Of Miracle Manor, Flo Higgins and Mercury Retrograde

MY PLAN was for a book called The Starseed Transmissions to fall out of my bag during the job interview. The Starseed Transmissions is a book of channeled messages from an angel, intended to help humanity prepare for the future, that were put on paper by a then-builder named Ken Carey. The job I wanted was as a newspaper reporter on a gritty little Republican-leaning weekly paper in central New Jersey.

It may seem like an odd strategy, but I knew it would work. Since I had no doubt it was my destiny to be a journalist, I had no problem with a ploy like that to get the editor’s attention. Plus, I wanted this job badly: my first as a reporter on a real newspaper. True, it was the Echoes-Sentinel in Warren, New Jersey — not exactly The Wall Street Journal. But it seemed like exactly the right job to start with, covering town meetings and writing feature stories full time.

Flo Higgins

I was 22 years old and it was 1986, recently graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo. At the time, I was living in a place called Miracle Manor. This was a community of about 20 people who had rented an old convent in central New Jersey, where we had devoted ourselves to the study of A Course in Miracles, kind of do-it-yourself program in spiritual psychology. I had just gotten fired from my table-waiting job at the Sizzler Steak House — which turned out to be a great development, because I really wanted to be a writer. But I had no idea how to go about it.

One day, recently unemployed, I was sitting at the dining room table of Miracle Manor, complaining to my girlfriend Ginger about how there were no jobs for writers. So she said, well, maybe check the classified ads. Ginger, who is still a good friend, is a very practical person, but there’s also something unusual about her perceptions. She reached for a sheet of newsprint that was lying on the table. The odd thing was that this random page happened to be from the classifieds of the Newark Star-Ledger. She picked up the page and looked at it.

In fact, it was from the help wanted section.

She looked closer, and it happened to be the ‘W’ page. W stands for ‘writer’. The Star-Ledgeris a really thick newspaper, and there can be 40 pages of tiny classifieds on any given day. So I was intrigued when, on this one random page on the dining room table at the particular time of this particular discussion, she found a classified ad for a writer job at a local newspaper just a few towns away.

Yet at the same time, somehow it seemed normal; this was the kind of thing that happened every day at Miracle Manor. I can’t say that I ever got used to it, but after a while one got the idea that these unusual little occurrences were actually the miracles to which the course was referring; and that and that miracles were normal.

The ad said something about the job being for an entry-level writer to cover Warren Township. So I picked up the phone and called the Warren Town Hall and got the secretary of the Planning Board on the phone, Mrs. Wimmer. She knew the job was available; it was a small town. There was a Planning Board meeting that night, and I asked if I could come; of course, it was a public meeting. So, after dinner, I got in my gold 1972 Dodge Dart, drove the 20 minutes down I-78 (a new highway that would soon enough factor into every last article I wrote), and showed up with my notebook.

The meeting pushed the experience of boredom to existential depths. The Planning Board is where new housing developments are discussed, sometimes in excruciating detail (actually, the Board of Adjustment was worse; it would fix the problems created by the Planning Board; but fortunately in Warren, there was a tradition of the newspaper ignoring the Board of Adjustment — in part because there were so many other stories).

Mrs. Wimmer was kind and supportive, she took the Planning Board very seriously (it was truly her life’s work), and she seemed happy to conspire with me to get the job. I also met a guy named Andy, the college student on winter break who was filling in for what would be my job. He was sitting at the back of the room covering the meeting, and in a few minutes he needed to go back to write the story. I introduced myself. He, too, seemed willing to enter into a conspiracy for me to get hired.

He explained that the editor was someone named Flo Higgins. “She’s an astrologer,” Andy said.

“An astrologer?”

“Yeah, she has a bookstore down at the shore called Aquarius Rising. It’s her other job. She charges $40 an hour to read charts.” This was astonishing considering that a week’s pay at the Echoes-Sentinel worked out to be about $200 for a 60-hour week. I had no idea what an astrologer was, but it sounded New Age. I was not much of a New Ager, but technically, A Course in Miracles was also New Age, and so were a lot of other things I was doing. I learned talking to Andy that Flo was right on this wavelength. Right then and there, I devised my plan for The Starseed Transmissions, which at the time was a hit book on the New Age scene, to fall out of my bag during the interview. It was a good thing, too, because Flo thought I was a terrible writer and I probably would not have gotten the job otherwise.

A few days later I showed up for the interview. The Echoes office was in a ramshackle building on Main Street, with sagging floors and a bathroom piled high with the collected reporter’s notebooks of perhaps a decade or more. Hiding in a little alcove in the back was the great Flo Higgins. Intense barely begins to describe her. Bleach blonde, 60ish, no-nonsense and reluctantly authoritarian, she was high-strung, judgmental, and pissed off, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not hide her kindness or her genuine Irish warmth and generosity.

She had no idea I knew anything about her, that I had talked to the guy who was sitting at what would be my desk a few feet away, or that I had been spying on the Planning Board.

She asked me about my experience and all the usual job interview questions. I told her I had started a magazine in college, called Generation, and had done lots of writing and produced some political campaigns. She was nonplussed, but in an enthusiastic sort of way. It was as though she would go out of her way to show you how unimpressed she was. Finally, when the moment seemed right, I reached into my bag and out fell The Starseed Transmissions: An Extraterrestrial Report, its friendly green cover shimmering on the floor.

“Oh, The Starseed Transmissions. Why are you reading that?” She knew the book, just as I had predicted.

“I live in Miracle Manor.”

“Miracle Manor? What’s that?”

I explained that it was a community in Piscataway created to study A Course in Miracles.

“Oh really? Well I’m an astrologer, and I have a bookstore down in Rumson called Aquarius Rising, and we sell The Starseed Transmissions and A Course in Miracles.”

“Oh really?”

And so on.

Well, naturally, I got the job — but only after I found out what a horrific writer I was, how I had written the worst test story in the history of the newspaper, and how she was going against her better judgment by letting me do a second test article about the Planning Board, because my first one turned out so terrible, and how in all 27 years of being editor of the Echoes she had never given anyone a second chance to cover a meeting and write a test story.

The two other writers felt the first story wasn’t all that bad, but they knew Flo and were clearly trying to help me get the job. Of course, she was right. I had no idea how to write hard news, and my first story totally missed the point. But I demanded a second chance: any editor knows that a reporter has to be persistent, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. I had an old friend from college who had worked as an intern at the Bergen Record‘s news desk (at the time, one of the most impressive newspapers in New Jersey), and when I rewrote the story, it was with professional help, and it was basically perfect: starting with a hard lead that nailed the main issue that emerged in the meeting, reverse pyramid style, clean writing, all in the correct AP style.

She decided I would get the position of Warren reporter.

“But not before the Full Moon. You should never start anything right before the Full Moon.”

I could not argue with that. So she started me right after the Full Moon; my first job as a reporter also began with my first experience of what is called ‘electional astrology’ — using astrology to choose the right time to do something. I dove into the Planning Board, the Township Committee and the Sewerage Authority. The Sewerage Authority in particular was a hot item in Warren because they controlled what amounted to an underground city of pipes that quite a lot of developers were clamoring for the use of, and that preconditioned just how many millions of dollars they could make. True, meetings consisted of five senior citizens sitting around discussing the accounting books, and me sitting there watching and taking very few notes. But with a little enthusiasm, and a few phone calls to the right people the next day, it turned out to be quite a subject.

I got the hang of things, and soon enough I was writing not just news but Flo’s editorials as well, because after 27 years she’d about had enough of the whole scene, and I was good at writing those anonymous, convincing little essays that made the Township Committee seem brave and dedicated, which as it turned out, it was. Soon, Flo took two vacations and left me in charge of the newspaper while she was gone.

Now, I should say that there was no astrology whatsoever in the Echoes-Sentinel, not one single word, ever. The Echoes was a serious newspaper that seemed like it was started right after the Civil War and had been covering Warren since it was a pasture — anyway, long before Route 78 came along and chopped it in half and pushed the price of real estate through the sky, giving the Echoes plenty to write about. But not astrology.

However, there was lots of astrology to be found in the Echoes office, and also in the main office of the Recorder Publishing Company up in the next town, Stirling, where we all worked on Wednesday nights.

In particular, I remember Saturn Square The Sun, which always seemed to be invoked with righteous passion and set to the rhythm of Flo’s high heels striking the sagging floor of the Warren Office as the building vibrated and the three writers looked at one another petrified.

Saturn Square The Sun meant You Better Do Your Work, because Saturn was the disciplinarian, and there was a LOT of work to do. Some weeks we would each write 80 column inches of copy (that’s about six and a half feet of newspaper column). Saturn was always square the Sun when Flo was around.

Then there was Mercury Retrograde. Nobody at the Recorder Publishing Company believed in astrology, but we knew better when it came to Mercury Retrograde. Flo could, and regularly did, terrify the entire company with this one, sending the vibrations throughout the central New Jersey countryside, even getting the stunned attention of nerdy newspaper reporters trained not to believe anything. Mercury was retrograde; if we were not extremely careful, everything was sure to go wrong. She was so convincing that even Jim, who ran the production facility and could take apart and reassemble a printing press blindfolded, had a paragraph taped to his office door, copied from Debbi Kempton-Smith’s infamous Secret’s from a Stargazer’s Notebook, warning everyone who visited:

Don’t Sign, Don’t Buy: Mercury is Retrograde.This was my introduction to astrology. That was the first paragraph of an astrology book I ever read. Soon, newcomers to Echoland took it for granted that the Full Moon had something do with how the mayor was acting, and when the production facility smelled like electrical smoke, it was clearly because Mercury was retrograde.

And God help us all if Saturn was square the Sun.

One day, Flo brought a bag of runes into the office. Runes are little rocks with symbols on them. You would ask a question, pick a rock from the bag, and look the symbol up in a book that comes with the bag. The answer was always right on.

I immediately bought a set of Runes from Flo, which at the time cost nearly a day’s pay, but which she sold to me wholesale. Soon after, I visited Flo’s shop in Rumson. It was the antithesis of the Echoes office. In fact, the first few moments in this sunny, beautifully decorated place, I wondered how she could possibly stand working in that little office with ugly wood paneling and the floors looking like an earthquake had just struck. Her shop had big windows, and in one area was her crazy desk with a computer and stacks of paper all over the place (the natural habitat of any editor).

A woman named Antoinette worked there reading Tarot cards. I had my first Tarot card reading. I left with a deck of Tarot cards and a book about how to use them. She also printed out a copy of my astrology chart and the 40-page type computer report, which I ignored for years. Tarot cards were interesting; journalism was extremely interesting. Astrology seemed kind of ridiculous. But once planted, starseeds grow.

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