No Nose for News

Two weeks after I lost my job as a reporter, my nose stopped working.

As I write this, it’s been 29 days since I lost my job. It was a Saturday when I learned I was no longer a reporter for the newspaper where I’d worked since 2001. On Sunday, I logged on to Facebook and wrote a long note to several of my colleagues. I wanted to say goodbye and wish them luck.

I also wanted to renounce journalism.

Not the whole concept of journalism, mind you, just my part in it. I was tired of the trade, and wanted nothing to do with newspapers. For the year leading up to the layoffs, I’d felt like a fraud, like I was phoning it in.

As I told my co-workers in the Facebook memo:

All I keep thinking about is all the things I no longer have to do: Municipal meeting coverage. Knocking on the doors of strange houses, trying to talk to the families of the disgraced and the deceased. Dealing with arrogant, lying public officials. Badgering strangers. Mulling over the list of stories I would have been working on had I kept my job, there’s nothing that I was looking forward to doing.

Nearly every story I wrote was written with one goal in mind: To be producing, to get my boss off my back, and not because I thought, “This would be a good story.” And in acting that way, I feel like I cheated the paper, its readers, and myself. I’m pretty sure I would have been done as a journalist at some point this year even in the best economy.

Here’s a measure of how much I’d fallen out of love with the work: When I woke up this morning, I thought to myself, “What if you get to the office on Sunday and [your boss] tells you, ‘There’s been a mistake, you still have your job’?”

That idea filled me with disappointment, not relief.

Now that I read those words again, I realize that what I was feeling went beyond merely lacking enthusiasm for the stories I was producing. The real problem was that the part of my brain that would see things and say “I wonder what that’s about” had died.

Nearly two weeks later, I lost my sense of smell.

If I were teaching a fiction workshop, and one of my students had that happen to his or her character, I’d say the metaphor was a bit too obvious.

But that’s really what happened. I caught a cold, and for the first time that I can remember, I was so stuffed up that I couldn’t taste or smell anything. I’ve had colds before, of course, but nothing like this; even as my nasal passages cleared up, my senses stayed away.

“It’ll take time,” Megan, my girlfriend, assured me. “Little by little it will come back, and you won’t even notice it.”

Every time I’d get a chance to taste or smell something new, I’d comment to her. “This waffle is like cardboard.” “Are you wearing perfume? I can’t tell.” “I can kind of taste the salt on this pretzel.”

She told me to stop worrying. I told her I wasn’t worried, just intrigued by the new experience.

But deep down, I was a little uneasy. What if these two senses never returned? Maybe I’d blown my nose so hard that I’d done permanent damage to my system. I knew a guy, a former co-worker, who couldn’t smell or taste anything. He seemed happy enough. And it wouldn’t be like giving up reading, or movies, or music. I’d just never really enjoy eating again.

Back at home — where Megan couldn’t watch and worry — I wandered around my apartment, testing my nose. Shaving cream? No. Shampoo? Nothing. Coffee? That had to work, right? Right? Wrong. I felt like I’d been to the dentist, and was waiting for the Novocaine to wear off.

It lasted for three or four days. Megan was right; it came back little by little. One day I could taste the tang of lemonade, smell the general soapiness on a sheet of fabric softener. The next day, things had gotten back to normal. For all my concern, I don’t even remember the moment when it came back.

I’d like to tell you that I woke up one day with my sense of smell and my “nose for news” risen from the dead. But I’d be lying. I look at the paper I worked for and still feel no compulsion to do that work again.

And still …

I’ve started walking in the evening, just an hour or so around my neighborhood on the South Side of Easton, PA. There’s a cemetery here with several paved walkways that I like to follow. Last week, I walked past a plot for the Churchill family. One of the people buried there: a guy named Winston.

Not a big deal — except this Winston Churchill was born in 1900, the year the more famous Winston Churchill was first elected to Parliament in England. I found myself wondering how this guy buried in Easton had the same name as Britain’s most famous statesman, before he became really famous. I found myself asking, “What’s that about?”

Now, with the freedom to do what I want, and my literal — if not figurative — sense of smell back, maybe I’ll find out.

Article © 2009 by Tom Coombe