Swapping words for wheels

As newspapers speed to ruin, one reporter races to the future in a go-kart.

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By Jenn Abelson, contributor

gokart.03.jpg
Jenn Abelson, Boston Globe reporter
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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- I wake up in bed with welts on my spine, calluses on my hands, and deep brown bruises wrapped around my hips like some creepy guy's hands in a sketchy slow dance.

I'm a business reporter at the Boston Globe. What the hell has happened?

It all started three days earlier: I'd arrived at a Catholic middle school in Boston for their "Career Day," and I was supposed to brag about my sweet job as a journalist. Except it was May 1, the day that the New York Times (NYT) -- the Globe's owner -- had threatened to shut down my paper.

The door to the school's auditorium swung open, and suddenly a bunch of suits were in my face: one from a lobbying firm, a sales guy from a radio station and a financial planner. They all had the same questions: "How are things going at the Globe? Is it really going to close?"

Having these complete strangers asking me probing, personal questions -- usually my job -- made me hate them instantly. I threw the question back at the financial planner like a dart: "How is Wall Street these days? I hear the markets are totally harsh."

Of course, he had a point. With newspapers slashing jobs or shutting down entirely, things did look really bleak in the journalism industry at the moment. Especially for the Globe: The Times had demanded $20 million in concessions from workers by May 1 -- today -- or else. And here I was at "Career Day."

So I skulked up to the podium.

I sped through my speech. A sea of middle school hands rose. I prayed for an easy sports question, calling on the skinny boy in the second row.

"I hear the Boston Globe is supposed to shut down today. Are you still going to have a job?"

Little bastard. I took a deep breath and smiled. "Yes, our paper is having financial troubles, and the New York Times has threatened to close the Boston Globe. We're hoping that doesn't happen, and I'll probably have to take a pay cut and lose my 401(k)."

So the kids weren't going to be journalists. As the financial planner stepped up to show the class a picture of his son, Timmy, who'd died from a brain tumor -- just the sort of unexpected situation a financial planner can help families prepare for, it turns out -- I ducked out the side door and didn't look back.

Go-karting?

I was late for my Plan B.

Go-karting.

Sure, it's not the next obvious step. But speeding around a track in a metal contraption sends chills down my spine. This dates back to my college days at Cornell University. My friends and I would drive off campus to a track where we'd race around in purple carts with names like "Plum Crazy." As the regular folks drove at grandma speed, I'd lap them, blazing across the finish line with my mind clear as the cool starry night.

Go-karting later proved to be a saving grace on an otherwise intolerable road trip with an ex-boyfriend who dragged me on a tour of state capitals and minor league baseball stadiums. On a beautiful stretch of blacktop in Kentucky -- with the sun in my face, wisps of blonde hair flying in the air, and adrenaline rushing through my veins -- I managed to hold my own against country boys twice my size.

Go-karting made me feel invincible. But it was hardly my first choice when the New York Times had threatened on April 4 to shutter the Globe in a month.

First, I tried a more conventional survival strategy: I stayed up all night writing a cover letter, updating my resume, searching JournalismJobs.com, and looking on Craigslist. I applied for a gig at the China Daily newspaper, debating whether it would be worse to be unemployed or to be employed by a communist government. I seriously considered writing appraisal reports or editing college essays.

In my sleep-deprived haze, the most promising offer was from a loving couple who would pay $10,000 for the eggs of a fertile woman under 32. At 30, I was perfect. But my boyfriend, Paul, balked, so I promised not to scrape my ovaries to make money if the paper closed.

And that's when it came to me: Go-karting could be my future.

I'd build on my dominance on the small track and graduate to big-time raceways la Danica Patrick. Sure, I'd be starting late. But hell, Paul Newman was at the racetrack when he was 81.

On deadline

A month later, go-karting was more a reality than ever. F1 Boston, the local go-karting emporium, was hosting a rookie league that started Monday, May 4. And that was fitting, considering that the Times had extended the deadline for a decision on the Globe's future to Sunday, May 3. If I couldn't be a Boston Globe reporter anymore, at least my career as a go-kart driver would be underway.

I'd already proved myself under the bright lights of F1, donning the track's glitzy red racing suits, polyurethane neck braces, and large, glistening helmets with scratched plastic visors. After I'd bailed on "Career Day" on May 1, I'd convinced a friend to meet me at F1 where I'd lapped him twice and left with the best time and the highest speed. I was destined for speedway stardom.

But as ready as I was for my league debut, I couldn't distract my brain from the Globe negotiations. After all, reporters need to know.

So on Sunday, I showed up at a church in Weymouth where the two sides were talking and swept past the mob of salivating media. I chatted up union leaders and posted what I heard to a secret Facebook group of fellow reporters and editors. And I left at 4 a.m. with news of the latest threat: The New York Times would file notice within hours to shutter the Globe in 60 days.

With three hours of sleep, I blundered into the office Monday morning. People were freaking out. Could the paper really close in two months? Was there any hope?

I barely made deadline, sprinted to the bathroom to trade my suit for jeans and an orange Talladega Speedway T-shirt, and sped off to F1 Boston.

Race day

I walk into the lounge of fellow drivers at F1, and my confidence wilts like a scorched sunflower.

These are no rookies. One driver has blue suede high-top racing shoes. Another is wearing his own black and silver racing suit. They glare at me like frat boys wondering who invited their geeky little sister to the keg party.

A short, pudgy F1 league assistant offers me a pillow so I fit better in the seat and don't hurt my back. Another warns me it gets rough out there and I might need a rib-cage protector. Whatever.

But once we're racing, I'm getting slammed from behind and pushed all over the track, my torso bouncing violently like a pinball around the metal cage. I thought you weren't allowed to hit other cars, but soon I'm grasping for the pillow, bleary-eyed and bloody-knuckled.

I'm on my 102nd lap. I've been dive bombed and torpedoed by carts trying to cut me off. One guy crashes into me so hard that my helmet flies off. He spots the long blond hair poking out of the black head sock, and apologizes.

I refuse to respond. This isn't about making friends. This is about making a future.

Finally, I stumble out of the track and limp to my car. I call my mom in Long Island in case I veer off the road and die in a ditch, bleeding and alone. I explain that go-karting was the first time in a month my brain escaped from the hamster wheel of craziness over my future.

Somehow I make it home. Paul examines my warrior wounds, shakes his head, and returns to his fantasy baseball league.

I shower, as though I can wash the bright purple marks from my pale white skin. I sink into my foam mattress, feeling like Sonny Liston lying on the mat with Muhammad Ali straddling his beaten body.

Hours later, I wake up with a cold compress on my head and a heating pad on my back. My neck won't turn and my legs are pudding.

My alarm clock is blaring out an NPR report: "What would it mean to lose the Boston Globe?"

I click it off.

I pop more Tylenol.

And then I begin searching Craigslist for a rib-cage protector.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com To top of page

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