Newspaper days: New Orleans

NewOrleans

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 residential, pre-wire man; 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.

oldie

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.

typeAs 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 usually arrived just 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 mid-20s, I’d say.

Bob was starting a new life.

He had many odd characteristics. Bob was wound tighter than a spool of hardware 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. 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. More bars, I guess. 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 and its 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.

* * * *

(Next: Newspaper days: Houston)

13 thoughts on “Newspaper days: New Orleans”

  1. Thanks for the nostalgia. I grew up in Metairie in the ’50s. Had a summer job in Uptown (just upriver from Canal Street) when I was 14. Too young for the bars, but I did love the po-boy shops. I read the Item but not the Picayune. Nice days to remember, enough to make me forget how awfully hot it was.

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  2. Felipe, I lived in New Orleans for awhile, went there many times to work. It used to be one of my favorite towns, but it kept getting rougher and rougher. After Katrina, I heard it had lost some of its magic. But a lot of towns have changed for the worse.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to mention was years ago someone told me, during the Depression there were three types of work that people followed even though they were hard and the pay was low. Railroads, newspapers and circuses. The reason was they were fun and exciting. I worked as an article writer on “The Sun,” an English newspaper in Mexico City for a while. It went under because of bad distribution and politics, and I have to admit I enjoyed it. I also worked on several circuses over the years, spent the most time with the Clyde Beatty Show, but had the most fun on an Italian circus, the Cristiani Brothers. Never got to work on a railroad, but I can imagine it would have been fun also. There’s a Mexican song that says, Never marry a railroad man ’cause they have a woman in every town.

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  3. Señor Mystic: It’s not, I think, that lots of U.S. towns have changed for the worse. I think that applies to the entire nation, which saddens me.

    As for newspapering being hard, I never thought that. I could do it blindfolded with one arm tied behind my back.

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    1. Angeline: It could be a chicken and the egg thing. Which comes first? The boozing or the line of work? I do not know.

      Newspaper people are writers, and that’s a category that has a long history of difficulty with alcohol. It’s one of the risks of being a creative sort, I guess. By the way, I don’t buy the modern concept that alcoholism is a disease. I call it a personal flaw, pure and simple. A character defect, like beating your wife. You don’t have to do that, and you can quit if you want.

      I was not an alcoholic. I just drank too much for my own good and the good of those around me for a very long time. One day I decided it was dumb, so I quit. Life really improved.

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      1. I really enjoy your writing style, Felipe. Have you ever written any fiction? I believe I’d be a buyer if you ever published anything … very entertaining, señor. I also agree with your take on alcoholism. It is a “personal flaw, pure and simple” and a matter of choice. This applies to homosexuality as well. Both alcoholics and homosexuals justify their flaws as a “disease” or “I was born this way,” so they don’t have to take any personal responsibility for their actions.

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        1. Jeff: I appreciate the kind words. Have I written fiction? Yes, but all online. My sister site, The Pearls of Zapata, has quite a bit of fiction. Also, in the side column here, are links to three longer works of fiction.

          1. Last night of the iguana.
          2. Dark girl in the blue dress.
          3. The old Marbol.

          And it’s all free!

          While you and I are of one mind regarding drunks, we part ways when it comes to being gay, which I do not think is consciously chosen in the slightest. For instance, assuming that all straight fellows feel as you and I do, would you ever opt for a good-looking guy over, say, Scarlett Johansson? No way in a million years. Whatever it is that makes men prefer other men is unknown to me, but I don’t think it’s a choice.

          On the other hand, I do think lesbians at times are choosing that route. Call me nuts.

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  4. Thanks for the insider’s look at the life of a newspaper man in the days before digital began to take away the great newsprint tradition. Nowadays, the Picayune is barely holding on, bought out by a corporation, and down to a few days a week of publishing. Almost all of the good local columnists were given the axe. The Baton Rouge Advocate is trying to take over, with a daily called the New Orleans Advocate. It stinks. But it is what it is. At least local talk radio is thriving.

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    1. Laurie: The time of newspapers, with the emphasis on paper, is almost over. I’m glad I got in on it when I did. Yes, I knew about the T-P’s troubles, which seem to be worse than some newspapers. But they are most all in trouble.

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