On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Newspaper Game

This is a true story (with the names changed) of my first real job.  A version of this episode appears in my coming-of-age novel, SNUSVILLE.

In January 1955, I graduated from high school as part of an unusual mid-year option in our school system which continued until the 1960s.  Like most of my college-bound classmates, I decided upon my graduation I would work six months before enrolling in college, determined for once to start the school year in September.  To that end, I applied at several downtown businesses, but the only attractive offer coming my way was as a classified advertising clerk at the city’s morning and evening newspapers which had different editorial staffs but other operations in common.  It was rather exciting to think I’d be working in those environs, which called up many a movie that featured newspapers and reporters.  My first day on the job I was beset by conflicting emotions, thrilled with anticipation but racked by nerves—my first real job.  I had dressed carefully but casually, thinking Lois Lane, my hair shiny clean and curled in a neat flip.  Everyone I saw going into the building seemed to have a romantic air about them, as if they had witnessed untold stories.  I felt my youth and inexperience keenly and might have been someone’s little sister just visiting for the day. 
“You’ll sit at this desk beside me,” said Shirley, the Classified supervisor, whom I guessed to be in her late twenties or early thirties, “so I can keep an eye on you.  It won’t be any time before you get the hang of it, kiddo.”
Miss Shirley Shaw’s desk was the middle one of three that sat directly beneath a low wooden panel shutting off the main advertising operations from the public area.  Outside the paneled railing, walk-in customers would go to a central station in the middle of the room, where behind a high counter another three women took want ads in person.  Across the room from the mail staff, of which I was one, two rows of women sat with headphones and took call-in ads.        
Behind Shirley’s desk was the office of the Advertising Manager, George Rankin, red-faced, loud-voiced, chain-smoking, but kind when he welcomed me to the department.  His main concern, I was soon to discover, was the harried-looking squadron of retail advertising salesmen whose desks, cluttered with newspapers and clip sheets, were segregated near the windows just beyond our little group.  They were the prima donnas, as Shirley teasingly termed them, or workhorses, as they called themselves, who brought in the real revenue for both the newspapers.  The papers shared certain staffs, most importantly the Advertising Department. 
Shirley was in charge of all the Classified staff, but took particular interest in her “mail girls,” as she liked to call me and my co-worker Madelaine Chaffee.  Shirley was full of catch phrases, which I came to know well.  If someone stopped by our desks instead of going to the walk-in counter, Shirley would always say, “What can I do you for?”  Anyone tripping over their feet within her range would be told to “watch that first step; it’s a tricky devil.”  When she let out the occasional swear word, she’d apologize with, “Pardon my oo-la-la.”  I came to be quite fond of Shirley’s stock of one-liners, particularly her invariable “Stop the presses!” shouted when just before deadline she sent the ads through the pneumatic tube to Linotype.
Madelaine was a tiny, pale girl with carroty hair who had been out of high school three years and talked incessantly about her fiancĂ©, Steve, and their activities.  She was what I at that time thought of as typically Catholic--not very pious but devoted to the rituals of her church, which she referred to irreverently.  When she spoke of Confession, for example, she invariably said she had to go “spill my guts.”
Both Madelaine and Shirley and two of the counter girls smoked on their breaks at the cafeteria next door to the newspaper, and before long, so did I.   I bought a pack of Pall Malls my second week on the job after Madelaine said in her usual dry tone when I “borrowed” my fourth cigarette, “All you seem to have is the habit.”  After I got home from work, I carefully stashed my purse containing the cigarettes into the bottom drawer of my dresser.  Soon the drawer emitted a distinctive odor.  My mother did not know I smoked—until putting away some freshly washed clothes in my dresser she got a whiff.  She took to her bed that day in horror and shame when she discovered her daughter smoked, but that’s another story.
I had seen women that looked like Shirley when I went downtown shopping or to the movies, but I had never known one personally.  Shirley’s face was an orangey color from the thick pancake makeup and flame-colored rouge.  Her mouth had overlarge lips painted on in bright carmine.  Rhinestone or pearl studded combs held her permed hair away from her face, which in spite of the strange makeup was attractive with bright blue eyes and a pleasant expression.  She was unfailingly good-natured and unfazed by my occasional slip-ups.  “It’ll all come out in the wash,” she’d say.
One of the counter girls was a plumpish, demure young woman with eyes that crinkled when she smiled, which was often.  Like me, Dorothy McMahan had just graduated in January—only it was from the girls Catholic high school.  Unlike me, she knew what was in store for her future.  One day, a few months after we’d begun work as we were walking back from our break, I asked her if she was planning on going to college.
“Actually, no.”  She looked at me and gave me her crinkly smile.  “I’m going to the convent in September.  I plan to take the veil.”
“What?  Become a nun, you mean?”
Dorothy nodded.
I could think of nothing to say except, “How interesting.”  Then I thought a moment and said, “Why are you working here now?  Shouldn’t you be home getting ready, praying or something?”  I smiled, half joking, half serious.
Dorothy laughed.  “I do pray, but I haven’t taken any vows yet.  It will be a while before I do, you know.  I have to be a novice first, then a postulant, and if everything goes all right, in about three years I’ll take final vows to become a nun.”
“I’m really surprised,” I said, and I meant it, hardly something I ever heard with my Protestant background.  Dorothy was a cheerful girl who seemed to like everyone.  Why would she want to separate herself from life in such a way?
“You know,” said Dorothy in a musing tone, “I’ve had a few dates with one of the guys who works in Editorial—we kept meeting in the lobby and finally he asked me out.” 
“No kidding?  Doesn’t it seem funny to be dating?”
“I don’t know why.  I didn’t see any harm in going out and having fun.  He’s a nice guy, but when I told him last week I was going to the convent in the fall he got mad at me.”  She looked at me, perplexed.  “Really mad.  Why would he feel that way?”
I understood, but I couldn’t explain it to Dorothy if she didn’t know.  Dorothy was the same as engaged, and her date had felt betrayed, as if on the sly she had been stepping out on her real fellow—Jesus.
After that, I caught myself sneaking glances at Dorothy, trying to imagine her in a black habit.  Yes, there was something simple and unworldly about her.  She would probably make a pretty good nun, but it still seemed a waste.
The advertising department might have been on the moon for all I saw of the rest of the newspapers’s operation.  Sometimes, Tommy in Linotype called to verify some copy, but other than that, I spent my days at my desk, opening envelopes, counting words, typing out some ads and pasting others on a special form.  “Time for Kindergarten 101,” Shirley would say each morning as she got out her scissors and paste.
But one day, Mr. Rankin called me into his office and handed me an envelope.  “Take this up to Editorial.  Hand it to the girl at the front desk.  She’ll give it to the editor.”
Oh, thrill!  I coolly told the elevator man “Four,” pretending I was a reporter going to her job.  Maybe that would be the career for me.  I stepped out of the elevator into a huge room filled with side-by-side desks, smoke, and the sound of typewriters clacking away.  People were talking on the telephone or leaning back in their swivel chairs staring at the ceiling.  I saw two women typing furiously, wearing hats as if they had just come in from a fast-breaking story.  No one paid any attention to me.
“Can you tell me where the editor is?” I asked a smartly dressed girl at the front desk.  I waved the envelope.  “I have something for him from Mr. Rankin in Advertising.”
“Over there, behind that glass partition.”
The editor barely glanced at me as he took the envelope and said, “Thanks.”  I walked slowly back through the room, memorizing details.  I saw large machines that seemed to be typing on their own.  People would go over, read the messages, and then tear off a section.
But I couldn’t hang around there forever.  Reluctantly, I boarded the elevator, which had to be held up until a thin young man with pale blue eyes and almost non-existent eyebrows ran in.  I was still thinking about working on a newspaper when I realized he was addressing me.
“Haven’t I seen you in Classified?”
I looked at him, startled.  “Yes, I work there.”  I smiled, uncertain how friendly I should be.  I had not forgotten to be cautious of strange men just because I was now a newspaper woman.
He held out his hand.  “I’m Howard Last.  I’m a photographer in Features and Promotion.”
I shook his hand, conscious of my cold fingers and his sweaty palm.  “I’m glad to meet you.”  He was tall and very pale and must have been at least twenty-eight.
“I’ve noticed you around here.  It struck me that you might be interested in modeling for some of the pictures we take for the syndicated health and beauty aids column.  My last model didn’t work out, and I’m needing someone with your looks.”
“Modeling what?” I asked suspiciously.  He seemed so unlikely a person to be hiring models, I couldn’t help but wonder if he actually worked for the paper.  Maybe he operated some sleazy photographic studio housed in this building.
“Oh, just housewife stuff--you know, getting ready for an egg shampoo or exercising, that sort of thing.”
“Really?”  I stepped out of the elevator and looked toward the glass doors of Advertising.  I’d been gone quite a while; I’d need to get back.
“It pays three dollars an hour, and we could set up the sessions after work or on Saturdays.”  He jerked his thumb upwards.  “The studio’s on the fifth floor.”
Three dollars!  That was almost three times what I made.  “Gosh, thanks, I--I’ll--why, yes, I’d like to very much.” 
“Good, I’ll call you and we’ll set up a time.”
I stood for a moment, confused by his staring face so near mine, and as I turned to go through the glass doors into Advertising, I felt his eyes on my back.  I walked away self-consciously, but my heart leaped and sang.  Maybe this was to be my life--famous health and beauty aids model!  I could hardly wait to tell my friend Elaine, who would rejoice at my good fortune; I was less eager to get my mother’s reaction.  She would think the job frivolous, the sort of thing Mrs. Plush might do (her invariable name for me if I wished for anything beyond the ordinary).  I posed for the very non-glamorous pictures the remainder of my time at the paper and even during Christmas break, but by that time I could see my experience with newspaper work was turning out to be quite different from my imaginings, not altogether a bad thing, but not Lois Lane, either.  Many years later, I worked for two much smaller newspapers and finally was allowed to write something! (to be continued)