Confronting the killer inside me; a romance recounted
I always wanted to be a writer like my dad. He was a sportswriter. Ever since he was a kid, he was mad about sports. After he got out of the Navy in 1945, and for as long as he lived, he made sportswriting the center of his life.
I hated playing sports as a kid. But I loved reading the newspaper Dad wrote for in the late ‘50s: The Buffalo Evening News. I knew I’d never be a sports reporter. I also knew there were other sections of the paper where I might someday see my byline, followed by reports that I would write and phone in to the office from the field, like Jimmy Stewart in Call Northside 777.
For my dad, the "field" was sometimes the kitchen table, where I could watch him work. He’d perch himself in front of his gunmetal-gray Smith Corona portable, putting aside his White Owl cigar just long enough to down glass after glass of ice-heavy Pepsi-Cola. He’d scroll a sheet of carbon-papered foolscap into the roller and lean over the typewriter as if walking into a Buffalo headwind. Then, using no more than four fingers, he’d attack the keyboard with the coiled-up grace of a pianist spinning arpeggios out of a concert grand.
Thus began my romance with newspapering.
I conjured that memory when, newly delivered into fatherhood in the early ‘70s, I went looking for a job in the town where I grew up. I wanted to write, and I needed to make a living. Newspapering seemed the perfect solution.
I got my first writing gig working nights at the Buffalo Zoo, where I composed short, terrible sci-fi stories instead of pushing a chemical broom down the dank and chattering hallways of the Monkey House.
Within a year, I got a tryout at the Niagara Falls Gazette, a small-circulation daily downriver from the mighty Evening News.
The Gazette was where I discovered that newspaper reporters don’t just write and file stories. They submit them to copy editors, who submit them to city or section editors, where strange things happen to them—both to the stories and to the reporters.
Back then, those editors were my good shepherds, because there’s no one more in need of shepherding than a cub reporter—especially one whose only experience was writing stories about alien beings who looked and acted a whole lot like mad baboons.
Those early editors kept me on track and out of jail. They challenged my assumptions, corrected my grammar, dug up my buried leads, damned me with faint praise, scared hell out of me, and made impossible demands, some of which I took pride in occasionally achieving.
They pushed me. They shoved me up against deadline walls. They chopped and channeled and squeezed and cut my copy, and they didn’t apologize for their butcheries. They growled at the 50-word ledes I labored to concoct. They demanded facts. Numbers spoke at least as loudly to them as words. Cops spoke even more loudly. They hated big words, numbers that didn’t add up, and any color scheme that wasn’t black-and-white. They said they edited for a guy they called Joe Six-Pack, and they were referencing Joe's abs. They expected reporters to address themselves to that same guy, if only to make their jobs a little bit easier.
If that sounds like a complaint, it’s not. I was a newly enrolled student in the Jack Webb School of Just-the-Facts-Ma’am Journalism that dominated provincial newspapering through the ‘70s and ‘80s. I studied hard at doing Jack. Got good at it. I had to, unless I wanted to go back to pushing broom.
However, when it came to writing stories outside my beat, stories with any depth deeper than a pica, Jack stood ready to keep me in line. He’d not only dug himself under my skin, he’d gotten into my head.
He smiled with approval as I got ood at observing, recording, quoting, enumerating, staying within the delegated inch-count, and never blowing deadline. But I wasn’t writing anything memorable. I was informing people, yeah, and that was important. But the romance was gone. I wanted to enlighten people, or at least entertain them. As far as Jack was concerned, enlightenment was something best left to the church and entertainment was what you did on your own, after work.
The sunny, tobacco-fragrant kitchen of my youth had become an airless bunker. Every morning, I rose in a state of dread to confront a dully buzzing IBM Selectric, a ream of blank paper, and a coffee cup full of the previous day's dead cigarette butts.
After I’d moved on to another provincial outpost, where Jack's rules were even more rigorously enforced, I came to believe I’d only be rid of him by trying something I’d never done before.
In the early ‘80s, I got my chance: I landed a freelance assignment from a big-deal Sunday magazine to report on a weekend of fun and games at Grossinger's resort, which was once the premier Catskill resort to vacationing New York Jewish families once famously flocked. Countless stars of the '40s and '50s had made their bones in the Borscht Belt. Milton Berle! Steve and Edy! Henny Youngman!
Television, air conditioning and cheap air travel changed all that. By the time I got to visit, Grossinger's and the entire Catskill resort industry was on the ropes. To try to go another few rounds, the place was holding a singles weekend. I was neither Jewish nor single. I pitched it as a “fish out of water story,” with me as the fish.
Standing in the decrepit vestibule, I felt immediately out of my depth. I'd expected at least a touch of old-time glamour and glitz; what I found was the moldy fragrance of bygone glory. There was no flack to hold my hand, no press release to give me some background. The administrators were unhappy to find me prowling their empty hallways. When I tried to buttonhole the few people who were there—standing alone at the edge of the near-empty ballroom floor or seated at the bar—they recoiled in horror. They hadn’t paid good money to spend the weekend talking to a nosy reporter about their mating habits, or lack thereof.
Nothing could have prepared me for this melancholy parade of desperate people, trapped in a broken-down, memory-haunted palace, like soon-to-be victims in a Stephen King novel.
I arrived home at the end of the weekend exhausted and scared. I hardly knew where to start, or even if I could. When I sat down at the typewriter, Jack collared me and threw me back in the bunker, where he read me my death sentence:
“No lede, no conflict, no story, kid. And they want 2,000 words by Friday.”
Jack knew me well; he knew all my soft spots and he hit them every chance he got. He sweated me day and night, and he loved it. I wrote lede after lede. No single story dominated. There were no happy endings. No happy beginnings. I was out to sea, drowning in an ocean of illegible notes, tossed by endless waves of paranoia. And there was Jack, standing on shore, grinning.
“Told you so, kid. You’re going down, just like I said you would. Hey! What’s today? My, my. Is it Wednesday already?”
Feeling as desperate and alone as the folks I’d spent the weekend trying to schmooz, I started writing snippets. Anecdotes. Descriptions. At the typewriter, and on scraps of paper. I wrote schtick. Dialect. A hundred-word interview. A longer one. I worked the historical angle. Then I reached for the scissors, paper cement, and White-Out. I slapped cut-up revisions on top of revisions. The thick, crinkly manuscript I finally mailed away looked like I’d dipped it in water and let it dry in the sun. Its ten pages must have been two inches thick.
The story made the magazine’s cover. And I didn’t blow deadline.
Since those early days, I’ve written thousands of news and feature stories, opinion pieces, movie and album reviews and humor columns. I’ve written and edited fiction and nonfiction books, magazine pieces, lengthy profiles of celebrities and told hundreds of variations of The Joee Six-Pack Story. There’s an ancient screenplay sitting in my sock drawer, and a children’s play that’s actually been produced.
But no matter what I write, Jack is always with me. He’s the one responsible for this being the fourth draft of a story I thought I had knocked in draft one, the just-the-facts voice who kept me floating happily on the story’s surface—until my editors at Talkingwriting.com, who initially published this saga, got me to go deeper.
But romance dies hard with me. And, odd as it may seem, Jack Webb is part of my life’s romantic dream: the dream of being a writer like my dad—and like all the others newspaper wordsmiths who took the profession to new and dizzying heights. To name a very few: Woodward and Bernstein, natch. Ernest Hemingway (who started as a reporter for The Kansas City Star). And the immortal Walter Burns, the fast-talking, hard-boiled newspaper editor played by Cary Grant in the movie His Girl Friday, the guy who got the story of a lifetime and the girl.
But when I feel the call of that romantic stereotype getting in my way, when Jack strolls back into my life like the killer he is—I have to remind myself that I’ve fulfilled an important part of that early dream of mine.
I’m a writer.