The newsroom

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I remember the old Scranton Times newsroom. Accessible only via that glorious, manually cranked elevator that required a full-time worker.

My Dad would sometimes let me tag along if he had to go down there to pick something up on the weekend. I was maybe 10 years old.

It was the most exotic place I'd ever been.

For a kid, to step off that elevator was to enter a world of forbidden fruit. A world of grown-ups uncensored, and often unhinged.

Who were these lunatics?

It was almost impossible to imagine that this motley crew of misfits could somehow coalesce and actually produce anything, much less an actual, award-winning daily newspaper. But they never missed a day.

They were submerged in smoke......cigarettes and cigars and pipes....and you could only see about 5 feet in any direction. The rest you could only hear. The phones and the carriage return ringing of manual typewriters and the screams of pissed off editors that cut through the fog and sounded like a wolf that might have misplaced her young. It was pre-email and pre-instant message so if you wanted to get somebody's attention, you just screamed the name across the room, into the void. Everybody was running somewhere with piles of papers in their hands, and reporters pounded out stories, sometimes with a phone in each ear....as somebody stood over them impatiently, often holding a red pencil, editing the copy down as fast as it could be pulled out of the typewriter.

The place was always sweltering. In the summer it was a sauna, and in the winter the radiators would be kicked up so high that they had to open up the windows. If there was a middle ground, they never found it.

It smelled like a bar, which it often resembled. And sounded like. Most desks had a bottle seemingly built in, for medicinal purposes surely. Half eaten deli sandwiches and discarded pizza boxes fought for space on desktops, and the smell of last night's endless Gibbon's drafts hovered every bit as much as the second-hand smoke. These guys single-handedly kept a few nearby bars in business, and if a reporter went missing it never took anybody that long to track him down. These were guys who once had a party at the old Hotel Casey, and when the party started the lobby piano was on one floor, and when it ended it was on another. They did not handle boredom well.

The newsroom was pretty much all men in them days....other than the salty receptionist, who not even these guys dared cross. They all gingerly approached her asking for their messages, like catholic communicants. If you didn't show the proper deference, you might end up wondering why you never got any calls. Even from your own wife.

There were no cubicles. There was no carpeting. It was more like a cold-war bomb shelter than a modern office. The only thing that ensured privacy was the fact that it was too noisy and chaotic for anybody to listen in on somebody else.

And periodically you'd hear, and then feel, that rumble. Your feet would tingle and the orange soda my Dad bought me would start shaking and fizzing in my hand. The basement presses were running. I'd look around and it seemed even the old-timers never stopped getting a childlike buzz out of this. The Times was a self-contained asylum in those days, which was certainly welcome news to the tavern owners in town, for the press guys had thirsts that rivaled, and sometimes even surpassed, the guys in the newsroom.

The big boss's office was to the right as you entered the newsroom. Encased in glass, with his name painted on it. Mostly empty. Its comparative opulence screamed "keep-out". They guy responsible for actually getting the paper out had his office all the way in the back, in the left center. He ranted and raved from there, spewing curse words that I'd never heard before....practically invisible behind mountains of papers and previous editions. Needless to say, he was never very popular. One of the guys told my Dad that he had a frequent dream in which he dragged the guy down the staircase by his legs, ensuring that his head bounced off every step on the way. He smiled at the memory, and said each time he dreamt it he woke up "refreshed".

This was all pre-security days, so anybody could just walk in off the street, ask the always helpful elevator guy where so and so was, and be taken directly to him. As a result you had a nearly constant flow of aggrieved whack jobs invading the newsroom and screeching about this or that perceived slight. I suspect it was much more satisfying than composing a letter to the editor, but in the end about as effective. They'd be tolerated for a few minutes, and then perp-walked back to the elevator banks, entirely forgotten before the thing dinged its way to the lobby. You could not easily rattle newspaper guys. When provoked many aimed their knuckles towards an offending nose, and worried about the clean-up later.

There were more teetotalers in the newsroom than college degrees in those days.

It was a simpler time back then.

I loved it all. And so did my Father.

Eventually?

Progress.

I think that's what they call it.

Carpeting and computers and email and cubicles and no smoking and no drinking and if you didn’t have a college degree you weren’t allowed to report on the fucking Little League scores, and seemingly overnight the place resembled a library more than a bar.....and if you needed to get somebody's attention you used instant messenger even if the guy was over the next cubicle wall. The only sound I remember on my last visit was the soft clicks of computer keyboards, a sound that old Underwoods would have strangled in the bathtub if given half a chance. But, alas, nobody asks permission. The printing press was moved out of the basement to some soulless building a half hour away, and the Gibbon’s on tap went dry forever. Ad revenue dried up and and the paper shrunk until it was seemingly no thicker than a political pamphlet most days. And about as satisfying. Gradually most of the characters drifted away….dead or dying or just no longer willing to toil in poverty AND be told they weren’t allowed to keep a bottle in their desk. What was left had all the color of a Citizen Kane print.

A few remain, glorious throwbacks to another era. But they’re outnumbered. And they know it. They rage against the dying of a light. And are barely making rent.

And so it is today.

Nothing unique about the place at all. Nothing exotic or in any way interesting. You could be entering the waiting room of a dentist.

Unless you believe in ghosts.

In which case the newsroom is the most haunted place in America.

I do. And so it is.

If you listen deeply, they cheer on the few remaining iconoclasts.

All in this together, to bend the arc of that moral universe towards justice.

Despite all its imperfections, that’s what I saw there. Each time.

In a bit…

—tf