Oct. 20, 2008: "Twenty years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift." That line, from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," was my mantra through four decades of working nights, weekends and holidays as a copy editor at the New York Post, the New York Daily News and the Bergen Record. Only instead of landing a job on the day shift I got "restructured" out of a job altogether this summer.
My mother wanted me to be a doctor. I wanted to be a writer. In my freshman year at the City College of New York, I walked into the office of The Campus, one of two school newspapers, and asked how I could join their staff. The answer should have been, "Are you breathing?" But they told me I'd have to take a copy editing test.
I didn't do very well, and was ready to give up any thoughts of becoming a newspaper person when I arrived at the question "What does 'bfulc' mean?"
That was it, I'd had it. I wrote "Those were the glasses Ben Franklin invented, or was that bfucl?" turned in the test and left. It was probably obvious to the editors that I didn't have a clue about bold-face upper-lower case type.
A day later I was on the newspaper staff.
To orientate me, I was told to sit in on a Student Council meeting, which one of the other staffers would cover. One of the items on the agenda was a substantial cut in the Campus' financial allocation because of a scandal the semester before. It seems the staff was at the printer putting out the April fool's issue, and had a little space to fill. The paper was put out by the now antiquated method known as "hot type" and the print shop, which was somewhere in midtown Manhattan, had drawer after drawer of unmarked photo-engravings. These of course had no information attendant to them. One of the editors found a picture of an elderly woman and used it to illustrate an article about the campus hooker. The picture turned out to be of the college's oldest living alumna.
My own initiation to the vagaries of the media industry was to follow. Most layout editors know that you often are expected to squeeze ten pounds of manure into a five-pound sack, and it simply can't be done. Of course, these editors don't use the word "manure." I was handed a pile of fliers touting various campus events, and told to write the listings. This meant whittling a word here, a telephone number there, and finally throwing out an entire listing somewhere else. If a campus organization planned two events, only one of them got in. One of the two listings of the Hillel Society met such an unfortunate demise.
The day the student newspaper came out, a professor at the school held a news conference at which he accused The Campus of being anti-Semitic. He read off a laundry list of examples of the paper's bias, the last of which was the deliberate denial to list an event sponsored by the Hillel Society.
My introduction to headline writing came a few days later. I was handed a press release about a series of old movies that would be shown in the south campus cafeteria. I wrote a short article and turned it in. When the paper came out, there was a photo from a movie and a headline that said "Welcome now to Rick's Cafe." I was like, "Huh?"
I had never seen "Casablanca."
That summer, I landed a job working Friday and Saturday nights as a copyboy at the New York Post. My duties included sharpening several boxes of No. 2 pencils, making sure there were no flies in the bottom of the coffee urn, pulling galley proofs off spikes and distributing them to various editors, making a food run to a corner eatery called George's at 2 a.m., and getting cigarettes for the columnist Pete Hamill when he was working on deadline. The Post had a rewrite person named Cy Egan who would sit at his typewriter with a cigarette between his lips seeing how far the ashes could burn without falling. I never did see the ashes fall onto his typewriter, but sometimes they were probably a good inch and a half long.
Sometime that summer an elderly sportswriter named Al Buck died and a clerk in the sports department got promoted, which created an opening for an agate clerk. I was offered the opportunity, and soon was compiling box scores for New York Knick games and tallying up the runs for the week in the baseball season. I also prepared little one- and two-paragraph fillers for the sports section, in case a story came up short.
I'd only been doing this a few weeks when Paul Sann, the legendary editor of the Post, sent a galley proof to my supervisor with one of these filler items circled and the notation "good headline." The direction of my career was set. I will add here that I might have had some foreshadowing because when riding the subway to high school, I would always lean over the shoulders of other passengers trying to read the headlines in the Daily News and the Post, fascinated but rarely getting more than a few words into the story before I or the other passenger reached our stop.
Paul Sann, incidentally, was the editor of the Post when it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch. Everybody predicted that he wouldn't last very long, as Murdoch had a reputation for shaking up the management of the papers he purchased, although the Post was only the second or third American paper he bought. Sure enough, not long after he bought the Post Murdoch and Sann disagreed about the "wood" -- wood being one of those now anachronistic terms for a headline of between 120 and 360 points, which was so big I imagine it was too big to produce on a linotype machine so it was carved in wood, but I digress. I don't recall precisely what the two stories were that they argued about, but if they didn't disagree on that, they would have disagreed on something else, as Murdoch had his own team of loyal management stooges he planned to bring in. I doubt that Sann would have tolerated planting bugs in the home of, say, Etan Patz's distraught parents. But I digress. Sann retired shortly after that.
The two paragraph filler headline Sann liked was about a wrestling match between Bruno Sammartino, himself something of a legend, and the Sheikh. Sammartino was defending his championship belt and could only lose it by being pinned. About to lose the match, he stormed out of the ring and was disqualified, thus keeping his championship belt to defend another day. The headline I wrote was "Bruno turns the other Sheikh."
Thanks for reading. For your listening enjoyment, here's an audio clip from Forrest Dixon, the maintenance officer of the 712th Tank Battalion. real audio
-- Aaron Elson
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