Back to the Grind

Let's freeze this frame. We're in the basement-level Forum Room at the Copley Plaza, downtown Boston. A 31-year-old Nieman Fellow on rapturous leave from The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., is burbling to no one in particular that the Bloody Mary they've served him before lunch, dammit, just won't do. At all. "It's pure Campbell's tomato juice," he sniffs petulantly.

In the background, white-gloved waiters are busily setting out plates of oysters on the half shell when the guest of honor, tiny Rene Levesque from Quebec, strides in searching for hands. Bleary Canadian reporters tumble in behind him.

They seem somehow unlike this fellow from North Carolina. They're a tad anxious, perhaps, vaguely desperate and perspiring a little. Their shirts are coming untucked; their pens are scribbling. They are, he realizes with sudden horror, WORKING.

Like dogs.

And so it dawned rather crunchingly on me last week that, after eight soft months on the Harvard Nieman dole, I too am going to be shipped out soon--back into that nervous, fumbling brigade they call "the press corps." Shipped out a bit more flaccid than I'd like to admit. A bit more worried about my role; confused about my credentials as a critic of the American scheme.

Somewhere along the line, my sprint to Greater Understanding had staggered to a bloated shuffle through brunches at the Signet, lunches with deans and general counsels atop Holyoke Center, some wining at the Faculty Club and some dining on steaming Quiche Lorraine at Chez Dreyfus. I had watched with detachment the luxuriant erosion of folks who lived the good life for a living.

But now, my God, I'd discovered myself in the bowels of the Copley, strutting in my best "Imported from Poland" three-piece, expecting--demanding--a better Bloody. A good, goddamn, free Bloody!

O, the cold, plastic throats of telephones before lunch are going to feel strange indeed. And prying at stonewalls instead of oyster shells. And dealing with blue pencils--the worry of sorting out embossed invitations gone forever.

Last year's crop of sad-eyed Niemans warned back in September that the decompression had been painful, even for those headed back to the hometown Boston Globe. And although at least two fellows per class are catapulted to instant fame, others long bear the scars of re-entry: getting slapped with night re-write in Detroit, punishment weather stories in Texas.

I'd like to think that my left-behind colleagues won't snortle this summer when I sit back down at my old Video Display Terminal; that they'll understand the agony of withdrawal I'm facing. But a terse get-well note I got from a fellow reporter a few months back prepared me for the worst.

"I can't find much sympathy for your skiinjury," it began cruelly. "You deserve it for the soft life you've been handed, you bastard. I hope it mends in time for your next big-shot fete. If it doesn't, maybe you can make up a good story about how you got your limp, one that Zbiggy or Gore or Truman or Jackie will swallow like hot pate..."

Hot pate, ha.

Where I'm going, I'm afraid, it'll be strictly cold turkey.

Richard L. Nichols is a staff writer for the News and Observer. in Raleigh, N.C.