In the opera Harvey Milk, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor is given an opportunity to observe the city's reaction to his death.
"I have let you see it with your own eyes," the Messenger tells Milk, "though you may not cross there."
In a perverse sort of way, I feel I've been given a similar opportunity by the Houston Press' offer to print "the farewell column you would have written for the Post had you been allowed," in the words of the Press' editor.
So, how does it feel to be given such a rare chance to be a walking-dead columnist, free to write one more time but forbidden to cross into the real world of living, breathing journalism?
Pretty damn crummy, if you must know.
And you must know. I understand that. We all understand that. We know you're curious. We know you're concerned. We know you have to ask the questions.
"When did you find out?"
"Did you have any idea?"
"What are you going to do now?"
And we have to answer, not just because we know you have a right to be curious, and not just because we appreciate your concern, but because we need to see whether if, by responding, we can make some sense out of something that doesn't -- can't, won't -- make sense.
Well, that's what we tell ourselves, anyway. The truth is that it all does make sense. It's a simple equation: you take a healthy paper and over the years refuse to invest in the product and concentrate instead on erecting a fancy building and installing fancy equipment and you pretend that your competition is not kicking your butt and pretty soon you're going to have to close that sucker down -- or find some suckers of the human kind to take it off your hands.
That's exactly what the Hobby family did. For years, they had the city's number one paper, the morning paper. Industry logic dictated that they would be able to, over time, run the afternoon daily out of town. But that was not to be. It wasn't that the Chronicle had a superior product -- it never has -- but because somewhere along the line one smart Chronicle manager decided to concentrate on classified advertising and circulation, a smart formula for a city that was about to become Boomtown, USA. It doesn't take a Harvard M.B.A. to figure out that a newcomer to a city is going to pick up the one with the most classified ads to help him find a job, an apartment or a house for sale. And once he settles down, he keeps on reading the same paper, not because it's better, but simply because he's familiar with it. And when you have hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, all doing the same thing, the paper with a puny classified section doesn't stand a chance.
So the Post had been dying for decades. It would have died years earlier had the Chronicle ever figured out how to put out a decent product. Dean Singleton was simply the insecure guy with the inflated ego and under-inflated pocketbook who thought he could do what the Hobbys and the Toronto ("Take their pension plan and run") Sun people could not. To assign him the grand role of Houston Post slayer would be to give him too much credit. He was merely the one who got the nasty chore of pounding a stake through the paper's pitiful heart. That he chose to do so in the most cretinous and cowardly manner possible was his most unforgivable sin.
In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Singleton said he opted against allowing us to publish a final "farewell" issue because he considers such editions "pathetic."
Pathetic? To whom? Certainly not to the several hundred thousand loyal readers who would have loved a keepsake of the paper they had stuck with through the years. Certainly not to the hundreds of employees who would have loved an opportunity to thank those readers by putting out the best final edition possible.
A man whose trademark is putting out pathetic papers did not want to allow one final pathetic edition? Give us a fucking break! And is there a single person in Houston who gives a flying frog what Dean Singleton thinks?
I was probably the last person in Houston to hear of the demise of the Houston Post. I had jury duty Tuesday, and I was unable to escape the Harris County Courthouse until about 1 p.m. The first thing I did was check my voice mail from a pay phone at the courthouse.
"Juan, I just want to let you know how sorry I am..." said the first message. Subsequent callers expressed similar sentiments. None said what they were sorry about, but I knew what had happened.
As soon as I arrived at the Fort Hobby parking lot and saw colleagues piling stuff into their vehicles I knew there would be no more Houston Posts, not even a farewell issue.
My first reaction was to play tough guy. If I put on a stoic face, I would escape the pain of having to deal with the stark reality of No More Houston Post. It worked for a while. It worked while I went through my desk drawers and files and put what I wanted to keep in boxes and dumped everything else on the floor.
"It's just another business closing," I said harshly to a young former Post intern who called to express his dismay. "It happens all the time."
"But it's a newspaper," he pleaded. "It is different. It has to be!"
"Well, it isn't," I responded, and at that time I truly believed it, because I had forced myself to believe it. If I could convince myself that the end of the Post was no different than the closing down of say, a General Motors plant, I wouldn't have to deal with it as a personal loss.
But then I walked to the fax room where somebody had taped to a glass wall a number of faxed anguished messages from readers and the pain became overwhelming and the tears started flowing. An unfortunate co-worker who happened be walking by was saddled with the chore of holding me as I tried to regain my composure.
That sense that the closing of a newspaper is something special was reinforced that evening when I got home. I turned on the computer and clicked on to my e-mail. Waiting for me were messages from about 50 readers, some old e-mail friends, others total strangers.
"I started reading the Post when I was in fourth grade," said one. "My dad called to commiserate. He's 69 and delivered the Post when he was a kid. I'll miss you and my quiet mornings with the Post."
Similar sentiments were expressed over and over again.
So yes, the death of the Houston Post is a bigger event than the death of another business. Unlike most other products, newspapers speak to people daily, they touch people's hearts and they make people angry.
And they are missed.
For a while, at least. Eventually, most of Houston will forget that there ever was a Houston Post. Every now and then, somebody will say, "Remember Juan Palomo?" or, "Remember Bonnie Gangelhoff?" And somebody else will say, "Oh yeah, didn't he/she write for that paper that closed down?"
Back to Harvey Milk:
"See how your shadow precedes you at sunrise," the Messenger tells Milk, "then lingers behind you at the end of the day."
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For the four years, six months and ten days I was a columnist for the Post, writing 450 columns, it was a sheer joy seeing that shadow before me each morning.
Now that sweet, sweet shadow lingers behind me. It's time to find another one. Thank you, Houston.
"See how your shadow precedes you at sunrise, then lingers behind you at the end of the day."
The Messenger, from the opera Harvey Milk