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.
- - -
A related story, from my former colleague Steve Bromberg

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