News As History (part two)
(Continuation of “First Thirty” from Newspaper Gypsy, a novel about newspapers in the Twentieth Century.)
As Buck escaped the newsroom , he wrote the city desk number on the cover of his reporter’s notebook. The taxi was waiting at the main entrance by the time he got down there from the fifth floor. He had never known a taxi to be that prompt in his young life. He handed the driver one of the taxi vouchers and thanked him for being so quick.
“Aw, you reporters always get the top cab off the Roosevelt Hotel line,” the cabby said. “The press don’t wait for no man.”
Just like that, Buck went from rookie to one of the anointed. He straightened up his shoulders and sat back. In ten minutes the cab dropped him in front of a modern-looking building with a big glassed-in lobby. Buck gave the cabby what would have been one-fortieth of his week’s gross pay before he was promoted: to wit, a buck.
“Say, thanks!” the driver said. “I thought your paper didn’t reimburse tips.”
“So what?” Buck said. “My mother raised me on a waitress’s tips.”
“She did a good job,” the cabbie said. “Lot of those guys is cheapskates.”
Buck went inside the building and turned straight into a rookie again: he couldn’t remember who was holding the hearing. Nervous sweat started to soak the armpits of one of the only two white shirts he owned. His grandmother laundered and ironed the one he wasn’t wearing each day so that it was crisp and professional when he got to work. Now this one was already wilting. He stared at the lobby directory as if it were written in Martian.
“Florida East Coast hearing?”
Buck looked around when he heard the magic words. Two men, one young, one with graying hair, both dressed in spiffy dark suits, were speaking to a uniformed attendant Buck hadn’t even noticed.
The attendant named a room number. They strode away purposefully, swinging glossy briefcases. Buck skulked along behind. The door they chose opened onto a room that reminded him of a small chapel: rows of pews on either side of a central aisle, a raised dais with a long polished-wood desk where the altar would be. A banister like a communicant’s kneeling rail separated the pews from an open space in front of the dais. There was a pair of tables with chairs across from each other; the pulpit in the center faced the wrong way, toward the three high-backed chairs up on the platform behind the desk.
A woman with a transcription machine sat alone at the end of the elevated counter. The younger of the two men approached her, opening his briefcase, and handed her a sheaf of paper. They put their heads together and whispered. The older guy claimed one of the two tables inside the railing.
A few scattered supplicants occupied the pews, smoking. Some of them looked bored, some of them looked tense; one was reading the morning newspaper. Buck thought that if he had his charcoal and pad, he could capture the difference between boredom and tension in a few strokes; it was in the way they held their bodies. Then he suppressed that thought. He wasn’t an artist anymore, he was a reporter.
He angled off to one side of the room and dug out his pipe and tobacco and built a smoke to conceal his bewilderment. Secure behind a cloud of Mixture 76, he looked things over. He knew the other reporters considered the pipe an affectation to try to make him look older, but to hell with them. His favorite uncle smoked Mixture 76 all the time before he went away to the Navy for the Korean War and Buck had grown up surrounded by that aroma. It was like bringing home to work, reminding him who he was, helping overcome his natural shyness.
There was a stir when a guy in casual clothing backed into the room tugging a kind of dolly. On the dolly was one of those huge television news cameras they had in those days, and lights and sound equipment. He was followed by another guy in casual clothing wearing headphones, and a guy in a suit. Buck had seen the guy in the suit on the evening news. The three-man crew maneuvered all that equipment through the little gate and started setting up over against the far wall. Then the TV news guy in the suit went up and blatantly eavesdropped on the conversation at the dais.
Buck had smoked his first bowl up. More people came into the room quietly. Conversations were hushed. The second local television station — there were only two in those days — showed up in the person of another three-man crew marshaling their heavy gear like artillery. They began to set up in battery with the first camera, taping heavy electric cord along the floor to electric outlets on the wall.
There was a pristine ashtray on the table where the older guy sat. Buck sidled through the gate and asked if it was okay to knock out his pipe. Sure, he said with a smile, and pushed it over. Since he seemed friendly, Buck decided to risk sounding stupid.
“Say, could you tell me what’s going on?”
“Sure,” the older man said. “We’re going to present evidence today that the union is sabotaging our tracks up and down the coast. We’ve found dynamite wired to switches in more than one place.”
Holy cow. This was what the city editor called no big deal? Buck shoved his pipe in his pocket and pulled out his notebook to scribble.
“You’re with the railroad?” he said.
The man smiled and stood up and offered his hand. “You can say that. I’m president of the line. You’re a reporter, right?” Buck admitted it and he smiled again. “The sport-coat is a giveaway. I don’t think reporters own suits.”
He said it in a kindly way that did not trigger Buck’s ears into flame. So Buck asked the locations where dynamite had been found and he mentioned a couple of names that meant nothing to Buck. Downstate, he clarified. It’s all in the paperwork we’ve supplied the commission this morning. Buck glanced at the dais. The railroad president was a quick study. Go on up, he said. She’ll have a copy for you.
“Thanks,” Buck said, and boy did he mean it.
This guy was Buck’s first face-to-face encounter with an executive. His graciousness taught Buck a lesson he never forgot: always go to the top for straight answers. When he approached the lady on the dais, she already was holding up a copy for him as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Buck took it back behind the railing and sat in a pew to read. And McFeely came in.
McFeely was one of the two North Florida correspondents for the Associated Press. Their office was adjacent to the teletype room Buck had occupied for three years as a copy boy. The AP guys always treated him well, and even hired him from time to time to help out. He had keypunched stories to Atlanta for them on their teletypes, and helped their traffic manager set up teleprinters at the Daytona Racetrack and the Gator Bowl press box; and in remote inland-Florida radio stations. He had learned the news-story triage by which they operated; carbons of all local news went to their spikes back there. They rewrote and filed something like 75 percent of the local copy on the state B Wire, only venturing forth personally on big stories.
Mac’s arrival, on top of the two TV crews, convinced Buck that he was in way over his head on his fifth day as a cub reporter. He carried the Florida East Coast filing out to a pay phone in the lobby and called the city desk.
“Whatcha got?” the assistant city editor said.
“The FEC says the union is dynamiting the tracks!”
“Okay. How many dead?”
“Uh…the hearing hasn’t started yet. The papers they filed don’t say. McFeely is here!”
“Surprised he stirred out of the office. Okay, soon as the hearing starts, keep an eye on the clock. We’ll hold space page one till eleven for the City. Get what you can before then and call it in.”
Buck was opening his mouth to say he wasn’t sure he could handle this when he got a dial tone.
When he got back in the room, the TV people had switched on their blindingly bright lights, men in suits were on the podium, and the young man who had come in with the railroad president was standing at the backwards pulpit talking to them. Buck slunk into a seat at the back and listened hard, scribbling notes as fast as he could. When the speaker paused for breath, or one of the men on the podium asked him something, Buck flipped his notebook over and started trying to write a lead in the back: “Today the Florida East Coast Railroad, in hearings in Jacksonville…”
His whole shirt under the tell-tale sport-coat felt soaked. His mind felt encased in some thick, viscous syrup, like molasses. He kept falling behind the narrative as he flipped his notebook back and forth. He couldn’t seem to finish the lead. In desperation he scribbled down the number of incidents being recited, that the bombs had been found by railroad security, how many sticks of dynamite, and that so far there had been no train wrecks and no injuries.
The big clock in the hearing room ticked relentlessly toward eleven. Buck’s traitor wristwatch agreed with it. He was running out of time. The railroad wanted permission to halt passenger operations, for the passengers’ own safety, and “sanctions.” What the hell were sanctions? Whatever they were, the union side of the aisle was outraged: it was just a management plot to suspend passenger service because it was less profitable than freight. Words flew back and forth. It was soon clear this thing was going to go way past eleven. Buck had to go.
When he got to the pay phone, he didn’t have another dime in his pocket.
Everything went blank for a long heartbeat. Then before he realized what he was doing, he opened a door along the corridor and walked into an office. A very-good-looking young woman looked up and asked if she could help him. Buck opened his mouth to ask for a dime but his eyes fastened on the phone on her desk.
“I need to borrow your phone,” he said.
Her eyebrows arched. “There’s a payphone right there.”
“I’m a reporter on deadline. People out there could hear what I say.” Where the hell had that line come from?
She pouted prettily. “Local call?”
“Say pretty please.” For god’s sake, she was flirting with him.
“Pretty, pretty please,” he said. “With sugar on top.” Where had this silver-tongued devil come from?
“Okay,” she said. “Want me to leave so I don’t hear?”
“No, no, it’s your phone.”
“I’ll go get coffee, give you some privacy.”
As he leaned across her desk and dialed, some remote part of his brain noted she had nice legs beneath her skirt when she clicked past in high heels.
The assistant city editor came on. “How many casualties?”
“None so far. Railroad security found the bombs.”
Buck started to try to read out his clumsy lead. “Never mind that,” the assistant city editor said brusquely. “Just the facts. How many devices, where, what does the railroad want them to do about it, what does the union say?”
Buck recited what he had. His benefactor came back and slipped into her seat, showing a flash of thigh well above the hem line. He averted his eyes: no time to think about that now. She sipped her coffee and made no pretense of not listening.
“Got it,” the assistant city editor said. “Okay, we still got ten minutes. Get back there and see if the commission does anything by then. Keep this line open.”
Buck gulped and looked at the young woman. “Pretty, pretty please,” he said again, “can I lay this phone down and leave the line open?” She frowned. “Just ten minutes,” he said quickly. “I need to run back to the hearing for ten minutes. Please, my life depends on it.”
She stopped frowning and laughed. “If I save your life, you’ll owe me at least lunch.”
“Thanks!” Buck said, and beat it back to the hearing room.
She had no way of knowing how terrified he was of good-looking young women. He didn’t have time to worry about that now. She was holding the lifeline open to the city desk. When he got back inside, the TV lights were off and they were breaking down their equipment. People were shuffling out of the seats toward the door. Mac was in the lead. He put a hand on Buck’s arm.
“Make sure the city desk gives me a carbon of your story,” he said.
“Nothing. They broke early for lunch so they could read all the paperwork. Won’t be back till one.”
Buck hurried back to the phone and told the assistant city editor. He said okay, that’s a thirty then, come on back. No point in hanging around all day down there.
Thirty: the reporter’s immortal term for end of the story. Buck’s first thirty. He hung up and asked the young woman if he could call a cab. She said sure, why not? As he left, she said don’t forget you owe me lunch.
But he did forget. By the time the cab got there, he was sunk in misery. He had failed to get the story written before he called it in. He had failed to admit he needed help. He was just nothing but a failure, and maybe copy boy was all he could handle in the way of working for a newspaper. Traffic was heavy and it seemed to take forever to get back to the newspaper. When the cab pulled up in front of the building, Buck knew that he was going to have to go in and face the music. He dreaded it more than words could express. Maybe he should get the jump on them and just resign.
Street paper boys were breaking out of the loading dock area to peddle papers to the downtown lunch crowd. Buck could hear the presses roaring when he started up the stairs. The newsboys were already shouting the headlines:
“FEC asks suspension of passenger service! Dynamite on the tracks!”
What? He detoured through the loading dock, long familiar from his copy boy days, and grabbed a paper. There it was, front page, the FEC story.
With Buck’s byline.
The lead was smooth and succinct, and the facts were accurate. But he hadn’t written the story. Why on earth had they given him a byline? Were they making fun of him? Almost the first person he saw when he got off the elevator was the assistant city editor, unwrapping a fresh cigar from its cellophane.
“See you found your way home,” he said. “Not a bad first outing, kid.”
“You wrote a nice lead,” Buck said. “Why give me a byline?”
He torched off his old Zippo. “Rewrite men don’t get bylines, for god’s sake. Reporters out on the story get bylines. You’re the reporter. Get used to it.”
Not bad for a first outing was high praise from the cranky assistant city editor. Buck hung his sport-coat over the back of his chair in hopes his sodden shirt would dry out, and loosened his tie like all the veterans did. He wasn’t a failure. He had his first thirty under his belt. He was right where he wanted to be, and he was exactly what he wanted to be: a newspaper reporter.
By the time he remembered promising lunch to the pretty woman for saving his life, he was afraid to call her. He remembered all too well how easily his fragile sensibilities could be crushed by a flirtatious female. He did not want to risk tainting the memory of his first thirty with anything like that.