September 5th, 2009

So It Goes

Part 3

With the chutzpah of youth, I dashed off three columns about absolutely nothing. It was one of those rare, unseasonably warm days that sometimes occur in January–days that trick you into thinking winter is over, after which the cold and snow clamp down harder than ever. I got on my bike and rode through steaming slush to the newspaper offices. There behind the Arby’s Roast Beef and across the street from the 1,000th McDonald’s Restaurant was the Suburban Times. I picked the Times because the editor, Bob Burns, had his own weekly column, one with a terrific name: While Burns Roams. And because the paper was green. Green was my favorite color.

I left my bike by the door–but not too close to the door. I didn’t want anyone to see that I didn’t have a car, or at least, a car that actually ran. You didn’t have to lock your bike then; the fact that nothing happened in Des Plaines meant that no one stole bikes off the street.

When I opened the door I left the world where doors were closed and nothing happened. Inside this anonymous Pepto-Bismol-colored building there was a hive of activity as reporters, printers, and other functionaries scurried around openng doors and finding out everything they could about the Land of Grim Faces. Perhaps, I thought, something did happen in this town; I just didn’t know about it.

The receptionist wore clear tear-shaped glasses with sparkles at the corners. “Please have a seat,” she said when I handed her my sample columns. “I’ll take these to Mr. Burns.”

To my surprise and consternation, the receptionist came back to say he was in the office, and he would see me shortly. I had expected to hand the columns over and slink off on my bike, unseen. I waited, watching reporters hurry out in rumpled shirts and ties loosened at the neck. Others, probably advertising people, came in with suits, belching after their big business lunches. It all seemed terribly exciting.

There wasn’t a splinter of wood in that building. All was hard, and modern, and cutting-edge for the 1970s. The chairs in the waiting area were hard metal, the floor linoleum cracked and with dirt triangles at the corners. The walls were green cinder block, the desks brown steel, the cubicles metal covered with cloth. it seemed I sat in the reception area for an hour or more. I memorized the dirt streaks left on the flesh-colored linoleum, which was cracking in some of the corners. The cinder block walls were colored green, the same as the newspaper itself.

The receptionist’s phone rang. “Mr. Burns will see you now.”

Burns did not get up, but motioned me to take a seat. To my consternation, he proceeded to read my work right in front of me. I sat, pulling my fingers, twiddling my thumbs. Good editors, I know now, are like that: they read quickly so they can move on to other things. They also an’t resist checking out copy that seems even remotely interesting. I looked around a the bodies scurrying to and fro in the office, answering phones, standing, talking about news, laughing cynically. Those in the front were in shirts and ties or dresses and pantsuits. In the back, where the presses loomed like great green monsters, burly men climbed up on machines wearing dirty coveralls. an acidic smell gave a tang to the air. The clacking of typewriter keys, the ringing of very loud desk telephones, the whirr of hot wax machines, all took my mind off the fact that someone was reading my words right in front of me. Newspapers in those days were noisy, violent places, places where ink was smashed onto paper, paper was physically glued onto other paper, paper was photographed and etched with acid and burned onto metal plates, and the plates were squeezed under enormous pressure and webs of newsprint were rolled between them. Then the rolls were sliced and folded and bound into bundles. It was a brutal landscape, a sort of blacksmith’s forge where words and pages were pounded, baked, and forced into shape. I never wanted to leave it.

Burns let out his breath quickly all at once and I snapped to attention. I couldn’t tell if he was sighing from amusement or disgust. Then he picked up a pen and started marking up my writing, like one of my college professors. The pen danced, slashed, and then stabbed the paper, which he was still holding suspended between the desk and his face. I dared not speak.

Finally he handed the sheets back to me. “Pretty good,” he said in a surprisingly soft and boyish voice. “Fix them up and bring ‘em back, and we’ll get them in there some time when we have room.” There was no talk about money. I think I shook his hand. I don’t remember leaving, getting on my bike, or riding home. I do remember that the stores, the streets, the cars, and the few pedestrians no longer seemed so foreign to me. Now that I had a role to play, a job to fulfill, I was one of them.

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