One thing leads to another, and maybe I’m chain-smoking memories here, but that closing recollection I had in the previous entry, working briefly for that rural weekly newspaper back home before it folded, brought back some strange stuff, certainly worth noting here.
Those first few years out of college tend to be pretty disorienting, unless you’re already focused like a torpedo to shoot your way through life, as a some kids are at that age, especially the ones keen on being wealthy. In 1986, after graduating in May, I took the summer off to bum around campus, something I’d never done before, then came back home and immediately found work teaching remedial/tutorial English at the Penn State branch campus. Looking back, that might not have been a bad road to stay on, but I was restless to get out of my home county. After Christmas, I moved out to stay with my college friend CB and his fiancé, who were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, CA.
Mistake. Nothing against CB, who was simply trying to help a friend at a strange time in our lives. But he and his fiancé were fighting like cats and dogs, all the time, which really wasn’t that much of a departure from what they had been doing in college. I’d hesitate to say she was nuts, but she had been a Vegas show dancer before college and was pretty high strung. You might recall her father Vinny from an earlier story, the crazy middle-aged guy who showed up at our college graduation and threatened to beat everyone up. Their apartment would have been great for one person. For two people, even two who got along, it was a bit cramped. For two people who didn’t get along and an old college friend trying to feel his way around, it was awful.
Much of Venice back then was run-down, and it was a disorienting experience to walk down streets I sensed were ghetto, but there were palm trees on them and all that sunshine. It was a weird neighborhood, and their apartment was two blocks from the beach. During the week, especially at night, there were homeless people everywhere, as they tended to congregate on the beach around trashcan bonfires. Also, the main thing I’ll remember about Venice was the creepy outdoor weightlifting gym on the beach, all those muscle heads doing their thing while gaggles of horny women and gay guys checked them out. There were also some gymnastic equipment set up near-by, so you had guys doing intricate moves on rings and pommel horses – it was like a fucking circus, and I wasn’t too crazy about it. Throw in kids clearly in gangs and tons of tourists on the weekends swarming all over the neighborhood, and I felt really disconnected there.
On top of CB and his fiancé going at each other like arch enemies. I had no car, and you need some type of vehicle to get around Los Angeles, which was spread over an area much larger than my home county. Getting any kind of work or trying to go on job interviews was difficult. I didn’t last but a few weeks there before heading home. Every time I hear The Eurythmics song “Thorn in My Side,” it makes me think of taking that plane back east, feeling utterly defeated and directionless, not sure what to do, and that song seemed to play every five minutes on the headphones. Just as I recalled hearing U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” blasting through a PA system on the beach one of those crazy days when the Santa Anna winds were blasting, and thinking, “I got to get out here.” Strange thing was, I had just picked up a copy of Musician magazine that had an article (my only story for them) of mine in it, and it was a rush to pick up a publication on the other side of the country and see my work. A strange mix of elation and disorientation.
Got back to Pennsylvania on the tail end of winter and was at loose ends for a month or two before seeing an ad in the local paper for writers/editors for a weekly newspaper that was just starting. Sent in my resume, which had only my college writing experience, and sure enough, this guy named Dick called back within a day or two. I should have known then that something was up – only very strange white businessmen call themselves Dick when their names are Richard, or Rick, or Rich. I think the only possible female equivalent would be a woman named Constance calling herself Cunt. It just didn’t make sense and designated a real lack of self awareness. Hi, my name is Dick! It just wasn’t right.
Well, Dick thought I was the cat’s meow and hired me over the phone. I went down to his office the next day. He wasn’t there. Nobody appeared to be there. Except this haggardly middle-aged woman, reminded me of Broom Hilda, pounding on the door and screaming things like, “Dick, you bastard, where’s my money, and how dare you change the locks, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you!”
This was my first exposure to one of the many vendors Dick owed hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to. Printers, landlords, computer sales people, etc. The office was located in a weird, very small building just north of Pottsville on Route 61, next to a used-car dealership, the sort of place that rents out to insurance agents and such. Right off the bat, I felt trepidation. I went home. A half hour later, Dick calls, profusely apologizing, and asks if I could come down later that day. As it was, Dick was canny in that he somehow always knew when a creditor was going to pop in to his office to yell threats and abuse at him, and he’d get out of there in a hurry, telling the three girls in the office to turn off the lights and hide underneath their desks.
Dick owned a chain of pennysaver publications – those free papers you see at convenience stores and such advertising used cars, containing coupons for local vendors, or classified ads, etc. Laugh if you want, but there are plenty of people who have made a nice living or gotten rich putting those things out. One of the last deals I worked on at the investment bank was a pennysaver company that had been bought out by a larger firm, and the two guys who had started their paper for pocket money while in college are now multi-millionaires.
Unfortunately, Dick’s pennysavers seemed to be tanking. He had at least three, and his existence appeared to be simply driving around in his car and getting advertising for these things, on top of managing a staff of three women who simply took phone orders and handled very minor layout issues. Only Dick knew how to use a computer – at that point in history, 1987, I barely knew how to use one myself. All Dick had was one of those scrawny Mac II’s with a screen the size of my palm, but back then, this was cutting edge. I think it was Dick’s idea to start a weekly newspaper with which he had a ready-made advertising base via his pennysavers, and he could use the newspaper to raise visibility on the pennysavers. All he’d have to do would be hire one editor (me) and pay writers nominal freelance fees for enough stories to fill out about 10 pages every week.
The three girls in the office were pretty much assholes. Whether they got that way through dealing with Dick or, more likely, always were assholes, I’m not sure. Two of them were in their late 20s, aging tough girls from high school, the kind who had feathered roach clips on their belts and big hair. They were about as friendly as anal warts. The younger one, about my age in her early 20s, wasn’t that sharp, but was at least friendly. The idea was they’d go on doing production in the main office, whereas Dick had leased out another office in the building just down the hall for me to sit in, the editorial office. It was just another bad sign that his office had a surly undertone thanks to these two older women being in a foul mood with everyone. The only time I went over to the production office was to input stories on the Mac.
Dick used all the applications people had sent in to gather a stable of freelance writers. Some of whom were just fine – reasonably talented people who, like me, were at loose ends and wanted to write. He turned up one real loo-loo, this woman I’ll call Martha, who lived in a notoriously bad housing project on the edge of Pottsville. God, she might have been the homeliest woman I’ve ever seen. Balding, patchy graying hair, moles on her face, big ugly glasses, body like a lump and, worst of all, an attitude to match. I’m surprised she didn’t wheeze. She apparently had some experience on newspapers, but Dick wisely realized any sane person would reject working for her. And she knew I was wet behind the ears as an editor, thus speaking down to me most of the time, which I ignored. Whatever had gone wrong in her life, it had deposited her in a shitty housing project in a financially-depressed town in the Coal Region, and as far as I was concerned, this woman wasn’t going to tell me anything about life, unless it involved how to fuck it up.
We had our first editorial meeting, and it went well, people putting forth ideas that they wanted to write on, most of them the typical small-town stuff that made sense: proposed highway bypasses, rising crime rates in a given town, retired pro football player running for public office, etc. It dawned on me that all I had to do was put out an editorial every week, keep track of other writers with their stories, edit their stories, and get it all into the Mac, which already had the layout in place from Dick selling his ads, so all I had to do was fill the spaces around the ads. Sounds frighteningly simple, but I suspect if any newspaper editor was honest, that would be his M.O. in a nutshell, and spare us the bullshit about integrity, vision and fighting the good fight.
We took two weeks to put together the first issue. In that time, I saw the usual, almost-daily scene: Dick making a beeline for his car, miraculously just moments before some raging creditor was banging on the door. I’d say about 25% of my day was spent talking to these people – or more accurately, listening to them carry on about how much money Dick owed them, and what a bastard he was. I think they realized there was nothing I could do to help them, but they still wanted someone to hear them rage on. Seeing as how I was just 22 or 23 at the time, I put up with it, whereas now I’d tell them to fuck off and leave me alone. Dick was walking on a tightrope, he knew it, and he paid creditors when it became absolutely necessary, i.e., when they reached the point of no longer providing their services to keep his pennysavers going every week.
Another 25% was working on my own stuff, which really didn’t take that long. Some of it was fun, getting in a car to go interview someone, and I liked that sense of freedom to go out and do this stuff in the middle of the day. Another 25% was learning how to use the Mac and dealing with the three girls, who seemed to resent the hell out of me for having a college education. Was I getting paid more than them? I don’t know. But that tends to be the case for production staff and actual editors/writers. I avoided them as much as possible. Beside which, they didn’t think I was doing anything.
And 25% of the time, they were right. That included lunch, but there was also a serious load of down time for me to deal with daily. I still recall buying Dave Marsh’s second biography about Bruce Springsteen, reading it on my long lunch breaks there, and realizing what a horrible load of self-aggrandizing shit the book was. The worst was Marsh phonetically spelling out the passion he thought Bruce was exuding in the song “Born in the USA”: “I WUZ, BAAWWN IN DUH YEW ESS AYYY! BAAWWN IN DUH YEW ESS AYYY!”
Since Dick had a deadlock on laying out the ads, something he was very good at and didn’t want me doing, there wasn’t much I could do in terms of design or layout for the paper. He was the lone salesman, too, so that aspect of running a paper was out of my hands. Every now and then, one of the freelancers would drive up to the building and drop off his or her typed-up story, which was always a relief, as they were nice, intelligent and not hostile. Save for Martha. Who didn’t have a car, would take public transportation to the near-by mall, walk a few hundred yards down from there, drop off her story, carry on about what a big wheel she had been at such-and-such a paper in Boston, then cajole me into giving her a ride back to her housing project. Which I did, although, again, now that I’m older an wiser, I’d have driven by the project, sped up, latched open her door and pushed her out like a sack of garbage.
The first issue came out, and there were rumblings that there was finally another paper on the horizon to compete with the two county papers. Who knows, it might have grown into that, but at first, that wasn’t obvious. The two county papers weren’t that hot – now there’s one, but still the same story. Every few years, the paper seems to get an editor-in-chief who knows nothing about the county, isn’t a native, and has some cookie-cutter approach to how small-town newspapers are going to be. It’s dull – always has been, always will be. It would help if the new editor didn’t always reek of sanctimony. On top of which, the paper from the next county over will often have more in-depth reporting, especially on crucial political issues, the gist being that the home county paper is in some local politician’s back pocket for not reporting this stuff in the first place. I’m sure this happens with papers of all sorts all over the country. And I’ll never forget after college graduation, sending out dozens of resumes with some of my college clips and getting a few positive responses from national publications, but not even so much as a rejection slip from the home county paper.
But getting back to Dick, he was elated that he got one issue out. Thing was, this also represented him bottoming out financially. Whatever it cost to put that issue to press, it didn’t just bleed him dry, it seriously affected his already-damaged credit. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but late in the week after that first issue came out, I went to work and found the doors padlocked. By whom, I had no idea. The three fun girls weren’t around. Dick wasn’t around. Not even his howling creditors were around. So I went home. Later that night, Dick called to tell me this was just a minor inconvenience, he’d take care of it, just sleep tight, come in tomorrow, and all would be well.
Went in the next day, and the padlock was still there. Was this a bank? The landlord? Whoever it was, he wasn’t budging. Things got hazy at this point. I had been paid for two weeks work, but Dick owed me a week’s pay – at that time, must have been about $300 or so, which wasn’t bad for back there. I’m sure he owed the girls their pay, too. I had his home phone number, but had no idea where he lived. No one did. Should I make like the creditors, find out where he lived, go to his house, start banging on his door and threatening to bring doomsday down on his skull? What would it matter? I knew Dick wasn’t going to pay me for doing that.
The days went on, and after a week or two, it became obvious that not just the paper, but Dick’s pennysaver empire had crumbled. I don’t think it was the weekly newspaper that killed it, but starting one when he was clearly in financial desperation wasn’t such a smart idea. Within a month, he stopped returning my calls. I basically liked Dick – he was devious as hell, that much was clear, but he also had good manners and was clearly intelligent. I’ve met much worse people in New York, people who should be in prison or at least shunned by every sane person in their lives. Speaking of which, I spent the next few months at odd jobs – helping neighbor JB at his telephone pole-treating job, which was a total failure, after I caught serious poison ivy about a week into it, on top of asking myself why the hell I was doing this sort of stuff with a college degree. The last straw was doing a temporary janitorial job at a window factory in Mount Carmel, PA, and realizing one of the guys I was sweeping up after was one of the bigger druggies in my high school, and even he was asking me what the fuck I was doing there.
So, that fall, I made the move to New York, and it’s been shit and giggles ever since. What a strange fall that was. I remember one night, lying in bed, listening to Tom Wait’s Frank’s Wild Years cassette on my Walkman, particularly the song, “I’ll Take Manhattan.” For some reason, listening to that song filled me with an energizing hope, I’m talking a sort of “falling in love” burst, and I can only describe it as being possessed by the spirit of New York. Which, of course, was utter bullshit, but that’s how I felt at the time. It was enough incentive to get me out of these wacky jobs, realize there wasn’t much going on for me in the home county, and to take a big chance by moving to New York.
A strange thing happened a few years later. CB had come back from California, like me, utterly defeated, this time after he and his fiancé split up. (This was great news for him and everyone in his life, although it didn’t registers as such at the time.) He lived in West Chester, PA, and it became a habit for me in the late 80s and early 90s to visit him and his family down there, which was always a fun trip to take via Amtrak. We were still in full-on party mode and would go out Friday and Saturday nights, basking in that prolonged youth that the mid-to-late 20s have become.
One time, we went to a country pub to meet one of CB’s friends, and when we walked into the bar, I heard the bartender refer to a guy at the bar as “Dick.” I didn’t make much of it, until I went to the bar to order drinks, and looking in the mirror, I could swear that I was looking at my Dick – not my penis, the guy who had owned the weekly newspaper. Who still owed me $300. Dick made eye contact with me in the mirror. It was dark in the bar, so I couldn’t be certain, but I could swear it was him. I took the drinks back to the table, and when I came back to the bar, Dick was gone. It most likely had been him, and he had fled once we made eye contact. Understand that West Chester, PA is a good 80 miles south of where I’m from – to run into Dick by chance in a pub there was odd. I guess he thought I was going to kick his ass? No, I would have bought him a drink and let the $300 go, lesson learned from a guy who would have been tarred and feathered at least once if he had been born 100 years earlier. Besides which, I strongly doubt he would have had the money.