I got a new job a few months ago. It happened suddenly. One day, I was writing stories for THE WEEKLY STANDARD. The next day, I was doing a daily show for CNN. Virtually everything about my life changed dramatically. I did my best to ignore it. Finally, one night last week, I had to face the truth: I'm not a magazine writer any more.
It hit me when I showed up at the STANDARD to clean out my office. The room was filled with junk. This wasn't surprising. I've been here a long time. When I first got to the magazine, our only child was seven months old. She drank from a bottle and slept in a crib. She is six now, with two siblings. I tucked her into bed tonight. She was reading a book with no pictures. She begins sentences with, "Actually . . . " It seems like she has gotten so old.
It seems like I have too. The first thing I found in my office was the head of a parking meter. It's gray and pitted and ugly, but it's one of my favorite things. A friend and I liberated it from the streets of D.C. on Election Night 1996. We'd been sent out to cover the victory parties at hotels downtown. We wound up getting too close to the story and, well, the parking meter thing happened.
It was terrific fun, the sort of fun I realize now I'll probably never have again, at least in public. The thought made me feel relieved and sad at the same time.
I tossed the meter head in a box, and started going through drawers. Here was the detritus of half a decade at a weekly magazine. A bumper sticker from the Million Man March. Handbills from a Labor Day protest in Denver. A flag from an Elian rally. Propaganda from the Shining Path, Berkeley chapter. Dozens of mementos from my time on the Hopeless Candidates beat: a note from Lamar Alexander, a green necktie Steve Forbes once gave me after an interview. And so on.
Then I got to the books. I had a lot of them. I found an entire stack of self-published manuscripts people have sent me over the years, including Donald Trump's autobiography, and something I've yet to see in bookstores entitled "The 21 Unnatural Deaths of Members of Congress, from 1952 to 1992." That one still had a cover letter attached: "Dear Mr. Carlson, this is not a conspiracy theory!!!" Tantalizing, but I never followed up.
Most everything else on my shelves had something to do with stories I'd written. There was the Unabomber Manifesto, the Starr Report, six books by Jonathan Kozol, three biographies of Christie Whitman, five Marilyn Manson CDs, radio commentaries by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and a bound copy of the Natural Law party's 1996 platform. I sat at my desk till almost 3:00 A.M. looking at it all. It's been a wonderful five and a half years, I decided.
I knew right away I couldn't take home all the books. There isn't room, and in any case it may be time to stop pretending I'll ever need to look up John Hagelin's 1996 position on NAFTA. Time to unload.
It took a while. I have a lifelong habit of using books as file folders. Before I could throw them away, I had to go through each and remove everything I'd stuck between the pages. I found pay stubs, hate mail, invitations, travel itineraries, birthday cards written in crayon, notes from my wife.
I'd wanted to save all this stuff, and until now it hadn't dawned on me that the books in my office would be a bad place to do it. That's the thing about books and jobs. You think you'll have them forever.