I drove out to the land of used-to-be this morning to get training on the new GraftonTimes.com website. If you’ve moved around a bit, you have several lands of used-to-be — the kids, for example, got to experience Wing-It this weekend, which resides in the Boston neighborhood that used-t0-be mine in college — and, for me, this particular used-to-be is rather special.
Most people, if they have to go to Gardner at all, go for furniture — it is, after all, the Chair City . When I go to Gardner, which has been only once since my two-year residence in the early 1990s, I see ghosts. There’s a 20-something me running around the city in high heels and a too-short skirt, writing like crazy and trying desperately to get away.
In 1990, I was a year out of college and writing obituaries and occasional stories for the Boston Herald. The pay for an editorial assistant was poor and the chances of getting hired on as a full-time reporter were slim. I drew a line down the center of Massachusetts and sent a resume to every daily newspaper east of that line. I had one resume left over so, on a whim, I sent it to the paper of the city that actually was on the line: The Gardner News.
Naturally, that was the paper that hired me.
To get to Gardner, you drive down Rte. 2 for what seems like an impossibly long time, past Fitchburg and up a steep hill that’s especially challenging for a Chevy Cavalier with constant oil issues.
Gardner itself is a land of rotaries — seriously, who designed this city? — and aging furniture factories, some of which are now converted into housing and office space. During my tenure there, an old wooden factory, painted red, snaked its way throughout the downtown area. On slow news days, we’d construct elaborate fantasies about what might happen if it caught fire.
I came to Gardner just a week after the city had voted down a Prop. 2 1/2 override for the schools. On my very first day, I attended a School Committee meeting in a packed auditorium of angry parents and watched them hack away at the budget — high school sports teams forced to be self-funded to survive, art and music slashed, physical education cut below the state mandate, libraries closed, custodians axed.
I still remember my lede on one of the follow-up stories: “At the Elm Street Elementary School, Monday will be the day the music dies.”
I sat next to the City Hall reporter, Mark, who also wrote a column on the editorial page. We shared a weird sense of humor. One day when he couldn’t get the mayor to return his call about a city study, I suggested it might be easier to ask a question of its author — who happened to be dead. Mark thought this was a great idea. He brought a borrowed Ouija board to my apartment, the already-spooky attic of a crumbling double-decker, and we interviewed — well, something.
“I’m not pushing.”
Unfortunately, the mayor wasn’t crazy about talking to Mark after the Ouija board column. We took to playing “good reporter/bad reporter” with him. Mark would call and get a message the mayor was out. I’d immediately call and get the mayor on the line. No matter how many times I explained the Ouija board was my idea — and the ghost was still haunting my apartment — the mayor refused to forgive Mark. I think he just liked talking to me.
Yeah, “something” stuck around after the Ouija board incident. It liked to play with my television. I’d frequently come home from work to find it tuned to CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War. Sometimes doors would shut unexpectedly. I was fine with it until weird things started happening with my bathrobe when I was in the shower. I attempted an exorcism. The oddities happened less frequently, but I’m convinced the rest of my time in the attic wasn’t spent entirely alone.
Attic ghosts didn’t seem odd in Gardner. People would call in with UFO sightings, something which another reporter on staff was obsessed with. The rumor I was constantly chasing concerned alleged plans by Disney to buy Wachusett Mountain and turn it into a “Winter Wonderland” resort. Several people swore they saw a sign at Disney stating this fact. At one point the owners of the ski area had a reward out for a photo of this sign — the rumor was so prevalent it must have been annoying for them — but a photo never surfaced.
Gardner was full of odd stories. I wrote about the mushroom man. I wrote article after article about two women who were seeking compensation for their children’s DPT vaccine injuries. I covered a particularly horrific accident on Rte. 2 and a state trooper showed me a bloody body and chewed me out for not wearing a seat belt. In Winchendon, a neighborhood was plagued by planaria (tiny flatworms) in the water, which town officials reassured them were perfectly safe to drink — at least until residents started bringing glasses full of the critters to town hall and urging them to have a sip.
I used to escape the city and spend weekends with my now-husband, who was living a considerably more luxurious lifestyle in Billerica with three of his college buddies as housemates. I didn’t even mind the hourlong drive in my non-air conditioned car — I’d just roll down the windows and turn up Pearl Jam.
My second apartment — the first was seized in bankruptcy court — was in an old farmhouse with incredibly large spiders. I learned to put on my contact lenses first thing in the morning after the day when I put my hand on something squirmy that was perched on my shampoo bottle and woke the neighbors with my panicked screaming.
There were no ghosts, but there were hunters. One morning, a man with a rifle yelled at me for wearing brown during hunting season, claiming he’d almost shot me as I walked the 20 steps from my apartment door to my car. Another morning, I was late for work because the driveway was blocked by a bloody deer carcass.
I finally left Gardner in 1992. Mark had landed at a paper in Marlborough and urged his editor to hire me too; my boyfriend proposed and took a job in Marlborough as well.
On my last day of work, I was covering a story at the food pantry in the middle of a snowstorm. I dropped a pay stub as I took my notebook out of my purse and the director glanced at the numbers as she picked it up.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she said. “You’ve been eligible for food stamps the entire time you’ve worked here!”