Writer’s Bone essayist Dave Pezza walked into my office today seeking encouragement to buy a 70th anniversary edition of “Casablanca.”
It was an easy assignment because the classic film is one of my favorites. I became even more enthusiastic after finding out that the set included a movie poster and coasters that looked like Humphrey Bogart’s poker chips.
Following this round of Thursday morning retail therapy, we started discussing what it would have been like to be a newspaper reporter in the 1930s and 1940s (while listening to the some of the era’s biggest hits including “Route 66” by Nat King Cole and “Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway). It didn’t take us long to realize we were born in the wrong era.
So slip into a white tuxedo jacket, tell your significant other to shoot you in the chest, and enjoy some of the things Dave and I would have been up to if we hadn’t been born into this era's capitalist purgatory. Remember to tune in next week for the second installment of The Newspapermen!—Daniel Ford
Prologue: Fedoras, Cufflinks, and Bourbon
By Dave Pezza
Currently, Daniel and I are displaying the corporate uniform of khakis and dress shirts (sans tie and sports coat). We were told day one such accoutrements were unnecessary and should not be worn.
However, if we had been born during the magical time of the 1930s—and lucky enough to still have been employed—we’d be dressed quite differently. Hanging on the coat rack just by the front door to the newsroom offices would be fedoras. Mine would be the black one with the brim dipped low. A trench coat or two would complete the rack as there is a chance of rain today. My suit jacket would be draped upon my chair to avoid wrinkles.
I’d be typing, straight backed, in the remaining gray pieces of my three piece suit. Underneath the vest is my French cuffed white pinstriped shirt with simply silver cufflinks, given to me by a crimson-haired newswoman in New York City. We still write. When I rise to deliver my copy to the editor, my brown wing tip shoes glisten with a fresh shine from the street corner stand, which I visit first thing every Monday.
Around quitting time, I’d check my silver pocket watch, hanging casually from my vest pocket, before I lit a cigarillo from a small silver case with my matching monogramed zippo lighter, a gift from my brother. I open my desk drawer and uncover a bottle of small batch bourbon (they are all small batch bourbon) with two glasses, adorn my jacket, and march into Daniel Ford's office to begin a proper happy hour.—Dave Pezza
Chapter One: Ink and Drink Club
By Daniel Ford and Dave Pezza
Editor-in-chief Will Graham took off his fedora as he walked into the newsroom. He tossed it on the hat rack, walking briskly to his desk. Despite the early hour, there was an uneasy energy growing in the office. He doesn’t hear the sound of typewriter keys. He heard the sound of asses puckering trying to make a deadline. A daily deadline. Every day column inches are built, destroyed, re-built, and sent out into the wild. It never stopped. The world kept getting faster, so the paper had to follow suit.
His hands were already ink-stained from reading the morning edition. He found more errors. The editor’s curse. He couldn’t turn it off.
News was grim. It had been for a decade. Famine. Poverty. Looming global hostilities.
And people still complain about our pay, Will thought. Softies. My kingdom for The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell to walk through my door.
New girl had coffee on his desk waiting for him. He made a note to give her a raise. Maybe put her name in the masthead. She could probably out-write most of the men here.
She’ll get her shot, he thought. She’s too good to be getting me coffee and pastry.
He took a deep pull from the steaming cup. She made a damn fine brew.
He glanced at his white tuxedo jacket hanging up behind the door. His black shoes collected dust in the corner. It had been a while since his last rub and tug event. He was in charge of making nice with the financiers tonight. Nothing, not even bad news, stopped the well-off from having a good time. He wouldn’t mind drinking their booze to get at the riches in their pockets. They still weren’t convinced what his reporters did was important, but people still gave up hard-earned coin to buy words, so they kept the lights on.
“They can kill us another day,” Will mumbled to himself.
He thought about the new stringer, Henry…Something, on the payroll. His suit came in three pieces like he’s some sort of big shot. Will knew he’d learn. He wouldn’t be able to afford his dry cleaning after a couple of months working here, so his threads would become as thin and patched as the rest of the paper. Will contemplated assigning him to the docks to speed up the process.
Kid does have great taste in bourbon, he thought. I may have to wait until the bottle is finished.
Will threaded a clean piece of paper into his typewriter. He eyed his fraying notebook. A picture of his wife in a cocktail dress fell out as he retrieved the additional notes he had in his back pocket. He smiled at how happy and carefree she looked. He never had a chance back then.
He took a deep breath, stretched out his blackened fingers. The first couple of clicks were slow, but his body caught up to his brain. In an hour, he made the news.
* * *
Later that evening, a gin and tonic proved a nice change of pace. It didn’t quite match the cigar Will would enjoy later, but he made do.
His staff was imbibing the free hooch liberally. The corporate stooges took every chance to input shitty story ideas into people’s heads. A smoke cloud hovered near the chandelier. The band was on its third request for “In the Mood.” Everyone in the room was in the mood. The smell of men lusting after every up-do in the place was overpowering.
Will sat down down at a table alone. The suits would find him soon enough. He needed a chance to catch a buzz without having money, bad ideas, and the threat of non-existence being thrown in his face.
The late edition crossed his mind. He knew it didn’t land the right punch. It had substance, but it wasn’t going to resonant with anyone. There hadn't been enough coffee to get his mind past the mental roadblocks today. He just had to hope the facts were good enough to stand on their own.
Maybe I really am in the wrong profession, he thought.
The obese publisher, Montgomery Edwards, oozed into the seat next to him. He could feel the slime slide off of the man as he extended a hand. Will shook it and waited patiently for the request. It came in short order.
"You want me to write about what?" Will asked.
"You heard me," Edwards replied snidely.
"Not going to happen."
"You like having the ability to print out the rest of the crap you put out there?"
"The stuff that's actually going on in the world?"
"It's one story."
"Taking space away from a story that real people need to know about."
"They don't need to know about everything every day. The people need a break from all this bleakness."
"And a story about a phony crime reduction is going to do that how exactly?"
"Give people a little hope and cheer."
"You know how I know you never owned a paper before?"
"You’d know happy news doesn't sell. And people don't give a damn about trumped up stats when they can’t feed their kids."
"Think about it."
"I'm going to think about my next drink,” Will said, standing. “Excuse me."
Will noticed the stringer with a handful of dames. He was doing well for himself. He almost felt bad about breaking in to have a word, but he paid his salary, so that feeling was fleeting.
* * *
Henry Jones saw his editor-in-chief wearing a white-on-white tuxedo from across the room.
He’s dressed like the paper booked a booze and schmooze shindig in the Caribbean, he thought.
Although he wasn’t one to talk. His outfit doesn't match the event, but he hadn’t had time to change.
He had seen Will's heated discussion with the publisher. He watched every head shake and pointed finger. It seemed like there was yet another story he didn’t want to run. Henry knew he’d give in. He didn’t bite the hand that feed the paper.
Henry threw Will out of his mind after Shirley, the new girl, came over. She cleaned up real nice. He could hardly remember his own name when she walked over, asking how he was.
“It’s a little odd seeing everyone out of the office, you know?” Shirley said, touching his shoulder for a just a moment.
“Nah, you’ll get used to it,” Henry stammered. “These go down more often than you would think. Enjoying yourself?”
“Oh yes! Everyone’s been so nice since I started last week. I hope it keeps up,” she said with a wink.
Taken a little aback, Henry found himself quickly shooting back,
“It will on my end, that’s for sure. Can I buy you another…”
“…another champagne cocktail?”
“Isn’t it open bar?” She asked, squinting her eyes in mock suspicion.
“Can’t a guy get some credit for at least asking?”
“What if I took you up on that sometime soon during a private party?”
“I think I could let a classy gal like yourself take me out on the town,” he said with a grin.
Just as he was about to ask Shirley if she was going steady with anyone, Henry felt a tap on his shoulder. A blazing white figure stood before him with an empty rocks glass and a weighted demeanor.
“You’re dry, Bossman,” Henry said. “We can’t have the heart and soul of this paper lacking in social lubricant, especially with all the damned advertisers around.”
“You’re all right, kid, but it’s gonna take more than filling my glass and kicking my ass to get you out of this one.”
“What I do this time? Is it that Oxford comma again?”
If I can get just a smirk, Henry thought, “I’ll know it isn't something serious.”
“Publisher has another story idea,” he said. “I figured you’d like to jump all over it. I’m sorry Shirley, didn’t see you there. Pardon my language earlier. Enjoying the party?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “It’s very nice of the paper to treat us all like this.”
“Just some perks of the job.”
“I think I’m going to go find Janet and powder my nose.”
Shirley scampered away.
“Shirley, huh?” Will asked.
“She started it all, I swear,” Henry replied.
“Offer to buy her a drink at an open bar?”
Henry cheeks reddened.
“Smooth,” Will said. “I tried that a time or two while I was cutting my teeth in the city. You know she's smarter than you, right?”
“So what’s the story?” Henry broke in, trying to get off the subject of Shirley.
“Does it really matter?” Will asked, plucking another glass full of whiskey off of a passing waiter's tray.
TO BE CONTINUED...