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.


  1. If you Google "Rick's Cafe Americain," which was the establishlishment's full name in the move, the first hit is the Wikipedia entry about the movie. The first hit with that title takes you to a rib joint in Tulsa, OK. Ugh!

    1. Rick's Cafe Americain, right you are! At least Wikipedia got it right.

  2. There is a popular Rick's Cafe in Negril, the beach resort in Jamaica, where tourists go to watch the sunset and see cliff divers.

    But I was struck by your mention of the men on the subway who folded The Times.

    Mr. Brown, my social studies teacher at Seth Low Junior High School in Brooklyn, taught me and other students how to fold the newspaper so we could read it on a packed subway car.

    I never forgot the lesson, and still fold it that way on the rare occasions I pick up The Times at a Starbucks.

  3. The NYT subway fold is one of those arcane skills that nobody learns anymore. As you can imagine, newspaper readers on the subway are a dying breed, replaced by ever more numerous people with electronic devices. E-readers and tablets seem to be preferred by "serious" readers, while smartphone users on the subway are hypnotized by their games and personal texts, totally unconcerned by other commuters trying to maneuver around them.