I WAS FIRST a husband at age 22 and not long after that a father. In such a situation, you’ve got financial responsibilities. You need a job, and I was without one. I became, in this order, a telephone company pre-wire installer, an insurance underwriter, an insurance salesman, a loan shark, and a repo man.
I had no heart in any of those things, so I went back to college for a degree, driving Yellow Cabs on weekends.
After graduating at age 24 (UNO, History, 1969), my father, a former newspaper copy editor, convinced Walter Cowan, the managing editor of The New Orleans States-Item, an afternoon daily, that I’d be a good hire, so Cowan put me on at $115 a week to be a reporter. I was about as good a reporter as I’d been a repo man. Basically, I don’t deal well with the public. After a few months, I requested a transfer to the copydesk where I edited stories and wrote headlines.
About two years earlier, before my father retired, I spent a few hours working with him on the copydesk in the original Times-Picayune building downtown, seeing if I had any knack for that sort of labor, and I did. Here’s how it looked in 1900. It had changed little by the mid-1960s.
When I got hired in 1969, the newspaper had just moved into a huge, new building about a mile away. Though the building was modern, our work was done the old way. We sat around a horseshoe desk with the headman in the middle handing out stories to be edited and headlines to be written.
We edited with pencils and connected the sheets of copy with paste applied with a brush from a paste pot. The sheets were then sent to the linotype operators downstairs via a conveyor belt.
As the years passed, the techniques changed. We began typing headlines on old, manual typewriters. Then IBM Selectrics arrived. Then some technology appeared that could read paper copy electronically. That was the end of the conveyor belt to downstairs. Then computers appeared on our desks. This all took years.
The computers brought one major change: The ages-old horseshoe copydesk, a fixture at all major newspapers, and in movies, for a century or so, vanished from newsrooms everywhere. The physical proximity of the copy editors was no longer required.
We could sit anywhere.
But before that happened, we were elbow to elbow with our fellow copy editors, and they were quite a crew. Many were drunks. The work was considered less a profession, as it is today, than a trade. And getting hired, if you had any skill with words, was pretty easy, which explains why I was hired with no journalism training whatsoever. I’ve never taken a journalism course to this day.
My father had done the same work as I began to do, but he did it a generation earlier. In the 1930s, our occupation was full of transients who shifted from city to city on booze-fueled whims, and we were paid in cash at the end of each day. By my time, however, it was weekly paychecks.
I started on the New Orleans States-Item, the afternoon paper which shared a newsroom and printing presses with The Times-Picayune, the morning paper. On an afternoon paper, copy editors and some reporters go to work very early, usually 6 a.m. For a crew of boozers living in New Orleans where bars never close, this could be a challenge. We often arrived marginally sober.
Itemizing the crazy cast of my coworkers would require too much space. I’ll tell you about just one, which was a tragedy.
A man named Bob Drake.
Bob was a former Army captain who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. His past was foggy, and he kept it that way. When he arrived at the States-Item, he had been divorced, was about 50 years old, with a receding hairline, and had recently married a woman in her late 20s. Bob was starting a new life.
He had many odd characteristics. Bob was wound tighter than a spool of barbed wire, and he liked his highballs. One night at a party in his house, he taught me the “Bob Drake grip” on a highball glass that allegedly guaranteed it would not slip to the floor if one’s attention wandered.
Part of Bob’s starting over was the purchase of a home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. He was a family man at heart, traditional and somewhat staid. And then his young wife got pregnant. Months later, she had a baby, of course. And not long after that, she dropped the bomb.
She wanted out. She needed to “find herself.” And there was no convincing her otherwise.
Bob went to the tool shed in the back yard, locked the door, poured gasoline over himself, and lit a match.
It was no “cry for help.” It was a blazing goodbye.
He was neither the first nor the last of my coworkers to commit suicide. But no one else did it so dramatically, with such flare.
A year later I ran into Bob’s young widow outside a supermarket. We exchanged pleasantries and smiled. Neither of us mentioned Bob, and I never saw her again.
I lived 18 years in New Orleans. I consider it my hometown even though I was born in Atlanta and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. But New Orleans left its mark on me far more than those other places. I arrived when I was 20, and I left when I was 39.
I met, married and divorced my first wife there, and I became a father. I then met and lived with the woman who would later, in Houston, become my second wife. I lived Uptown, just out of town in Jefferson Parish, and I lived in the French Quarter too.
Most of that time I worked on either the afternoon paper or the morning paper. Eventually, The States-Item failed, as have most afternoon papers in the United States. In the middle of those years, I inserted just under two years in San Juan, which was bookended on both sides by New Orleans newspapers. It was an interesting occupation to fall into by sheer, dumb luck.
Getting a fresh hair up my backside, I quit The Times-Picayune in 1980, and went to a community college, first studying electrical construction technology and then computer science.
But I was back in the newspaper business by 1984.
* * * *
A PACK OF mangy dogs always loitered about the front door because a kind-hearted employee threw them food scraps every day.
That front door took you into the lobby of The San Juan Star where I worked in the early 1970s. The newspaper in that time was like the French Foreign Legion of the newspaper trade, and it was really fun, the only journalism job I ever actually enjoyed.
The small newsroom was up a flight of stairs. It was nothing like the monster newsrooms of Houston and New Orleans. The Star newsroom was kind of cozy, and the people were very nice.
I worked, as always everywhere, on the copydesk, and my boss at the Star was a handsome coal-black news editor named Teddy who was born on the island of St. Kitts.
Teddy spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent, and he started out being very suspicious of me since I had arrived from Louisiana, and Teddy knew all Southerners were Klansmen who hang black men from trees.
He’d never been in the United States, and much of the news staff were New Yorkers.
But after a couple of weeks, Teddy realized I did not fit his stereotype, and we got along just great.
Handsome Teddy was a bachelor and a womanizer. He was particularly smitten with the Lifestyle editor, a tall, good-looking black woman with big boobs and behind who sashayed regularly through the newsroom on high heels, leaving Teddy with his eyes open wide and a silly grin on his face.
She was married, but I doubt Teddy cared much about that.
The composing room was just off the newsroom, and they played music there which often seeped out into our space. My favorite was Eres Tu by Mocedades. I still love it.
A pack of proofreaders sat in another adjoining room. Though they spoke little or no English, they were employed to correct errors in the English copy proofs. Made no sense whatsoever, but they were unionized.
The cafeteria downstairs that served lunches and dinners also sold beer, which we could buy to sip at the copydesk while working. Even in New Orleans, the booze capital of the world, the newspaper did not offer that perk, something I only did once in San Juan because it wasn’t smart.
Stepping out the front door, down to the right and just around the corner, you’d find a small establishment where you could sit at an eatery bar in dim light to sip black Cuban coffee almost the consistency of good, watery mud. It was tasty.
The San Juan Star was located in an industrial area off the John F. Kennedy Highway nowhere near downtown where I lived, so I traveled, standing, in a sweltering, jam-packed city bus, to work every afternoon and bummed a ride back to Old San Juan at midnight with a coworker, or I took a taxi.
That was the routine on my second stint in Puerto Rico. During my first, briefer, stay, I rode a black BSA motorcycle shipped down from New Orleans in the hold of a Sealand freighter.
There were two midnight options. I could drink in a bar, or I could drink at home. At home, a black-haired, freckle-faced Argentine was waiting for me, so that was the more common destination. I had skin in that game. Home was a small penthouse apartment overlooking the sea.
I never got a haircut in Puerto Rico. I only cut my hair once, and I did it in St. Thomas in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands where I flew on a couple of occasions as a passenger in a Goose seaplane. Mostly, however, I stayed pretty hairy. It was the 1970s.
I doubt The San Juan Star was ever much of a money-maker. It was owned by Scripps Howard, and it had won a Pulitzer. It was the sole English newspaper in Puerto Rico, catering to the American community and, of course, tourists. Union activity was a constant problem that finally ran the publication into the ground in 2008, long after I had departed.
It was reinvented the following year by different owners as the San Juan Daily Star. I don’t know where it’s located now, and I doubt that a pack of homeless dogs sprawls at the front door or that beer is served in the cafeteria.
And God knows where Teddy is.
* * * *
I WORKED AT The Houston Chronicle for 15 years, the tail of my newspaper “career,” but I arrived there in a circular manner.
From New Orleans, I headed to the San Antonio Express-News, but I only stayed about four months. Loved the city. Hated the job or, more accurately, hated my boss. From the Express-News, I jumped to the Houston Post, but I quit six months later.
The Post was the No. 2 paper in a two-paper town, and No. 2 papers were folding around the nation. I wanted a place to stay put, so I applied across town at the Houston Chronicle. A friend there put in a good word for me. The news editor — and later assistant managing editor — who hired me was a big, ole, good-natured Mexican-American from Laredo who was also gay.
Fernando. More on him later.
At the time, the Houston Chronicle was one of the top 10 newspapers in America, circulation-wise. It’s not anymore because times have changed, and people have quit reading newspapers, which has made them more ignorant. It’s said we get our news online now, but I think that we’ve simply quit reading news. We do social media instead, which is gossip and chitchat.
Bodes very ill for America. But it bodes well for Mohammedans.
I decided to settle down. I got married to the woman I’d lived with for seven years. Her name is Julie. We bought a ranch house in the inner suburbs of town. The house cost just $86,000 and now it’s worth three times that. It was in my name when we divorced nine years later, and I gave it to my ex-wife after the divorce was final, a parting gift. She still lives there.
The Houston Chronicle newsroom is the size of a football field. The horseshoe copydesk, of course, was long gone, and we sat, side by side, at desks with computer terminals, editing stories, writing headlines, doing page designs, often in a rush, often with feet on the desk, especially mine.
The industry — and an industry it is — was changing rapidly. From being the male-dominated, liquor-bottle-in-desk-drawers, expletive-laced, bleary-eyed, fun, crackpot game of old, it became feminized, career-fixated and politically correct up the kazoo.
Fernando, the news editor who hired me, became assistant managing editor, the boss over all copydesk operations. He was a prince of political correctness and, amazingly, the only person I’ve ever known who readily admitted being politically correct. Ninety-nine percent of PC fanatics will give you a blank stare and deny ever having heard the term.
It’s like a Nazi seeing the swastika on his armband and saying, “What’s that about?”
Anything that sniffed of “offense” toward any “oppressed, victimized” group would bring immediate consequences. Even women in bathing suits on beaches vanished from our pages. Sexism! This was not all Fernando’s doing.
Feminist zealots had contaminated the newsroom.
The sort of people in the business was changing. They were young careerists. To look at them, you might have thought you were in an insurance company’s office. My coworkers became tidy, bright-eyed and very ambitious. And you couldn’t walk in off the street and get hired. Degrees in journalism were de rigueur. Even higher levels of formal schooling was viewed very positively.
Watergate initiated much of this. What before was a traveling tinker trade became an honored and competitive calling. Bringing down a president can be very heady stuff. Everybody wanted in. Journalism schools mushroomed after Nixon.
Youngsters did not just want in. They wanted to investigate! They wanted Pulitzers! And thus began the micro-examination of the private lives of public and wannabe public officials, something the internet made far easier than it used to be. Anyone who runs for high office today is out of his mind, in my opinion. You’ll be dragged through the dirt.
Except if you’re a member of an “oppressed” minority, which put you-know-who into the Oval Office.
End of the line
The Houston Chronicle’s policy allowed early retirement if you’d reached age 55 and had been employed 15 years. I hit those two markers almost simultaneously in 1999. I had been divorced five years, and I was debt-free. I waved goodbye.
My newspaper days began at the tail of one fascinating, gluepot, highball era and terminated at the beginning of a new boring, careerist, internet world which I was very happy to leave.
My timing was perfect. The Chronicle’s circulation, like most big newspapers across America, has declined. The newsroom suffered lots of layoffs after I left. Friends found themselves out on the street. The paper’s now working hard on its website while, no doubt, praying at the same time.
(While my newspaper life was spent primarily at the The New Orleans States-Item, The Times-Picayune, The San Juan Star and the Houston Chronicle, I also spent brief moments — just months each — at the San Antonio Express-News, The Houston Post and the Florida Times-Union.)
(Note: Fernando, basically a great guy in spite of his being on the wrong side of the culture war, retired about the same moment that I did. He went on to become a playwright and was once interviewed on Fox News’ Glenn Beck show after the debut of Fernando’s play about Tammy Faye Bakker, a gay icon. When my wife and I visited Houston about a decade ago, the three of us had a nice coffee shop visit, conversing in Spanish. I was happy to see him.