The Michigan town of Chelsea is home of Chelsea Milling Company, producer of the Jiffy brand of boxed muffin mixes, and of Jeff Daniels, the superb actor whose movies range from “Dumb and Dumber” to “The Squid and the Whale.” For a couple of months in the summer of 1986, I worked as a reporter for the Chelsea Standard, the weekly newspaper there. The Standard was owned by Walter P. and Helen M. Leonard. Walter was a native of southwestern Iowa, and Helen came from Ann Arbor. They bought the Standard in 1947, but to the consternation of some Chelsea people, they kept their home in Ann Arbor. For the nearby town of Dexter, the Leonards also published the Leader, which they seemed to regard as a nuisance and paid little attention. The Leader’s columns were filled with Chelsea news except for original material produced by a lonely reporter, Donna, who for 30 years had covered the Dexter council’s meetings and also came up with enough school news to fill the allotted space.
In their 60s when I came along, the Leonards were badly muddled by their four decades of toil. Helen was so distracted that she could barely complete a sentence. Walter just mumbled. He had much hairy foliage sprouting from his nose, holes in his greasy pants, and a desk buried under press releases, manuscripts, phone messages, notes, newspapers, and galleys of type. The Leonards’ slobbishness extended to their cars, which were filthy inside. The building that housed the Standard had once been the recreation facility of the Glazier stove works. It was far too large for the meager staff required to produce this small newspaper, and the Leonards were none too particular about cleaning it. The floor was like the inside of a smudge pot, and with four cats to track the grime all over, every surface got a coating. Cat fur stuck to all of it. Junk was heaped up everywhere, the windows were dirty, and cat turds lay on the floor of the men’s room.
The Leonards operated by terribly inefficient means, and on the night before the publishing deadline, Walter would worked very late, unnecessarily late, and then slept on a sofa in a side room. When I arrived at nine o’clock, he came out puffing his pipe and looking awfully bleary. The odd priorities that governed the Leonards were exemplified by Helen, who once picking a paper clip out of a pile of soot. One Saturday morning I was first to work and spent a good half hour sweeping, but when she showed up and caught me in flagrante, she said, “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
It only took about six weeks for me to reach my wit’s end. One morning I came in and found Helen screaming at Donna, and five minutes of this clamor was enough to make me crazy. A couple of days later I found cat shit on the two-drawer file cabinet next to my desk. I knew no one else would clean it up, so I scraped away the feline paperweights and called Helen’s attention to the residue.
“Oh, did Becky throw up?” she asked.
“That’s not throw-up,” I informed her.
“Are you sure?”
I asserted that the difference was obvious. Furthermore, she could go and look in the toilet if she wanted.
“Oh, dear.” She went away for a paper towel, muttering about what Becky ate and how it had the propensity for making her sick.
I, too, had become pretty sick of what Becky ate. The only good day in that stretch was the Tuesday that I pasted up the Leader—a task for the lowest person on the totem pole—and everybody left me alone. Upon finishing, I swept the floor at that end of the building and gathered an unbelievable pile of fur.
A few days later I decided to end my career at the Standard. Being owed a few dollars, I called up on payday to see if the check was ready. While she had me on the phone, Helen told me a customer at the front desk had offered the opinion that Becky coughed up a fur ball.
“So it was vomit and not B.M.,” she said.
Disputing this made no sense, so I just said I’d see her at four-thirty.
Escaping that filthy dungeon was a huge relief and unquestionably the right thing to do. The odd thing was that the other reporter, an amiable guy and very good writer named Brian—who had worked there at least a couple of years before I came along—stayed on with the Leonards, evidently unfazed by the conditions, until they sold their operation in 1995, after which time he became editor-in-chief. To the victor go the spoils.