I WAS FIRST a husband at age 22 and not long after that a father. In such a situation, you’ve got financial responsibilities. You need a job, and I was without one.
I became, in this order, a telephone company residential, pre-wire man; an insurance underwriter; an insurance salesman; a loan shark; and a repo man. I had no heart in any of those things, so I went back to college for a degree, driving Yellow Cabs on weekends.
After graduating at age 24 (UNO, History, 1969), my father, a former newspaper copy editor, convinced Walter Cowan, the managing editor of The New Orleans States-Item, an afternoon daily, that I’d be a good hire, so Cowan put me on at $115 a week to be a reporter.
I was about as good a reporter as I’d been a repo man. Basically, I don’t deal well with the public. After a few months, I requested a transfer to the copydesk where I edited stories and wrote headlines.
About two years earlier, before my father retired, I spent a few hours working with him on the copydesk in the original Times-Picayune building downtown, seeing if I had any knack for that sort of labor, and I did. Here’s how it looked in 1900. It had changed little by the mid-1960s.
When I got hired in 1969, the newspaper had just moved into a huge, new building about a mile away. Though the building was modern, our work was done the old way. We sat around a horseshoe desk with the headman in the middle handing out stories to be edited and headlines to be written.
We edited with pencils and connected the sheets of copy with paste applied with a brush from a paste pot. The sheets were then sent to the linotype operators downstairs via a conveyor belt.
As the years passed, the techniques changed. We began typing headlines on old, manual typewriters. Then IBM Selectrics arrived. Then some technology appeared that could read paper copy electronically. That was the end of the conveyor belt to downstairs. Then computers appeared on our desks. This all took years.
The computers brought one major change: The ages-old horseshoe copydesk, a fixture at all major newspapers, and in movies, for a century or so, vanished from newsrooms everywhere. The physical proximity of the copy editors was no longer required. We could sit anywhere.
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But before that happened, we were elbow to elbow with our fellow copy editors, and they were quite a crew. Many were drunks. The work was considered less a profession, as it is today, than a trade. And getting hired, if you had any skill with words, was pretty easy, which explains why I was hired with no journalism training whatsoever. I’ve never taken a journalism course to this day.
My father had done the same work as I began to do, but he did it a generation earlier. In the 1930s, our occupation was full of transients who shifted from city to city on booze-fueled whims, and we were paid in cash at the end of each day. By my time, however, it was weekly paychecks.
I started on the New Orleans States-Item, the afternoon paper which shared a newsroom and printing presses with The Times-Picayune, the morning paper. On an afternoon paper, copy editors and some reporters go to work very early, usually 6 a.m. For a crew of boozers living in New Orleans where bars never close, this could be a challenge. We usually arrived just marginally sober.
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Itemizing the crazy cast of my coworkers would require too much space. I’ll tell you about just one, which was a tragedy. A man named Bob Drake.
Bob was a former Army captain who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. His past was foggy, and he kept it that way. When he arrived at the States-Item, he had been divorced, was about 50 years old, with a receding hairline, and had recently married a woman in her mid-20s, I’d say.
Bob was starting a new life.
He had many odd characteristics. Bob was wound tighter than a spool of hardware wire, and he liked his highballs. One night at a party in his house, he taught me the “Bob Drake grip” on a highball glass that allegedly guaranteed it would not slip to the floor if one’s attention wandered.
Part of Bob’s starting over was the purchase of a home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. He was a family man at heart, traditional and somewhat staid. And then his young wife got pregnant. Months later, she had a baby, of course. And not long after that, she dropped the bomb.
She wanted out. She needed to “find herself.” And there was no convincing her otherwise.
Bob went to the tool shed in the back yard, locked the door, poured gasoline over himself, and lit a match. It was no “cry for help.” It was a blazing goodbye.
He was neither the first nor the last of my coworkers to commit suicide. But no one else did it so dramatically, with such flare.
A year later I ran into Bob’s young widow outside a supermarket. We exchanged pleasantries and smiled. Neither of us mentioned Bob. I never saw her again.
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I lived 18 years in New Orleans. I consider it my hometown even though I was born in Atlanta and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. But New Orleans left its mark on me far more than those other places. More bars, I guess. I arrived when I was 20, and I left when I was 39.
I met, married and divorced my first wife there, and I became a father. I then met and lived with the woman who would later, in Houston, become my second wife. I lived Uptown, just out of town in Jefferson Parish, and I lived in the French Quarter too.
Most of that time I worked on either the afternoon paper or the morning paper. Eventually, The States-Item failed, as have most afternoon papers in the United States. In the middle of those years, I inserted just under two years in San Juan, which was bookended on both sides by New Orleans and its newspapers. It was an interesting occupation to fall into by sheer, dumb luck.
Getting a fresh hair up my backside, I quit The Times-Picayune in 1980, and went to a community college, first studying electrical construction technology and then computer science.
But I was back in the newspaper business by 1984.
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(Next: Newspaper days: Houston)