October Song

It was the fall of 1982. I’d been back in Brooklyn since graduation, living with my parents and trying to figure out what to do next. I had a bundle of clips from Seventeen magazine and The Brown Daily Herald and no game plan to speak of. My friends were all in med school or law school, which left me with no one to talk to all day except the dog. No, that’s not exactly true. Sometimes I talked to the mailman when he delivered the rejection letters I got from small newspapers in towns I didn’t want to live in. But still. By the time September came along, depression had set in. I needed to make a few bucks until I got a real job. I walked into a local chain pharmacy, filled out an application (“What the hell are you doing here?” the manager asked after seeing where I’d gone to school) and shortly thereafter found myself behind a cash register, wearing an ugly jacket with the word “Rockbottom” written on it. It seemed appropriate.

Desperation may have made me a cashier, but it didn’t make me a good one. I bagged two-liter soda bottles on top of Marshmallow Peeps. I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing and made wrong change. (I majored in Latin and Ancient Greek, in case you’re wondering.) Once, I yelled “How small is small?” across the store when a surly customer had a question about proper condom fit. The latter transgression ended my Rockbottom career before my training period ended.

Then it was October. I answered an ad and got a job as a features reporter for Courier-Life Publications, a weekly newspaper chain headquartered in a windowless building in Sheepshead Bay. About a week later, the editors got fired. Since I was the last one hired, I figured I was next out the door. That wasn’t what happened. From my days at the college paper I knew how to edit, assign stories and write headlines. As long as the pay was more than I was getting — which was nothing — I was good to go. So it happened that by the end of October I’d managed to climb from Rockbottom to a job as managing editor of what was, at the time, the largest chain of weekly newspapers in Brooklyn. (Courier-Life was swallowed up by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. a few years ago.)

Years later I married someone I met that same October. He was the guy I shared an office with, the editor-in-chief. On one of our first dates he took me for a late-night spin on the Staten Island Ferry. Cars were still allowed on the ferry then — paranoia wouldn’t descend on the city for another nine years — and he brought along a couple of cassette tapes to serenade us. Whenever I think of that roller-coaster October, the month of romance, Rockbottom and, finally, my rebirth as an honest-to-goodness employed person, what comes to mind is a song I heard for the very first time that night on the ferry: “Penthouse Serenade (When You’re Alone)” by Tony Bennett.

Just picture a penthouse way up in the sky
With hinges on chimneys for stars to go by
A sweet slice of Heaven for just you and I
When we’re alone.
From all of society we’ll stay aloof
And live in propriety there on the roof.
Two heavenly hermits we will be in truth
When we’re alone.
We’ll see life’s mad pattern
As we view old Manhattan
Then we can thank our lucky stars
That we’re living as we are.
In our little penthouse we’ll always contrive
To keep love and romance forever alive
In view of the Hudson just over the drive,
When we’re alone.
We can thank our lucky stars
That we’re living as we are.
In our little penthouse we’ll always contrive
To keep love and romance forever alive
In view of the Hudson just over the drive,
When we’re alone.

(Penthouse Serenade (When We’re Alone) lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, LEIBER & STOLLER MUSIC PUBL, CARLIN AMERICA INC.)

There are plenty of eponymous songs for September, a handful for October, even fewer for November, and then you hear nothing but holiday music until January because no one really wants to hear songs about a month that signifies The End. I attribute the October drop, creatively speaking, to emotional overload. After all the bittersweet regrets (“September Song,” especially Jimmy Durante’s version), the pain of lost love (“September in the Rain”), and the realization that youth is long gone (“September of My Years”), you reach the point when you say enough already. You’re wiser than you were before, maybe a bit battered, but you come to the conclusion that you just need to let it be for a while. Stop worrying. Eat chocolate. Enjoy the music without wondering when it’ll end. That, folks, is October. “Penthouse Serenade” isn’t an October song, but it should be.

When you hit Rockbottom — or rock bottom — eventually you figure out that there’s nowhere to go but up. I’ve remembered that long-ago October lesson on many occasions.

When I left the newspaper in 1988, I started a new job that October. Six years later, there was yet another job. I started that one in October, too — October 8, 1994, to be exact. I expected it to be a transitional move, the kind of job I’d keep until the kids were old enough to manage without a twice-daily chauffeur. Of course I stayed — for 18 years. I loved my job. Several of us raised our kids there, and we figured we’d retire there as well. But on a late-December day it became evident that our clock, already ticking insistently, was about to stop for good. Some of us felt the pain more keenly than others. I went into mourning, not just for the impending loss of a great job but for the imminent absence of an employer I’d grown to consider a friend.

Our office closed on March 20, 2012. For the first time since graduation 30 years earlier, I had nowhere to go during the day. I began staying in my pajamas later and later and eating too many Oreos. I answered a bunch of ads for writing/editing positions and learned that the job application process had changed considerably since I last needed it. This time around I didn’t get any rejection letters. My resume simply ended up in the black hole of cyberspace. (I hear this from anyone over 50 who’s job-hunting, by the way, and there are too many of us to write it off as coincidence. Note to potential employers, who are probably younger than the people they’re not hiring: Get some manners. Quickly.) I dreaded the arrival of September. I stopped eating Oreos and switched to Mallomars after they arrived in the stores.

Finally, October came to the rescue. So did a new employer (not through a job ad), and I am most grateful for the opportunity as well as a compelling reason to get out of my pajamas. I have two new employers, actually: When times are tough you have to be flexible and hope for the best. So that’s what I’m doing. The work is fun, and, unexpectedly, I’m learning something new. I’m not worrying about how long it will last, or what I’ll do when it ends. I’m trying, anyway. Jobs end. Friends leave. If you’re lucky, they come back. Sometimes you need to let things be. Just enjoy the music.

It seems fitting to end with “When October Goes,” written by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow, and recorded here by Nancy Wilson.