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Life Story: The Education of an American Journalist

Chapter 6   Read as PDF Document

For the next several days I hammered out public notices without pause. I hardly looked up from the typewriter, ignoring Looney to the extent possible. In the evenings I read through Michael’s basic journalism texts and listened as he gave me a crash course in style and structure. It wasn’t too difficult to learn that a news story should tell the reader who, what, when, where, why, and how. It made perfect sense that a story should be written with all the most important information at the top, with the less

important information at the bottom so that the story could be cut from the bottom up for fit, and to spare the reader any more reading time than necessary. The whole issue of sources became almost epistemological—how one should distinguish justified belief from opinion. Burrows had been right about the basics of journalism. The skills necessary to get started were rudimentary. Good judgment and clear thinking were another matter and ultimately vital and more difficult to achieve.

During the day I made an effort to meet my colleagues, especially a tall, perfectly dressed man of about thirty whom I often saw holding forth at the coffee station. He was there one day talking to another reporter, a woman in her midthirties whom I knew to be the Women’s Page editor, and I decided to introduce myself. This was one of those moments that seem absolutely inconsequential at the time but that ultimately change the direction of one’s life.

“Hello,” he said, bowing extravagantly and offering his hand. “I am Fred Bonavita, and you are the newest member of our illustrious staff. Welcome to the Albuquerque Post and Echo.” The woman smiled indulgently. I shook hands, not exactly sure what to make of Bonavita. “And this is our brilliant Women’s Page editor, Barbara Taylor.” Barbara, looking bemused, offered her hand, nodded, said “welcome” in a quiet voice, and then fell silent.

“So,” Bonavita said, his tongue darting to the corners of his mouth, “what brings you to our rag?”

I decided to play his game. Imitating the cadence of a Southern Baptist preacher in full dramatic mode, I said, “A deep desire to set the world straight. To right the wrongs of our misguided leaders, to bring enlightenment and virtue to our readers so that my tiny, unworthy life will not have been in vain.”

Bonavita laughed. “Please, call me Fred. I assure you, sir, you have come to the right place. Virtue and truth are our daily goals.”

Barbara rolled her eyes at the silliness, raised her hand in a little good-bye wave, and went back to her desk.

“You have come here from the New York Times, no doubt, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” Bonavita continued in his role.

“My first newspaper job,” I said, reverting to my normal voice. “My very first time pretending to be a journalist.”

“I see,” Bonavita said, suddenly growing serious. “Well, if I can be of help, let me know.” He paused, “Are you married?”

An odd question, I thought. “No, divorced.”

“Good. Then you might have time to have a beer one day.”

Relieved, I said, “Sure, I’d like that.”

As Bonavita walked away, I inspected his brown wingtip shoes shined to a perfect matte finish; the perfectly fitted wool slacks, pleated and cuffed; the white shirt of superior cotton; and a silk tie of a good weight. Either his daddy is rich, I thought, or he is making more than eighty dollars a week. In reality, neither was true. His father owned a fine men’s store in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Unlike Bonavita, most of the men in the city room wore shortsleeved, translucent nylon wash-and-wear shirts with undershirts showing beneath. Several fat copy pencils usually rode jammed into the lead-stained shirt pocket. Pants were polyester or wool, baggy and threadbare. Shoes were scuffed or made of faux suede of some sort. There were exceptions. Pete Gentile, the wire editor, a young family man recently escaped from New York City, wore pants that fit and freshly ironed cotton shirts. But most of the men were modeled after Tony A. C. DeCola, the gruff political editor who chewed a cigar and could easily conceal a football in the baggy seat of his pants.

When I went across the street for a sandwich at lunch after meeting Bonavita, Michael showed up and took a seat next to me at the counter.

“You OK?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just met Fred Bonavita.”

“Be careful. Looney hates him.”

“Looney hates me.”

“Not in the same way.”

“Why does Looney hate him?”

“He is arrogant, and he makes it clear that he is slumming. He’s worked for better papers.”

“Why is he here?”

“Has something to do with a girlfriend back in Virginia.”

“I see.” I sensed that Michael was threatened by my interest in Bonavita.

“Burrows asked me this morning how you were doing.”

“What did you say?”

“I said you were doing well. He said he took a chance because your old police lieutenant said you were a steady guy.”

“I know. That is so strange I can hardly believe it.”

“What?”

“That lieutenant is totally corrupt. He is one of the reasons I left the force when I did. I was sure he was going to try to suck me in to protect himself.”

“That upset you?”

“It was a close call. When I went in to have my exit interview with the chief, he questioned me very closely about why I was leaving. He wanted to know if there was anything wrong or if I was unhappy about anything. I think he may have even suspected that I was leaving because I knew something. I came very close to turning in the lieutenant. I came within a second of saying, ‘Maybe you ought to have a closer look at the conduct of some of your shift commanders.’ Something told me to leave it alone. I just had a sense that nothing would change and I would be on his shit list. Well, you know what?”

“That is absolutely amazing,” Michael said. “The irony is too heavy.”

“It’s scary. I would never have gotten this job. It is almost as if I owe my job to him, or to not being honest.”

“I wouldn’t dwell on it,” Michael said.

I finished my standard tuna sandwich, pondering the possibility of a universal lesson contained in what I had just learned, and went back to see if Looney had jammed any more misspellings into my typewriter.

There were so many churches and service organizations! I looked at dozens of pictures of people recently appointed assistant sales manager at Brown Chevrolet or who had just completed training to become certified realtors. I hammered on, wading through the morass of paper until just before quitting time, when I saw a release announcing a whistle-stop visit by a high-ranking United Nations official. I thought it odd that a UN official would stop in Albuquerque. I wondered if he had a daughter or a mistress or an old friend in the city. For some reason, the guy wanted to stay overnight on his way to Los Angeles. A press release and a quick meeting with some local official would make that legitimate. I folded the release and stuck it in my jacket.

Just days earlier, Michael had delighted and surprised me with the information that a story did not have to be assigned to be written. Anyone in the city room could write a story about anything and dump it in the basket. Whether it was ever printed was a different matter. There were restrictions, of course. Certain areas had been assigned as beats, and poaching on a beat was discouraged. So, for example, if one came upon a story about city government, the correct approach was to send a note to the reporter covering city hall. Similarly, stories on education, the courts, or New Mexico history were spoken for. But it was a small paper, and many areas were not clearly assigned. Those were open for the entrepreneur, which, it would turn out, was one of the great advantages of starting a career at a small paper. There was simply more room to dig without working in another person’s hole.

After deadline I called the hotel mentioned in the release and asked for the UN official. I heard myself say, “Gerald Moore from the Albuquerque Tribune,” and I felt like an impostor. My man was surprised, and I think flattered, that someone so far from New York would regard him as worthy of an interview. He was open and cooperative. Indeed, it turned out that an old college friend taught political science at the university and was the main reason for the stopover. They were having dinner with other faculty members that evening.

Scribbling notes furiously, trying to remember to get the correct spelling of names and organizations, I understood instinctively that the Tribune editors would be interested in the local angle and not in any inside information on the workings of UNESCO. I wrote the story, imitating to the best of my ability the style I had been absorbing all week, and tossed my copy in the copy basket. At four o’clock I met Michael in the parking lot for our trip home.

My mind was completely preoccupied by the article. The entire process had been astonishingly simple, but I was wading the Rubicon. Without invitation or permission I had offered an article for publication, and now I could not stop thinking how Looney might behave as a result.

“Martini?” Michael asked as he hung his suede jacket on a peg by the door. He tossed his car keys into a pottery bowl and hauled out the gin bottle.

“Sure.” A martini would surely change my frame of mind.

I put on a Kingston Trio album and flopped down on the missionstyle couch to wait for my drink. We rehashed the day without much interest, and when Michael made a second batch of martinis, I told him about the interview with the UN official.

“You should have told me,” he said, looking distressed.

“Why?”

“I could have read it and maybe improved it. I hope you didn’t make any mistakes.”

A bad feeling came suddenly and powerfully. I was so dependent on Michael that I felt I should do anything he asked. But now I felt enclosed, confined by his concern and by the intensity of his care. For the first time I felt resentful. “You have to let me make some mistakes,” I said lightly.

He walked to where I sat, put his drink on the floor, and kneeled down in front of me. Sitting on his calves, he placed a hand on each of my knees, looking up at me, moonstruck. “Do you know how much I care for you?” he said, his face a mask of desire.

Panic leaped in me. Even though I knew this was a moment bound to happen, I could not imagine where things went from here. “I think I do. I think I’m beginning to. And I care for you too. But this is very tricky for me.”

“How?”

“I am so deeply indebted to you. I am deeply grateful to you. I wish I could give you something or repay you. But I don’t think this is the way, maybe.”

He smiled patiently. “I don’t want to do anything to upset you.” He didn’t move.

“May I ask you a very personal question?” I almost blurted the question.

“Yes, of course.”

“Do your parents know about this?” I was shocked by the childlike quality of my own question. His head snapped back a little. “What an odd thing to ask! I mean, what an odd question at this moment.”

“I know,” I said. “It is. I can’t help it. I can’t help but think of them. And mine too.” He became pensive. “It would kill them. I think my mother may suspect something, but my father would never recover if he knew. It would just kill him. I worry all the time that he might find out.” He stood up and took a step back.
“A heavy burden?”

“Very heavy. I love them so much. I considered going to California for that reason. But I really, really love it here, and I am very, very discreet. Why do you think I live out here?” He gestured to indicate the emptiness around us.

“So how did you find out? I mean, how did you first know that you felt this way?”
“I never felt any other way. When I was twelve I got excited in the locker room.”

I was in trouble. This was not the common adolescent experience of masturbating in the same room with another boy. This had everything to do with powerful personal feelings. Michael was completely vulnerable, and I was conflicted—not by sexual desire but by my sense of duty and responsibility to another person. I could see that he was smitten. I was flattered. I felt desired in a very unmale way. At least I thought it was unmale, but I also felt like running away.

“I can’t get into this in the way you’re thinking,” I said firmly. “It is not about you. It is just how I am. It wouldn’t work, at least not for very long. You can understand?”

“Of course,” he said, reaching for his drink. “Of course.”

He looked away. I could see that he was hurt and disappointed.

“I’m happy just to be with you,” he said, turning, looking down. “Having you here is really nice. It’s enough, maybe.”

I knew I would have to leave. I had no idea how, but I felt a powerful emotional force pushing me away.

We had a subdued dinner, and at nine or so we went to our separate bedrooms. I tried to read, but I have never been so aware of the presence of another person as I was that night. I could practically feel Michael breathing in the next room. I wasn’t afraid. I just felt overwhelmed by the presence of his desire. I had done a lot of desiring in my life, but I was never aware of being desired until now. Surely there had been girls who felt an adolescent flush in my presence, but mostly I was too self-involved or insecure to notice. This was emotion on a different level of magnitude. Michael was not suggesting a one-night stand. He was suggesting that in some very fundamental way I give myself to him, possibly forever.

In the morning we rode to work in silence. I had been at my desk less than a minute when Looney appeared with my story in his hand.

“Where did you get this?” he demanded.

“It was in one of the releases you gave me yesterday.”

“And how did you interview this guy?”

“I called him at the number on the release.”

“And he told you all this stuff about his friend, the professor?”

“Right.”

Looney turned abruptly and walked to the next desk, where Jim Nelson, a senior political reporter, was arranging his desk and gulping his first cup of coffee. Looney shoved my copy against Nelson’s chest and said, “Call this professor. Ask him if he knows this guy from the UN.”

Completely startled, Nelson took the copy and started to read. Looney turned on his heel and walked back to his desk. Michael watched the encounter from his perch next to Looney. My phone rang. It was Bonavita, whispering into the phone.

“What was that all about?”

“I gave him a story. I guess he doesn’t believe me.”

“You gave him a story?”

I cupped my hand around the phone to muffle my voice. “Isn’t that all right?”

“It is probably the only thing anyone has given him in a month. Be brave!” He hung up.

Nelson wasn’t able to reach the professor right away. Trying to keep track of Nelson’s progress made concentration on my press releases difficult. I should have called the professor after I interviewed the UN representative, but I hadn’t thought ahead enough to confirm both ends of the story. This was probably something every student would learn in Journalism 101: if A tells you about B, you may want to hear what B has to say. Clearly, I had done only half the story.

Finally, Nelson hung up the phone and walked to the front desk, where he conferred briefly with Looney. He handed over the copy and returned to his desk without looking at me. Puzzled, ignored both by Looney and Michael, I worked on through the morning. As deadline neared and the pace in the room grew more frantic, I tried to guess the meaning of what I had witnessed.

When the first run of papers arrived in the city room at 11:30, reporters rushed to the ink-stained printer’s helper to grab a paper from the stack he carried, each one searching the paper for any story they had written, looking for typos that could still be corrected before the main press run. I had never been part of the ritual. I had no stories to check. I was still working on the releases when my phone rang.

“Good work,” Bonavita whispered into the phone and hung up.

I grabbed a paper and paged through quickly until I spotted the headline: “UN Official: Good Times, Hard Times with UNM Prof.” I was in print! I read the story over and over. It was the story I had written, unchanged. But in print, it didn’t sound like my voice. It was mine, but it wasn’t. It was not a big story, but it was of respectable length. It was well placed on the page, and somewhere, probably from the files, they had found a picture of the professor, a man I recognized from my recent days on campus. There was no byline. That didn’t matter. I managed to get a story published. Feeling the need to celebrate, I looked around the room and saw that I was the only person there who thought this little story was in any way remarkable. The city room went about its routine business unaware of my triumph. I took a deep breath and walked slowly back to my desk, where I sat behind my typewriter holding the paper, sensing that this was the beginning of something wonderful.

The little story did not change our routine. Looney continued to pass my desk each morning, pausing just long enough to fling his thick stack of press releases at me before waddling off to annoy another reporter. I continued to dutifully gut and clean the mess of self-promotion until we had little fillets of information that might be useful to our readers. In batches of threes and fours, I dumped them into the copy basket and then repeated the process. Journalism as I had imagined it lay somewhere down the road. I had tasted it, and I knew that somehow I would break out of this purgatory where Looney kept me. The UN story demonstrated that I could get material into the paper in spite of Looney’s quarantine.

I found Looney an interesting man, in spite of his early enmity toward me. He had been in Albuquerque for eleven years, but his voice still carried the long, open vowels of his old Kentucky home. He was ambitious and shrewd, both qualities that I would eventually admire. He was also petty and vindictive and manipulative, as his daily behavior showed. As time passed, I would see him as a complex character, essentially an intelligent man crippled by the class and regional prejudices inherited from the worst of his native culture. He would eventually show himself to be a decent editor, and I would soon learn that he was an excellent photographer who made regular weekend trips to remote areas of the state, where he captured crisp images of ghost towns and New Mexico’s majestic natural scenery. His perfectly exposed photos rarely included people, which I took as a sign of how little regard he had for mankind in general, a notion reinforced when I listened in shock to the occasional whispered racial slur. His attitude was that of many reactionaries: a mixture of resentment and self-righteousness. He would end a successful career with Scripps Howard as editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, after he replaced Burrows as editor at the Tribune.

His politics and prejudices were unattractive enough, but when added to his utter obsequiousness in the presence of anyone with power, his demeanor bordered at times on being disgusting. The most immediate victim of his attitude was, quite predictably, the lining of his stomach. He gulped antacids and drank milk throughout the day in a vain effort to treat his seething resentments, to treat his spiritual maladjustment by physical means.

Having thus roundly condemned him, I need to add that in time he became a supporter of my efforts, and when I left Albuquerque he took me to dinner at the Albuquerque Elks’ Club, where he had nice things to say about my work. Some were sincere. Some were meant to cement a relationship with someone going to work in the national media. Still, in those early weeks at the Tribune, the idea that I would ever hear an encouraging word from Looney was beyond imagination.

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