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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(Next: Newspaper days: Houston)

Newspaper days: San Juan

san juan

A PACK OF mangy dogs always loitered about the front door because a kind-hearted employee threw them scraps of food every day.

That front door took you into the lobby of The San Juan Star where I worked in the early 1970s. The newspaper in that time was like the French Foreign Legion of the newspaper trade, and it was really fun, the only journalism job I ever actually enjoyed.

The small newsroom was up a flight of stairs. It was nothing like the monster newsrooms of Houston and New Orleans, places where I also toiled both before and after San Juan. The Star newsroom was kind of cozy, and the people were very nice.

I worked, as always everywhere, on the copydesk, and my boss at the Star was a handsome coal-black news editor named Teddy who was from the island of St. Kitts. Teddy spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent, and he started out being very suspicious of me since I had arrived from Louisiana, and Teddy knew all Southerners were Klansmen who hang black men from trees.

He’d never been in the United States, and much of the news staff were New Yorkers.

But after a couple of weeks, Teddy realized I did not fit his stereotype, and we got along just great.

Handsome Teddy was a bachelor and a womanizer. He was particularly smitten with the Lifestyle editor, a tall, good-looking black woman with big boobs and behind who sashayed regularly through the newsroom on high heels, leaving Teddy with his eyes open wide and a silly grin on his face.

She was married, but I doubt Teddy cared much about that.

The composing room was just off the newsroom, and they played music there which often seeped out into our space. My favorite was Eres Tu by Mocedades. I still love it.

A pack of proofreaders sat in another adjoining room. Though they spoke little or no English, they were employed to correct errors in the English copy proofs. Made no sense whatsoever.

They were unionized.

The cafeteria downstairs that served lunches and dinners also sold beer, which we could buy to sip at the copydesk while working. Even in New Orleans, the booze capital of the world, the newspaper did not offer that perk, something I only did once in San Juan because it wasn’t smart.

Stepping out the front door, down to the right and just around the corner, you’d find a small establishment where you could sit at an eatery bar in dim light to sip black Cuban coffee almost the consistency of good, watery mud. It was tasty.

The San Juan Star was located in an industrial area off the John F. Kennedy Highway nowhere near downtown where I lived, so I traveled, standing, in a sweltering, jam-packed city bus to work every afternoon and bummed a ride back to Old San Juan at midnight with a coworker, or I took a taxi.

That was the routine on my second stint in Puerto Rico. During my first, briefer, stay, I rode a black BSA motorcycle shipped down from New Orleans in the hold of a Sealand freighter.

There were two midnight options. I could drink in a bar, or I could drink at home. At home, a black-haired, freckle-faced Argentine was waiting for me, so that was the more common destination. I had skin in that game. Home was a small penthouse apartment overlooking the sea.

mdI never got a haircut in Puerto Rico. I only cut my hair once, and I did it in St. Thomas in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands where I flew on a couple of occasions as a passenger in a Goose seaplane. Mostly, however, I stayed pretty hairy. It was the 1970s.

I doubt The San Juan Star was ever much of a money-maker. It was owned by Scripps Howard, and it had won a Pulitzer. It was the sole English newspaper in Puerto Rico, catering to the American community and, of course, tourists. Union activity was a constant problem that finally ran the publication into the ground in 2008, long after I had departed. Such a shame.

It was reinvented the following year by different owners as the San Juan Daily Star. I don’t know where it’s located now, and I doubt that a pack of homeless dogs sprawls at the front door or that beer is served in the cafeteria. And God knows where Teddy is.

Caribbean memories

window

OLD MEN’S MINDS tend to wander, and they usually wander in reverse, which is to say memories as opposed to plans or anticipations. This morning my crusty cranium conjured up memories of Puerto Rico where I once lived. I’m here to share photos, yet again.

We’ll start at the top, a shot taken out the bedroom window of the tiny penthouse where I lived with an Argentine girl of 20 whom I called, then and now, the Argentine Firecracker. I rescued her from a sleazy San Juan bar, and she reformed herself rather nicely.

Had I chosen to reproduce these photos in their original, faded, 1970s colors, you could more easily spot her fire-engine-red panties there on the right end of the pillow.

Red is always a spectacular color for panties.

eats

AND HERE above is a shot from the balcony of an apartment on Mango Street that I shared at another time with a Brooklyn woman. That’s her on the beach just below. What always comes to mind on seeing that restaurant photo, where the crowd stands, is Johnny Nash singing “I can see clearly now” on the jukebox down there where we often ate chicken and rice.

Puerto Ricans make great chicken and rice.

The Brooklyn woman and I shared space and time during the first of my two stays in San Juan. When I moved back to New Orleans after five months, she packed her bags and her damn cat and followed me, uninvited. Sometimes I had that effect on women. It was the devil getting rid of her, but I wish her well, even today. She clearly did not see that I was not a keeper in those days.

But now I am.

brooklyn

JUST BELOW is the aforementioned Argentine Firecracker, hair blowing in the constant sea breeze of the penthouse digs. She was a part of my second San Juan adventure, which is to say she followed the Brooklyn woman about 18 months later. And she lasted longer.

firecracker

THOSE OF YOU who’ve read along for most of the decade I’ve been blabbering hereabouts may have seen these photos and read similar words, but new folks appear now and then. This will be fresh for them. And I enjoy my Caribbean memories.

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(Johnny Nash sings I Can See Clearly Now, a great song.)

Tropical music memories

HAVING WATERED the potted plants on the downstairs terraza, an every-Saturday-morning chore, I sat a short spell in one of the wicker rockers and listened to a song coming through the window behind me from the living room music machine. Roberto Carlos was singing El Show Ya Terminó.

borderIt reminded me of Puerto Rico, where I lived in the 1970s in a penthouse atop a five-story building on Calle Norzagaray* in Viejo San Juan — Old San Juan — overlooking the sea. I lived there with an Argentine named Silvina, a reformed working girl who always kept things from getting stodgy.

Once, she flew back to Buenos Aires for something or other, leaving me briefly alone high above Calle Norzagaray, but when she returned she brought gifts, vinyl discs of Atahualpa Yupangui, an Argentine folk singer and guitarist, and of Vinicius de Moraes, a Brazilian.

We spent many a late night — after I had returned from my work at the San Juan Star and she from her job waitressing at a restaurant-bar — sitting on our rooftop patio, next to the hammock, with Bacardi, Coke and music, watching cruise ships sail into the dark, starry nights.

Those two vinyl records have long vanished. I forget the title of Yupangui’s disc, but I have since purchased another of his albums on a modern CD. I like it, but far better is the compact disc I found of the exact other album she brought from Buenos Aires. It is titled Vinicius de Moraes con Maria Creuza y Toquinho.

mdThey sing in Portuguese which may be the loveliest language of them all.

I left Silvina behind when I returned to the mainland, but about five years ago she found me on Facebook. She was back in Buenos Aires, running a stable of taxicabs. She reminded me that I had introduced her to T-Bone Walker, so I emailed mp3 versions of T-Bone, and she thanked me.

She has grandchildren now, but I don’t — and never will.

It’s amazing where morning on a Mexican terraza will lead one’s time-stretched mind.

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* Calle Norzagaray is a short street, and I think the building where I lived is the pink one in the photo, but don’t hold me to that. It’s been 40 years, even though my second wife and I visited just 20 years ago.

(Other visits to the island are here and here.)