There were a lot of pleasures to working for a newspaper before the imposition of austerity that followed corporate buy-outs. The earlier parts of my career in the Features Department with The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., came with great joys.
Before being eaten up by Gannett, The Republic was almost a kind of loony bin of great eccentrics, not all of whom were constitutionally suited to journalism. Those days, it was fun to come to work. When Gannett took over, it imposed greater professionalism in the staff, but the paper lost a good deal of personality. Those who went through those years with me will know who I’m talking about, even without my naming names. But there was a TV writer who tried to build himself a “private sanctum” in the open office space, made out of a wall of bricks of old VHS review tapes. There was a society columnist who refused to double-check the spelling of names in his copy. A movie critic who could write a sentence as long as a city bus without ever using an actual verb. She was also famous for not wearing underwear.
I could go on. There was the travel writer who once wrote that in Mexico City there had been a politician “assassinated next to the statue commemorating the event.” And a naive advice columnist whose world-view could make a Hallmark card seem cynical. The book editor seemed to hate the world. The history columnist was famous for tall-tales.
And let’s not forget the copy editor who robbed a bank and tried to escape on a bicycle.
There were quite a few solid, hardworking reporters. Not everyone was quite so out-there. But let’s just say that there was a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, without which I would never have been hired.
The newspaper had a private park, called the “Ranch,” where employees could go for picnics and Fourth-of-July fireworks. The managing editor was best known for stopping by your desk on your birthday to offer greetings.
What can I say? Just a few months before I was hired, the publisher of the paper resigned in disgrace when it was revealed that his fabulous military career as a Korean War pilot (he was often photographed in uniform with his medals) was, in fact, fabulous. It was a fable he made up.
And so, this was an environment in which I could thrive. And for 25 years, I did, even through corporate de-flavorization and a raft of changing publishers, executive editors, editors-in-chief and various industry hot-shots brought in to spiffy up the joint. I was providentially lucky in always having an excellent editor immediately in charge of me, who nurtured me and helped my copy whenever it needed it.
(It has been my experience that in almost any institution, the higher in management you climb, the less in touch you are with the actual process of your business. The mid-level people keep things functioning, while upper management keeps coming up with “great ideas” that only bollix things up. Very like the difference between sergeants and colonels.)
The staff I first worked with, with all their wonderful weirdnesses, slowly left the business, replaced with better-trained, but less colorful staffers, still interesting, still unusual by civilian standards, but not certifiable. The paper became better and more professional. And then, it became corporate. When The Republic, and the afternoon Phoenix Gazette, were family-owned by the Pulliams, we heard often of our “responsibility to our readers.” When Gannett bought the paper out, we heard instead of our “responsibility to our shareholders.” Everything changed.
And this was before the internet killed newspapers everywhere. Now things are much worse. When I first worked for The Republic, there was a staff of more than 500. Now, 10 years after my retirement and decimated by corporate restructuring and vain attempts to figure out digital journalism, the staff is under 150. I retired just in time.
Looking back, though, I realize that every job I’ve ever had has had its share of oddballs.
The first job I had, in my senior year at college, was on the groundskeeping team at school. It was full of eccentrics, mostly Quakers fulfilling their alternative service as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war. One day, Bruce Piephoff and I were trimming the hedges at the front gate and he lit up a joint and offered me one. Traffic streamed in front of us, but he didn’t seem to mind. A few years later, Piephoff robbed a restaurant, grabbing everything he could from the till and then walking up the street throwing the cash at anyone he passed. He seems to have done well since then, now a singer and recording artist.
Later, I worked at a camera store. My manager was Bill Stanley, who looked rather like Groucho in his You Bet Your Life days. Stanley chewed on a cigar all day, turning it into a spatulate goo. He had an improvisatory relation with the English language. When an obnoxious customer began spouting stupid opinions, Stanley yelled at him, “You talk like a man with a paper asshole.” When someone asked about the big boss, Stanley told her, “He came through here like a breeze out of bats.” Every day there were new words in new orders.
When I worked at the Black weekly newspaper, the editor was a drunk named Mike Feeney, who had once worked at the New York Times and I would see him daily sitting at his desk surrounded by a dozen half-finished paper cups of coffee, some growing mold, and he would be filling out the Times crossword puzzle, in ink! And he would finish it before ever getting to the “down” clues. He gave me my first lessons as a reporter. “What reporting is,” he said, “is that you call up the widow and you say, ‘My condolences, I’m sorry that your husband has died, but why did you shoot him?’”
The zoo in Seattle was also full of crazies. There was Bike Lady, Wolf Man, Gorilla Lady. And the kindly old relief keeper, Bill Cowell. One day, the place was full of kids running around screaming, spilling soda pop and popcorn, and Bill leaned over to me, “Don’tcha just wanna run them over?”
And I finally got to be a teacher, in the art department of a two-year college. The art staff was especially close, and we had dinner together about once a week. There were some great parties. A Thanksgiving with a contest to make sculpture out of food. The winner was an outhouse made from cornbread, with a graham cracker door and a half a hard-boiled egg as a privy seat. I made a roast chicken in the form of Jackie Gleason, with a pear attached as his head. Another time the drawing teacher, Steve Wolf helped us put on a shadow-puppet show. He had us falling on the floor with the most obscene performance he called, “The Ballerina and the Dog.”
And so, I suppose I have always worked with a class of people outside the normal order. So, when I was hired by the Features editor at The Republic and he was wearing Japanese sandals, it hardly registered with me. Mike McKay gave me my first real job in newspapers.
But, oh, how I loved my years there. Newspapers everywhere were profit-rich and the paper was willing to send reporters all over to cover stories. I benefited by getting to travel across the country, and even the world.
I was primarily an art critic — and ran immediately afoul of the local cowboy artist fans when I reviewed the annual Cowboy Artists of America exhibition and sale at the Phoenix Art Museum. It was one of the major events on the social calendar, when all the Texas oil millionaires would descend on Phoenix to buy up pictures of cowboys and Indians.
The event was an institution in the city, but I wasn’t having any of it. I wrote a fairly unfriendly review of the art and got instant pushback. I wrote, among other things, “It’s time, Phoenix, to hang up your cap pistols. It’s time to grow up and leave behind these adolescent fantasies.” And, “their work is just, well, maybe a few steps above black velvet Elvis paintings.” I was hanged in effigy by Western Horseman magazine. It was great fun.
But my portfolio expanded, and by the end of my sojourn in the desert, I was also dance critic, classical music critic and architecture critic — one of the last things I did was complete a 40,000 word history of Phoenix architecture. I also became back-up critic for theater and film. And I wrote hundreds of travel stories.
The paper sent me to Boston, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Reno, and almost once a year, to Los Angeles. I covered major art exhibits by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Audubon, Jackson Pollock, among others.
Because Frank Lloyd Wright had a Scottsdale connection, I wrote about him often and got to travel to and write about many of his most famous buildings, including Taliesin in Wisconsin and Falling Water in Pennsylvania.
Pacific Coast Highway
But the best were the travel stories, as when they let me take 10 days to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Tijuana to Vancouver, or another time when I also drove from Mexico to Canada, but along the Hundredth Meridian in the center of the continent — and then down the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Over several different trips, I cobbled together a series of stories about the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to the Gaspé Peninsula.
Mississippi River near Cairo, Ill.
I had assignments that let me cover all the national parks in Utah, and several excursions to every corner of Arizona. In 1988, I went to South Africa for the paper.
Indian Ocean, Durban, South Africa
Of course, when Gannett took over, the travel miles shrunk to near zero. They didn’t want to pay for anything they didn’t absolutely have to.
I left in 2012. The handwriting was on the wall. Thoughtful pieces about art and culture were no longer wanted. We were asked to provide “listicles,” such as “Top 5 things to this weekend.” After I left, I heard from former colleagues how the photography staff was let go, the copy editors were fired — how can you run a newspaper with no copy editors? They are the heart of a newspaper. They saved my butt I don’t know how many times. But no, they are all gone.
It was a sweet spot I was lucky to have landed on, to be able to observe the old “Front Page” days in their waning glory, and leave when everything was drowning in corporatism. I have often said that if Gannett thought they could make more money running parking garages, they would turn The Republic building into one.
When I left, a group of colleagues bought and gave me a blog site. I’ve been writing on it ever since — now just under 700 entries — and it proves what I have always said, writers never really retire, they just stop getting paid for it.