V‘s glassy eyes had me worried. It was getting late, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t made much progress on the editorial he was supposed to be writing. Not only was I going to have to edit it, but also lay it out and then proofread the rest of the copy on the page, all on deadline.
Several hours earlier, I had heard the telltale hiss of a beer can yielding to his ardor. A sound that sighed so sweetly in the ear outside of the office was far less pleasant in the workplace. V, the dissolute Thai boss of the translating desk at the Thai newspaper where I was working, had already started to rob me of the innocent esteem I had once held for the press. Was it possible he might also deaden my desire for beer? And of more immediate concern: What kind of state would his story be in when it finally landed on my desk?
It was getting close to 9 p.m., and I was starting to think that after only five months on the job, my life as an editor at the blandly named Business Day newspaper had already settled into a reliably crappy and booze-scented groove. I mean, the goofiness of my colleagues could be endearing, and our newspaper wasn’t great, so it was all kind of harmless, right?
And so as the sun set on September 11, 2001, I was disappointed in V, but I could also see the potential for comedy in his routine. Maybe this is just what journalism was like? And it’s not like there was any exciting news in the paper that day anyway…
I guess you can see where this is going.
Some background is in order. I was 25 at the time, and several months before my arrival in Thailand, I wouldn’t have been able to identify its elephantine outline on a map. But I wanted to move to Thailand to soak up some of the fellow-feeling and goodwill I had experienced on an earlier holiday visit. The country had a strengthening democracy and an economy that was gradually righting itself after being upended in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It felt to me like my own silliness and incompetence wouldn’t be punished because everything was going to be all right. I was going to fit right in. And I was going to try something I had never done before: work in the newspaper business.
Until then, I had exactly zero experience in journalism. I studied English and French in college, and before my arrival in Thailand I spent my days handing out books and CDs as the librarian at a French cultural center in Chicago. Most of my money came from a nighttime gig parking cars for fancy restaurants and nightclubs on the city’s Randolph Street strip.
Things were apparently going well enough in Thailand that my lack of experience was no barrier to entry, though. Here’s how it happened: A boyhood friend from northern Michigan had traveled to Thailand after college as part of a planned around-the-world trip. His horizons shifted after he met a Swedish girl on a beach and decided to stay; the rest of the world would have to wait. After trying his hand at teaching, he found his way into an editing job at the business newspaper via some connection made through his girlfriend, who worked for the UN. In what turned out to be a happy coincidence for me, the thrill of journalism, at least as it was practiced at this particular paper, had nearly worn off for my friend just as I was preparing to park my last car in Chicago.
I landed in Thailand on April Fool’s Day after an apocalyptic March snowstorm back in the City of Big Shoulders and a near fistfight with my brother, following a drunken farewell night at a boxing exhibition in Lansing, Michigan (surely a fitting prelude for a new life in the oft-debauched nation I was headed). I arrived bearing all the weight of regret for those last few days and plenty of apprehension about how things would work out for me in Southeast Asia. My friend warned me that I should expect a comedy of errors, but I didn’t care. I had $2,000, no firm prospects, and besides, I had recently decided that I always wanted to work at a newspaper. I can’t say that I had read very many of them in the years leading up my debut on the news desk. I was very much into punk rock at the time and, prior to securing the job in question, was certain that news—business news especially—was a disgusting lie peddled to protect the guilty and enrich the wealthy.
I didn’t mention any of that when I first called the editor to arrange a trial shift with the copy desk.
I was going to try something I had never done before: work in the newspaper business
I wore wool suit pants and a button-down collared shirt on my first day, having had no previous experience with the dressed-down world of the news editor. The air conditioner was broken in the beat-up taxi I hailed and, heat and humidity being two of Bangkok’s specialties, I was soon in something of a lather. I spent most of the hour-long ride out to the paper’s office nervously squirming to avoid turning my shirt transparent with sweat.
The office was on the 22nd floor. (I mention this only because I haven’t been able to shake the memory of the day, months later, the elevator broke down and I had to take the stairs. The sweat-drench I experienced then made the heat in the cab on that first ride seem downright salubrious). Upon arrival, I stood trying to cool myself in the air-conditioned lobby for several minutes before heading up and announcing myself. The receptionist motioned me over to a set of couches where I was to wait for the chief sub-editor. (We used the nomenclature of British journalism there; I suppose he would have been called a copy chief at a U.S. paper).
He appeared moments later—Joe, a Chinese Singaporean in his thirties, looking harried and important despite being dressed in shorts and running shoes. My sweat-soaked button-down seemed suddenly out of place. He led me through the office as I avoided the curious glances of the other workers, sat me down next to his terminal, and put me to work cutting up copy produced by the international newswires.
I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t bother looking up to make eye contact with anyone. I felt like things were going smoothly enough, but I was also afraid to pass along the edited stories to a more senior editor for double-checking, simply because I didn’t know how long such work was supposed to take.
He quickly explained the proper procedure so I could un-fuck what I had done.
The first embarrassment occurred that initial day, after an interminable tangle with a column of news briefs. Joe had told me to cut the stories to within a line or two of a red line that was generated after the story had been laid out and its space on the page fixed. I had not been told, however, that one needed to refresh one’s screen every time a change was made to the text. I assumed that the red line was a constant. So after spending upwards of 45 minutes cutting a few already short stories down to the barest of essentials and seeing no change in the position of the red line, I simply gave up and forwarded the stories onto their next stop in the production process.
Joe alerted me to my error with a dismayed “Fuck! What the fuck happened to the briefs?!” Sensing my embarrassment, he quickly explained the proper procedure so I could un-fuck what I had done.
That small disaster burst the bubble of concentration and gave me the chance to pop my head up and look around. I found myself amid a fairly jolly group of foreigners on the editing desk, and I’m sure the neediness that was so apparent in my attempts at striking up a conversation helped disarm them. The editors comprised Virgil, a very gay, pencil-thin Canadian; Bob, a second Canuck, good-natured and hockey-and-beer-loving; Marco, a foul-mouthed Filipino; Betty, a sprightly, giggly Filipina; and Paul, a stoic Brit. Later, a friendly Indian woman named Mona and an overly talkative Canadian named Chris also joined the staff (many of my coworkers are still kicking around the industry, so I’ve changed their names here).
After plowing through more edits, Virgil told me I was doing a good job and asked, with a studied insouciance, if I was also gay. Blushing and stammering ensued. Ah, the native forthrightness of the press! I said no, and thus began my relationship with my first newsroom mentor.
I missed the dinner order that first night at work and had to eat hot dogs and candy from 7-Eleven. I’m not much of a worker if I don’t get my three squares, so this wasn’t an ideal situation. Later, I would come to understand that when the cleaning lady shouted khao—literally “rice”—I was to give her my food order. She would then call it in to the cafeteria downstairs and go pick it up for us as we raced toward our deadlines.
My first several weeks I ate nothing but fried rice and the distressingly small candy bars from 7-Eleven.
The cleaning lady couldn’t speak English and I knew nothing about Thai food, so I was stuck for my first several weeks eating nothing but fried rice and the distressingly small versions of favorite American candy bars from 7-Eleven. Later, I moved on to Penang curry, which came in a big plastic bag that I dumped on top of my rice, oil and all. Eating an entire serving of oily curry rather than picking out the nutritious bits had a most unpleasant effect on my digestive system. The cleaning lady would occasionally take the opportunity to see that my meals had inhuman amounts of chili on them, knowing that I felt honor-bound to refute Thai stereotypes about foreigners not being able to tolerate spicy food. I suffered dearly for my posturing.