Friday, August 3, 2007

Farewell from Wanda Ravernell

There's a new sandwich shop at Fifth and ... It replaced the chain shop that had been there for years. It took some time, but eventually I knew everyone who worked at the old one, and as people quit or were reassigned and then replaced, I learned the newcomers too. But there was one woman, Martha, who was the dynamo of her shift, even though she wasn't in charge. I could count on her to make my day. She was always bright and lively and went out of her way to treat me well. I did nothing to deserve this -- it was the way she was. Each day that she worked and I picked up my sandwich, I knew that I would arrive at the Chronicle in a more uplifted mood. When she was on vacation I missed her.

Then the chain, anticipating competition from the new food court beneath Bloomingdale's and a new sandwich shop opening around the corner, decided to cut its potential losses and close down at that location. A sign went up saying it would close in two weeks. As long as I was scheduled, I kept coming in at my usual time. The workers were nervous. Some were going to be transferred. Some were going to new jobs. Some taking the opportunity to move away - San Jose, back east, a couple more, who were students, decided to devote themselves to their studies and return to college full time.

On the last day of business, Martha had made sure to keep her wallet under the counter to show customers the most recent pictures of her toddler granddaughter. I had known Martha since before her daughter had married. Then Martha took out an instamatic camera and insisted that I stand by the door and smile for a picture. A flash, a hug, and I went in to work.

I pushed the sadness of the day away from me, but the next day, the shop, dark with the windows lined with newspaper, was a blow to the solar plexus.... For 15 years, I have been proud to say that I work as a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. People are almost always impressed. I don't like them to be because I think it's for the wrong reasons. I am too well aware that I am not important, that there are many of us. If I am not the best editor, nevertheless, I sit with some of the most remarkable editors in the business and there has never been a day, not one, when I didn't learn something from them. If I am not proud of how this process of downsizing is playing out, which I am not, if I am hurt by what is happening to my colleagues, and I am, what is most important to me is to have been privileged to be among their number. It is that privilege that I will miss the most.

As I prepare to depart two memories come to mind.

The first are the comments from the husband of a friend of mine who worked as a city inspector for nursing homes in Philadelphia. At one place, Byron said, all of the nursing assistants, the lowest-paid of all, were women immigrants. They had all worked at that same place for years and years. Some of them went to nursing school eventually, but they came back to that job. Byron observed that "they're not there for the money, they're there for each other." Some of them, of course, were related, but all were from some part of Kingston, Jamaica. They liked the same food, the same music. They made a big deal about cooking for one another, and likely went to the same Episcopal church. Byron said they were like a family. For someone to leave, to quit would break up something precious. And they did not see this as a sacrifice.

I am old enough to remember the final episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The station was closing, the news show was going off the air. They had one last night together. After the broadcast, they regrouped in the newsroom. Mary confessed that the people she worked with had become her family. One hug led to another until the entire cast was in a group hug. It was sad and funny as they scuttled like a some kind of multilegged bug toward the door. They couldn't let go of one another. And that is what's so hard about what we go through now. Individuals feel both guilt and relief that they are not selected for ouster. Those forced to leave are likely to land on their feet, but that is not the point. We never worked just for the money. Like the women in the nursing home, we worked for each other. And like Mary Tyler Moore and her colleagues, we feel like a family. That is not something a corporation can ask us to do: We did that ourselves. We are breaking up a team, a family now. What we feel is nothing less than grief and loss.

And so I begin to look on these as my last days at 'home.' I am taking stock of the view down Fifth Street from Market that is filling in with a new skyscraper at Howard street. I will not be here to see it completed. I have been learning the names of the people who make my breakfast sandwiches at the cafe, just in time to say goodbye. I am trying to remember to make more of an effort to give something to the regular mendicants, whose blessings have sent me on into work each day. I am looking at my own hand as I turn on the lamps to light my desk as I arrive and as I turn them off when I leave. I am thinking of how I will transport my belongings, and anticipating how I am going to feel when I take down the pictures around the cubicle and pack up my jade Chinese Frog and remove my calendars before the year is over.

It won't be long now, before I turn in my last time card, and shortly after that, receive my last pay stub. Like Martha and her colleagues, I will bring in an instamatic camera and take pictures that I probably will forget to develop. In this newspaper, we have covered the closing of factories, mills, lumber yards. I have read the quotes of people saying they didn't know what they would do. I understood what they said. Now I know how it feels.

(Ed note: Wanda Ravernell can be reached at

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