My wife, Kathleen, predicted I would lose my job.
I was much more sanguine — or, perhaps, I was simply clinging to hope.
But it was March of 2020, and I’d just been furloughed from my position as an editor at an inflight magazine in Seattle.
Alaska Airlines wouldn’t keep the magazine aboard its planes, Kathleen said. Not when the same copy stayed in seatbacks for weeks at a time and was potentially thumbed through by thousands of germy travelers. Considering what little was known about COVID-19 at the time, the magazine, for which I’d worked for more than four years, represented a public health risk. And without new monthly issues, the mom-and-pop publishing company that had been producing Alaska Airlines Magazine for more than 30 years wouldn’t have a revenue source.
As usual, Kathleen was right. On July 6, 2020, the publishing company announced its plans to close, meaning the staff of approximately two dozen editors, paginators and sales reps — several of whom had been with the magazine since the late 1980s and early ’90s — no longer had jobs.
The reality hit me in waves. I’m still grasping the full gravity of it now that I’ve been named the featured news columnist for “the locally owned voice of the Capital Region.” This piece marks my official introduction as a full-time Daily Gazette columnist, a position that gives me the latitude to offer my perspective on critical issues facing the Capital Region. My column will feature original reporting, analysis of local news, and features on people and stories that deserve attention.
When I lost my magazine job, part of me was eager for a fresh start, to move on from a job that, at times, felt rote and tedious. But a bigger part of me felt a sense of loss. The identity that I’d been building as a reporter and writer since my days at Boston University’s journalism school and during my first newspaper reporting jobs in Montana and Alaska had been suddenly swept away.
Of course, others were facing true loss as loved ones and friends fought for their lives, too often losing battles against the novel virus. But individual grief should be permissible without value judgment.
My reaction to losing my job was as much about losing a piece of my identity as it was about questioning that identity in the first place. Nationally, we’d been introduced to the term “essential workers,” and I couldn’t escape the fact that the job into which I had poured so much time and energy was, frankly, inconsequential.
I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse. I wasn’t a teacher. I didn’t deliver food or manufacture goods that people can’t live without.
My work was completely and utterly inessential, which made me feel like I was inessential.
I began to consume a good amount of material on the intersection of work and identity. One item to catch my ear was a 2018 conversation that Joan C. Williams, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who studies gender, class and work in the United States, had on NPR’s “Hidden Brain.” The conversation focused on voting patterns of the white working class, and labor factored in considerably.
Many blue-collar workers find their purpose in the discipline and work ethic of putting in an honest day’s work for a job that’s too often trivialized by large parts of society, particularly by knowledge workers who spend their days clacking away at keyboards, Williams said.
“I think here of my father-in-law,” Williams said. “He worked in a factory that made those machines that measure the humidity in museums, and he was an inspector. He hated his job. He went to it for 40 years. And he was proud of doing a good job while he was at work. He was proud of the work that he did. And he took it seriously, and he worked very hard, and he deserved dignity for that.”
But Williams’ father-in-law, and other workers with similar kinds of careers, don’t necessarily define themselves by their work, Williams said. She described going to her husband’s high school reunion in a Rust Belt town where her husband asked a former classmate what he did. The man got in Williams’ husband’s face, turned beet red and told Williams’ husband that he sells toilets.
“What the I-sell-toilets comment meant is that I’m not just the man who sells toilets. Don’t just boil me down to my job. My job is not who I am,” Williams took from the interaction. “And also it shows that that guy needed to keep close to home in a small circle of friends and acquaintances who knew, no, he’s not just the guy who sells toilets.”
It was during this time that Kathleen, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and I seriously renewed an ongoing conversation about relocating from Seattle to New York’s Capital Region. I’m from Albany (I graduated from Albany High in 2005), and still have close friends and family in the area. While much of our decision-making had to do with the fact that life is easier in Albany — the city is way more affordable than Seattle, and traffic jams on the Northway come nowhere close to the snarls on I-5 — part of the appeal for me was living near three members of a close-knit group of childhood friends.
Though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, it’s not lost on me now that I liked that the guys in Albany have known me my whole life. They know I’m the son of a mental health nurse practitioner who grew up in Queens and an education policy researcher raised in a small upstate village. They know that as a teenager I used to throw my hat after losing a board game or a hand of poker. They were the first to know I planned to propose to my wife. I’ve climbed mountains with them, climbed the MetLife Stadium steps to see Jets games with them. We’ve played golf together and we’ve performed in plays together.
I like that even though I’m 35, they still call me by the nickname “Waitey.”
Whatever diminished status I felt from losing my job wouldn’t really matter to my childhood friends, because they know I’m way more than my work.
Of course, it was also true that during the pandemic I actually became much more than my work. As much mental energy as I expended on this silly existential identity crisis, I was spending way more time pushing my then-2.5-year-old daughter on the swings, sharing snacks of Goldfish and endlessly putting on her socks and shoes.
I’d been a very active dad from the time Ria was born in December 2017, but all of a sudden I’d become her primary caregiver. So during nearly every waking hour of the day (thankfully, Ria still napped), I took Ria to the park, rolled toy trucks back and forth, and, yes, wiped that adorable behind of hers. I found a strong sense of purpose simply in being Ria’s father. Helping her master her scooter, string together her first sentences and learn to share with her cousins mattered more than fixing up a paragraph ever could.
However, once we made the cross-country move to Albany last summer, enrolled Ria in preschool and found a nanny for our then-newborn son, Callum, my identity crisis again took hold. I’d secured steady freelance work pumping out product reviews for magazines, and I should have been satisfied by being able to help provide for my family through some version of my chosen profession. (My wife, who works remotely in digital marketing, was the real reason we could pay our mortgage.)
But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that my work remained inconsequential.
And so it was in October 2021 that I found myself applying for a reporting job at The Daily Gazette. The paper needed someone to cover the Mohawk Valley, and I saw it not only as an opportunity to connect with my family’s geographic roots — my dad and his five brothers grew up in Ilion — but also as a chance to get back to the meaningful work that had defined the early days of my career as a community newspaper reporter.
Indeed, I’ve been fulfilled ever since. I pack my lunch in a cooler each day and I revel in the honest conversations I get to have with real people facing real issues. I’ve met a man in Gloversville who opened up about his alcoholism. I’ve met a man in Saratoga Springs who shared his horrific story of abuse at the hands of a clergy member. I’ve met a woman who had both legs amputated after contracting a virus right around the time COVID-19 began its rampant spread. I’ve filed stories from Canajoharie and Amsterdam, Johnstown and Albany, Schoharie and Schenectady. I’ve met farmers and lawyers, mayors and mechanics — all of whom contain multitudes.
After working closely with me for the last year, the Gazette’s editors have granted me a new opportunity. I’m incredibly humbled and honored to begin my adventure as the paper’s news columnist, filling a role that’s been empty since May of 2021.
I’ll be pouring my all into this column — the writer in me, the father and husband in me, the opinionated upstate New Yorker in me. I’ll be able to weigh in.
Most columns will not be as personal as this inaugural introductory piece, but some will. Others will tell stories of people in need of recognition, while others will hold to account public officials who crave the spotlight. I’ll be responding to the news gathered by the talented Gazette reporting team, but I’ll also rely heavily on my own original reporting. My hope is that my column can be a small, but valued, part of the larger Capital Region conversation.
Moving back here after more than a decade and a half away has reminded me of this region’s place in my heart. I feel it when driving through the snow-covered farmland of the Mohawk Valley or when paddling on the Adirondack lake where my parents first took me camping when I was my daughter’s age. I feel it walking by the renovated high school I attended knowing my kids will go there, too, or watching my daughter play soccer on the very fields where I met some of the friends alongside whom I’m now raising a family.
My wife, prescient as she is, supported the cross-country move that took us nearly 3,000 miles from where her parents and sister have settled because Kathleen knows that upstate New York is so much a part of who I am. She knows how much it means to me to be able to tell stories about where I grew up, and for that I’ll remain forever appreciative.
An editor recently asked me about my career goals, and I half-jokingly named a prominent Capital Region news personality and said I wouldn’t mind being like him. But the truth is, I don’t want to be like someone else. I just want to be me.
With the launch of this column, I think I’m closer than ever before.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.