by: Laura Smith
The real life story of a writer employed as a corporate journalist for the railroad…
I looked at myself in the crooked hotel mirror and couldn’t peel my eyes away.
My hair was sticking out in tufts from under a bright-orange, brand new hard hat. My jeans were carefully rolled up above my steel-toed boots. Atop my blue-shirt (don’t wear red, my boss told me) was a bright yellow safety vest. A pair of earplugs were loosely bound around my ears while I examined the safety glasses I was given before boarding the plane (never leave home without these, I was instructed), trying to decide where to stash them. For the finale, a company camera hung around my neck, branding me as the Newsletter Lady. Grabbing my spiral bound pocket-sized notebook, several pens and my hot-off-the-press business cards, I mumbled aloud to myself: “Let’s go gather some news.”
The Railyard — three hours later
I was completely lost. I had pulled up to the railyard three hours ago and had yet to see any sort of life that wasn’t of the flying variety. Sweat was dripping down the side of my face, smearing the only words scribbled on my notepad: How do you work safe? I decided I should probably rewrite that and tore off the piece of paper, surrendering it as my new handkerchief. That phrase had been permanently ingrained into my brain during the day-long training session: “Always ask how they work safe. Angle stories around working safe. You, be safe.”
Slowly swiveling in a need-water-now delirious circle, I surveyed my surroundings: Trains. All I saw were trains. I took to heart all the advice I had been given, and decided that “go looking for stories, don’t let them come to you” should not have been at the top of my list. I was utterly lost in a railyard. In the middle of summer. In California. I could see the headline now: New Newsletter Lady Dies Searching For Stories. My mother would be weeping, “I always knew she’d inherited my sense of direction.” My father patting her shoulder, “always too stubborn to ask for directions.” I shook my head, sweat droplets flying off in several directions. Must. Move. Forward.
“You look lost.”
The raspy voice caught me by surprise. Turning around, I glanced up, way up, at a very large man wearing the same outfit I had carefully draped myself in that morning.
“Yes, sir, I am most certainly lost,” I said. And then I fainted.
Tuesday — A Different Railyard, 10 a.m.
“So, this here is the new card,” a disgruntled railroad worker plainly stated.
“Wow, that is fascinating. Tell me more,” I responded eagerly.
He grunted. “Well, most of our old cards got washed.”
“So we decided to make these new, risk assessment cards and decided to laminate them. For safety.”
I couldn’t scribble down his words fast enough. Finally, a story! After yesterday’s wasted day, and waking up in the middle of a railyard after fainting, any story seemed like a good story. I jotted down the headline: “Cards Get Safer With Lamination.” My editor was going to be so proud (he wasn’t). My first news gathering trip and I’d done it (I hadn’t). I’d caught the rabbit (news, the rabbit is news). Except this rabbit was a two hundred pound, balding, never-ate-a-carrot-in-his-life rabbit. But who cared? I had caught him.
He sat staring at me as all these phrases swirled around in my head. Finally, I spoke, hitting him with the last question I was supposed to ask – the tell-all question – the one that these articles were made of: “So, even without the laminated cards, how do you work safe?”
He looked at me stoically. I could tell his answer was going to be full of wisdom and pointers for younger railroaders who poured over this newsletter (they don’t). Twenty years in the railroad has got to expose hidden secrets of being safe, right? Roger cleared his throat. “To be honest with you, Newsletter Lady, I just don’t do work. That’s how I stay safe.”
I almost fell backwards. He just doesn’t work? My brow furrowed. Trying to figuring this out, I jotted down: He does minimal work to stay safe. Lazy or simply brilliant? Maybe I had a new headline. Standing up I reached for his hand. He put it in his pocket.
“Thank you for your time, Roger. Do you have any friends in the yard I could speak to today?”
Roger pointed his dirty, calloused finger to the right.
“Jerry over there loves talking to you writers. Give him a holler.”
“Oh, great. Thank you!”
I reached for his hand once more but he was already gone. Determined, I grabbed my backpack, laptop, earplugs, safety vest, safety helmet, camera and gloves and walked over to Jerry. He was sitting with his back towards me. I could make out a faint outline of a skull tattooed down his spine. This nut might be a bit harder to crack I figured, but I was riding an interview-high and nothing was going to get me down.
I had flown into California for my first news-gathering trip. For five days I was scheduled to drive all over Southern California and gather thirty stories and photos. Each day I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. Or what I would eat. Or what I was going to be wearing. No, wait, I did know what I would be wearing — PPE (personal protection equipment). It’s not the most comfortable attire, but all the railroaders are doing it, and it helped me to fit in. I guess you could say the only reason I stood out was the giant backpack and camera I carried around. Or the strands of blonde hair hanging down my back. Lightly I tapped Jerry on his burly shoulder.
“Hi, Jerry, I’m Laura, and I’m the new newsletter lady for your division. Roger tells me you’d love to be featured in this quarter’s newsletter.”
I took a deep breath as he finally turned around. Victory! “Do you have a few moments to chat?”
Now I had no idea what he was thinking about. He just stared, piercing me with his dark blue eyes. I envisioned he was going to tell me this long, convoluted story about how he had always dreamt of working on the railroad since he was a child, or how he couldn’t imagine not putting on a hard hat every morning – that his head would feel lost, like a child without their teddy bear.
Except that my thought stream was interrupted by his hasty response.
“I’m actually really busy,” he said.
I stared at him. He was sitting alone, a container of chew lazily hanging from his stocky hands. On his leg rested his iPhone, covered in camouflage. I could barely see it.
“Oh, okay, maybe when you’re free later – here is my business card.”
I handed over my newly printed cards: Laura Smith, Corporate Journalist. He accepted the card and placed it in his front pocket. He picked up his iPhone and began texting. I pulled out my notebook and jotted down: West Colton, Jerry story – call me, maybe?
Wednesday — Starbucks, 2 p.m.
It was 2 p.m. and I hadn’t gotten a single story. I could feel my heightened spirit and overly eager disposition diminishing. A part of me wanted to throw in the towel and spend the rest of the week drinking and watching bad television, but the other part, I suppose the sober, level-headed part, had faith that these railroaders would learn to love me. I thought back to my one-day of training two weeks ago. “Get stories. Never give up. Don’t take no for an answer. Catch the rabbit. Ask about safety. Write on the spot. Use your looks.” Use my looks! I looked around for a bathroom and snuck inside to find a mirror and access the damage.
Hair: tangled and on-top of my head.
Face: wait, is that the dirt from yesterday? Oh, wow, that zit is quite large.
I swiped on some mascara. Better.
Clothes: these are the pants from the men’s section. I think I took the “fit in” thing a bit too far.
I swiped on some more mascara.
Okay, “use your looks” I’ll work on for tomorrow. Maybe a tan would help me. That non-level headed part of me started walking out the door, straight to the beach.
Work day pause.
Thursday — 7 a.m., railyard.
I was burnt. Five hours in the sun sans sunscreen was a horrible idea and now I had twelve hours to get ten stories. I can do this I thought. No big deal. On this day, the newsletter lady wouldn’t back down. I’m was going to eat that rabbit. Or just you know, find it. You don’t eat meat, I quickly reminded myself. Right.
I glanced at my notebook before walking into the shop.
Stories needed: Everything.
Interview #1 — 2 hours later
“So, how do you stay safe?”
“Everyday, I come to work knowing that if I don’t come home, my dinner is going to get cold and my wife won’t get a hug,” Andrew told me, a twenty-five year old roundhouse foreman.
That’s actually sort of sweet, I thought. “Wow, that is actually the best answer I’ve heard so far. Thank you!”
I shook Andrew’s hand, one of the new hires of the yard. For once, he extended his firm hand, covered in grease yet incredibly soft. “Do you know of anyone else that would like to talk?” I inquired, a hint of desperation clinging to the phrase.
Friday — LAX, 1 p.m.
Sitting in the airplane, on-route back to the Midwest, sandwiched between an overweight businessman and a woman who bluntly tried to hook-me up with her thirty-five year old son. I took out my notebook.
Story count: 5 (total)
I sighed and sank back into my seat as the businessman’s face landed on my shoulder.
I heard my phone beep; it was a text from Jerry, the loquacious conductor.
‘So, I have a story idea.’
Yes, I knew it! I knew he’d come through.
‘It’s about us.
West Colton, Jerry story.
Snores erupted from the businessman. I felt my shoulder moisten.
I turned to the lady on my right. “So, your son?” My tone dripping in hesitation and annoyance.
“He works for the railroad actually!” She beamed in overdue hope, gesturing to the hard-hat at my feet.
In all attempts to not hurl myself overboard, I threw my arm up, motioning for a glass of wine.
Laura Smith is a Nebraska native who spends most of her time adventuring and writing. Her work has been published online by Talking Soup, Noble Brewer and Travefy. You can follow her ramblings on Twitter.