Monday, August 12, 2013

Man With No Lines in Head Writes Headlines


Play it again, Sam

   When I recently sent a link to my last post to the CCNY Communications Alumni group on Linked-In, Sam Gronner suggested I let the group know when I write a post concerning my alma mater. I started out as a DIY blogger -- that is, no Blogspot, no Wordpress, I just called a section of my web site "Aaron's Blog" and did it myself. I made a few posts, which required a great deal of linking back and forth, and had none of the bells and whistles that the two main blog arenas offer.
   You won't find those entries unless you follow a series of links to pages which are no longer linked to from the main page, and you won't find them from this blog. So I'll reprint, with a couple of minor edits, one of my first entries from what would eventually become this blog.

   Nov. 19, 2008 -- When I was a teenager riding the subway to Stuyvesant High School from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, long before New York Magazine dubbed it the Yupper West Side; in fact, just a few blocks from where I lived on West 89th Street was 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, which some civic organization trumpeted as the worst block in all of New York City, and to think we moved to the Upper West Side from Hell's Kitchen. Riding the subway I would crane my neck over riders' shoulders to read the headlines in the New York Post and the Daily News, little thinking that I would one day be writing those headlines myself, and gazing in wonder at the origami-esque wizardry of the mostly men in suits who neatly folded the New York Times so that they could manage reading it on the subway.
    As a freshman at the City College of New York, I joined The Campus, one of two student newspapers at the school. The first story I was assigned to write was about a series of old movies to be shown in the South Campus cafeteria. When I opened the paper, a photo from a movie I didn't recognize accompanied my story along with a headline that said, "Welcome now to Rick's cafe."
    I was like, "Huh?"
     I can't tell you how long I resisted writing or even saying things like "I was like 'Huh?'" because it seemed a bastardization of the English language, but everywhere I turned someone was saying "I was like, 'This'," or "I was like, 'That'," and so finally the phrase just slipped out of my mouth, and then it appeared on paper, but while I would leave it in the text of a story I was editing at the Bergen Record, I never entered it into copy myself, not because I didn't think it appropriate, but because it would then pass through the hands of an anally retentive supervisor who would turn red and accuse me of butchering the English language.
   Getting back to my freshman year at City, I took the copy of The Campus with my story in it to one of the paper's upperclasspersons, pointed to the headline and said, "I don't understand this."
    The upperclassperson was like "You're 17 years old and a New Yorker and you've never seen 'Casablanca'?"
    And so I learned my first lesson about headline writing -- a lesson with which several supervisors I  worked under over the decades would disagree. The lesson was give the reader credit for knowing a thing or two about popular culture. There was no mention in my story of Rick's cafe, but the headline writer assumed that anybody who was into old films -- especially at a culturally savvy school such as the City College of New York, which turned out such stars of stage and screen as Zero Mostel, Edward G. Robinson and Cornel Wilde, not to mention more nobel laureates than you could shake a wandful of pixie dust at -- would not only  know where Rick's Cafe was but could toss off lines like "Out of all the gin joints in all the world ... " without ever having been in a gin joint or having seen any of the world beyond the Bronx or Brooklyn. My first supervisor at the Bergen Record, the late beloved Bob Sumner, for all his warmth and nurturing, would have tossed that headline across the newsroom and made me go stand in the corner for 15 minutes because Rick's Cafe wasn't mentioned anywhere in the story.
    When I look back, "Welcome now to Rick's Cafe" was not a bad headline. It transports the reader not only into an article about the movie but into the movie itself. And if, like me at age 17, the reader doesn't know what or where Rick's Cafe is, then he or she can ask, or now, some four decades later, Google it.
    Good God, I take it all back. Google Rick's Cafe and the first thing that pops up is some upscale restaurant in Jamaica, and "Casablanca" doesn't come up until the seventh entry.* But if there hadn't been a Humphrey Bogart, the place probably would be called "Jamaica Joe's."
Thanks for reading.
*This was in 2008. Google Rick's Cafe today and Casablanca doesn't even make the first page.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Longshot Larry and Lucky Hal

   One of the World War II veterans I interviewed spoke about what a character his mother was, and how she was so supportive of everything he did. When he made the football team in high school, she came to his games, and one time, when he scored a touchdown, she proudly told everyone within hearing distance in the stands that her son just hit a home run.
   I, too, had a mother who was very supportive. Her son wasn't an agate clerk in the sports department of the New York Post. He was the sports editor of the New York Post, never mind that in its pre-Rupert Murdoch heyday being the sports editor of the Post was only one or two steps removed from being king of New York.
   At the time, the Post had a prestigious horseracing section. With a bunch of charts and all, it was kind of a poor man's Racing Form. And you can't have a horseracing section without handicappers.
   The post had one professional handicapper, Jerry DeNonno, and it had a couple of amateurs who would send in their picks, and Mr. Agate Clerk, aka me, would arrange their three picks per race neatly in a box that appeared on one of the three or four racing pages. There was, however, one handicapper out of the five in the box, his name was Trackman, who may have at one time existed, but he didn't exist when I was there.
   Here's what you do, I was told. You take Jerry DeNonno's three selections and jumble them up, and that's Trackman. Sometimes you mix in a jumbled trio of one of the other handicapper's selections to throw off any conspiracy theorists who might latch onto the formula. It may not be in a league with Edward Snowden, but I often thought one day somebody is going to expose this racket, except that in the horseracing world those three jumbled selections had about as good a chance of winning as the professional handicappers' picks. Kind of like the stock market.
   The night sports editor at the time was Vic Ziegel, who was a legend among sportswriters. Vic died a couple of years ago of lung cancer, and he didn't smoke, but he used to cover boxing in the days when Madison Square Garden was one big cloud of cigar smoke during a match, and newsrooms weren't smoke free either. Vic's job was extremely stressful thanks to ever-earlier deadlines and ever-later games, but he found a way to handle the stress. However difficult a night it was, come about four or four-thirty in the morning Vic would stop everything, he'd lean back in his chair with, I guess it was the Racing Form since he knew how we handicapped our own paper, and he would pick a longshot at Aqueduct or Belmont, and there'd be a little box on the racing page, one day it would be "Longshot Larry" and the next day it would be "Lucky Hal." Most days Longshot Larry or Lucky Hal was actually Vic Ziegel.
   When Vic was off, sometimes Longshot Larry or Lucky Hal would be ... you guessed it. And my mother would always ask me for recommendations when one of her poker playing buddies was going to the track.
   At any rate, Longshot Larry and Lucky Hal went a long way toward alleviating the stress on poor Vic.
   There was a story Vic may or may not have told, I lost touch with him and only saw him once after I left the Post in 1978, but he was a great storyteller and I was there when this story happened, so I assumed he would add it to his repertoire, although it's possible he told it a couple of times and then it slipped into the recesses. Like during the great Newspaper Strike of 1988 when there were three "interim" newspapers and the strike lasted 78 days and the new Pope died suddenly and one of the interim papers ran a headline on the top of its front page that said "Pope dies -- see tomorrow's paper for details." And it seemed like everybody who worked for one of the interim newspapers was going to write a book about it and no one ever did.
   In this particular story, however, Longshot Larry made his selection for the night. An hour or two later the paper was finished. Vic probably went out and had some breakfast, then hopped on the subway and got to Aqueduct, or maybe it was Belmont, in time for the first race.
   Longshot Larry picked a horse named TV Rerun that day. I don't know which race it was in, but I'll wager that Vic plunked ten or twenty bucks on its nose. The bugle signaled that the race was about to begin, the starting gate was lifted, TV Rerun bolted from the gate and soon was in the middle of the pack. The horse was acquitting itself well and entered the stretch in second place, but didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning. Suddenly the jockey on the favorite horse raised his right hand, or maybe it was his left hand, to give his horse a gentle little thwack with the whip and, lo and behold, the whip fell out of his hand, the favorite switched gears from Express Train to Laid Back Surfer Dude, and TV Rerun passed him just before the wire, returning a handsome sum to all the Longshot Larry devotees who wagered two or four dollars on him.
   That night Vic came in to work in a very good mood and was telling the story to anyone who'd listen, and then he got down to the stressful work of the night.
   Around seven or eight in the morning the phone rang and it was Ike Gellis, the sports editor of the Post, calling, as he usually did, to see how things went during the night. Now Ike, too, liked to play the ponies, only whereas Vic bet ten or twenty dollars on a horse, Ike would bet several hundred, if not more. And there was Vic, a few feet from me, on the phone relating the story about TV rerun and the favorite's jockey dropping the whip when all of a sudden there was a prolonged silence, and Vic's face turned ashen.
   "What did he say?" someone asked.
   I could see Vic was trying to maintain his composure. Then he said that Ike, the sports editor, said, in what was probably a terse near whisper, "That was my whip the jockey dropped."
   Nothing more was said, but man, what a great story Vic had to tell, I thought. Whether he ever told it I don't know.
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Friday, August 2, 2013

High Anxiety

Boomer says "But why do you want to put plants here? It's my anti-puppy fortress!"

   A Facebook friend recently posted a picture of her cat named Boomer, which reminded me of a story.
   In my job at the New Britain Herald/Bristol Press, my fellow copy editors are mid to late twentysomethings, maybe fast approaching the big 3-0, which, considering I'm in my 63rd year on this planet, makes them less than half my age. However, by the time I'm eligible for Medicaid they'll be at least half if not more than half my age, by the time I'm bent over and walking with a cane they might be three-quarters of my age, and by the time they're selling beachfront property on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan they should be a couple of years older than me. Who said I was never good at math? I think I said that, but in my youth I could count units in a headline like nobody's business.
   Sometimes, sitting at my desk, I'll overhear a conversation among my younger colleagues about what might be called anxiety dreams. One of them will have had a dream, for instance, in which it's ten minutes past deadline and no one is answering the phone in the plate room, or the pdf of a page reveals white space where a story is supposed to be, nothing spectacular but enough to give the best of copy editors a severe case of agita.
   I used to have dreams like that, except that it was in the era of hot type. I would dream that it was seven in the morning -- the New York Post was an afternoon paper then, and the "wood," or the front page, had to go to the plate room around 7:15, so all the other pages had to be finished well before that -- and I would walk into the composing room and there would be a row of sports pages (I used to fill in as the night sports editor) which should have been filled with stories about the Yankees and Mets and the Giants and Jets and the etc. and the etc. and there the pages would be -- empty, hollowed out forms with less lead in them than a Bushmaster clip. Then I would wake up, not screaming, not pounding the bed, not on the floor, like many of the PTSD-afflicted World War II veterans I've interviewed, but confused at first, then terribly relieved when I realized it was a dream.
   The few months I filled in sporadically as the night sports editor were filled with the kind of anxiety that triggered such dreams. As the person in charge of the section, I will say I was fairly adept; I had a good handle on copy flow and the staff was very professional. For economic and competitive reasons, however, the deadlines kept getting earlier and earlier, and some things were simply beyond my control, such as when the Yankees or Mets had a night game on the West Coast which would require the sportswriter covering the team to get his copy in often moments after the game ended.
   The year was 1977. That was a year after Rupert Murdoch bought the Post. The New York Yankees were playing on the West Coast, I'm not even sure which team they were playing. The sportswriter covering the game was a fellow named Henry Hecht, with whom I'd clerked a few years before and then watched as he became one of the paper's better sportswriters and I became a copy editor.
   Henry lived by himself on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, which is a little north and east of Greenwich Village, maybe it's even included in the Village. And he had a cat.
   While the game on the West Coast was in the later innings, the Sports Department phone rang. One of my colleagues answered it and handed the receiver to me.
   "It's a woman with a foreign accent," my colleague said, "and she wants to talk to Henry."
   I took the phone and explained that Henry was out of town. She knew that already, because she was a neighbor of Henry's and had agreed to watch his cat. She proceeded to say, in a panicked voice with a foreign accent, that Henry's cat fell out the window and was dead.
   This was before the days of text messaging, when she simply could have texted Henry "yr ct fell out wndw," so she was trying to reach him on the telephone. On D-Day in World War II, as the troops were getting slaughtered on Omaha Beach, General Eisenhower had to make a choice: Call off the invasion or not call it off. He didn't call it off and the rest is history. The decision I had to make was not in the same league as that; nevertheless it was fraught with anxiety: Do I tell Henry his cat fell out the window and risk him having a meltdown, blowing deadline, and my ass gets called on the carpet? Or do I not tell Henry until after he filed his story, and risk having a sportswriter I considered my friend hate me for the rest of his life? What would I say, "Thanks for getting your story in on time, by the way your cat fell out the window"?
   Then the phone rang. It was Henry.
   I'm guessing it was the seventh-inning stretch. Before I could say anything, Henry wanted to know if, in addition to his game story, he could write a sidebar. Then he said:
   "Dave Kingman brought his dog Boomer to the ballpark. I think it would make a good human interest story."
   Oh ... my ... god.
   Well, sometimes you have to make a decision that can affect the rest of your life very quickly.
   "Henry," I said. "I have to tell you something."
   After I told him, there was silence. The game still had an inning or two to go. I don't remember whether Henry wrote the sidebar about Dave Kingman's dog Boomer, but he told me later that after I told him about the cat, he cried, then he wrote his game story. It was clean, professional, and filed ahead of deadline.
   Had I made the right decision? I think so. In the best of all possible worlds, I never would have had another anxiety dream, but in the newspaper business there's always another day and another deadline. One day at Murdoch's daily meeting my supervisor threw me under the bus over a blown deadline, and my career at the New York Post was over. Luckily, I was able to land a job at the New York Daily News, where I worked for the next ten years. But that's another story for another day.
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A related story, from my former colleague Steve Bromberg