The longest year of my life suddenly seems to have happened awfully fast.
It was 10:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, March 11. 2009. I was sitting at my cubicle at The Fresno Bee, where I had been an assistant features editor for five years. I was joking with my cubicle neighbor, Tom, the entertainment editor. There was a nervous energy to the laughter, and while the lightness of tone wasn’t artificial, there was electricity to it. Everyone knew this day was coming — the day that the Bee would let go some of its staff, an unprecedented event in the newsroom — but y’know, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Or laid off.
Which is often the same thing.
Or maybe not.
Or maybe yes.
The features editor came over to us with a serious look on her face.
“Can I see you two for a minute?”
Hmmmm … this was interesting. Both of us? The four notes of the “Dragnet” theme hit me as we walked to her office. But I was confused. I figured one of us would be whacked, and that would be me.
I lost four of my writers to the first round of buyouts in September, and in November, my duties were split between features and sports. I became the night sports editor Mondays and Tuesday nights, remaining in features Wednesdays through Fridays. I still had the religion writer, our lifestyle columnist and our two dozen high school writers, as editor of their Sunday features page, BackTalk.
This worked out well. I knew the sports staff from playing poker and fantasy football with them — Kenny, the assistant sports editor for page design and one my poker pals, had actually soused me out about going over to sports — and in a way, it brought my career full circle. My two summers of internships at my hometown-of-sorts paper, the evil Waterbury (Ct.) Republican-American, were split between sports and features. I was hired full-time as a sportswriter and sports desk editor for six years; during that time, I started freelancing album reviews, then a weekly club column, and in 1990 shifted over to entertainment full time.
I really didn’t want to go back to sports after all this time, but I got on well with the staff, they respected me, and I got to prove my worth by showing my versatility. Plus, having worked under two very hands-on, controlling features editors all this time who really didn’t care for anyone else’s ideas — especially the first one; I never could figure out why she hired me — I actually had a lot of input in sports. I made the calls on headlines and judgment calls on late-breaking stories, and I consulted with the page designers to accommodate the late changes. And it all had to be done by 11 so I could get the first edition off the floor.
So I figured by showing what I could do — and the sports editor really did like my work — I’d be able to dodge this bullet.
Then again, I had a feeling I might not. The night before, I was coming back from my dinner break and got to the top of the stairs, headed into the newsroom, and the voice hit me. It was the same calm voice that hit me the night I had my epiphany about my gender transition 14 months before. It kinda sounds like HAL, the computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and as I reached the landing, HAL asked me, in his calm, measured tone: “Do you really want to be here for the aftermath?”
And I knew the answer. And I was all right with it. For someone who knew I might lose my job, I slept very soundly.
But there’s no time like the first time — and no preparation for what it actually feels like. Even if you kinda have the notion it’s coming.
She shut the door. Standing with the three of us was the managing editor. He’s the most joyless, hypercritical piece of work I’ve ever encountered. This automaton came to Fresno from the L.A. Times (who the hell goes from L.A. to Fresno?) but retained all his cosmopolitan elitism when he arrived. A french hornist who speaks in a sotto voce, admits to not knowing anything about pop culture (I think “pop culture” is an oxymoron myself, but at least I keep an eye on it, as an editor should) and never has seen a story he couldn’t pick apart, you can see his picture under “effete snob” in Webster’s.
Anyway, it was left to him, of all people, to tell Tom and me, in that trademark voice:
“Well, we hate to do this to such talented journalists …”
(I was getting pissed off already, because this was already insult on top of insult — The Joyless One would NEVER call us talented. He never had a good word for anyone that I knew of. And I sensed I wasn’t exactly one of his favorites. How long did he have to rehearse this line of obvious bullshit?)
… but we’re gonna have to let you go.”
The rest of what he said was blah-blah-blah. I knew this was coming, but it was still kinda stunning. Twenty-seven years in the business, starting in between my junior and senior years of college, and it was coming down to this.
In all, seven editors and all the part-timers were let go that day; a bunch of colleagues in the Newspaper Guild — reporters, photographers copy editors — took the buyout or were let go the next week. When the dust cleared, about a third of the staff was gone.
Jim, the cop writer, who’s never been shy about expressing his opinion, came to me and said, “You know, it’s gonna be like Stalingrad — we the living shall envy the dead.”
And actually, I felt worse for Tom than myself. After all, I didn’t want to stay in Fresno — the Bible Belt of the West, the humongous red state in the middle of California, a place where culture is frowned upon, the most ignorant, least intellectually curious place I’ve ever seen. But Tom, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, had a nice house in the Central Valley, was comfortable here, and on top of that, his sister and nieces were just about to move down to his part of the woods from farther north in the Valley.
Kinda shell-shocked, I went back to my desk. Everyone affected got the news at the same time. And the wake began. People began to spill out of their cubicles and offices. For the next eight hours, I alternated among getting hugs and compliments from my now-ex-colleagues, cleaning my desk, writing a farewell email to my high school writers past and present, and cycling through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief in a 20-minute loop.
I felt numb, if anything. This really didn’t happen. It did happen. But I kept my composure.
Just after 6, I was ready to pack it in. I didn’t have much to say anymore — I had said my goodbyes, and my friends would still know how to reach me, and vice versa. I walked in the door of my house and checked my messages. There was one from Matt, the sports columnist and part of the poker crew, calling from out of town at the WAC men’s basketball tournament to express his condolences. Got another from J-Ro, former sports copy chief and fellow poker pal, calling from D.C., where he now lives.
Then I lost it. For about 30 seconds, I let the faucet run.
Then … now what?
I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s every bit as bad as it’s supposed to be, but in some ways, it may be better.
In the immediate here-and-now of the layoff, I celebrated by going to San Francisco the next day. Lexy, one of my dearest friends (and the first Connecticut friend I came out to, in August of ’08) was in the City with her then-girlfriend, who was attending a convention. I had my eyebrows waxed, finished packing and drove up there, checked into a hotel, dolled up, then I spent a nice night with her, then most of the next day and evening. Two weeks later, I was there again, this time to meet an old friend from my first newspaper, who was visiting from New York. I hit it off wonderfully with Lorraine, the friend she was staying with, and she’s been very supportive of my transition.
The first three or four weeks were okay. Because of the WARN Act, since this was a mass layoff, I was guaranteed full paychecks until mid-May, then my severance check, two weeks for every year of service — in my case, 10 weeks. And I was confident in my abilities; after all, I wrote and/or edited for decent-sized papers for 27 years. Hell, I thought, I’ll have a job within a month or two.
It’s now been 12. And counting.
By the time a month passed, I was starting to get anxious. This was gonna be harder than I thought. I knew the economy was bad, but I was talented. I had plenty of experience. I was versatile. And I was good. Why the hell wouldn’t anyone want me?
The thing was, thousands of talented and newly ex-journalists were saying the same thing, as newspapers across the country, in the name of sustaining ridiculously unreasonable profit margins to satisfy some bloodless scumbags on Wall Street, were shedding their most valuable assets and slitting their own throats. (Tell me what other business demands 25-30% profit margins, five to six times more than a Fortune 500.) I, who had always prided myself on at least being unique, had become a cliche at 48: the laid-off journalist. And I was suddenly disposable, unhirable and undesirable. For someone whose self-esteem was never that good to begin with, this was gonna be a big problem at some point.
Come mid-May, the regular paychecks stopped. Two weeks later, I got my severance check. And the anxiety started.
Three things I decided early on: 1) After 27 years and three abusive relationships, I was filing for divorce from newspapers, citing mental cruelty. 2) I wanted an editing and/or writing job at a Web site or even a PR firm, albeit one where I didn’t have to check my soul at the door. (I would never have done it had I stayed in journalism.) 3) I was going to look for work in a place I wanted to live. No more moving to some place like Fresno (and that’s certainly no slag on the friends I’ve made here). I wanted to live/work/play in either the Bay Area, where I really could be free to be who I was, or New York, the center of the universe and the place of my birth (born in a hospital in the Lower East Side, lived my first 4 years and 5 months in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn). Connecticut would be my reluctant third and fallback option. But no more moving for a job in a place I didn’t fit in.
But there was no job on the horizon of either coast. I had sent out about 15 resumes by that point and received the courtesy of just one rejection, from Teach for America in late April. Is this the new way of doing things in the job world? Not even a shred of courtesy or decency? Maybe this is the way the younger, hipper world works, but I wasn’t raised that way. Someone sends you their heart, soul and life story, having something to offer and looking to just make a living, and you get the equivalent of “like, dude, whatever …” in return? Fuck that. It made me angry. It also made me think about whether there was a place for me out there.
(I lost track of how many resumes I sent to one particular industry giant — which is constantly posting ads for Web page news producers, which seemed like a perfect fit for my talents — without a response. At times, I’ve felt like going up to the headquarters and standing out front with a sandwich board that says “HIRE ME. I DON’T SUCK. REALLY.”)
My original flush of confidence was fading away pretty quickly. In mid-May, I went to a job counselor hired by my former employers to work with us. It was actually a very productive experience; I was able to rejigger and tighten up my resume and give it a splashy presentation that took nothing away from its substance. She also suggested I get a gmail account to dedicate to all my job-seeking correspondence; it looked more professional and allowed a lot less spam than Yahoo. I felt, in some big way, I was pushing the ball forward.
But it didn’t stop the panic attacks. A couple nights in a row, around that time, were extremely restless. One early morning, I woke up with a start and a shout. I had had a moment where every negative feeling in the universe converged at once — I was gonna be broke, no one was ever gonna hire me again, and I would be out in the street in some place like Santa Cruz. I was just gonna vanish into nothingness. Had to catch my breath on that one.
I also had to pull myself back by telling myself that everything was happening for a reason — hell, most of the major things in my life the last six years had happened for a reason, from getting the job in Fresno to getting my sleep apnea treated to coming out — and that I would get a job when the time came.
One bright spot was a rejection notice. It came the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend from Pete, a guy at a PR firm called Jump Associates up in San Mateo, just south of San Francisco. It came after 8 p.m. on a Sunday on a holiday weekend. I knew this wasn’t a robo-email. So I emailed him back and thanked him for at least looking at my resume, and that I was sure he was getting plenty from a lot of out-of-work journalists. I got another email from him about two hours later. He thanked me for such a nice letter. He explained that the reason I was passed over (not that I asked him for a reason, but this was nice) was that he was looking for someone with book publicity experience. Pete explained to me that he also was in journalism but had drunk the Kool-Aid three years earlier (wise move), and that he wished me well.
Who knew the coolest thing that would happen to me in a year of job hunting would be a rejection? Pretty fucking pathetic, but I’ll hang onto anything …
But it also made me think about acting on something that caught my eye a month before.
I was reading sfgate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site, and came across an after-the-fact story about a transgender job fair at the SF LGBT Center. And my reaction was “Fuck! I wish I knew about this ahead of time.”
But I stored it in the memory banks. As I started coming out to more people after the layoff — no longer having to worry about what my colleagues or bosses would say, let alone the parents of the kids I was mentoring — I started thinking seriously about how I would present myself as my next job. Would I be the same schleppy guy or would I be my better half?
Inside, I knew where I was going, but I had to both go through the motions and articulate it. The fact that the Center had such a job fair made me think it would be easier to find a job than I anticipated.
In early June, I made my first trip to the Center. My friend Lorraine met me for coffee at the Starbucks on 18th and Castro and we walked the few blocks to the Center, on Market just west of Octavia.
The counselor who met me suggested I get a San Francisco address for my resume, because it would be easier to get a job in the Bay Area that way; if an employer saw two comparable resumes, and one was local and the other was from three hours away, they’d take the local. Lorraine immediately offered to let me use her home address; I now live in Bernal Heights, but the land is oddly flat, there’s no ocean in sight and the air quality is shit. I was also told to get a SF phone number; I now have a $20 Tracfone with a 415 area code. I was also told my wait for a new job would be approximately a month for every $10,000 of annual income I wanted. (I was only shooting for the 60s-70s, not the 120s-130s.)
At my next session, David, one of the counselors, asked me the magic question:
“So … are you going to interview as Fran or as Fran?”
“Well, that’s why I came here. I’m trying to put together a road map.”
“OK, where do you see yourself a year from now?”
Such a simple question.
“Well, I see myself up here, happy, with a great job, living a girl’s life –”
“You just answered your own question.”
Fucking duh! It was so unbelievably easy a question that I wanted to bop myself off the head for not asking it. But I had to go through the process; I had to verbalize it, articulate it.
But he gave me another friendly word of advice: “If you’re gonna interview as a woman, you better own it.”
So I started making the payments on my new gender — spiritually, that is; nothing cosmetic besides makeup and a wig — and I started going up to the City for job workshops: polishing up my resume, how to construct a solid cover letter. Two of my counselors were trans — Clair and Davey — and both were young, and both had seen the shifting sands of the job landscape, as unfair as it is.
And it wasn’t gender discrimination I was worrying about — it was age discrimination. At 48, I’m certainly nowhere near being a senior citizen. But the counselors told us to do subtle things, such as take the years of our college degrees off the resume. However, with my 27 years of experience, there was no way I’d be able to cover up my age to someone who could do simple math. Just as there’s no real way to be able to prove age discrimination, especially in this horrendous near-depression. If I’ve been turned down for a job because of my age — or, to the point, because some employer can find some numbnuts dude, whatever, to work for Walmart wages — there’s no way of knowing. Or proving it. They can always say they found a better-qualified person and had hundreds of resumes to wade through. Which would probably be the truth.
Anyway, May turned to June turned to “Oh, shit — I have to find a place to live.” I couldn’t keep up the rent on a full house if I wanted to hold onto my severance. I also knew I needed to get a laptop if I was gonna be mobile. I started looking for places on craigslist and began rounding up the rest of my ’80s/’90s rock T-shirts to sell on eBay. I had sold my first bunch the year before, and that went to paying for my initial female wardrobe and shoe closet. This time, I made enough for a great big-screen laptop, a case and two new tires.
And then a bit of serendipity worked out for me; I was able to cash in some of the karma points I’ve racked up.
The day I was whacked from the Bee, I sent out a farewell email to all my high school writers past and present. Three days later, I got an email from Nancy; her daughter, Cassie, a junior at Edison High, was one of my BackTalk kids. Nancy wrote to tell me that she read my farewell letter and was moved to tears. We kept in touch after that, since she was out of work at the time as well and was all about the networking.
Anyway, I was having a phone conversation at the end of June, and I told her, “I’m out of here at the end of next month and I don’t know where the hell I’m going.” She said, “We have a room.” I went to visit that Sunday, and spent about four hours with Nancy and her boyfriend, Steve, the head of Fresno State’s geology department. It was a gorgeous 1917 house, built by the renowned California architects Greene & Greene, in the Huntington Boulevard area, what was the original tony neighborhood of Fresno before the white flight. And they had a room available. It was tastefully appointed: a small TV, a bed (great, since my old one was broken), an armoire, a dresser … and a ’40s triple-mirror vanity. (Oooooh, captain!) And just when I thought I got rid of the last skeleton in my closet, I opened my closet and — voila! — a skeleton. A small plastic one, but a skeleton nonetheless. I got a good feeling.
During the conversation, I brought up my gender transition. Nancy said, “We’re totally cool with it, and when you tell the kids (Cassie and 15-year-old Ryan, who lives with his dad), they’ll say, ‘What’s the big deal?'” (Cassie’s reaction actually was “That’s neat!” Ryan’s was “That’s great!”)
In addition, she let me store a good chunk of my stuff in what was technically the living room. And a friend from the coffee shop, Gene, was letting me store the rest in his garage, out by Fresno City College. Still, even with that huge bit of anxiety out of the way, the month of July was brutal. I packed an entire house mostly by myself — dredging up the memories of getting out of New Haven five years before. The last two weeks of July, as usual, were the hottest and ugliest of the year. I was sorting out five years of accumulated crap, and I was hauling boxes and storage bins to Gene’s, several at a time, in my ’93 Celica GT hatchback. Not the most efficient way of getting it done, but it worked — especially since everyone else was at work.
I was left to stew in my own juices, figuratively and literally, as the temperature reached 104, 105 all week. A couple days I had to go home and shower a second time because I was so wiped out and so skeevy and filthy from dragging everything through the dirt and the tree roots in Gene’s backyard to the garage. I moved a lot of my Hot Wheels collection to Gene’s place, wondering why I still had most of this shit — the things you think about when you’re moving a lot of stuff. (The answer — because they were cool at the time, I thought they’d appreciate in value, and with the economy, I’d take a bath if I tried to sell them now.)
Chris, a friend from the coffee shop, helped me move my furniture, my Christmas stuff, my records and the rest of my toys that Friday in his mini pickup. The first Saturday in August, I rented a U-Haul truck and got a hand from some of my sports/poker pals from the Bee, as well as a dear friend, Megan, in bringing the rest of the stuff (including my CDs) over to Nancy’s.
By the beginning of August, I was settled in. Nancy said at the time, “I don’t think we’re gonna have you for long” — as in, a job was gonna happen. I was optimistic, too. I figured I’d move in, dig into the job hunt, immerse myself in my writing, work on the transition, and soon enough, I’d emerge from this cocoon of a room as a beautiful butterfly, ready to take on the world again.
For the next two months or so, I fell into a depression. My anxiety level soared off the charts with both the job and the gender matters.
The biggest hurdle in my transition — coming out to my family — happened in mid-September, and that was followed by six weeks of mostly silence from back home. In reality, they were trying to process something that was difficult to comprehend, but on this side of the continent, it sure seemed like shunning. I felt totally lost and bewildered and sad and angry, usually within the same blink of an eye.
At the same time, the more I job hunted in a scarce landscape, the more depressed I became, the more I felt like a useless piece of shit. I started going out to the Winco near my house every other night to buy chips and dip and cheese and chocolates and other bad food products. I stopped riding my bike.
There was the one week in late September I forced myself back on the bike and got the endorphins going again. That Saturday, I took my longest ride in years, about 30 miles. (I ride a mountain bike.) I made my way back down to my coffee shop in the Tower District, Revue, parked the bike on the patio and was headed for Piemonte’s, the deli next door. So after this long and triumphant bike ride, where I’m feeling good about myself for a change, who should be sitting out in front of Revue, reading a book? The joyless creature who laid me off. I suspect he saw me out the corner of his eye and chose not to look up; good for both of us, because had he said something, I might have slapped him just on principle.
But as this was happening, my transition was coming along slowly but surely.
Still, by the end of October, my life was an absolute mess. No job prospects, no word from my family, no future, no value to my life whatsoever. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to get on my bike and head the mile or so down to the railroad crossing at the train station at Tulare and Santa Fe and just ride in front of the train. A slow-moving train pulling in or out would have done the trick just as nicely as a fast one, maybe more so.
Now granted, I wasn’t planning to act upon my darkest thoughts — hell, I’ve had suicidal thoughts since my high school years, but I’ve always been too much of a coward to actually do it. After all, I’ve always been afraid of death; I remember when I was 4 or 5, reading an obit in the afternoon paper, then running out crying to my parents that night that I didn’t want to die. Plus, I always wanted to live another day to put another ball in play. So the suicidal thoughts, in a strange way, are kind of a safety valve, a way to let off the accumulated steam.
But I was sad, I was angry, I was weary, I was fed up, I was hopeless and useless and unwanted. I just wanted it to be over — the job hunt, life, everything. Even the prospect of enjoying a new life in my true gender wasn’t enough to cover the pain. If you see me for more than a couple days in a row as a boy these days, it means I’m depressed, and there were stretches in September and October where I’d pad around in T-shirt and shorts for a week or so and sprout a few days’ growth — fat, gray, grungy and ugly.
And when the time came, when I did ride in front of the train, I wanted no funeral, no memorial service — and I certainly didn’t want people praying over me when I was gone, pretending they gave a shit.
Still, all the while I was wrestling with my depression, on the other hand I was still progressing slowly but steadily with the transition. I was making the three-hour-or-so daytrip to San Francisco for workshops every week or two or three. I went to a job fair at the Center in mid-October. That day, I really owned it. I looked professional, I had my resume at the ready, and I exuded confidence as I talked to several of the job reps on hand.
One of the reps from BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, complimented me on my eye shadow. A woman from the Census Bureau, another ex-journo, was giving me the hard sell to come on board and canvass people in the spring. The one company I really wanted to talk to, though — CBS Interactive, the owners of cnet.com and similar Web publications — didn’t just discourage me, it royally pissed me off. Their job fair rep looked like the Asian version of Mr. Clean — cleanhead, buff, white T-shirt, earring, arms folded — but instead of a smile, he spent his time looking down his nose imperiously at us. I went to give him my resume and he told me, curtly, to go to their Web site.
What the fuck was he there for in the first place, and what the fuck was his company there for? Any moron could go to their site. I wanted to make a personal contact, ask questions, interact, souse out the company — things I thought you were supposed to do at job fairs. Instead, I got, in so many (or few) words, “Dude, whatever. You are not worthy of my time. Fuck off.” If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the company had just sent a body — against his will — so they could say they were present and had reached out to the LGBT communities and were being good corporate doobies. Whatever. I did make a point of telling Clair, one of the counselors, about it.
I was thrown an unexpected curveball as I was leaving the fair, though. I met the woman representing the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. I introduced myself and told her, “I’m sure you don’t have many jobs for writers, but just in case …” and as I went to give her my resume, she said, “Actually, we are looking for a writer.” They were just starting the interview process, she told me, so I should get my resume in right away. Hmmm … me, with a non-financial background, and a non-traditional gender, working at the Fed. Great pay, benefits, etc. — it worked for me. So I sent my resume late that afternoon.
But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t hear back from the Fed — just as I hadn’t heard from anyone else except for that rejection in April and that one nice PR guy in May. I was climbing the wall. Some days I would just get up, trudge over to the computer, wade through the Web, maybe play poker, and the next thing I knew it was bedtime. Some days, I would just play my mah jongg computer game for blurs of hours on end — trying to set personal speed records, unable to focus on job hunting or writing or anything else I really needed to be doing. The fingers were flying, matching tiles; the mind was flying in an endless 140 bpm techno loop about how useless and worthless I was.
One late Friday night, convinced no one gave a fuck whether I was alive or dead, I stayed in my room and was meandering through the Chronicle’s Web site. There was a blog posting on jobs — namely, about the thousands of people who were getting screwed because companies. in this economy, could get away with it. And the reader response, more than 250 postings, was a Stephen King book of horrorific bosses and job interviews and other as-sordid first-person accounts of job hunts from deep in the seventh level. It was weirdly reassuring to know that there were that many people in as bad a spot as me, maybe even worse. But it added to the sense — the dread — that nothing was ever going to get better.
And come the first week of November, I was totally fed up with the job hunt. I knew I wasn’t gonna have a job between then and the end of the year, and I was tired of spinning my wheels in Fresno and stewing in my own juices and whatever other horrid metaphors I was living in rapid repetition.
And that weekend, the voice of HAL was telling me, “You really need to go home.”
And that’s because, after six weeks of pure hell on the family front, I got the first glint that my mom was finally processing my process.
That first Tuesday, I got my check from her. She’s been helping me a little bit with my COBRA payments, and the check came with a nice little note: “Hi hon. Hope you’re doing OK. We’re crossing our fingers about the Yankees in the Series. Love ya, Mom.” That was wonderful. Two days later, she sent me an email telling it was that time of the year, and she wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas — presents or “cash for whatever you may need it for.” There was just something about the way she phrased it: whatever you may need it for. It could have meant clothes. Or the therapist. Or hormones, if/when the time came. I had told her about the possibility.
So I called her. It was a pleasant conversation. And she reiterated what she said in the note, without elaborating.
Then she asked: “So what are you doing this weekend?”
“Well, I have two birthday parties and then poker with the guys.”
Then, the breakthrough question:
“So are you going as a boy or a girl?”
“A girl. Besides, it’s opened up a whole new stream of comedy at the table.” I told her some of the shit the guys say to me, and I to them in return, and she laughed. It was a small moment that seemed like a humongous breakthrough.
Between the note from Mom, the phone call and the job situation, I followed the voice and booked a flight that Saturday morning for early Tuesday morning out of SFO to Bradley, north of Hartford. Southwest. I would leave Fresno via Amtrak Monday afternoon. Called my brother Ken and asked “Dood, what are you doing Tuesday night?” He and his wife, Cher, were the only people back east who knew I was coming. He picked me up, let me walk in the door, and no one knew I was home until I was standing in the living room.
I stayed three weeks, through most of the week past Thanksgiving. It was one of the wisest things I ever did. I got my heart and soul back. My parents are still weirded out but coping best they can (they saw their daughter three or four times), and I started having the coming-out conversations with most of my friends at home at long last. I also did a few fill-ins at WPKN in Bridgeport, the community radio station where I had a regular show for 13 years before I moved in 2004.
And it was only a week and a half back in Fresno and then, in mid-December, back on the plane home for three more weeks for the holidays — my present from the family. More conversations with friends, more mini-debutante balls where I’d show up in my femme finery. At a couple holiday parties, several people who knew me didn’t recognize me, but when they realized who the cute blonde was, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
I hate the winter, and I experienced more of it than I cared to, especially as December turned to January. But if anything, I learned from my time home that if I needed to come home for good, I could, and all would be well. And that I probably could get a job back in Connecticut as my better half if the timing was right.
It was with a renewed energy and an upbeat spirit that I threw myself into the job hunt when I returned to Fresno the first week of January. I put out 15 resumes in the first month back. But with the renewed spirit came the same non-results — more nothing.
In early February, I got an email from my brother Ken. A surprise 50th anniversary party for my folks. I really couldn’t afford to go, but I couldn’t afford not to, either. So back to Connecticut I went again. But not before doing something I thought would shake loose some more good karma.
I had applied the week before I flew back for a Web site editor job at the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, about 20 minutes from my parents. I had also sent three or four resumes back to New York. The night before I flew home, I went to the Lane Bryant in the north of Fresno to buy some interview clothes. I told the girl, who was very nice to me, that I needed interview clothes, but nothing too frumpy. She helped me pull a sleeveless black top and matching cardigan; I didn’t need a skirt because the one I was wearing — my go-to black skirt from when Mizrahi was designing for Target — worked perfectly.
Well, it didn’t work. No calls while I was home. No emails. I didn’t sweat it much. I was enjoying the time home. The party was a success. I rented a car and stayed most of the trip with one of my dearest friends, Paola, who had an extra room in her condo about 10 minutes east of New Haven. Not being at the folks’ house gave me the freedom to come and go as I pleased, without any underlying tension, and to rock the girl most of the time I was there; I’d say I was 70-30 female-male.
I dreaded coming back to Fresno this last time. This was the end of the trips home for a while, and the positive reinforcement I received at home was about to be replaced by the same old song and dance, the dread of not being able to get a job, the feeling of being stuck in the Big No, the world’s largest isolation bubble.
But even before I got on the plane, the wheels started turning in a positive direction.
The weather was a wintry mix the morning I left, so my folks, worried about the road conditions, drove me to up Bradley early. I had four hours to kill before my flight to San Francisco, so I started playing on the laptop and taking advantage of the free wifi.
I have a profile on Linkedin, the job networking site, and it has a column of “People you may know” — who, as often as not, I don’t. I clicked on a name I don’t know, just on a lark. Ali and another woman co-own a small marketing/branding firm in downtown New Haven. I clicked on the link to their Web site and was impressed. They came off as clever, dynamic, informal and thorough, and they mentioned taking a holistic approach to their projects. Plus, they’re mostly female, and so am I …
Something told me I needed to write her. So I took the next hour and whipped up a clever, informal but fact-filled cover letter. I told her how I was sitting at Bradley and found her site and was intrigued. I told her of my 11 1/2 years at the New Haven Register, and in the bullet points, where I mentioned a deep knowledge of New Haven, I mentioned my favorite pizza places in parentheses. In New Haven, one of the thin crust capitals of the universe (along with New York and Italy, natch), pizza is currency. I told her I realized she had a small staff, that I just wanted to send her my resume in case something came up.
The next morning, I checked my email in San Fran while waiting for the train to Fresno, and guess what? Ali wrote back! (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.) She said she was always interested in meeting new talent, especially someone with the gift of gab, such as me. She told me it’s true she has a small staff, but she asked if I’d be interested in doing outsource work, whether I’d ever done it, and would I be interested in writing copy for Web sites. (And she mentioned her favorite pizza joints in the P.S.)
Wow. My first nibble after 51 weeks. I immediately mailed her back. After thanking her, I told her I’d be interested, but told her the sordid truth of my layoff, of looking for full-time work and not wanting to screw up my unemployment. But I did tell her I was interested, that it sounded like a door opening.
That evening, when I got back to my room, there was another email from Ali. She said to let her know. They didn’t have any work at the moment, but she wanted to keep my name at the top of the list of people to contact. She also asked me to consider what I would charge per hour or per job.
Wow. This is serious. I’ve been picking the brains of friends since to see just what would be a fair price to charge for my work; I don’t want to overcharge or undercharge. But this has been at least a glimmer of hope.
I returned to Fresno at the start of the Rogue Festival, the largest fringe performance festival west of the Mississippi. It set me thinking about my own writing: my nascent blog site, keeping notes on the gender trip for my book of a lifetime … and the possibility of a one-woman show at next year’s Rogue, regardless of where I’m living. I met a lot of people at this year’s festival, and being unemployed let me pick and choose shows with little regard to time.
One of the star performers, Gemma Wilcox, a transplanted Londoner living in Boulder, stayed at our house the entire run. Gemma, a dynamic personality, hit it off wonderfully with me. She let me pick her brains about putting on a solo show.
It did occur to me during the fest that I need to write more for myself, even if not about myself. The book will be the book of a lifetime, and the show will be a catharsis, part comedy, part pathos, all boffo. And something hit me: I need to do this for myself. The book at least could be a bestseller and a way of making a living, a way of making the masses understand what I, and thousands of girls like me, are going through. And the voice inside tells me I have to forge my own path and not be beholden to some prick who’ll dispose of me at will, at a moment’s notice. The constant interaction with actors at the Rogue is part of why my first-anniversary unemployment blog post is nearly two weeks late. The other is that I didn’t realize this would get so damn long.
In the meantime, my middle brother Jim, a corporate exec for a world-known manufacturer back home, sends me job links from time to time, and even though they don’t always match, it’s good to know he’s watching for me, regardless of gender. And another dear friend at home, Colleen, with whom I worked in the features department of my first newspaper, also finds stuff online that I might be interested in. In fact, she sent me a job posting last week for a program in New Haven that she thought would be right up my alley, having worked with high school kids as an editor and mentor. Plus, gender identity is one of the things they proclaim not to discriminate against. I sent out my resume the next day. The application process is open another month, so I’m going about my business and not getting too excited or worried about it. Whatever happens, happens.
I’ve generally been upbeat of late. However, the past few days have been a struggle to keep on an even keel. I’ve been warding off the depression best I can.
The day after I got back here, I went to see a doctor about hormones for the first time. She told me she was concerned about my weight, as the hormones will redistribute my weight to my already-ample midsection, ass and thighs. So I’ve been riding my bike nearly every day since I’ve been back and laying off most of the shit foods. There are days, between depression and my worst pollen encounter of the year, that I have to force myself to ride my bike. And I have been. The endorphins kick in and maybe the weight comes off. And maybe, once I shed the weight, the world comes beating down my door. (Or maybe I find a sugar mama who’ll make certain I don’t have to work, nudge-nudge wink-wink say-no-more.)
For all the prolonged hell — the lengthy stretches of uselessness, anxiety, panic and depression — I can’t believe it’s been a year and change already. And I’m still here. I’m still unemployed (and hoping something pops up while I still have unemployment checks and some of my severance), but I’m still alive, I haven’t lost my marbles — yet — and my life has opened in a lot of other ways.
One positive thing that has come out of the layoff is that I’ve been able to transition and, from a personal standpoint, set my future in motion. I really don’t know what would have happened had I stayed at the Bee. The newsroom has had several gay staffers, but no trans folks. (There was one male-to-female trans who worked in the business office who was still happily married to her wife.) One of the higher editors, who’s still a good friend — and who’s openly gay — told me last fall that I’d have been surprised at how much support I would’ve had in the newsroom.
Still, I had no way of knowing for sure. After all, I worked with high school kids, and I don’t know what would have happened had one or two or so of the parents complained. Among some people in this so-called Christian city, it wouldn’t be a stretch to equate gender identity disorder with homosexuality with pedophila, and maybe a barnyard animal or two. As it is, the parents of two of my former writers know (and that includes Nancy), have seen me as a girl and are wonderfully supportive. But would everyone have reacted the same way? And would the paper have had my back?
But as Jim the cop writer told me when I told him and his wife, Diana, a photographer who was whacked the same day as me, “Why the fuck do you care what people think?” Leave it to Jim to cut through the bullshit with his usual subtlety … Anyway, being out of a job allowed me to venture much farther out of the closet. I’d say about two-thirds of the newsroom knows now; some were surprised, but no one seems to be bothered in the least.
I also get to come and go as I please. Because of the tightness of money, I don’t look at this layoff as a vacation, let alone a prolonged one. Save for the time home and the daytrips to the Bay, I’ve stuck pretty close to Fresno. I get to write, to meet friends at the coffee shop, to ride my bike at great lengths in the daytime, to go shopping. (Well, at least window shopping.) There’s a certain bit of freedom that I’ll have to trade in once the next job pops up. Unless the winning lottery ticket comes through, of course …
I’ve also greatly expanded my social circle in Fresno since I lost the job. It took me a year or two of relative solitude before I started meeting and befriending people here. And over the past year or so, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. Much of that, though not all of it, is thanks to the transition. I’ve had so many people who want to get to know me who might not have had they simply seen me as a boy. Maybe they see someone who’s living an honest, happy life (little do they know …), who’s styling and witty and full of confidence and energy and brains and who’s just plain nice. The cruel irony is my social situation in Fresno is all finally coming together as I’m looking for a way out of here.
Another thing hit me just after I returned from home this last time. At the Bee, I got three weeks’ vacation, and would’ve been eligible for four this past year. I was home for eight weeks over four months. That’s about two full months back in Connecticut. And at one of the most crucial times of my life. That would never have happened were I still working.
And there’s one more thing to ponder: Not one person who’s still at the paper seems happy to be there. The staff is about two-thirds the size it was a year ago, everyone seems to be doing a lot more work, the physical paper has shrunk in width by about a quarter, and the page count is down by about a half to two thirds. (And the price has gone up 50% — go figure …) And no one I know who’s been laid off misses the place. I don’t, save for working with the high school kids. Unlike Stalingrad, the living might not envy the dead. But my old friend and cubicle neighbor Tom, who’s battling advanced stomach cancer, told me the layoff was the best thing that ever happened to him; he just caught a bad break.
I know everything happens for a reason, and on my better days, I’ll convince myself that, once I get hired again, the layoff will have been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But like the layoff was until that day in March of last year, it’s still an abstraction.