord. He lived next door. He could fit in my office too.
There was a steep curve. I needed to learn the territory, the players, the issues. I had to learn layout. And I had to learn that this was not just a job but an institution. The Journal was nearly 150 years old, the voice of the English community, an advocate for the little guy, the place you went to for the social notes of the Stanstead County Ladies Institute.
It was also not 9-5. There were meetings to attend, festivals to cover, people to phone after supper, ploughing matches to photograph. I had to develop my own film and print my own pictures. I had to leave my wife and young child home alone. A lot. There were arguments about whether I needed to go out or whether I wanted to. When I think back on it, of course I never needed to, but I wanted to do a good job, so I needed to.
Among the late-night jobs was running the paste-ups to the printing press an hour down the road. The Journal was printed by our rivals, the daily Sherbrooke Record, but we were allies in the Battle for English Survival, so we were friendly rivals. While my paper was on the press, I would hang out in the Record newsroom (a real newsroom). Then we would throw the bundles into the back of the Nissan van and back to the border I would go.
En route, I would drop off bundles at local post offices for morning delivery or at the homes of the few carriers we still had. It was a twisting route through the back roads. Sometimes I would stop for coffee (“un petit wakeup” a French clerk once said to me, though I thought he said “un petit whacko.”)
And always there was radio. Even in this musical wasteland of top 40, classic rock and country, there was always something to find on those lonely Tuesday nights, most often on a French community station. The DJ – a young girl at this hour – did what community DJs have done for all time, that is play her favourites over and over. For her, this meant Jane’s Addiction, The Violent Femmes, Electronic, The Cure, New Order.
There were snowy nights when I wasn’t sure I would make it home. There were nights when I would go over and over the crisis that had occurred in our small but volatile newsroom. There were nights I could barely keep my eyes open. But the moment I hold in my head is driving from the Massawippi turnoff, down to Ayer’s Cliff, the moment the fields and trees transition into village, the headlights reflecting off the guard rails at the bridge. New Order’s “Regret” is playing on the radio. Warm power chords, jangles in the night, Peter Hook’s bittersweet bass, all making me feel not so alone at night while my family is at home sleeping without me. It makes me feel hopeful that they’ll forgive me for all the things I’ve already missed and all the things I’m about to.
Ross’s debut novel, A Hole in the Ground, is set in the nineties and involves a weekly newspaper called The Beaverly Modicum. You can order his book here.