“Well, this is the final stage of the Washington Post interview procedure;’ says the editor of the newspaper’s new Sunday magazine. “Talking to Ben.”
Jay Lovinger and I walk through the cavernous newsroom toward executive editor Ben Bradlee’s glassed-in office on the north wall. Around me, hundreds of reporters sit at computer terminals, banging away. A few sneak surreptitious glances at me. No one makes eye contact except the two sisters at the switchboard. I feel like a side of beef hooked on a pulley in a meat refrigerator, circling for the buyer’s inspection. It is April, 1986.
“Everyone hired at the Post talks to Ben. He is an incredible interview er;’ Lovinger says.
“Oh really?” I say. I almost say “Ow really,” as a needle of excruciating pain shoots up from the cramped space between my little toe and the one next to it. My feet, in three- inch heels, are killing me.
“So far, everyone really likes you.”
“Great,” I say. What I really want to say is, “Likes me? Who gives a damn if they like me? This is a writing job, not a personality contest, isn’t it?”
“The Metro editors even want you for their staff,” he says, as if confer ring some much coveted status. “They were intrigued by your perspective.”
I’m not surprised. Two white males running the Metropolitan desk in a 70-percent-black city that is also the nation’s capital are probably in a constant state of intrigue. Mostly involving how to parlay that job into a better, whiter one.
“If everything goes well with Ben, then we’ll talk money;’ he says as we near the glass office, guarded by a fierce-looking redhead. “Just be your self;’ he cautions.
I turn to look at him to see ifhe’s trying to be funny but of course he’s dead serious. I decide not to ask him who else but myself he imaglnes I am, or could be. Instead, I smooth the folds of my turquoise ultrasuede dress, lick my lips, and wiggle my feet, trying to get the wad of Dr Scholl’s lambswool between my toes-the only thing standing between me and tniple minority status: black, female, and handicapped-back into a more functional position.
But by now I am tired of being on. For me, the notion of comin work at the Washington Post is mostly about money, but that’s a black thing, which these people wouldn’t understand. For twelve years, I had lived happily in New York as a successful yet poor freelance writer. I never thought about working for anyone but myself. Then one night the phone rang, and it was the man who’s now escorting me to Bradlee’s office.
. “Hello,” he said. “I’m the new editor of the new Washington Post magazine, and we’d like to talk to you about working with us.”
After the obligatory yah-yah about purpose, art, and objectives, I cut to the chase: “What salary range are you offering?” The figure, twice what I earned the year before, gets me on a plane to this interview.
“What’s Bradlee’s interview technique like?” I ask.
“Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. Don’t be surprised if he doe most of the talking, he usually does. He’ll tell you about himself to find out about you. Even though you may not say much, Ben is incredibly insightful about people. He’s an amazing judge of character.”
“That’s interesting,” I say, and relax. This I can definitely deal with. White boy interview technique 101, in which he talks about himself in order to see if I can deal with him, which means he can deal with me. I didn’t go to prep school and Columbia Journalism for nothing. My par ents will be happy their money wasn’t wasted.
“This is Jill Nelson. She’s here to see Ben,” Lovinger says to the secretary/sentinel.
“Go right in,” she says, and smiles. “Good luck,” says Lovinger.
“Thank you,” I say, smiling, wondering what I’m getting into. Then I remember that I’m just a piece of meat, dark meat at that. And after all, the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. It wasn’t until years later that Daisy, one of the few friends I made in Washington, pointed out, “Yeah, but who wants sugar diabetes?” She ought to know. Short and olive-shaped, Daisy is Washington’s smallest P.R. maven, a native of Boston who escaped via the East Village of the 1960s and ended up in D.C. Smart, acerbic, and outspoken, she pays homage to no one and has everyone’s ear.
I am momentarily stunned when I enter Bradlee’s office. I’m expecting Jason Robards from All The President’s Men, tall, gray, and handsome . Instead I’m greeted by a short, gray, wrinkled gnome.
“Ben Bradlee. Nice to meet you. Sit down,” he booms. Well, at least he has Jason Robards’ voice. I sit.
“Tell me something about yourself.”