Mug of Work Coffee, Grown Cold

Principled newsrooms allow no gifts, but at Christmas the rule gets softened. One of the utilities has giant tins of caramel corn delivered, staffers dive in, and all know rate increase requests will be dissected in the news pages and mocked in commentary. That may be why the huge White House-shaped cake got to stay, in January 1993. And from it a sharp memory of colleague Gary Golden, who died earlier this week at age 51. Ridiculous, isn’t it.

We of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dived into the cake. It must have come from Community Bakery or Silvek’s, as it was exquisite, a token from the gas company or the electric company. The reason was the pending (first) inauguration of native son Bill Clinton. Eventually all that was left was the cardboard base and the plastic columns. The cleaner of the last looked like good souvenirs to Gary and me, and I took four.

I was international editor (wire services wrangler) at the time, Gary a features page designer, and we had adjoining desks. A few months earlier publication of my weekly humor column Mirthology ended, again, and I openly pined for it.

The Standing Column, with black ribbon to honor the memory of Gary Golden
The Standing Column, with black ribbon to honor the memory of Gary Golden

One of us, I honestly don’t remember, stacked two of the White House cake columns, dropped a pencil down the middle for stability, and stood it on a corner of my desk.

“Now you’ll always have a standing column,” Gary said. And often during my remaining six years in the Little Rock newsroom, Gary would return to his desk from lunch, a cigarette break (I may be mistaken but I think he smoked at the time), or to refill his coffee mug, and joke about it.

To this day, one of the stacked columns remains on my home desk (pictured), and the other stands at work. Even when I had another column (early 1999 to a downsize in late 2001) at another newspaper, I stood the columns prominently. You never knew.

Gary was a great work mate, there, throughout the 1990s. He commuted nearly an hour from Hot Springs. A single dad, he didn’t want to disrupt the friendships and schooling of his son, to whom he was devoted. He had a great, wry humor, as the best newsies do, and we vented workplace frustrations to each other, likely keeping us out of real trouble. And one or more times a day he’d disappear into the men’s room to prick his finger and check his glucose, as he had Type 1 diabetes. Friends tell me that it was complications of diabetes that took him.

The obituary mentioned his love of bicycling. There memory fails. I enjoy pedaling, too, so surely we must’ve talked of it. After all, I had biked to the newspaper in the years when I lived within blocks of it, while Gary drove that 45 miles.

Desk mates talk a lot but when situations change, people move on. I left Little Rock in early 1998. Gary and I next spoke a few minutes a week in 2003, when I first went to work in the Demzette’s Northwest Edition, some 150 miles away in Springdale, proofreading for a few months the society pages (called the Profiles section) that Gary put together in Little Rock. Our joky conversation picked up where it left off five years earlier, though neither of us had much time for anything deep.

Last year Gary was among the number downsized in the Little Rock newsroom. I saw his name and shuddered. But there were many names of people I knew, some as well as I did him, and hurt for them all, then wondered as I still do, when my time to leave the business will be.

Now it’s about seven years since Gary and I last communicated. And that’s just the beginning.

Puny gesture, but what can one do but hold high a half-full mug of newsroom coffee, already stale from being forgotten on a corner of one’s desk, near the now-chipped but still standing column, and toast a good fellow, Gary.

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3 thoughts on “Mug of Work Coffee, Grown Cold

  1. Farewell, good fellow, you are missed. Gary was a hard worker dedicated to doing more and better. He had a bit of a geeky bent and liked to get the machinery to handle the repetitive work; he automated as much of the busywork as he could.

    I remember him as a bit scary sometimes, because he would be so wrapped up in his work that he would miss his diabetes monitoring and you could tell he was drifting at his desk.

    I have a better appreciation of pushing too hard nowadays, on disability after years of battling disease myself, and I look back now and wonder at how well Gary was able to press on and perform.

    Rest easy.

  2. Comments via Facebook.

    From Carla Koen: I saw Gary’s name in the obits today and thought back over the years we worked together, as well. He was a good guy with a sense of humor and a backbone. Thanks for writing this, Ben.

    From Sandra Cox: Nice job, Ben. He was my page designer for (the now defunct) Northwest Arkansas Weekend arts and entertainment tab. On the cover of its last edition, we ran a story on an opera, maybe The Phantom of the Opera, I believe. I cant’ remember. But what I do remember is the cover he came up with: a single rose with a black background. Though it was a PR photo the opera provided, he intentionally ran it to give it a double meaning. It was how we said goodbye to the section. Thinking about that still makes me sad. He hurt as much as I did when they discontinued it. And though he was 200 miles away, we grieved together. This week, I’m grieving again.

    From Eric Harrison: He will indeed be missed.

    From Celia Storey: Thanks, Ben.

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