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DAILY GRIND.

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SOUTH FLORIDA, NOVEMBER 2000. THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME FOR A YOUNG JOURNALIST. OR, THE END OF THE ROAD
[posted 03.16.2001]

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MY DECISION TO QUIT the newspaper business didn’t come as I lay on Southeast Sixth Street in Fort Lauderdale, in the midst of the Florida recount, with a pair of broken glasses and bruises across my face. It brought me closer, but it wasn’t THE cause.

That I should forego a career in newspapers was a realization that took years to discover. I had been cemented to the thought of being a newspaper reporter. While others were ducking hot grease or bussing tables, I got my first job clerking for The Montclair Times of New Jersey. A bright-eyed 14-year-old, I worked there four days a week after school, from 3 to 7 p.m. And I loved every minute of the experience.

But, now that my drippy, sappy inner child has been sedated, let me tell you how I came to quit a good job with Tribune in favor of the unknown. It’s a story that involves Bob Dole, a 300-plus-pound man and about eight feet of rope.

Steady, now….

“LIBERAL!” “CONSERVATIVE!”

As part of the local government and politics team for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, I was one of the lucky pieces of fodder assigned to babysit the Broward County Courthouse when “Armageddon,” otherwise known as the presidential manual recount, struck South Florida in November. On one particular Saturday morning, I found myself sitting in back of courtroom #8791, watching a cross-eyed man with a magnifying glass and his canvassing-board cronies count pregnant, hanging and protruding chads.

I had been listening to the monotony that is undervote recounting since 6 a.m. For those of you keeping score at home, undervotes are ballots that neither man nor machine could decipher during the machine and manual recounts. Rather than throw these votes out, the three-member canvassing board believed it was omnipotent enough to judge how these people voted (if they did at all) by examining each ballot individually.

The play-by-play went something like this:

Suzanne Gunzburger (Democratic): “There seems to be light at the top and bottom of No. 3. A vote for Gore.”

Judge Robert Rosenberg (Republican): “There’s no reasonable certainty.”

Judge Robert W. Lee (the tiebreaker): “I agree. That’s no vote.”

Now, imagine hearing this about 70 times over a four-hour span. Sometime around hour five, I realized I needed more coffee, a bathroom and some fresh air. So I walked outside seeking color for my story.

Idiot that I am, I walked over to the hordes of Bush/Cheney supporters who were yelling and screaming and bellowing through megaphones at the 12 or so Gore/Lieberman supporters on the other side of the street.

But I’m not doing the recount justice as the malevolent, anarchistic, societal liquefier that it was. Imagine everything wrong with the politics of this country: the bipartisan feuding on Capitol Hill and politicians too preoccupied with “who wins” to realize that maybe the other side has a point. Two groups screaming at each other, convinced that not only are they right, but that the other side is so off they couldn’t hit the bald spot on Telly Savalas’ head if they had a scud missile and GPS tracking (lil’ bit of Dennis Miller there).

Liberals want to pay garbage men more than the submarine crewmen who patrol our shores. Conservatives want to throw every man, woman and child with a joint in jail for five years.

Liberals want to give away our hard-earned money. Conservatives want to pocket the rich returns and keep the lower class at the bottom.

The very words themselves become so filled with hatred they sound like “nigger” and “faggot,” “kike” and “chink.”

“Liberal!” “Conservative!”

Now imagine all that given physical life in the form of protestors — wives and husbands, and the children they brought with them.

If on the inside I was witness to the ineptitude and deficiency of the Florida voting system, what I saw outside was downright scary.

BOB DOLE IS SHOCKED.

After talking to a nice-yet-militant couple who shook their fists while condemning Al Gore, I headed back toward the courtroom. I ducked under a long, yellow rope used to corral the rampaging mob. And then a funny thing happened.

The rope followed me down as I ducked under it.

Then it came forward.

Then it smacked me right in the bridge of my black, wire-rimmed glasses, breaking the frames and knocking the lens out in one swift, fluid motion. The blow knocked me, embarrassingly enough, butt- then back-first onto the asphalt.

Finally I sat up, and as my eyes came back into focus I saw the extending love handles and acre-wide butt of a grossly overweight mound of a man leaning against the rope. Apparently, he had readjusted his position just as I ducked underneath. The fat bastard.

It wasn’t this rope incident that did it, though. No, my realization came later that night, with the arrival of Bob Dole — bum hand, third-person dialogue and all.

Following him were Christie Todd Whitman and a gaggle of governors and senators and congressmen. Politicians both Democratic and Republican who, apparently, had no pressing matters of the state to deal with back home, thus allowing them to jet away for a fun-filled weekend in “beautiful” Broward County.

Both parties had brought in the big guns — if they couldn’t win in the courtroom, they could at least win in the court of public opinion — to make a true circus out of an already laughable situation. And the politicos were more then willing to talk to a lobby full of blood-sucking, word-munching, flash-popping, rude, crude and obnoxious “sumbitches.”

Those being us. Me. The press.

They had traveled from New Jersey, Missouri, West Bumblefuck, just for the sake of getting on CNN and authoring that one sound byte that would make the evening news or the headlines on tomorrow’s papers:

“Every American needs to be counted.”

“We need to move on.”

“Bob Dole is shocked by what’s going on here in Broward County.”

Yes, he actually speaks in the third person.

And there we were, perpetuating this nightmare, soaking up quotes as if they were drops of ambrosia. Calling on Dole for one more answer, one more reaction, just so that we could brag: “Hey, I interviewed Bob Dole. I rule!”

We couldn’t have cared less about the public! We just wanted to sedate our geeky, pseudo-competitive spirit. The same attitude we had hated to see back in journalism school when someone answered a professor’s question with, “Well, when I interned at INSERT-BIG-NAME-PAPER-HERE...”

Soon I was back in the courtroom, once again watching Rosenberg, the Magnifying Wonder, as he dangled yet another ballot up in the air. Part of me wondered if he knew that this was futile and had decided to make a joke of it by looking as inane as possible. But I think he genuinely cared about the process, about reaching a definite answer as to who should receive the 25 electoral votes and become the 43rd U.S. President.

Rosenberg, I realized, wanted to spend 11 hours examining ballots. And I realized that I did not. I didn’t care.

I didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of it: Bob Dole, the politicians, the protestors, the recount. As for the presidency: Hell! Spuds McKenzie could have won for all I cared. At least he’d have seen that the inaugural ball was a well-catered, kick-ass bash.

The entire day’s events had pushed me over the edge, settling a fight that I had waged against myself for years. And I was forced to accept one clear truth about being a young twentysomething just out of college: The most incredible-yet-nerve-racking aspect of being this age is the perverse belief that we can do anything. And we do believe it — that the dreams of our childhood will come to fruition. We’re the lawyers who will change criminal law. The politicians who will restructure Washington. The software designers who will recreate the computer again. The musicians who will revolutionize rock or rap or north celtic bagpipe folk…whatever.

I knew that, in the back of my mind, I had always wanted to be more than a newspaper reporter. And my lack of interest in the recount forced me to decide whether the job I had was what I really wanted.

Why the recount? Because it was the biggest story of the year, the type of story that I had been trained to salivate over like a 13-year-old boy watching Buffy. I had been taught by some of the most obnoxious, conceited, anal-retentive, creepy and downright belligerent professors on God’s Green Earth to jump at an opportunity like this, to put my life on hold and follow a national story with all the fervor of a bloodhound on crack. But as I wrote the story that day, I’d have been happier watching paint dry, or doing my bills, or shining my shoes.

You have to love writing for a newspaper, a previous editor had once told me. “If you don’t, you can’t do this job,” he said, “because it takes so much out of you. You have to want to give that energy, day in and day out.”

And I was out of energy. I had nothing more I wanted to give. Burnt out at the ripened age of 23, nauseated with newspaper writing. And rest wasn’t going to revitalize me. I knew that as I finished my story near midnight and received the go-home nod from my editor.

This wasn’t enough, not anymore. The fork had been shoved into me. I was so done.

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glenn jeffers has moved back to chicago to work as a magazine writer, a less strenuous profession that will keep him off welfare and give him enough spare time to write an oscar-winning screenplay.