Why You Should Be Angry That Sue Simmons Was Fired
I have always had a long-standing love hate relationship with the anchors of the local network news. In that, I love to hate them. My point of view isn’t an uncommon one – lots of folks roll their eyes at the local weather dude or scoff at the cheese factor of the filler human interest story. In fact, if there was one thing Americans can agree on it’s that there should be a word to describe the particularly delicious level of schadenfreude that comes from watching, say, a grape-stomping anchor get the wind knocked out of them, or a perky blond repeatedly biting it while trying to maintain her balance in a plastic ball set afloat in an indoor pool.
But I have always felt that my particular fascination with the big-grinned, stiff-haired, innuendo spilling characters whose job it was to let us know about the day’s happenings skewed a bit stranger than my friends’ passing interest in a joke at an anchor’s expense. This is partially my father’s fault. My dad and I share a sense of humor, and nothing brought the man as much joy as loudly telling the anchors with a sense of glee, mind, that they should go to hell. The only thing that ever came as close was the elaborate fantasy life he constructed for our black lab, Hillary (He claimed she was a stripper who worked at the Foxy Lady Strip Club and went by the name Suede.) It’s only natural that, being as entertained as I was by his relationship with the talking heads that I’d mimic it–beginning forming a relationship of my own.
That wasn’t the only factor that distinguished my brand of weird about news anchor. The other was definitely a case of location, location, location. While born on Philadelphia’s Main Line – hence my perpetual lock-jaw and sense of self entitlement – I was raised in a small New England town. While picturesque, it was also the sort of place where you couldn’t say, flash the highway your pubescent rack without your parents knowing almost before you made it home. While ostensibly the city, the place I grew up with was small, and while charming, a little Ethan Frome-ish in character and a little Music Man-ish in its cast of characters.
In a place so small, it’s hard to keep your news anchors at any sort of distance. They are people who you see at the grocery store, and then at home, while making your dinner with the stuff you just bought, on TV. Because their presence was so pervasive my warped sense of fun about them morphed into a weird breed of deliberately weird possessiveness – like I was Mark Whalberg in Fear and they, they were my own sweet Reese Witherspoon. I saw RJ Heim, the weather man who shared my initials and had once made a joke about cats freezing in the snow wearing bicycle shorts and buying a candle at one of my favorite gift shops and I’d snarl, “He’s making a spectacle of himself!” Then going on to rail about him to friends.
As a youth, I had quietly adored another, Tony Petrarca. I enjoyed that he shared a name with the famous crime family, and I liked that his first name easily led itself to the horse themed comic I was writing at the time – Pony Petrarca. When anchor Pamela Watts returned from maternity leave and seemed to be constantly positioned behind festoons of ivy, announcing another garden show I’d bellow about how she was fooling no one. I never cared for her. My loyalty lay with WPRI’S (now retired! Whaaaat?) Karen Adams – to me her short hair and high cheek bones made her the Diane Sawyer of Rhode Island’s local news anchor. I could imagine Pamela going to her and crying when Patrice Wood was a bitch to her after one too many cocktails. It delighted me to have created these inner lives for people I not only saw in on television, but while waiting to see my dentist too. “I know your game, TJ Del Santo,” I’d think, as the hygienist called his name.
My favorite enemy was Mario Hilario. Just his name set my teeth on edge. And his rise seemed to be meteoric. In – I swear – a handful of months, we was the guy reading the traffic reports on the radio to being a full-fledged reporter. My father and I would gnash our teeth and rail at him – HILARIO! It was a call to battle, a war cry.
I think now is a good a time as any to make one thing clear – I actually knew nothing about these peoples lives, nor did I genuinely wish to kick any of them into hell (except for maybe RJ, but that’s just because of his face. KIDDING RJ, STAY CLASSY!) In fact, when my dad was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and Mario Hilario showed up to cover the events, I basically nearly passed out at how hilarious that was and really honestly I should have asked him for an autograph.
When I moved to New York, I had to get used to new local news anchors, and it wasn’t the same. Sure, the stories were more outrageous – like Ernie Anastos telling that meteorologist to keep fucking that chicken! But I never saw the people, never saw them bickering with clerks over the price of celery. If anything, local news anchors in New York sought to elevate their status to those of national anchors – it makes sense, why be working in such a large market if you weren’t eying a bigger, national, prize?
Thus my interactions with the anchors changed, (except for with Ernie, because oh my God Ernie, really? Really?!) I saw them less as characters in my own personal version of Anchorman, and more as members of the English court circa 16th century, all quietly scheming for a place in the king’s bed – a bunch of schemers! Plotters! Machiavells! And that makes watching them all the more enjoyable.
No one else embodies this as well as Sue Simmons. Sue was born in the early 40s in Harlem and apparently her father was kind of a respected jazz musician (Thanks Wikipedia!). In New York, the woman is a goddamn institution. She and her co-anchor Chuck Scarborough (He legitimately had to be a news anchor or die with that handle) have the longest co-anchorship running, um, ever! Sue is known for her annual groundhog impression on groundhog’s day, her icy gaze, and for THAT ONE TIME WHEN SHE LOUDLY BELLOWED ‘THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” to one of her co-workers. When I learned of this is when I fell in love forever. (she also once fell off her own chair, but that’s not as evil.) In that moment, she became my lady Macbeth. In that moment she revealed the dichotomy that I have savored for so long – the ambitious, industrious, career driven fame monster and the goofy, awkward, hilarious talking head – the two-faced beast was revealed.
This year, Sue’s contract was up. While her co-anchor, Chuck, has been asked to return, Sue has not. She has worked for NBC for over thirty years, and because she is, well, everything she is: an older face, a woman, a running joke to vaguely cruel writerly types like yours truly, she is disposable. The thought makes me feel….desperately ashamed. What has always been a part of my interior humor-life (that is a phrase I have just made up, but I feel like you’ll get it) has proved to be a thing that in the end will add Sue to the pile of women in the workplace who are being shunted to one side and for that to be okay.
It would never happen, but if I ever ran into Sue in the deli, say, I like to think that I’d wrangle a little Rhode Island courage, damn the New York way of life and tap her on the shoulder – and provided she doesn’t punch me – let her know that she was really appreciated, and that she’ll be missed. I know if I were in Providence and I heard any of of the cast of my own personal imaginary soap opera were being removed without the respect they deserved as public community figures – I’d do the same.
Except for RJ Heim.
Fuck you, RJ. Fuck you.