It was Chuck E. Fargin’ Cheeses tonight, and we had a great time. Gnat blew up waves of alien invaders, we rode a “virtual reality” rollercoaster, the latest addition to the C. E. C. menagerie of games. It had a scrolling display that counted down the days to the millennium, and periodically flashed DEMONSTRATION MODE!  And the date, which was some time in the middle of 1998. So I’m guessing it wasn’t state of the art.

One little kid caught me eye; looked familiar. I could have sworn she went to pre-school with Gnat two years ago. No, impossible. She didn’t look any bigger than she was in 2005. Later in the evening a mom came up – never seen her before – and said “well, are you going to write about this?” We had a pleasant little chat about the place and its virtues, and she noted the kids over whom she had suzerainty at that particular moment. One was the kid I recognized, and when she said the child’s name, I knew it was her. I dragged Gnat over and pointed her at the old school chum. That’s Muriel, hon. Remember her?

“Of course, Dad.” She leaned over, eyes wide, and said: “she’s really grown.

Went to the office today. Morale has never been lower.

I’m kidding. I used to talk occasionally with a City Pages media reporter, and I’d ask how things were going. Morale has never been lower, he’d laugh. It was the same for any TV station or paper or magazine. Morale has never been lower. In a way it’s accurate; I can’t ever remember of a time when I worked at a paper with High Morale, except for the Daily. After that, it was the usual stew that seems to characterize any place of business. Except, now that I think of it, Ralph and Jerry’s market. We didn’t have a great deal of morale to begin with, but there was a certain élan in working at the fabled R & Js, keeping up the great tradition of wise-ass failures who manned the register and schlepped the soda up from the basement and wrapped meat when we had the time.

Yes, I wrapped meat. It was a convenience store, but they packaged their own chuck. I’d never known how it was done before I worked there, but it’s pretty simple: you pulled off a sheet of clear plastic, wrapped it tight so the meat strained against the plastic like – well, Mexican Sweater Puppies, to use a phrase I wanted to use yesterday but couldn’t quite figure out how. Anyway, you pressed the package against a warm iron, which melted all the plastic to form a tight seal and release a gaseous bath of carcinogens. We also had a Chiquita banana tree.

Morale got low when the young guy who started after you quit before you, of course.

Anyway. Today was the last day I’ll see some of these guys, because everyone’s out tomorrow. Lots of people took the buyouts, so there were giant bins in the aisles, filled with the things journalists accumulate over the years: paper. Books. Books made of paper. Paper in book and pamphlet form. Newspaper clips, letters, press releases, folders, reams of handouts from HR (never read but filed, just in case.) A few years ago I realized that all my office stuff represented some sort of second life that I really didn’t want, and I got rid of most everything. Then they started moving people around every few months, which gave me the opportunity to winnow and box. The last time I moved I just didn’t open the boxes. There’s nothing in my drawers but peace of mind, he said, realizing that the sentence contained an archaic and unintended double entendre. I’ve been meaning to put up more pictures, but I like a spare desk with a minimum of cubicle flair. I’ve boiled it down to a picture of Gnat, a statue of the Professor from the Powerpuff Girls, a nifty model of the Jetsons in their car, and a giant lithograph of the Holiday Inn sign given to me by the actual Holiday Inn company. I have a few boxes I need to move to the house, but after that I could clean out my space in 15 minutes and leave in one trip.

Not that I have any intention of leaving. But the day I do go, I know what I’ll do. The first day on the job I realized two things: 1) I had nothing to do, and 2) no one seemed to notice. I’m serious: I started in July with the understanding I would start my column in August, which made no sense – and in retrospect that says a lot about the industry. Take a month! Learn the ropes, settle in. When journalism was just a job instead of a Holy Calling, they probably made the new guy write something the first day. The first morning. Here’s your desk, here’s your typewriter. So write already. But I had a month. I had lunch downtown, thrilling to the fact that I was eating downtown for lunch again – but at the same time I felt rather alone and out of practice. It had been years since I’d done the office-worker routine, and I was reminded how much I didn’t like it. After lunch I wandered around downtown and stopped at Crate and Barrel, where I bought some pencils and a pencil holder. The pencils were unfinished – no shiny lacquer coat, just raw, honest wood, man! But in subtle popular hues. I put them in a giant coffee mug, figuring I’d sharpen them later. You know, for those moments when I took the copy out and had a smoke and gave it the final pencil edit.

I never did sharpen the pencils. Ten years later they’re still on my desk in the same mug. My last day at the paper – may it be 30 years away – I’ll sharpen them all and leave them for the next guy.

Yaaaaawwwwwn. I know; sorry. The tank’s low today, but it’s been a full busy week. This was the first post-book run at a renewed Bleat schedule, and heck: five entries, one matchbook, one comic book, 10 pages of money, 19 pages of Fargo, various music and sound clips, and an hour-long Diner: that’ll do.

Note: forty minutes of the Diner was, as they say, transcribed. I’ll say no more, except to hint: remember, when last we were at the Diner, I ended up tossed back in time to 1997. As happens from time to time. It's here, in Mp4 format, and also here in MP3. Veoh hasn't finished translating any of my uploads; I hope the Flash version will be ready by Monday.

Thanks for your patronage & patience and kind words this week (and reasoned disagreement) – it’s been fun. See you Monday for more of the same.