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Lady Reads the News

A Good Day Job

“Lady J,” as she goes by on the radio, wasn’t sure whether she wanted me to use her story. She likes hiding behind her throaty voice and kittenish byline, letting the rest be an ageless/faceless mystery. Who is she? Whoever the listener imagines her to be. “Oh, you go right ahead, do whatever you want,” she decided, but I sensed that wouldn’t be the last time she’d change her mind.

       So I’ll stick with Lady J. When I take her picture (while riding in a bus) I suggest she bun her hair and shy from my lens.  Mystery intact.

       Her radio work is what one might call her sideline, her hobby, but that would be measuring it only by the amount of time she spends doing it. She can be heard on one of the local Minneapolis rock stations for an aggregate total of seven-and-a-half minutes per morning. Each half hour from six a.m. to eight a.m., the music breaks as Lady J reads the 90-second news segment live. She leaves the station and arrives at her regular day job before nine. Reading the news allows scant chance to let her personality out, but that’s okay. It pays almost nothing, and that’s okay too. It’s radio. A little goes a long way. It’s her lifeline.

       “Somedays, it seems to make everything else bearable – you know what I mean? It’s just always been there.”

       Growing up in St. Louis, she had three brothers. Her father wouldn’t let her play with them because he didn’t want her to turn into a tomboy. She was also very heavy, at fifteen weighing sixty pounds more than she does now. The kids at school teased her about her weight and her voice, which was very deep. “Ooh! She’s got a boy’s voice! She likes girls!”

       “The radio became my best friend,” she said. She loved to spin the dial and be transported. She managed to lose all the weight and as a senior was voted prom queen. Her favorite station also held a contest – not a beauty contest, but an aspirational contest to win an internship, sort of “What do you want to do with your life?” She was crowned Miss KEZK, and was interviewed on the air for ten minutes.

       “When I heard my voice? Oh, man, that was it. I fell in love with that feeling.”

       She attended college in Indiana. On the university station she went by “Lady New York” because she had cousins there and it sounded more cosmopolitan than being from the Midwest. Her father didn’t approve of studying broadcasting; he wanted her to take computer science, which would “give her options.” She took some business to please him, got her degree in psychology, and begged to be given a chance to try radio. 

       After college, she gave herself five years. She found gigs in Syracuse and Birmingham. She knew she couldn’t indulge this forever, so she set milestones. She wanted to be in a major market,

and she wanted to cover a major news event. In 1991, she moved to Minneapolis (“major enough”) and covered the Persian Gulf War (not that she went to Dubai with the presscorps, but the station devoted a larger portion of every hour to news during the war.) She’d met her milestones – enough to look herself in the mirror with pride and say “I did it.” Her five years were up. It was time to move on, find something respectable, get on with her life.

       Lady J became an auditor for a big accounting firm – one of those ones that’s no longer around. It’s been merged, and then the merged firm eventually imploded after a string of ethical improprieties were revealed. She never witnessed that number fudging. Back before the merger, she respected her work and the firm.

       Mergers so often change things. It’s the #1 complaint I hear, the generic version of which goes like this: “I was fine with it. It wasn’t my dream but I liked my work. Then the company was sold, and the culture changed. They were squeezing more money out of our customers, and I was on the front line, making excuses, hocking for a firm I no longer believed in.”

       Lady J had been there seven years prior to the merger. One day she had a new boss, and the fun seemed to evaporate. After a year of it, Lady J needed an outlet. She started moonlighting in radio again. A little Sunday afternoon gig, then the morning news. Her boss at the accounting firm seemed to resent it, but couldn’t do anything about it.

       “Why’d she care what you did with your free time?” I asked.

       “Simply put? Because she was a bitch. She resented anyone who seemed to be having more fun than her. She considered it disloyal. She said I should be putting that energy into my firm work.”

       “Did she discriminate against you because of it?”

       “I noticed I wasn’t being sent to the most prestigious clients. But I was unhappier anyway, so my enthusiasm wasn’t what it once was. So I don’t know if you could call it discrimination.”

       As auditors, they spent most of their time at client worksites. They kept careful timesheets, and it was considered treason to not be on time and well-dressed every single day. Had to represent the firm! One morning the radio station asked Lady J to record the daily entertainment report. It aired later – at 9:30 a.m. – but it sounded live. Lady J was at her client, the University of Minnesota. Someone heard it, mistook it for a live report, and called Lady J’s boss, who immediately called the regional headquarters to start her termination. Lady J went about her workday with no idea this was happening. The next morning she stopped by the office for a meeting. The regional manager heard she was there, pulled her out of the meeting, and told her she was history.

       For what!?

       “For cheating the company.”

       What!?

       It should have been a simple misunderstanding. When the University of Minnesota sent a certified letter testifying Lady J was on site at the alleged time, her job should have been restored. When the radio station sent a certified letter stating the entertainment report was taped, not live, she should have been reinstated. Instead, she had to hire an employment attorney, who assured her that he could get her job back. It was a slam dunk case.

       But did she really want to go back? They’d shown their true character. Maybe her boss was a bad egg, but the firm had backed her up despite evidence otherwise. The firm hadn’t been the same since the merger, and all the other accounting firms were being gobbled up.

       “I was disappointed with their utter lack of humanity. I didn’t want to go back to a cancerous environment. I wanted to be where people appreciated my talents. That experience convicted me about what was really going on.”

       How easy it was to label her passion “that thing I used to do when I was young”! Not until someone tried to take it away did she realize she would never give it up again.

       She had just signed an agreement to purchase her condominium. Unlikely to ever again have a comfortable salary, she forfeited her escrow payment.

       “That hurt. Oh, that really hurt. I was mad, and my anger helped me. You can survive on nothing when you’re mad.”

       She rented in a much cheaper neighborhood, begged for a night shift at the radio station, and went back to school. Picking up on her psychology degree, she studied full-time towards a Master’s in Social Work, which she earned eighteen months ago. She is now a licensed therapist at the Hennepin County Medical Center, working with at-risk teens, mostly 16 to 18 year old girls on welfare. (We were headed there on the bus from the radio station).

       “I miss the nice salary. I can’t lie about that.” She paused, remembering fondly her old lifestyle, then her mind moved on to another thought. “I’m not sure where I belong. I went to college, I come from a good family, I am supposed to be a professional, right? I have never been near a welfare line. Growing up middle class, you are very aware and very proud not to be lower class. But these girls are teens. They’re easy to want to help, though not easy to help. Bottom line? It doesn’t pay a lot, but it allows me to do what I love.”

       “So it’s really a day job?”

       She shot me a look. Don’t disrespect me. “It’s a good day job. It’s my contribution. I’m doing good. The radio is my fun. If I had to choose?” She paused. “Well, I guess I don’t. That’s the point.”

       At the hospital, I wasn’t allowed into the one-on-one sessions but there were already two girls waiting in the lobby for Lady J, or Mrs. ______, as they called her. They called me “lumberjack” and “Paul Bunyan.” One had brought her eight-week old daughter to show Lady J; she was proud and wanted Lady J to know she was doing good. The other begged Lady J for her stylish clothes. “You ever going to throw that away, Mrs. ______? You can give it to me first.” They idolized her.

       “The main way I rub off on them is as a role model,” she admitted. “I don’t see them enough to make a big difference with the problems they face. I teach them enough to learn that such-and-such, like him hitting you, it’s wrong, it’s not normal. But not enough to get him to stop. Some girls want to see me more, but as their mentor, not as their therapist. I don’t pretend otherwise. That’s kinda the deal.”

       “I heard you this morning, Lady J,” the first girl teased.

       “Really? What did I say then?”

       “I don’t remember. But I heard you.”

       Lady J sneaked me a smile.