On Saturday night I sat in my old high school cafeteria eating a sandwich I brought from home. It was something I had not done in over six years, but I felt just as awkward doing that as I did when I was a high school junior.
It is a very interesting feeling to go to a familiar place as a very different person. The sights and sounds are the same, but the impact they have on you is not. What is most alarming about it, I think, is how aware you are of the change.
No one wakes up one morning and realizes they are different. It takes context, a setting or a situation to bring those differences, that change to the forefront. It’s why for many people birthdays are wholly unsatisfying after a certain age. If there is no real change, no redeemable quality associated with the number going up then what does it really matter?
I do not feel any different now than I have at any other time in my life, but on Saturday at Niagara Falls High School I realized just how much things had changed in my life.
I used to play kickball in there.
That’s one of the things I thought after I took that picture late Friday night. My stories were in and I was the only person left in the gym. Things had gone pretty well for the most part, a pair of game stories about the Cataract City Classic, a brief about the middle game and the box scores of all three were in with no major problems.
The first story was about a boring game that was saved by a decent quote. I got it done and in plenty of time before the Niagara Falls game, the one that would really matter that night.
The Falls game itself was fantastic compared to the two earlier contests, and the second story got done with very few problems. I even sort of like that game story, something that rarely happens when I write on deadline. It’s far from perfect, but right now my job is not about perfection.
Saturday would be a great example of that. Six games on tap with three that really matter to me spread on opposite ends of the schedule. Wilson played at noon, then Niagara Catholic scheduled to tip off at 6:30 and the Falls playing Section V powerhouse Aquinas at 8. I had to write something about the Wilson game and a pair of game stories about the last two, which would probably finish much later than planned.
In other words, the entire day was a race against time. I went home on Friday night and got a few hours of sleep, then woke up Saturday morning and raced over to the “Wolvearena” to watch the Wilson game. It goes to overtime. Of course it does.
Because the next two games don’t really mean much to the paper, I head downtown to get a few other things accomplished at the newsroom. Canisius plays at five and the Wolverines will play them in a week, so the plan is to head back to scout them for a bit while I got myself ready for the next two stories on tap.
I get back to the high school at 5:20 and assume I missed the first quarter. I walk back into the gym and find Williamsville South and Canisius warming up with ten minutes on the clock. The game hasn’t started. Uh oh.
What I needed was a blowout with as few timeouts called as possible. Instead, we got a close game that came down to a three pointer with seconds left on the clock. Thrilling game with an awesome finish, but I’m looking at my watch and thinking about my 10:30 deadline.
I’ll stop here and make it clear before you wonder: No, never did I hate my job on Saturday night. Nerves are one thing, but watching good basketball and getting paid to do it is awesome no matter how strenuous. I can secretly root for quick games and worry about my deadline all I want, but I never once thought to myself ‘Gee, I wish I worked in real estate.’ Never. They have not beaten me yet.
In any event, we are about an hour behind schedule and that means my new deadline is about 11:30, when the newspaper itself is supposed to be done and sent off to be printed on dead trees. That means a bunch of people sitting about two miles away from me will be silently cursing me for the next few hours. I’m excited.
This was the moment, as Niagara Catholic warmed up to take on East Aurora, when I took my sandwich and Coke Zero and went into the Green Cafeteria to eat by myself. I learned the hard way on Friday that the food options were limited to overpriced pizza and decided to go a bit on the cheap side this time.
I had lunch in there as a freshman, second period. It was the earliest lunch period the school had and the next year they stopped offering lunch at 10 am, but we made due. That lunchroom was where I first became friends with my current girlfriend, the first place I ever ate a jalapeño pretzel and, right then, it became the place I realized just how damn old I was.
The context was so jarring it was actually funny. Here I am eating a bagged lunch from home in a place I ate hundreds of bagged lunches. But instead of worrying about book reports or what we get to do in gym class that day, I was debating whether Canisius’ outside shooting can offset the post play Niagara Falls used the night before. I was worrying about the clock and whether I will have anything to write about from this Niagara Catholic game, or even if I’ll have time to finish the story before the last game tipped off.
I am not more mature than I was as a freshman, and I do not think I’m cooler because I went to college or because I was wearing a skinny tie to cover a basketball tournament. There was simply so much that was different about me, starting with the fact that I was working at my former high school. It was surreal and weird and it also taught me something about myself that I didn’t expect to learn: Change is inevitable but you can never predict just how much you change or when you realize it.
So then this happened:
That’s Jonathan Jackson winning the game for Niagara Catholic after the Patriots completely killed the story I was writing about the transfer from Niagara Falls who dominated the game. I took that video myself, then turned the camera off and frantically tracked down the Patriots coach to grab quotes and start writing my story.
The truth is that Jackson was an angel for hitting that shot. If it goes wide or falls short we head to overtime and I head to a midnight finish on my epic journey that is the Cataract City Classic. Instead, I start banging out quotes and finding a lede to match the 200 or so words I already had written.
And then my computer bricked itself. The blue screen popped up, then nothing. It wouldn’t boot, even after I turned it off a few times and tried again. I have no idea if anything saved, or even if I can get my computer to turn back on at all. Someone sitting in the stands behind me notices my panic and says to the person next to him, “That guy was writing a story and his computer shut down. Uh oh.”
Yeah, uh oh.
A few expletive-filled texts to my night editor later, I took the battery out and rebooted the computer. Thanks to a lucky autosave and a tethered computer, my half-story existed and I only lost about 15 minutes. I put the finishing touches on during much of the last game’s first quarter, but sure enough that game story exists. I even got to use the word “penultimate”, which is pretty cool if you ask me.
Other than an extremely late start time and a freelance photographer that bolted on me before the game started, nothing else went wrong that night. The game ended extremely late and I ran around like a crazy person afterwards, but it was an incredible game and nothing went terribly wrong. I got the stats I needed, I got the quotes I needed and the story itself turned out okay.
I don’t even care that my lede is remarkably similar to the one I used the night before. The fact that the story exists is simply further proof that I can make this whole writing thing work. It’s not that I wrote the best four stories of my life last weekend, or even that this post is any good. What matters is the context, the moment I realized just how much things have changed.
Today my girlfriend asked me when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I told her it was at high school, but now I’m not so sure what visit really did the job.