The minute I brought up my dissatisfaction with my City Paper paycheck, my mother said, "Listen, honey, I have eggs boiling and a bath running. I'd love to hear all about it, but I have to go," and promptly hung up the phone.
Too thick to take a hint, I walked over to my neighborhood pub in search of consolation. "I have no idea how to start this column about the Steelers offensive line," I said to my friendly neighborhood bartender, Darryl.
"Oh, yeah?" he nodded while drawing my Penn Pilsner.
"Jeff Hartings was a big loss at center, and the coaches haven't even mentioned it. What are they gonna do? If backup Chukky Okobi were the answer, don't you think we'd have seen more of him by now? They drafted that kid from California a couple of years ago, Marvin Philip, but I've seen about as much of him as you would expect of somebody in the witness-protection program.
"What about the Kendall Simmons experiment? If they use Simmons at center, how comfortable should we be with Chris Kemeoatu at guard? The other option, of course, is Sean Mahan. He's a journeyman, but maybe they can get lucky and get the kind of production out of him they got from Hartings."
"So what's the problem?" asked Darryl.
"I just feel so unloved by City Paper," I lamented. "If they'd just pay me more, I'm sure it would help me craft something insightful about the uncertainty at center. These are good questions, but I'm stymied by the lack of respect from my editor."
Even I could see Darryl's sympathy running thin, so I turned to Diana, sitting next to me. "That's only scratching the surface of the concerns, you know. Are they going to work in Willie Colon? We only saw him for a game or two last year at tackle, but he looked awfully good. I wish I could concentrate enough to string a few sentences together about it. I'm just so preoccupied by visions of making more money at some other publication."
She buried her nose further in The New York Times Style section.
Expecting more sympathy from another writer, I pressed on. "I know I signed the contract and all that. But I didn't know then that the alternative newsweeklies in Minnesota would start doling out such mad dough for freelancers."
Her sigh and eye-roll were almost imperceptible. Almost. In a snit, I took my beer and moved into a booth with my friend, Frank.
"It's not just the money, you know," I said, as Frank stiffened in his seat. "Writers need to feel respected for ideas to flow freely. I'm the last person who would want to be a distraction to the editorial staff, but ... I find that I'm just unable to write something coherent about Max Starks, who missed blocks like it was in his job description last season. I don't see any way to tackle it unless City Paper renegotiates before my deadline."
Trying to get me re-focused, Frank asked, "What about Marvel Smith? He's good."
"I don't know how to address my concerns about Smith aging. What if he gets hurt? Trai Essex hasn't shown that much, and Tory Brandon? The guy from Howard? Are they serious? Smith is an enormous key to Ben Roethlisberger's future health, and I've seen no evidence of a contingency plan at Steelers headquarters if he goes down. If City Paper would just sit down to bargain with me, after all these months of dedicated service, this could be the best column of my career."
That cleared out Frank and I realized the rest of the bar was empty, too.
"What about Faneca's contract dispute? Huh?!" I shouted to nobody except Darryl, who was trapped there by contractual obligations of his own. "How am I supposed to handle that?!"
I could hear the hum of the air conditioner. Finally, Darryl broke the silence:
"Everybody understands your desire. You've got a point. Everybody here likes what you write, at least most of the time. We know you've been a loyal employee. But you signed the contract, and now you act like you were forced to do so at pen-point. When that contract expires, you can test the market and be overpaid by some other publication. We wish you the best. But in the meantime, stop whining about it. It's cutting into my tip money."