This is it. The last day. I feel raw, naked, exposed. How much more can I possibly reveal about myself? The problem of what to say is even worse today, because I’m major-league bored. That’s the biggest drawback with working at The New Yorker, because if you get bored, there really isn’t anywhere to go. I mean, you can walk upstairs and drop in on people, but the ethic at a weekly where people really aren’t that busy is that people behave as if they are. When I worked at the Washington Post, by contrast, where people really are busy, the ethic was that you were suppposed to pretend that you aren’t, so that even on deadline people would always stop and chat with me forever. At the Post I learned how to cruise the newsroom from the master, Michael Specter, who is now the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times. Michael managed to be the best and most productive reporter at the paper without ever sitting at his desk. I know this because I sat next to him for a year and conducted several elaborate time-motion studies. (Michael also taught me how to deal with angry and rude readers, which is a major occupational hazard in the newspaper world. I used to get all flustered and apologetic and depressed when people called up to yell at me. But Michael would just listen for about 10 seconds, roll his eyes, and say: “You seem to have forgotten one thing. I DON’T WORK FOR YOU!” Michael is my idol.)
The other thing you can do in the newspaper world to fight boredom that you can’t do at The New Yorker is play games. Once, we had a contest to see how many times, in one week, we could get the phrase “raises new and troubling questions” into the paper. I think I scored a four, but that’s not really much of an accomplishment, since all newspaper stories essentially are about new and troubling questions. What was much harder was the phrase we came up with next–“perverse and often baffling.” (The “often,” in this formulation, is, I think, the masterstroke.) I puzzled over getting that one into a story for several months before conceiving of a piece about how the medical profession defies the laws of supply and demand, since the more doctors there are in a community, the higher health-care costs go. The economics of medicine, I wrote proudly, are “perverse and often baffling.” A week later I got a letter from a doctor somewhere in Maryland. “Sir,” he wrote, “the economics of the medical profession are neither perverse nor baffling.” For a moment, I felt awful. But then, I remembered. Wait a minute. I don’t work for him.