Saturday, August 21, 2010

Newspaper Stories

I was lucky enough to start work at a newspaper when messages were sent via a system of pneumatic tubes, there were still Linotype machines, and smoking was allowed. No one chewed tobacco--it wasn't that long ago!--so there no spittoons, but a few smokers eschewed the ashtrays to ground out butts on the floor.

When I told that to someone once, he said, "Now that's a real newsroom!"

I began as a copy-boy (actually, we were called copy-aides because so many were female, and all of us were over 18), working from 7 p.m. to 3 in the morning. Late at night, after the dayside editors and reporters had gone, and the composing room was sending plates for the final edition to the presses, some of the men who'd worked at the paper for years would tell stories.

The head nightside copy-aide, a man nicknamed
Noodle (for reasons I never learned), had lots of stories. One of the best one was about a summer intern who couldn't seem to do anything right. After reading his copy one afternoon, his editor stalked over and threw the pages on his typewriter.

"I don't know why they even bothered to hire you," the editor bellowed. "You'll never make a good reporter. You can't write. You can't spell. Look at this story. It's got holes big enough to drive a truck through. You don't know the first goddamn thing about going out and getting a story."

The editor stalked off, and the intern turned quaking to the old reporter whose desk sat beside his.

"Did you hear?," he stammered. "Did you hear what he said to me?"

And, the old reporter said, "You? I thought he was talking to me."

I've forgotten the name of the old reporter, but perhaps it was the same one who, sick of driving to College Park to cover Maryland football, decided to go to the bar across the street and watch the game on television. He might have gotten away with it too, except for not being able to go to the locker room to get quotes from the coach and players.

And perhaps he was the same sports reporter who took his editor's hat, stuffed it into a plastic capsule, and sent it to the composing room in the pneumatic tube system with a note reading (in its entirety) "HTK," newspaperese for head[line] to come.

I must have heard dozens of those stories over the 15 or so years I worked at the paper as copy boy, editor, and writer. Like baseball, journalism is full of characters, or used to be before editors and writers had to worry about seven-figure mortgages in Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase and private school tuition. And, while a newsroom on deadline is filled with furious concentration, after the paper's been put to bed, newsmen (women too) relaxed by telling stories as they had a few at the bar downstairs.

At least, they used to.

Sadly, Noodle died of cancer a few years ago and, at the memorial for him at the paper, I learned that while he was full of good stories, he was also the subject of a few.

The funniest didn't take place at the paper, though. It happened when two guys with guns walked into the house he shared near Du Pont Circle, years before the area's gentrification.

They made everybody sit in the living room while they gathered wallets and valuables. Noodle, being Noodle, was unable to resist making wisecracks. Finally, one of the gunmen said, "If you don't shut up, I'm going to shoot your friend."

To which Noodle, even then a budding editor, replied, "What makes you think he's my friend?"

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