Getting a Grip
1972 - 1973
By the late fall of 1972, after running myself ragged all year freelancing for the Boston hippie weeklies, and getting fucked around mercilessly by the young prepster editors who ran those newspapers, and being broke constantly, and veering back into a scary state of helpless depression, and finding myself at last punching a cash register at the Harvard Coop just to stay alive, I gave up on Boston in utter despair and caught a Greyhound bus back to my college town, Brockport, in the farthest reaches of western New York state. I couldn't have felt more humbled and defeated by experience and, of course, I thought that my failure was special, unprecedented, and tragic, but I would soon get over that. This would be the year I would finally grow up.
Once back in Brockport, an older friend, a very gracious, generous man named Bob Denning and his wife Margie took me in for a while around Thanksgiving. Bob was an administrator at the SUNY college, in the development office (back in those years there was a lot of construction and expansion). I'd met him in my freshman year, 1966, the same year he got hired. I became a theater major. Bob happened to be an acting buff and volunteered to play the more mature characters in some theater department productions and even directed a version of The Spoon River Anthology, which he cast me in. Now and then, late on winter afternoons when classes were over for the day and I lacked the enterprise to go to the library or study, I'd hang out with him in his office and we'd do improvisational comedy routines into a reel-to-reel tape recorder he kept there. He had been as important a presence in my college life as any of my professors.
By 1972, Bob and Margie had acquired a huge Victorian farmhouse about four miles west of town, a "showplace," as Bob's demented mother, who lived with them, used to call it. It was a large household, too, like something out of a Kauffman and Hart play, with characters constantly entering and exiting. There were Bob and Margie and their two kids, Scott and Holly, and Bob's mother, Gracie, and Bob's Cousin Alex, who was at loose ends after a stint in the Peace Corps, and Alex's friend, Tom, whose purpose for being there I never did discern. Whatever else it was, it was a big, busy raucus household out in a peaceful country landscape and it was a striking relief from my lonely apartment back in frantic red-brick Cambridge.
I was assigned to sleep on the sofa in their little library off the dining room. It was fine. I stuffed my blanket and suitcase back in a closet every morning and the casual observer would hardly know somebody was crashing there. Thanksgiving among that big extended family was a welcome and happy sabbatical from reality. That weekend, Bob even lent me one of the several cars they had so I could re-connect with some college friends who had remained in town for one reason or another. On Sunday night of the long holiday weekend, Bob took me aside in one of the many quiet upstairs rooms and we had a long session about what I was going to do with myself. His skills as a project manager were impressive and I was a sort of project. He didn't browbeat me. He just showed me how to systematically go about reconstructing my young life. First, make a list of everything you like, he said, and led me through it. Now make a list of everything you need. And so on. After an hour or so, we'd moved from the metaphysical to the practical and he had helped me cook up a list of people and places I where could inquire about a job.
One of the places I went to inquire for employment was a chain of rural weekly newspapers put out of a pole barn building on a country road outside Spencerport, the next town over on the old Erie canal. The papers were a step above a typical country "pennysaver" advertising tabloid, but only a tiny step above. They attempted to have some news "content" other than sheer advertising, but it was pretty lame stuff -- handouts from the Rotary and church press releases. The owner / publisher of the operation was a white-haired old alcoholic reprobate who I will call "Arthur" for the purposes of this memoir. He was probably in his mid-sixties, a rough country business hustler with bad knees and an alcoholic's swollen, pock-marked red nose. I actually had a pretty good collection of clippings of my work from Boston, and I wore the charcoal pinstripped suit from Bloomingdales that my mother had bought me for college, and Arthur was perhaps more desperate for help than I apprehended in my own desperation, and he hired me on the spot. The salary sucked. He started me at eighty dollars a week. But the job came with an astounding perquisite: a company car! Which I would be permitted to take home at night, every night!
My first week on the job, Arthur showed me the ropes. My duties were 1.) to sell all the advertising, and 2.) furnish all the editorial content. That was all. There were two other full-timers in the office: Dan, the paste-up guy who physically laid out the papers each week the old fashioned way, with scissors and rulers and hot wax; and Betty, Arthur's harridan of a wife, who did the accounts receivable and the payroll, and who evinced a mysterious hatred for me from the moment we met. Finally, there was a part-timer, a teenage girl who typed all the copy into a rudimentary word-processing machine the size of small car, which ejected columns of paper with justified type ready for Dan to paste up.
There were officially four separate weekly papers that went out to four little towns. But it was all really the same paper with a different front-page for each of the four, wraped around a wad of generic content and advertising. Nevertheless, I had to come up with "news" content for four still-rural small towns where barely anything had happened in living memory.
The advertising part occupied most of my time. To some extent, it ran itself. Most of the "accounts" were long established and regular -- the half dozen area car dealers, restaurants that ran display adds, the lumber yard, various small local businesses. They ran their adds week in and week out. But the content would change all the time. Every week the car dealers had a new line-up of used cars, the restaurants would feature some seasonal special, and the small businesses were hawking something new to get attention. So I had to spend a lot of time visiting these accounts and schmoozing them up and collecting all the new information. Arthur also nagged me to visit business establishments that weren't advertisers and get them signed up. It was a daunting assignment, but I actually chatted up a few new accounts, and accomplishing even that stupid task gave me a sense of being something other than a worthless wash-out who had flunked out of the Boston hippie newspaper scene.
This required me to spend many hours driving around the countryside in the company car, from one town to the next all over western Monroe County. In those days, the suburban creep from Rochester had not yet gained traction, and most of the roads between towns were still lined by farms. It was a very flat landscape too, a kind of broad apron of terrain running up to Lake Ontario that had probably been under water in the distant past. You might call it a boring landscape, since flatness was its chief topographical feature, but it had a kind of spacious grandeur to it. The sky was enormous. Mostly it was an excellent landscape for daydreaming in a car with the radio on. Because it was so flat, the roads were dead straight -- in fact they were all laid out perpendicularly along the old quarter-mile section survey lines -- so it required next-to-zero skill and barely even any attention to drive around there. The only tricky thing was the weather, which got progressively worse as the weeks tumbled toward Christmas. This was blizzard country. It was windy virtually every day and when snow finally came, it came down sideways and blew into great drifts, and there times when I plied the back roads feeling so cut off from the world that I might as well have been on Baffin Island. Sometimes it was a pleasant dreamy feeling, since it was actually hard to get lost up there on that gridded road system even in a blizzard. But a few times I got caught in such severe white-outs that I really wondered if I would make it back to the office, or if my frozen body would be found a week later off Fourth Section Road inside the magnificent 1968 AMC Rambler that had become a personal extension of my soul.
In the meantime, I'd made some positive revisions in my living arrangement. I moved out of Bob and Margie's raucus household and into a place across a dirt road from the Erie Canal with two friends of mine, Tim and Archie, who had opened the Lift Bridge Book Shop on Main Street the year after they got out of college. A third room-mate had left to take a job elsewhere, and I got his room. Tim and Archie were both sweet-natured, intelligent, humorous guys, and they worked very hard in their store. We didn't see each other much, but we got along fine when we did. The house was a dowdy 1950s raised ranch, but it was plenty big enough for all of us. It was the last house on that country road about a mile and a half outside Brockport proper, and the setting was peaceful and lovely. In the winter the canal was drained, but the rest of the year you'd sometimes see great big barges go by out the window, or magnificent yachts on their way to the Great Lakes.
By the middle of December I was way too busy to be depressed anymore. I was making enough money to pay my share of the rent and buy groceries and cheap wine. Miraculous to relate, it turned out that Arthur actually had his own company gas pump at the office (!) and he gave me a key to it so I could have free gas anytime I needed it. (I think gasoline cost about thirty-five cents a gallon then.) I worked all the time -- Arthur even required me to put in a half-day on Saturdays -- but except for the intervals when I stopped to shmooze up the advertisers, I was happily on my own. Even in the office nobody ever bothered me. The building was actually more spacious than the business required, and it was all open except for Betty and Arthur's private office. Dan the technical guy worked at the far end of the building among his paste-up tables. I probably had a good five-hundred square feet of space to do with whatever I wanted, so I put together what looked like a stage set of a newspaper editor's desk under one of the hanging light fixtures. I had a big old steel desk and a padded rolling steel chair, and my own phone and a stately Underwood manual typewriter so high that you could barely see over the top when you were sitting down, and I happily composed my little news stories there in peace and contentment.
Tuesdays were especially long, because that was the day the paper was printed and distributed, and that was completely up to me. After driving around all day selling ads and cobbling together a few stories about people turning ninety or the ice buildup along the Lake Ontario shore, I had to take the page set-ups to the printer way over on the far side of Rochester, about thirty miles away. In those days, the paste-ups that Dan did all by hand were photographed by a super-large-format camera -- all done and developed at the office -- and the negatives of the pages were what we handed over to the printer. The printer had some method for turning the negatives into printing plates.
Anyway, I delivered the stuff to the printer. Arthur would give me a ten dollar bill to go eat dinner, and he recommended the steak house in the brand new shopping mall near the freeway exit on the eastern fringe of Rochester. And that's exactly what I did while they ran off the papers. In those days, you could get a complete steak dinner for $7.95. Other guys might have bought a meatball sub and pocketed the change, but I actually enjoyed one fancy meal a week. The mall was a very big deal back then, in 1972. They were just beginning to pop up all over the country and this one was Rochester's first of the new enclosed style. The mall steak house suited my 24-year-old culinary requirements perfectly. They had salad bars back then and you could make a perfect pig of yourself before your steak even arrived. Everybody thought it was the greatest thing. All the iceberg lettuce, blue cheeze dressing, baco-bits, and croutons you could ever want, with pepperocinis thrown in, and warm mini-loaves of bread on demand. And then a steak! With a baked potato and sour cream! After scarfing that down, it still would be too early to pick up the papers at the printer, so I would waddle around the new mall burping and gawking at all the things that I didn't have money to buy. But it was not with any feeling of grievance or resentment; it was just a cheap form of entertainment. In fact, it got to be a kind of fascinating sociological study for me.
Finally, around nine o'clock, the papers would be ready to pick up and that's when things got kind of grim. I filled up the Rambler with bundles of newspapers, the trunk, the entire passenger compartment except the driver's seat. When I got back to the office around ten o'clock, I would have to lug the papers inside, unbundle them, and run hundreds of papers through an amazing contraption called an address-o-graph machine. You'd feed a kind of magazine, like the the clip of a machine gun, that was loaded with little steel plates embossed with individual addresses, and the the plate would print an address on the paper and the machine would feed the next plate in while it automatically re-stacked the used ones in a different magazine, and the papers fed out the other end. Then there was a bundling machine which tied up a big wad of papers with twine.
I'd finish the whole operation sometime after midnight. Roughly half the papers printed went through the address-o-graph. It took lot of finesse to run properly and jammed a lot. The other half of the papers would just get dumped in the doorways of various general stores in the towns we served around Monroe County. Oh, that was the next thing. After all that, I then had to load the re-bundled papers back into the Rambler and drive all over the county to leave our newspapers on the loading docks of four different town post offices and the rest at the country stores. I generally finished after three o'clock in the morning. I am rather amazed to look back and realize that I had the youthful stamina to get through these agonizing Tuesdays.
Somehow, I persevered. The benefit of learning how to make a living, plus all the time I had to myself every day, outweighed the travails of the job.
Another eerie, disquieting element soon presented itself, however. Once I'd learned the ropes, old Arthur pretty much left me alone. But on Wednesdays, when the paper was finally out and the awful cycle was over for the week, he liked to take me out to lunch to celebrate. So, the first several weeks, he'd bring me to this jive-plastic small town businessman's lunch joint in a little strip mall over in Spencerport. The place was called The Robin Hood Room. (There was another one over in Brockport.) They served things like hot pork sandwiches with Wonder bread and canned gravy, real provincial fare. We'd go over there in Arthur's car, which always had a ripe aroma of alcohol in it at 11:45a.m. He'd have a couple more drinks with lunch, some low-rent hooch like Seagrams Seven with ginger ale.
With things operating smoothly, and the ad revenue increasing, and the editorial content all covered, and the Tuesday night drill under control -- one of those Wednesdays just after the New Year, returning to the office from lunch at the Robin Hood Room, Arthur put his hand on my thigh in the car. I didn't know what to do or say. I did apprehend after about two seconds that this gesture was more than a paternal pat on the leg. So after about four seconds I just blurted out something obliquely to the point, shall we say, hoping to defuse the situation without embarrassing both of us, or making Arthur mad -- something like, "It's getting kind of crowded in here." And I'd scooch my leg away from his hand as much as possible. Luckily, he did get the message. He tried it again a week later, because he was loaded again, and I reacted pretty much the same way, and again he backed off. But I never accepted another lunch invitation from the old bastard. Anytime he asked after that, I'd say I had an appointment with some car dealer, or one of our other big advertisers. I don't know how he felt about it and I surely didn't ask. For all I know, he was relieved that I didn't quit, or rat on him to his wife. All I know is that for the next several months, he stayed clear and gave me all the space I wanted.
But the incidents changed my view of things at the office considerably. They affected my sense of earnestness shall we say. Though I continued to work long hours, and discharge all my duties, I could no longer take the job seriously. It presented a wonderful opportunity to treat the whole operation as a kind of sick joke. And that's exactly what I did.
It dawned on me that nobody read our crappy fish-wrapper of a newspaper and that I could have a lot more fun with stories. So I started making things up. The first week of this enhanced editorial program, I made up a front page story that ran in all four papers about a farmer in the Town of Bergan (up by the lake) who had a meteor fall through his roof, landing right in the kitchen and destroying a perfectly good batch of Swiss steak. Another perk of the job was that I had a Polaroid camera with me in the car at all times, in case I passed a car accident on the highway, or an advertiser wanted their puss in their ad. So I shot a picture of one of my room-mates dressed up in overalls and a straw hat holding a big rock. And I wrote a ridiculous story to go with it. The papers went out on Tuesday night as usual, and by Friday nobody had called the office or written the editor about the story, so I figured that confirmed my theory that nobody read the papers, not even Arthur and Betty.
The following week I made an interesting discovery. It turned out that Dan, the layout man, had a sense of humor, too, and a longstanding sense of grievance against Arthur and Betty, who wouldn't pay him what he deserved, since without him the whole operation would fall apart. So I found a collaborator. Dan had these marvelous gigantic books of clip-art graphics that you would cut out and paste up in an ad. There was a picture of everything and anything under the sun: cars, lawnmowers, home-makers, fly-swatters, grandmothers, pies, meat, fruit, word balloons, you name it, just like the clip-art you find on computers now, only these you actually had to cut out with scissors. This gave me a lot more freedom to stretch my imagination.
So the following week, I wrote a front page story about a young man from the town of Holly who had returned from Vietnam with an exotic disease that was mysteriously turning him into a T-bone steak. I dug a glossy photo of a soldier in dress uniform out of a file cabinet and Dan pasted a clip-art picture of a T-bone steak emerging from the collar of his tunic instead of a human head. I ran it on page one o0f all four papers again. Again, no one seemed to notice. The week after that I got Dan to clip a photo of Bigfoot out of a trashy magazine, and he worked it very nicely into a background photo of a local farm field, and I wrote an accompanying story about "sightings" of a mysterious "hominid" creature on the loose in the area. To my astonishment, there was no reaction from our subscribers or other theoretical readers.
There wasn't a whole lot of room for editorial content in the papers -- since we existed mostly to run display ads -- but I wanted to get some regular features on the inside pages. So I started an advice column under the banner "Ask Mable Sage." Mable was a grandmotherly character we cut out of the clip art book. Naturally, I wrote all the letters and all the answers. "Dear Mable, we suspect our son Edwin is smoking something funny in the basement after we retire at night. . . . " "Dear Mable, It makes me so mad when my husband waves his rifle at President Nixon on the TV. . ."
I also started a horoscope column, "The Stars and You" written by a certain Otto C. Cragg, PhD. Dan and I found a great clip drawing of a professorial-looking man with a mustache, and a pipe in his mouth, and we pasted concentric circle rings over his eyes so he looked completely stoned, and that became Otto. Items typically would read as follows: "Capricorn: Now is a good time to pack all your things, get a room in Niagara Falls, and start life all over again under a new name."
Finally, I started to have fun with the police blotter. If you were a reporter, you were allowed to leaf through the police report book in the station house of the towns that were affluent enough to have their own police force, which meant Brockport and Spencerport, since the rest were just unincorporated rural hamlets. There was generally nothing amusing in them. Ninety-five percent of the police work revolved around traffic violations, which told you a lot about American life right there. I started slipping in little items such as, "Man Bitten By Beaver," and "Flying Behemoth Spotted in Hamlin," and "Tarantula Infestation Drives Family From Home."
And so things went through the drear months of January and February in our remote corner of western New York. I saw very little of Arthur, and when I did happen to run into him, say out by the company gas pump, he appeared to be intoxicated. I saw Betty a little more often because I had to drop off the advertising contracts in her office. As long as I was bringing that revenue in, she left me alone. She was just crabby and brusque -- regarding me, no doubt, as her husband's newest catamite -- but that was all. I still reigned happily unsupervised in the office. The days got longer, and by March it wasn't dark anymore when I made the Tuesday night run to the printers. The only thing that had changed, really, was that Arthur quit giving me ten bucks for dinner.
What got me fired was one of my little editorial pranks, carried a little too far because it crossed over the line into the sacred realm of advertising. On one of the few occasions when I actually saw Arthur, he begged me to cover a "Snow Carnival" that the local Ford dealer, one of his old cronies, was throwing over the weekend. The reason the Ford Dealer was throwing it was that he had gotten in a hefty supply of these newfangled recreational vehicles that hadn't existed before: snowmobiles. In 1973, you understand, snowmobiles had just come on the scene. Nobody quite knew what you were supposed to do with them. The whole infrastructure of off-road trails and clubs and drinking protocols didn't exist yet. Also, the economy was not so good, with the Vietnam War bleeding the government and Nixon's price controls still operating. Now, the Ford dealer found himself near winter's end stuck with a rather large inventory of unsold snowmobiles. So the Snow Carnival was a desperate attempt to unload some of them.
I went over to the dealership on Saturday, armed with my Polaroid, and snapped a lot pictures of earnest working folk sitting on the machines. Arthur had asked me to make this story the whole centerfold for the following week's edition of the four papers. So, I wrote captions for all the pictures and gave all the material to Dan to paste up. If you actually followed the captions clockwise around the centerfold, they seemed to indicate that the local militia was preparing for an imminent Red Chinese invasion on these fabulous new winter attack vehicles supplied by the US Army. Unfortunately, the Ford dealer himself actually read the story and undoubtedly gave Arthur the business, who then turned his righteous wrath on me. I was canned, cashiered, dismissed, finished, axed, fired!
And so I was -- but would I stick around a few weeks until he found a replacement, he inquired? Sure, I said, if he increased my pay to a hundred bucks a week. The last thing old Arthur wanted to do, of course, was drive all over Monroe County himself all week long selling ads, not to mention that hellish Tuesday night routine with the printer, and the address-o-graph machine, and making the rounds of the country stores and desolate post offices at three o'clock in the morning. So I stuck around doing the job well into the spring at a substantial raise in pay. I even continued running all my favorite stories and features: Ask Mable Sage, the Stars and You, the Police Blotter, and once again the office subsided into a coma of indifference. Dan hardly got hassled at all over the snowmobile incident because when Arthur flew at him in a drunken fury, Dan said he didn't even read the crap I handed to him to paste up, and besides, Dan truly was indispensible to the operation -- and since Arthur had insulted him by insinuating he was party to an unprofessional prank, he'd be looking for a hefty salary increase himself, if Arthur wanted those papers to keep going out to a news-hungry public.
I worked there a good six weeks after I got fired, when the first zephyrs of spring blew across the Ontario plain, and the windbreak poplars starting to green up, and little froggies peeped in the drainage ditches along the roadsides at night. I worked, as it happened, just long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance. It was sad to say goodbye to the company car, and all that free gas, but I managed to buy a ten-year-old Chevvy Impala from one of the car dealers I'd gotten to know for something like two hundred dollars, which I was able to pay for in installments of something like twenty-seven bucks a month over a year's time. Being able to negotiate this rather mundane transaction of American adulthood was a great accomplishment for me -- who six months ago was nearly paralyzed with feelings of inadequacy.
My replacement finally showed up jsut before Easter, a rather delicate young fellow who would graduate in a matter of weeks from a nearby fourth-rate holy-roller-affiliated college. Arthur asked me to run him through all the routine duties, and take him around and introduce him to the advertisers. I agreed on the basis of a one-time final payday of double my normal salary -- I knew that Arthur dreaded the Tuesday night marathon, and would pay to avoid going through it with the new guy. I dreaded what I knew Arthur would try with my replacement but, frankly, the lad seemed inclined that way, and I didn't want to embarrass him by bringing the matter to his attention.
By the time the Easter bells rang out from the steeples of little Brockport, I was glorious free. The following week I reported to the NY State Dept of Labor office in Rochester, in my spiffy 1963 white Chevy with red leatherette interior, and got all signed up for the unemployment dole. Soon, I was making more money collecting unemployment and working odd jobs off-the-books such as bartending and yard cleanup, than I'd made toiling six days a week for Arthur -- while putting in far fewer hours. I bought a cheap fiberglass flyrod and spent many May and June afternoons on Oatka Creek, twenty miles to the south, with the whole creek gloriously to myself because it was a weekday, and back in 1973 when America was still a manufacturing nation, half the lumpenprole fishing types of Monroe County were off at the Kodak plant in Rochester working the day shift (and the other half were sleeping).
I got to see my room-mates, Tim and Archie, a bit more than I had before, and occasionally did clerical jobs at their book store, like checking in deliveries of college textbooks when they arrived. We threw a lot of parties those spring weekends. I had some casual girlfriends. As an alumni of the local SUNY college, I had privileges to use the gym and I started working out rather intensively on weeknights and playing frequent games of tennis on the college courts early in the morning with a rotating set of acquaintences and faculty guys I'd known. My game got a lot better. I was having a very good time. Somehow, I had been able to put aside questions of the future, including those journalistic ambitions I'd brought to Boston with me the previous year, and seen crushed. I was, most of all, enjoying the sensation of being able to take care of myself for the first time in my life, to pay the rent, keep a car running, and have a few bucks left over for beer and trout leaders. Actually, I was delirious.
I did a lot of reading in the afternoons when I was not off trout fishing, including an early self-help book by the libertarian Harry Browne titled How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, which was full of practical wisdom for negotiating the normal vicissitudes of adult life, which I was just then coming to grips with. It allowed me to think of setbacks and problems not as personal affronts but as situations that yielded to certain straightforward adult skills. It informed me, for instance, that practically everyone is insecure. I'd mistakenly believed that I was special that way, and was prompted to reconsider that the people who obstructed my happiness -- for instance those snooty prepster editors back in Boston who had made my life miserable -- were also people who worried about their jobs, their status, their social relationships, their sex lives, and whether their writing was worthless. I picked up some valuable concepts from Browne's book, like "the psychology of previous investment," how to let go of things that held you back, how to force yourself to ask for things that you needed, how to recognize bad relationships and get out of them ethically and non-destructively. I realized that I had let those Boston prepsters take advantage of me by simply being too meek and assuming they were doing me a favor by tossing me story assignments. I was able to formulate my own basic law of social interaction, which to this day I retain as a cardinal rule, namely, that of every room with one hundred people in it, ninety-nine of them believe they are the only ones who don't have their shit together -- and the hundreth one knows that the other ninety-nine are right! I learned an awful lot from what I'm sure a lot of people would regard as a dumb self-help book -- but why should I worry what anybody else thought about something that I got a lot of benefit from. Finally, I was a twenty-four year old young man who didn't know everything about the way the world worked and I was fortunate to get at least partially clued in by way of an eight-dollar book. That spring, I felt very grateful to be alive.
Sometime in June, I met someone who worked in the features department of Rochester's daily paper, the Democrat & Chronicle, and before long, they had me writing what were then called "human interest" stories for them as a freelancer on a regular basis. I did that going into August, making some money, enjoying myself, having outdoor adventures, getting physically shaped up, watching the Watergate hearings on TV, and not worrying about where anything would lead me. Naturally, just when I wasn't thinking about the future, opportunity presented itself. I got a letter from a newspaper editor in Louisville who was moving to take the managing editor's job at the evening paper in Albany, New York, the state capital, and recruiting some new reporters in the process. Some of my clippings from Boston and Rochester had mysteriously come his way, and would I be interested in talking about a regular jobas a reporter at the Albany paper, the Knickerbocker News? Two weeks later, I drove 250 miles east to Albany in my white Chevy, had a successful job interview with Mr. Jack Pease, the new M.E., and returned to Brockport to pack my things and resume my career.