I’ll grant you it’s not exactly the equivalent of the Beatles’ first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” But as 50th anniversaries go, it’s that important to me, anyway.
It was 50 years ago tomorrow that I started working as a copy boy at The (then) Buffalo Evening News. I’m told by a friend in our personnel department that I was paid a rocking, stomping $65 a week.
To this day, I’m convinced that I was hired under accidentally false pretenses. I had, at the age of 19, no proper idea whatsoever how to fill out an employment application. I had just parted ways with Syracuse University for my insistence on drinking, carousing, playing bridge until 4 a.m. and passionately studying what I wanted to study rather than the offered curriculum. (Contemporary classical music was the subject that possessed me feverishly at the time. I read every book about it I could get my hands on to the point of virtually memorizing one of them, Joseph Machlis’ “Introduction to Contemporary Music.”
When, five years later as a night general assignment reporter, the News’ classical music critic, John Dwyer, discovered in a conversation how much I knew about the subject, he was flabbergasted. We’d discuss into the wee hours the music of composers he’d gone to school with at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.)
Back in 1964, with no worldly knowledge of business reality whatsoever, I’d strolled into the gorgeous old, first-floor office of the Buffalo Evening News’ Seneca Street Building. It was late in the day. Behind the lobby’s beautiful white marble counter, there was only one man, a lean, elegant, white-haired gentleman wearing a name tag on his lapel that identified him as “Fred Furminger, office manager.”
I asked politely where one went to apply for a job in the paper’s editorial department. He told me to go up to the third floor. He also told me the name of the city desk secretary. She gave me an application to fill out. One blank to be filled in was “Referred by …” Since the name of the kindly gentleman behind that marble counter was Fred Furminger, I wrote in “Mr. Furminger,” thinking his dutiful traffic direction was what was meant by “referred by.”
Little did I know at the time, but he was already a revered, even legendary older figure in the company, one of a genuine aristocracy of people of truly distinguished mien who ruled their individual duchies with impeccable deportment and competence. I had, without knowing what in heaven’s name I was doing, invoked an almost magical corporate name.
After the sudden flurry of interest that met my application that I later attributed to my idiot’s mistake, I was hired on the spot as a copy boy.
Less than a week later, I fell head over heels in love with the place.
It happened in the sports department. It was located, then, on the mezzanine, a half-floor, where the sports department ceilings were particularly low. Because the men in that department were the only people in the place allowed to smoke at their desks, the room was a dense cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke. You could lose employees in that room and not see them for hours.
On the floor of that sports department, there were two actual cuspidors. And wonderful spittoons they were, too – fine brass appurtenances that had obviously once gleamed but were now festooned with time’s noble grime.
They were not there for fey decoration. They were used. I saw the paper’s racetrack correspondent once bite the end off his cigar and propel it perfectly 6 feet away into one spittoon with a “ptooey” that could only have come from years of practice.
That’s when I fell in love. I had somehow, in 1964, walked back into the 19th century. Except for the typewriters – which were ’30s and ’40s vintage, it seemed – it was a room full of men who could have been in competition with Mark Twain down the street at the Buffalo Express.
Upstairs, in the editorial office where no one could smoke at their desks, there were copy editors who wore green eyeshades and garters on their shirtsleeves. In the composing room – where you COULD smoke (an important thing for me at the time) – there were guys who actually wore hats made out of newspapers on their heads.
I was living in a glorious episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
It’s true that the only female editor in the place was the pint-sized editor of what was then called “The Women’s Pages.” But I was instructed in my first two days on the job that I should definitely be afraid of her – not that there was an ounce of meanness in her (she was, when you got to know her, as lovely as a person can be) but her competence and no-nonsense attitude were causes for marvel everywhere she went.
While female editors were few and far between, there were many female reporters back then. And even in an era of supposed sexual backwardness, it was obvious even to a lowly copy boy that they, too, exemplified that quality so important to fledgling employees fresh off the street: They were to be feared. Nice people to be sure – every one of them – but not people to be disturbed, even for a second, by any antic, late-adolescent high spirits that you may have dragged with you through the doors. (I did indeed have my share of those, and then some.)
Heaven knows the job wasn’t hard. You did whatever needed to be done, from cleaning and filling glue pots, to getting reams of copy paper from the “stock room,” to going to city court to type up the names of everyone who had paid traffic fines for a list the paper printed daily in six-point type. (I was especially good at that one. I was an accurate and a reasonably fast typist.)
In exchange for copy kids being the lowest employees on the editorial totem pole, you got an irreplaceable sense of who everyone was and how every department of the entire newspaper fit together.
When early marriage required me to get a better paying job, I was already a known commodity to the managing editor who hired me as a reporter. He knew me to be acceptably bright, reasonably quick on the uptake and respectful of elders.
Four months after being hired as a reporter, I covered the Woodstock Festival. The colleague who should have gone – Dale Anderson – played bass at the time in a band called Lavender Hill. They had a gig that weekend, and he chose to honor his commitment to his bandmates rather than cover one of the epochal events of the era.
The arts department was loosely forming back then. Since my very first week as a reporter in 1969, I had been hanging around the desk of the man who would become the News’ first Arts Editor – Terry Doran – asking to review this or that film, offering my services for whatever came up and talking up my reporter colleague Dale Anderson as the guy The News desperately needed to do the huge exploding thing it wasn’t yet doing – taking rock and pop music seriously.
We’ve been in a different building since 1973. The cuspidors were removed mere months after I’d first noticed them. But I’m not even embarrassed to say that I’m almost as much in love with this newspaper as I was 50 years ago – even now, when digital technology has proved to be a grim reaper for other newspapers and other people employed as critics. (No newspaper that thought it was a peachy idea to help its critics disappear prematurely has prospered because of it. In many cases, I have long argued that it was an early indication of utter cluelessness how to handle the journalistic world to come.)
There is, to be sure, much to be afraid of in the journalistic world of 2014. But there was a lot for a raw fledgling in the workforce to be leery of in 1964 – especially a nasty political reporter back then who seemed to have no good words for anyone else on the entire floor and a fellow copy boy so disagreeable that they got him out of the office by shipping him off to a museum to do research for the editor-in-chief. When he wouldn’t show up for work, he was finally put at liberty, to some relief.
If all this egregious and willfully newsless private memorializing in a new digital century sounds like senile archaism, I ask you to consider this: Less than 10 hours after my TV column last Sunday about HBO’s “True Detective” went online on the News’ website, you could find it reprinted online by a website in the United Kingdom.
I can only ask you to imagine, if you can, how very cool that might be for someone who was filling glue pots and tearing copy off nattering wire service machines 50 years ago.