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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2019
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Curtain call: On retirement, performing arts critic Andrew Meacham bids farewell

I've had at least 30 jobs in my life, waiting tables or grading slabs or writing about people who have died.

Some meant more to me than others and lasted longer. Construction lasted eight years. Selling magazines over the phone? Two weeks.

No job has lasted longer or meant more than the last nearly 14 years at the Tampa Bay Times. Theater, opera and orchestra, my focus since 2015, have added new dimensions of joy. But I turn 65 in January, as good a time as any to reflect, re-evaluate and change directions. So after Dec. 31 I am retiring, at least from daily newspaper work.

A sense of connection with this newspaper, its past and present and future, will remain. I was 8 on Dec. 13, 1962, the day the St. Petersburg Times ran its front page entirely in icy blue ink. The headline - "BRRRRR" - ran in a huge point size beneath a masthead dripping icicles, reflecting the previous day's cold snap and an ingenuity that had not occurred to me on any level. It was about the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

I worked at the paper in 1972 as a copyboy, bringing wire stories from the teletype room to editors, who often had a cigarette going in an ashtray. One of those editors took an interest in my case after I was arrested for "loitering" and later sent a reporter to cover my hearing. Translation: I left a party at 4 a.m. to take a walk. When stopped, I produced identification but refused to name friends who were still at the party. The resulting headline, "Loitering law voided," remains in the Times library of "hard clips" published before the internet age.

I studied philosophy, literature and theater at Eckerd College, where my father taught mathematics. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but a distant dream - working for the Times - remained so close but so far. My parents said I could do it. Most others believed I could not.

Instead, I carried things, pounded nails and graded dirt with a shovel. In a way it suited me. I moved all day, watched the seasons change, took all the heat the sun had to offer and went home when it rained.

I threw myself into the work, sometimes so much I wondered why. At the same time I felt stuck. The challenges for learning were steep. I wasn't the most mechanically minded person in the world, and in construction no one has time to really teach you anything. But I learned how to tie steel, which took about a year. In the meantime, I acted in local plays and musicals.

In 1981, I called in sick to my regular job to tie steel at an addition to Tampa International Airport. The first 20 minutes my hands shook from nerves. Then they calmed down, and I was no longer a laborer. Every job after that, in or out of construction, was closer to my natural abilities than just carrying stuff. That is why the jailbreak from unskilled labor to rodbuster was harder than any subsequent career leap I would make.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Times offered a freelance column called Private Lives. Anybody could submit work, and it paid generously. While in construction, I submitted four pieces. The paper ran three of them. Those clips helped me get a job with a South Florida publisher, which ultimately led me back to the Times. I joined the staff as an editorial assistant. I did a little more acting, sang in the Master Chorale. My job changed to writing the paper's feature obituaries, or Epilogues. Talking with survivors of the recently deceased surely stands as the greatest privilege of my life. They let me into their homes and told incredible stories about people who lived and died here, no two lives alike.

During that time I thought I appreciated my hometown's performing arts scene, but it is much richer than I had realized. Two St. Petersburg theaters, Freefall and American Stage, continually do outstanding work. Smaller theaters such as Stageworks, Jobsite and Tampa Repertory out-hit their financial weight. Opera Tampa and the St. Petersburg Opera Company perform at a high degree year after year, thanks in part to a base of donors who understand their importance to keeping this grand art form alive.

And what do you say about the Florida Orchestra? Musicians have jelled increasingly over each of the three years since Michael Francis joined as music director. Meanwhile, venues such as Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Mahaffey Theater and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts draw bigger crowds than ever for classical music and touring Broadway shows.

Reviewing their events has not always been easy or fun. It is exhausting work, and I feel sympathetic with the performers. At the same time, a critic's loyalty must be to readers, some of whom might be consulting your review to help decide whether to see a show or concert. Many nights I have driven home across the Howard Frankland Bridge feeling as if I'd passed through a dry cleaner, minus the part about being clean. My eyes hurt, my feet hurt, my girlfriend had gone to bed and the Rice Krispies squares had staved off hunger but not starvation.

However. This, too, was kind of an ultimate job, carte blanche to see some of the best live art in the state and the license to approach it from any angle. I'll be back to review some shows. But mostly now I want to work on some of those now-or-never projects, at least one of them stemming from stories I have done here.

I look forward to watching a play or a concert and not rendering an opinion, merely enjoying it. The Times made all this work possible, and I remain grateful for this lifelong connection, even as I shift gears for the next challenge.

Once, during the last few years in construction, I was in a bar when I ran into Phil, a carpenter I used to work with at Isla del Sol. He talked about Vietnam, the pain he still carried. I told him working as a laborer had been frustrating because I could never move past it.

"You should have told us," Phil said. "We thought you liked to carry boards. We didn't know you wanted to learn anything.

The carpenters were partly right. I did like carrying things. And I liked the sun and the seasons, and taking in spectacular spring days from high-rises, a view that improved with every floor.

But I also wanted to know more. And I still do.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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