In Paula Froelich’s debut novel, “Mercury in Retrograde,” Penelope Mercury hadn’t intended to quit her job without a backup plan. Or upchuck all over her boss. Or burn down the photo studio at her (former) place of employment. But after a disastrous day ending in being passed over for a much-deserved promotion, things just sort of happened. Now, after five years as a pavement-pounding reporter at the New York Telegraph, Penelope needs a new plan. An excerpt.
With Mercury falling into a particularly difficult retrograde, the best advice for you is to JUST STAY HOME. All communications with senior management are fraught with difficulty, and it is best to keep your own counsel.
Penelope Mercury hadn't meant to quit her job without another one waiting in the wings.
In fact, she hadn't meant to quit at all.
Nor had she meant to set the back photo studio on fire.
And it was a complete accident that she had thrown up all over her boss.
But, well, she had.
That Wednesday started off pretty much like every other day for Penelope, with a harsh six a.m. wakeup call from the notoriously indecisive morning news editor of the New York Telegraph, Dan Martman, aka "Martman," who suffered from a severe Napoleonic complex. ("Both 'complex one,' teeny tiny height, and the more nefarious 'complex two,' teeny tiny penis," Penelope had once told her best friend Neal DuBoix. "He's not only short, but Farrah in Business slept with him once and said he's really edited for length, you know ... down there ...")
Not surprisingly, Martman made up for his indecisiveness and famous shortcomings in volume and ferocity. "Mercury!" he screamed down the early morning line, jolting Penelope out of a deep sleep. "Some asshole got into a fight with his girlfriend and threw her cat out of her fourteenth-floor apartment window in Evergreen Gardens, you know, in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Get the girlfriend, get a picture of the dead cat when it was still an alive cat, and interview the neighbors! Go! Go! Go!"
"Do we have her address?" Penelope asked, grabbing for her bedside notepad and pen as Martman rambled off the number and street of the unfortunate cat lady. "And is she gonna let me in or is this a blind drop-in?" Her nose was running. She leaned over and peeked out of the window. The sky was a heavy, unfortunate color of gray and snow covered the ground. She quickly added, "I'm still kind of sick from doorstepping in Queens during last week's blizzard and today doesn't look like it's gonna be much better."
One of the more unattractive aspects of being a general assignment reporter or "G.A.R." (an acronym pronounced similarly to the sound one made when sent out on assignment to some hellhole) — besides the low pay — was that the GAR spent much of her (its) professional life "doorstepping." This meant standing outside someone's home who may have had something newsworthy (read: terrible) happen to them, waiting for him or her to come in or out so as to grab a quote or a picture, while evading fists, snarling dogs, and curses and simultaneously trying to jam one's foot in the door before it closed and locked indefinitely. Doorstepping could take hours and you couldn't even move from the spot to go to the bathroom, because if you missed your target and God forbid someone from the Post or the Daily News got them instead of you, your ass was Martman grass.
"Who fucking cares if there's a storm? It's your goddamn job!" Martman yelled into the phone.
Before Martman could hang up on her or work himself into more of a lather, Penelope tried to ask him about the court reporting position that had just opened up, the one she had volubly coveted for five years.
"Well, okay, but did you make a decision on Kershank's job? You said I was the frontrun — "
"Just get the goddamn story!" Martman screamed, cutting her off before hanging up.
Sammy Kershank had given notice a month earlier to go work for Newsweek, leaving his job as a Manhattan court reporter tantalizingly open. Penelope, who'd been slaving away under Martman's iron fist, proving herself as a GAR, had been eyeing the position since she'd started at the Telegraph seven years earlier.
Penelope sighed. She wanted that job more than anything she'd ever wanted in her life. She pushed play on her CD alarm clock that was shoved into the corner of her bed (alongside her makeshift "desk area" of notebooks, pens, and tissues). "She works hard for the money," Donna Summer belted out, "so hard for it honey, so you better treat her right — alright!"
You tell 'em, Donna. Penelope smiled as she hacked out a cough, giving Ms. Summer a mental high five as she threw her slightly yellowed down comforter off and blew her nose in one of the tissues that was tucked in beside the alarm clock.
Penelope had moved to New York in 2002 after four years of struggling through a journalism major at Ohio State University (academia was never her thing), not too far from her hometown of Cincinnati, brimming with dreams of a Pulitzer and all the usual excitement of a recent New York transplant. She found the tiny three-room rent-stabilized apartment at 198 Sullivan Street between Prince and Houston in the hip area of Soho by calling a number on the front of the building that had read, "Apartments: No Fee." The fourth-floor walk-up was only a thousand dollars a month. More accustomed to Ohio real estate prices, Penelope didn't realize it was a steal. ("I always thought that for a grand a month I'd get a terrace or at least a real bathroom," she'd said to Neal, who'd responded, "Dorothy, you're not in Ohio anymore").
It turned out to be so cheap for New York because the bedroom was small enough that it could fit only a full-sized bed and a dresser — which she'd fortuitously found on the street corner two weeks after she'd moved in. Despite having a few water stains on the top, it was a beautiful cherry wood and worked perfectly. The kitchen sink in the tiny room that held a half-stove and a fridge doubled as the bathroom sink, as the bathroom was actually a series of two closets on either side of the living room — one of which hid a toilet, and the other disguised a shower.
The living room was a misnomer. It was ten feet by ten feet and didn't leave very much room to live in at all. But Penelope had managed to squeeze in a small futon from IKEA (prized for its ability to deconstruct and get through the door more than for any other reason), a glass coffee table, and a small cozy chair that looked like a faux-leather La-Z-Boy but didn't lounge back. On the bright side, coffee drips on pleather could be wiped away like nothing ever happened.
"It used to be an old tenement building, and no one was supposed to have their own bathroom," the old man who was to become her landlord said. "So we made do. But it's got its original tin ceilings and hardwood floors. Don't eat too much in here, though. There are rats in the walls we've been trying to exterminate for years."
Penelope took the apartment immediately, despite the palpable presence of rats and absence of terrace, more out of necessity than anything else, and set about getting a reporting job. After a brief and unhappy internship at a financial weekly that lasted the duration of a single issue, she met someone who knew someone who got her a job as a copy kid at the New York Telegraph, a tabloid with headlines like "Kabloomie!" (about American troops bombing poppy fields in Afghanistan) or "I-say-ah You're Fired!" (about Isaiah Thomas being dismissed from the Knicks after losing a sexual harassment case against a coworker he'd continually referred to as a "bitch").
Two years later Penelope was promoted from copy kid — where basic duties included getting coffee for any editor who felt thirsty and lazy (basically, all of them), collecting packages from the messenger center, running errands, and sorting mail — to general assignment reporter. She was a great GAR. She'd go anywhere, do anything, ask the most ridiculous questions, and could gain almost anyone's trust.
The job had also helped decorate her apartment for free and thus, seven years later, reflected her many travels throughout the boroughs of New York. Above her bed was a large Jackson Pollock-esque drip oil painting that Sherry, the homeless woman/artist who'd rescued a dog from certain death off the subway tracks in Chelsea during rush hour ("Bum Ride!" page 12, lead story, September 18, 2002), had pulled from her shopping cart and given to Penelope after Penelope had taken her to lunch during their interview. In the living room there was a small wooden chair in the corner with an embroidered seat cushion that Mrs. Blackstone, who ran a thrift shop in Crown Heights that had been burgled ("Burglar Breaks in Looking for a Steal," page 21, bottom story, April 7, 2005), had sold her at a steep discount. Penelope had received the 1940s Formica kitchen table gratis from the Grubmans, a Coney Island carnie couple — she was the bearded lady, he was the escape artist — who were cleaning out their storage closet as Penelope interviewed them about Mrs. Grubman's beard catching on fire during an unfortunate incident with the flame swallower ("Beard Burn!" page 19, right-hand column, July 25, 2004). And all over the walls and fridge were other collected artwork and personal treasures that Penelope had picked up while on various assignments: a Ghanaian bust from Harlem, an Indian painting of the goddess Shiva she'd gotten during a story in Bellerose, Queens, a watercolor of Athens from Astoria, a tiny Torah from Borough Park, and a kitschy set of Russian nesting dolls she'd gotten as a gift from Olga, a Russian escort from Brighton Beach, after Penelope had convinced the Telegraph to pay Olga's bail during the 2006 Russian hooker crackdown in exchange for an exclusive interview ("Mayor Rages: No More Russkie Rent Girls!" the entire front page or "The Wood" as it was known at the paper, February 10, 2006). She'd also given Olga the number of a nearby shelter and a women's support group, but figured Olga probably wouldn't use either.
Besides artwork and furniture, she'd also picked up her best, and pretty much only, friend. She'd met Neal, a chic interior decorator for the city's elite, during a stakeout four years earlier. She doorstepped him during a thunderstorm after his ex-boyfriend, Bernard Bertrand, a dog groomer who'd owned a store called Doggy 'Do and Pussies Too! attempted to burn down the Madison Avenue apartment of Nan Thrice, Neal's society queen client, after Neal broke up with him. The society queen's social standing made her interesting to the paper, but Penelope knew nothing about her. After five hours of sitting on his stoop in the rain, chain smoking under a flimsy black umbrella, Neal had taken pity on her, invited her inside, and given her an exclusive interview. She'd been his "little work in progress" ever since.
His other pet project was a society girl named Lena Lippencrass, and from the stories Neal always told about Lena, she sounded like she could be even more of a project than Penelope. Neal called her "Lipstick Carcrash," for reasons he refused to tell Penelope but which she assumed were due to Lipstick's glamorous job at the fashion magazine Y and her unfortunate habit of colliding with any kind of obstacle, be it a step, an errant tree limb, or a man.
"I've seen the entire world by subway," Penelope told Neal. After seven years at the Telegraph, she figured she knew one person from almost every community on every block in New York and had probably written about them.
But all the really good, juicy stories were uncovered in the court system. Penelope had refused offers of other beats in hopes of being available once her dream job opened up. She didn't want to get sidetracked. Two years earlier she'd even turned down the transport beat, despite the minor pay increase.
"It would be a lateral move that would take me out of the running for courts forever," Penelope explained to Neal. "The transport guys never advance in the paper. Lou Francis was on it for six years and had a heart attack, Kwani Hadebe was so bored with that beat he chose to go back to copyediting, and the only person who went anywhere semi-interesting after working transport was Christine Pride — who left for WKBC to do their traffic updates. She's now known as the 'Car Cutie.'"
The hierarchy at the Telegraph was complicated. If you took the right job, you moved up within the paper. If you took the wrong job, you were condemned to that desk forever. Penelope preferred to stay in the GAR pool and still be considered than to sell herself short for an extra five thousand dollars a year, even if that extra five grand would've meant she could stop working the ten hours of overtime a week that ensured Penelope could pay her rent, and maybe have a semblance of a social life.
But holding out for so long was proving to be a tricky game. It was an unwritten rule at the Telegraph that if you were in one position for more than five years, you were considered a "lifer" in that specific job. And Penelope, whose five-year clock was ticking, did not want to be a GAR lifer. GAR lifers eventually become "rewrites" — rewriting wire copy and putting in random phone calls to back up the work of the street GARs. While the workload was easier and the chance of being fired without a lawsuit was slim to none, GAR lifers' careers were DOA — no chance of promotion or pay hike. Penelope called them "floaters" — a term she also used to refer to the little bits of poop that refused to flush in the toilet. ("No matter what they do — or don't do — they just keep popping back up.") Penelope lived in terror of a potential GAR-to-floater career trajectory.
So when Kershank gave notice, Penelope began lobbying like her life depended on it for his position, working overtime and even when sick. She'd started dropping by Martman's desk every day at least twice, showering him with compliments ("You look so great today, Martman, did you get a haircut?" "Is that a new cologne? It's amazing"), and peppering him with her knowledge of the court system, picked up from years of watching Court TV and Law & Order.
Martman, a man who was more susceptible to flattery than any actual display of court knowledge, seemed open to the idea of Penelope replacing Kershank and just last week said, "You're the front-runner! Now get to Coney Island and get me that midget and his mermaid lover. Now!"
Penelope groaned. It was too early and cold for the Bronx, but she consoled herself with the thought that it was only for a day or two more. She lumbered out of bed to the kitchen sink, where she brushed her teeth and washed her face. She noted her exhausted, disheveled image in the mirror, but decided to take a shower later and put on her "doorstepping" armor. First, long underwear (top and bottom) then a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a long-sleeved crewneck sweater, which she layered under a turtleneck sweater and a cardigan. After lacing up her hiking boots, she donned her long pink puffer coat, which Neal had begged her for years to ditch, that made her look like a small pink Michelin man. "Helloooo, gorgeous!" Penelope said to her reflection in the mirror.
Penelope rolled her long, dark blond curly hair into a bun and made a futile attempt to tame the frizzes that were creating a halo around her head. Good enough! she thought and danced over to the CD/radio alarm clock, cutting off Donna Summer at "Lookin' for some hot stuff baby this evenin', I need some hot stuff baby toniiiight!"
She grabbed her hefty reporter's bag — which carried a notebook, several chewed-up pens, an extra sweater, her purse, and a stick of deodorant — and shut off the apartment lights before making her way out onto Sullivan Street.
The weather had been forecasted as fifteen degrees with a winter storm on the way, but with the wind chill it felt at least twenty degrees colder, and the mixture of snow and sleet blowing perpendicularly into her face made it worse. Shivering, Penelope fought her way against the wind up Sixth Avenue to the West Fourth Street subway station four blocks away. After slipping twice on the stairs leading down to the trains, she finally made it onto the platform and hopped on the A train heading for one of the high-rise buildings in the Evergreen Gardens projects — which was neither green nor surrounded by gardens.
Excerpted from “Mercury in Retrograde” by Paula Froelich. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.