Returning to a Newspaper Office Frozen in Time—Except for 19 Months of Mail

From a Washington Post story by John Kelly headlined “Returning to an office frozen in time—except for 19 months of mail”:

The calendar hanging on the wall of my office at work said it was March, which was the wrong month, and 2020, which was the wrong year. The office was a time capsule, unvisited — by me, at least — since March 9, 2020.

But last week — masked and double-vaxxed — I decided it was time to head back. I was down to the last few empty pages of my last Gregg-ruled, no-margin reporter’s notebook. I’d even started buying my own pens. No self-respecting journalist buys his own pens.

I went to the wrong floor at first, unable to remember which was the right one. I knew my office was on seven or eight. When I got off the elevator on the seventh floor, I remembered that it was my old office that was on seven. And my old old office — in The Post building at 15th and L NW — was on the fourth floor. And my old old old office there was on Five, the floor that for ancient Posties will forever be shorthand for the journalistic side of the operation, the way Six was shorthand for Advertising.

The “new” Post building — we’ve been on K Street for only six years — was eerily empty. The modern newsroom is always quiet — absent the sounds from old movies: those clattering typewriters, dinging teletype machines, ringing phones, barks of “Copy!,” drunken fisticuffs, crying jags and phlegmy, nicotine-tinged coughs — but even so, this was tomblike.

I was glad my office was unlocked. I didn’t have a key. The first thing I’d done when work from home started was take it off my keychain.

As far as I could tell, my office hadn’t been touched. Large photos of squirrels still leaned against one wall, across from a framed poster of “The Werewolf of Washington,” a 1973 horror comedy. A chunk of the old Wilson Bridge still sat in a baggie on my desk.

I took off the straw fedora I was wearing, then froze with it still in my hand. I had a feeling there was a place I used to put my hat after I walked into my office, but I couldn’t remember where that was. A shelf? My little coat closet? Did I hold it in my teeth?

There was so much about being a worker in a workplace that I’d forgotten. I rested the hat atop my manual Royal typewriter, unconvinced.

Nothing was missing from my office, but something was added. Lots of somethings. Unopened mail was piled on my desk chair, stacked on the floor, heaped on my office table. I guess the folks in the mailroom have been bringing it up whenever my slot downstairs gets clogged.

If you mailed me something in the last 19 months and I haven’t responded — and I can guarantee I haven’t — well, I apologize.

I didn’t have time to open it all — I’d only paid for two hours at a meter — so I did some triage, opening the big stuff first. Thank you, Hugh Webb, for the four T-shirts celebrating Montgomery County’s agricultural history. Thank you, Glen Apseloff, for the calendar you make every year featuring photos of chipmunks. It was a 2021 calendar. I guess it’s time for a new one.

Thank you, Armenag Caroglanian, for the photos you took of Washington’s streetcars in the 1950s. Thank you, Inmate #1220621. I’m sorry to learn you were wrongly convicted.

Thank you, Charles Orasin, for the T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of a bloodthirsty, red-eyed monster above the word “Cicada!” That’s the title of the novel you published earlier this year, an environmental thriller about 9-foot-tall, flesh-eating cicadas that have waited 17 years to emerge and kill humans. I’m sorry I never got around to writing about it before it lost its hook.

Thank you, Bill Zell, for the monograph you wrote on Stephen Decatur Engle and his amazing animatronic clock. Your envelope, dated March 13, 2020, may have been the oldest one in my office.

I got through most of the packages but didn’t get to any of the letters. Together, they were themselves a calendar, the passing days told not just through each cancellation mark but by the stamps themselves: cherry blossoms in the spring, Christmas stamps in the winter, Black history stamps the following February.

This pandemic has fractured a lot of things, most tragically the lives of 700,000 Americans. It’s also fractured our jobs, our habits, our sense of time. I was near dizzy looking at those vertiginous piles of mail. Encountering all those envelopes at once was like being bombarded by the spinning pages of newspapers in an old movie: time, coming at you, fast.

But there was also something lovely about being back in touch with readers after so long. Like the cicadas, we’ve all been buried for too long.

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