A Larger Sense

Immersed in transience, newspapers embrace the world in its infinitude.

I started out on the rim, pre-computer, struggling to write headlines while phones blared and editors brayed. Across the room, electric typewriters machine-gunned scribbles into stories. The reporters bit their nails and popped candy bars, then danced their fingers out across the keyboard, only to sigh when each finished piece was snatched away by the city desk. At that point, writing became copy--slabs of verbal meat in a production line, to be poked, slapped, trimmed, and jerked toward newsprint amid the shouted incantations of the editors, my colleagues.

There was Jonas, the slot man, a dour veteran who sat inside the horseshoe and handed us the stories when the city editor was done. Three of us, the rim men, copy-edited and toiled over headlines. If a head sagged rather than sang, Jonas would growl, thrusting it back for another try. If it was OK, he'd just grunt. Then he'd lift his chin to bark: "Send that mother down!"

There was Chuck, the bespectacled wire editor, who used his metal ruler to tear stories off the endless sheet that stuttered from the Associated Press machine. Turning to come back to his desk, the world's news ribboning out behind him, he'd whack the fire extinguisher with the ruler. Clang! We'd jump in our seats as Chuck sang out, "Ring of truth! Ring of truth!"

And there was Jack, the assistant city editor, collar unbuttoned, necktie askew, belly swollen at his cluttered desk like a mountain looming over a village of scrap paper. I think his job was to finalize page make-up and send the dummies over to composing. Jack hummed as he worked, but every once in a while, apropos of nothing, he'd look up, pause, and say, "But, in a larger sense." A fragment from the Gettysburg Address. Sometimes he'd continue: ". . . we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow . . . .," and then stop. Usually, though, he'd flourish just the one phrase, "But in a larger sense," then go back to humming.

That was the soundtrack to my apprenticeship in newspapers--a din of clacking and clanging, punctuated at random by snippets of voice, like calls in a jungle. "Send that mother down!" "But in a larger sense." "Ring of truth!"

Eventually, I escaped to reporting. I loved the access to the world, the license to explore, meet people, ask questions. I hated the insistence on formula and the reflexive dependence on cliché. I loved the camaraderie and cheerful irreverence of the young reporters. I cringed at the thought that, over the years, I might turn as sour as the old-timers. I savored the realization that good writing didn't have to come from poetic agony; deadlines forced you to look on words as tools to be used, not glittering objects of worship. At the same time, this deadline-driven, utilitarian mentality seemed to invite superficiality. Wasn't agony sometimes needed if the aim was to capture, in all its subtlety and texture, the truth?

Truth, and not the "ring of truth."

Truth, shimmering for posterity in a filigree of words.

"Send that mother down." To where? The composing room, the press room, the loading dock, the truck. The newsstand, the driveway. The factory break room, the cluttered kitchen table. The parakeet's cage. The garbage bin.

Against every impulse toward wholeness, newspapers proclaimed the truth of the garbage bin: the world as an assortment of fragments thrown together by happenstance, the "news" a daily shovelful of scraps puzzled onto the page by an eccentric fat man--unholy, mundane, utterly transient.

And yet wasn't this a world I believed in and relished, curiosities at every turn? Life is mundane, fragmentary, impermanent. Don't the small, forgettable stories of the day weave their own kind of filigree? Immersed in transience, newspapers embrace the world in its infinitude.

My creed, as a young reporter not long out of college, came from Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Ulysses. "That is God," he says, "a shout in the street."

Every day, indeed, the newspaper offered up moments that proved the point. Reading a story, or sometimes drafting my own piece, I'd find a gem--some scene, quote, phrase--that suffused me with a feeling beyond ordinary reading, the words transcending themselves to create a new sensation that I can only describe as that's right, that's perfect. It was mere copy. But, in a larger sense . . . it was truth, born in the charged space between text and mind. I'd feel: We can consecrate; we can hallow.

Still, those moments were scarce. I left newspapers, ultimately, because the absorbing stories and shards of found poetry didn't make up for the corrosive hours, the pace, the stress, and the aversion to complexity. I wanted a family life and some peace of mind. I valued contemplation.

I miss--and don't miss--going to the bar after deadline with a bunch of the other reporters. We'd gab over beers, then return to the paper at midnight. Around back, we climbed onto the loading dock and went through the open doors into the press room. One of the pressmen would pluck papers from the moving river on the conveyor and, one by one, toss them over.

In our hands they were still warm, still moist, swaddled in their fresh folds. For an instant, standing there with the next day's edition, just before we opened the pages and the night air dried the ink on our stories, we felt as though we were holding something new, something alive.

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