#191: The Afterlife

July 17th, 2013

The afterlife has wine poured in plastic cups. And it has beautiful photos up on white walls. And it has old friends and old not-so-friends, all giving hugs and patting each other on the shoulders.

It has handshakes and gossip and catching up and sympathy, so much sympathy.

The afterlife has tall ceilings that look out on Lincoln Avenue.

“She was with the Tribune,” an old friend of mine said as she, I and a friend of hers stood gabbing in the corner of the wedge-shaped room with tall ceilings. “I got in touch with her after and introduced her to the afterlife.”

“Yes, yes,” the quiet older woman said, nodding sadly with a carry-on smile.

“And there is an afterlife,” my old friend said.

The crowd milled around.

We were at the Chicago Photography Center at the opening of an exhibit of photos by the laid-off staff of the Chicago Sun-Times.

In case you’re not familiar, the Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff on one of the last few days of May. All of them. The Sun-Times itself, all its suburban papers, everyone. No severances that I’m aware of. Not even a thanks. Just a “leave now.”

Since then, all the pictures have been taken by reporters’ cell phones or culled from Getty Images or the Associated Press, Chicago getting the same coverage of Chicago that Denver and Chiang Mai get.

The Chicago Photography Center exhibit, which runs through July 28, is called “See What You Missed.”

My friend is Mary Beth Nolan, one of the most competent, dedicated shooters I’ve ever met. She was laid off from the Daily Herald a few years back and has been freelancing ever since. I give her full name so you’ll look her up and hire her.

We met at a car crash about nine years ago, when we worked for separate suburban papers, me with notepad trying to get cops to say if the driver was drunk and she snapping away with camera to show people that the laws of physics don’t fuck around.

We would eventually end up at the same place, me on staff, her a freelancer. I think. I can’t remember. Swirling around the suburbs for news you run into so many of the same people at different times it’s hard to remember when you worked with who where or who you just commiserated with for rival chains while stuck at the same board meetings and house fires.

You’re friends and colleagues. You get into shorthand knowing so many of the same people and places.

“I saw _____,” I said to my friend. “I said hi, but he was being all _____-ey.”

“Being _____?” she said. “Yeah.”

Soon, Brian Powers wandered by and Mary Beth tagged him on the shoulder. They hugged, as Mary Beth and I had a moment before. I had said hello to Brian at the door. He and I did work together at the same place at the same time, I do know that. A suburban paper owned by the Sun-Times.

Brian is young and handsome, with a lovely young wife who adores him. He’s athletic and tall and absolutely brilliant at his craft. He was the one CNN hired to do the photo tribute you may have seen of portraits of the laid-off shooters.

His plan is to finish the education he left five years ago to take the job where we met.

Mary Beth, late of theĀ Herald, and her friend who had been laid off in a quieter Trib culling surroundedĀ Sun-Times Brian to introduce him to the afterlife too, to tell him that, yes, there is a life after news, a life after photography and a life after losing your life’s dream at 26.

Brian’s first wedding anniversary will be in September. He had a job when they got married.

We chatted about familiar folks. Who said he would be there but might be coming later. Who we saw on TV interviewed at the Billy Goat after the mass sackings. Who couldn’t be there because of her son’s birthday.

I saw an old photo editor from my first job, _____ being all _____-ey. I saw a Ghost of Christmas Past from the content farm where I worked after my last paper. Him, I avoided.

I saw faces I recognized but couldn’t say from where. I saw people I covered meetings with and others I met in darkness once under the flames of a house afire.

Is my purpose in this gathering sympathy for the brave and obsolete, for the people who gave you every public moment you remember and then got tossed off like a used rubber once the investors of Wrapports LLC got their wick dipped?

Well, yeah. It’s fucking sad.

But the other part is to show you all what you missed, what you are missing every day you look at a Sun-Times cover with the same Getty or AP photo you’ll see in Cleveland or Idaho or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

You had art on those walls and professionals who do it every day lining the aisles between. You had good men and women who commit brilliance on a daily basis trying to figure out how they’re going to pay their rent.

It’s a sad world and, no, I don’t think this is the saddest part of it. The George Zimmerman verdict came down the day before. That’s a tragedy. People are dying in Syria and on the South Side. Each day billionaires pay to subvert science and try to confuse the gullible that the climate isn’t changing so keep on buying that oil, oil, oil.

The taxes you pay are killing in Afghanistan.

But you know those stories because of people like this, the Mary Beths and the Brians and the Marianne Morgans, another friend laid-off in an earlier ST purge.

That’s the bitch of it. These 28 who lost their jobs are just the final severing of ties. There have been 16 rounds of layoffs in 13 years, according to one of the photogs quoted in Brian’s CNN piece. The Mariannes and god knows how many others I never had the privilege and joy to meet, they don’t even get this little gallery show with wine in plastic cups and encouraging chucks on shoulders.

They don’t get to be named in this article although they lost just as much.

They were the ones who provided what you know about the world, provided it in a way that made you stop and look. They gave you beauty and tragedy and a hell of a lot of prep sports.

So here’s to the final crew of Sun-Times visual artists.

Their names are Brian Powers, Steve Buyansky, John White, Al Podgorski, Stephanie Dowell, Larry Ruehl, Scott Stewart, Ryan Pagelow, Andrew Nelles, Matt Marton, Michael Smart, Buzz Orr, Matt Grotto, Brian Jackson, Tom Delany, Jon Sall, Dom Najolia, Rich Chapman, Jeff Nicholls, Rob Dicker, Brett Roseman, Curtis Lehmkuhl, Michael Schmidt and five others who didn’t consent to Brian’s CNN piece so I don’t know their names.

The average age of those 23 who gave their names was 48 years old. The average tenure — working day and night, house fire and car crash, trial and meeting to make money for the Chicago Sun-Times management — was 21 years.

The top three tenures were 44 years, 43 years and 42 years. The bottom three were eight years, five years and nine months.

I don’t know what to say to you visual poets other than goodbye.

At least we’ll all meet again in the afterlife, where there’s a glass of wine in a plastic cup and a pat on the shoulder for all of us.

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