Right now it’s 10:15 p.m., and I’m at work. I had to come back after theatre practice (which started immediately after work) to scan a few pictures and print out a caption. Deadline day has turned into deadline night.
The printing plant that prints our newspaper doesn’t have the technology yet to print newspapers from a computer disk. This means we still do layout the old-fashioned way, where we print each individual photo and article, cut it out with scissors, run it through a wax machine and stick it on the cardboard newspaper template.
The problem is that someone didn’t realize I would be back tonight, and turned off the wax machine. I can’t just leave the caption for tomorrow, because my bosses will never check the captions a second time before taking the paper to press. So I have to stick it on myself, just to be sure.
It takes a long time to heat up wax when it’s solid all the way through. I’ve been here an hour, and the block of wax hasn’t melted a bit.
Strangely enough, this late-night paper editing reminds me of my college newspaper days: some rookie messes something up, or worse yet, a part-time writer screws you over completely by not turning something in, and it leaves you sitting there by yourself until the wee hours of the morning trying to fix it. My college newspaper didn’t use the cardboard template method, but we were up late nights nonetheless.
At least this newspaper office has windows. Back at the college newspaper, we were in a former smoking lounge in the basement of the student center. There were no windows, and the office was squeezed behind a stage, one the university hardly ever used. With the door open, you might see a slim line of light showing to the side of the stage, but other than that, the office was pretty much closed off from view.
The room had an odd smell and an ancient air vent that allowed you to hear the sounds of the outside world. Such sounds, of course, were torture when you knew you’d be stuck in a little white-walled room all night, working on a nine year-old computer that freezes up every 20 minutes.
So as you typed, you listened. Not out of curiosity or even habit, but simply because there was no other noise in the building to listen to. You’d hear the wind blowing, and imagine it flowing through the trees in the darkened sky. You’d hear college students walking by, their shoes moving through the green grass, which was now deemed colorless in the nighttime. And even though those students probably weren’t going anywhere exciting, you’d imagine that they were, because that’s how the mind works. It pushes your limits like that.
When the basement became devoid of any student life, which was around 8 p.m. each night, the building staff would turn off all but a few lights in the public areas downstairs, making it a very dark and lonely place.
Every once in a while you’d take a break from working and walk through the darkened hallways to the pop machine. Every step you took would echo, and you couldn’t help but notice how clear and precise each tone was, how exact every component of the sound seemed when it was heard with no other noise to accompany it. Then you’d stand still for a moment, and the sound of silence, of no noise at all would come to you like soft white static.
Most people have probably never been alone in a large building, standing in the dark. Well, one day they may. And at that point, they, too, will recognize the sound of soft white static as it hums inside their ears. And then they’ll understand some things they didn’t before.
The emptiness of a building will bring you the illusion of ultimate freedom, as if time were frozen, as if you could do anything that popped into your head. But at the same time, you’ll realize that you can’t do anything, because you have to get back to work, because work matters to you.
The newspaper won’t go to press on time if you aren’t there, sweating out the remaining pages and checking every last detail. The newspaper won’t be perfect if you don’t nearly memorize every page while trying to find that one error that would dare slip past you. Perfection is essential to you, for the school’s journalism program is dying, its head professor has been terminated for mass violations of law and ethics, and in result, the newspaper has slowly withered to a small, mostly indifferent staff. Everything that is viewed by your eyes and passed through your hands must be perfect. Otherwise, that one important visiting studentñthe one future editor who could carry the newspaper on their shoulders when you’re goneñmight see the error, and decide to go to school somewhere else.
Perfection. If you follow the word straight to the endñthe end of you, the end of it, the end of anythingñthen you can stay happy. Hope is all you have, so you follow it. And when your eyes become bloodshot, your grades begin to fall and your morale reaches lower than what you can measure with the naked eye, you shrug as if it doesn’t matter. And after all you hard work, if the journalism department still collapses to the ground like an old, rusted metal giant, taking your newspaper with it, then you’ve done all you can do. You can’t stop the fall. You can only be grateful that it hung over you like a dark cloud, not falling, for as long as it did.
You may never allow yourself to fully recognize the hurt that follows, and you may never completely understand the pain or its reasons. But the hallways were dark and silent on the nights before your time, and they’ll remain that way when your image is but a ghost in the dusty archives. Later, you’ll think back to the reasons you had on those lonely nights, and you’ll remember the dark echo of your footsteps, the sound of the wind in the unseen night, and the knowledge that what you were doing at the time was more important than anything you have ever done.
And you’ll know that there is a meaning to life trapped somewhere in those moments.