A newspaperman, that’s what I almost always wanted to be.
But the closest I got to that dream as a 10-year-old was writing stories for my own little family newspaper, using one of those old twist-the-dial-to-the-correct-letter-and-push 1960s toy typewriters.
Precocious little devil that I was, I also wrote stories for my grammar school newspaper, but the nuns’ semi-sincere, though remarkably soft-handed, pats on the head wore thin pretty quickly. Stories about field trips and altar boy assignments weren’t interesting enough for me, even when I applied my own slant to them. Righteous religious redaction always put its raven-stockinged (so hot!), high-topped, black-shod foot down. The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights did not exist in St. Patrick’s School.
When my Scout Troop visited the local newspaper building and all the other kids were gassed about getting the cool hats that the printers folded from newsprint, I was more interested in what most of the other kids thought was the boring part of the tour – the city room.
The other kids oohed over the rumble and whirr as rolls of clean off-white paper entered the big presses at one end and came out covered in strips of gray and pictures and ads for milk and Nash Ramblers at the other end. Upstairs, I aahed at the opera of telephones, typewriters and the cursing men, who glowed like angels under the harsh fluorescent lights in dingy white shirts and narrow dark ties.
Besides the sights and sounds, I was intoxicated by the smell of the city room. Half gin mill, half opium den, the reporters and editors huddled in or scurrying to or from their places beneath a yellow-gray cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke that horizontally bisected the high-ceilinged room at about the seven-foot mark. I remember smelling Old Spice-tinged sweat and corned beef on rye with mustard and … what was that? … oh, and rubber cement.
Though I knew I would never smoke, and I hated wearing my green little clip-on St. Patrick’s uniform tie, and I really hated it when I heard my old man use the cuss words these journalists spewed with what seemed like every other exhalation, I knew that somehow, some way, my future had to be part of what I saw that day.
The local papers were not going to hire 11-year-old cub reporters whose clip file contained stories about nine-year-old cross-dressers, uh, superhero trainees, and that Dennis had scored the 9 o’clock Mass again, which included free donuts, hot cocoa and a too-long-held hand on the knee from Father X in the rectory.
Nevertheless, I wanted to stay close to the newspaper business while I prepared myself for the city room. So, I took a job delivering the afternoon Knickerbocker News. And it was quite a job.
I’ve told many of you about my days dodging robbers and cursing the cops who drove the lovely ladies in the yellow house with the red door from my delivery route and inquisitive libido. By the time I got to high school, I was writing funny bits and essays in class, some that got into the hands of the black-robed enforcers who, instead of going all Francis of Assisi with their cinctures on their own backs, decided to vent their sexual frustration on the author.
My Freshman English teacher directed me to the office of The Blue Banner, our high school newspaper. I became a sort of writer/editor-at-large by the time I was a senior. Sister Mary Carmel threw me out of class twice for bringing “banned” books into her realm – Phillip Roth and Hemingway.
Oh well, on to College. I hit Brockport State like a multi-megaton testosterone bomb. Yep, by the time my westward-rolling wheels passed Sacandaga Lake, which I considered International Waters, I was no longer under the scrutiny of the publishers of the Hesch Family Times. First choice: Phys Ed /English teacher or Journalist?
Once again, I set my course for the newsroom, though I took a circuitous route there through bars, bedrooms, athletic fields, locker rooms, hashish flops, Canadian Border Patrol and Mounted Police holding cells, and a couple of visits to the hospital (once because an article I wrote pissed off the entire Brockport Rugby Club, the tools!).
Both the college and I felt I would be better served – or perhaps not served so much – if I were to take my business elsewhere until I grew up a little. So, home I went. Two years of community college later, I climbed over the Adirondacks and landed in scenic but chilly Plattsburgh, New York, where there are but two seasons, winter and the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, I began writing again, with an eye on some sort of newspaper career.
My Expository Writing professor got me an interview with the man who ran the college News Bureau and I got a job writing news releases for Plattsburgh State. It was supposed to be a work-study job, but they had no more money. Hell, I just wanted to write news and develop my chops. I learned a lot in that office, like the basics of news story structure and what editors were looking for. Like not ending your sentences with prepositions.
Upon graduation, I pelted the Albany news market with résumés and clips of my releases from when they ran in the Plattsburgh newspaper. I dropped the same stuff off at the Plattsburgh paper, too. In August, I got a call from Al Gillon, the managing editor of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican. He had received my materials and wondered if I would be interested in coming up to interview for an open reporter’s position. Let’s see, sell Casio calculators and typewriters for the rest of my miserable life, or attempt to kick-start this demented dream into a small but solid reality.
I drove to Plattsburgh the following week, sporting my au courant polyester sport coat and breastplate-wide tie. Even though I sat in my chair like a six-footer — my butt was so tight, I gained two and a half inches — I felt like that Cub Scout in the Albany newsroom from ten years earlier. I interviewed with Mr. Gillon, the editor and city editor, as well as the publisher.
I think I passed their test when they asked me if I was into “advocacy journalism.” With my track record of being shallower – as Grandpa used to say – “than piss in a platter,” I could barely advocate for myself, let alone some grand ideal or organization. The newspaper’s hierarchy wanted their reporters to be less than vanilla. They wanted boiled potato. Inwardly, I resolved to bring my own salt and pepper.
A week later, I belonged to the P-R. I found an apartment in one day, motored back to Albany, threw my stuff in the Pontiac, said goodbye to my Mom, Dad and the sibs and I was OFF!
Two weeks of writing obits, tomorrow’s weather, editing news releases for P-R style and almost getting killed at a construction site accident they had no one else available to cover, I was handed my first paycheck. I ripped open the envelope and looked down at the check. I didn’t even notice that it said $225 for two weeks of work. I saw only two things: The newspaper’s name at the top, The Press-Republican, and the name of the payee, Joseph A. Hesch. You know, the newspaperman.
My poet friend Mary asked the folks at dVerse to write a poem about the news. I didn’t think I could participate, so I didn’t write one. But then American journalism giant Ben Bradlee died yesterday, and memories of my birth in the news business came rushing back to me. This is a long-winded (and obviously unedited) story about this short reporter’s breaking in the papers.