3/30/81

My first job after college was associate editor of Railway Age. At that time, RA was the oldest trade journal in the United States. I began work on the day Ronald Reagan was shot.

Simmons-Boardman Publishing occupied the 17th floor of an unassuming office tower on Hudson Street. In 1981, the western fringes of Soho were commercial and industrial. Walking to work that first day, I heard the heavy metal clanking of printing presses coming through open windows. On King Street, I came upon a group of young men gathered in the driveway entrance of a disused parking garage. I can’t recall exactly what they wore, jeans and t-shirts probably, but I remember thinking they weren’t dressed for any type of employment. Their laughter and carrying on rang in my ears down the rest of the block.

(After witnessing this scene every Monday for a month, I finally deduced that the old garage was a nightclub. Not just any run-of-the mill disco, either: this garage was the Paradise Garage, renowned for its innovative DJ, Larry Levan.)

I presented myself to the receptionist at the appointed hour of nine. A 40ish redhead with the requisite regional drawl, she greeted me profusely. “You must be Mark. Mistuh Milluh ain’t here yet, dear. June’ll be outna minute. Have a seat.”

My heels were cool by the time managing editor June Meyer came down the hall. The wait was only five minutes but I was nervous, having no idea what would come next.

As it happened, I was in good hands. June was gruff but kindly, a middle-aged grandmother who lived in Queens. Her husband was a retired firefighter, and her son-in-law was currently “with the department.” In the ensuing months, June functioned like a patient schoolteacher with me, gently correcting my misspellings and grammatical lapses, but overall her professional demeanor resembled a drill sergeant’s. She was tough as nails about enforcing deadlines and keeping the printers on schedule.

June kept the chitchat to a minimum that first day. Once she’d escorted me to the stark cubicle next to hers, she disappeared into the editor-in-chief’s corner office, where my surprisingly cursory job interview had taken place less than three weeks before.

So there I sat at an empty metal desk, staring at the manual typewriter. I stood up, opened the top drawer on a file cabinet. I found folder after folder marking the stages of magazine production: manuscripts, page proofs, blue lines. Not knowing where to begin, I nudged the drawer and it slammed shut, loudly. I turned around and saw Luther Miller standing at the entrance of the cubicle.

“If you had been sitting here,” he said mildly, “reading the paper and drinking coffee when I walked in By God I would’ve fired you. Good morning, Mark, and welcome.”

My routine was straightforward. Each morning began with a newspaper called The Journal of Commerce, which I combed for items about the railroads, making copies for June, Luther and the magazine’s publisher Robert Lewis. In every issue I wrote and edited three regular one-page features: New Products, People & Promotions, and my favorite, 100 Years Ago in Railroad Age. I was also charged with editing one of the three regular columns, Looking At Labor by the biweekly’s Chicago correspondent. “See if you can make sense of his torturous prose,” Luther said. So concluded our first editorial meeting, in a blue cloud of Viceroy fumes, as June let loose a hoarse giggle.

Luther was a no-nonsense editor of the old school, applying his twin standards of clarity and brevity to learned treatises on arcane subjects like refrigerated boxcars or The Future of the Caboose. The written word was what he immersed himself in every minute of the working day, interspersing his magazine duties with discourse on everything from the Times crossword puzzle to the latest Philip Roth novel (thumbs down on The Ghost Writer). He read each issue of Railway Age like a raptor, zeroing in for the kill at the first sight of a typo or tautology. Luther abhorred faulty logic.

Early on I decided Railway Age was a train to nowhere. To be honest it also became readily apparent that I wasn’t destined to set the trade magazine world on fire, either.  After the first week, I got the grunt work done on time: translating press releases, digging up items from the magazine’s rich archives. But the impetus for pursuing longer stories proved to be elusive. I was an under-qualified college kid trying to fake it alongside grown-ups who actually knew what they were doing.

The mail cart arrived around 9:45 every morning. I would accept several bundles of envelopes from Manny. Garrulous and childlike, Manny was a disabled vet. He handed over his packages with mercilessly inane patter, jokes custom-geared for the recipient.

“Avoid engaging in conversation with Manny,” Luther said flatly that first morning. “If you get him started on Korea, he can turn psychotic in an instant.” Manny looked to me like he was old enough to have fought in World War I.

Sorting actual mail from all the generic submissions took forever the first time. Finally, I was left with a pile of press releases and promotional announcements, and no way to gauge their worth. It occurred to me then precisely how little I knew about railroads. I thought about lunch, more out of boredom than hunger.

Around one o’clock I was still fantasizing about food and struggling with signal switchers when an ashen-faced June gave me the news. President Ronald Reagan had been shot outside a hotel in Washington, barely three months after his inauguration.
June turned on her radio, and left it on for the duration of the workday. Luther conferred with Mr. Lewis in the hallway before he abruptly bolted for the front lobby. “There’s a television set above the bar on Spring Street.”

It soon became obvious, from the news bulletins and intuition, that Ronald Reagan would survive the bullets from John Hinckley’s gun. I spent the afternoon thumbing back issues of Railway Age and thinking back to the assassination of John Lennon just four months previous. The task of writing his obituary fell to me, and it wound up as my last article in The Michigan Daily. The line I’d been so proud of — “last night the 1960s finally ended” – came back to haunt me. Clearly the election of such a conservative president had ended the lingering countercultural decade once and for all, and now Reagan’s truly awesome resilience just underlined the point. Whatever you thought of his politics and persona (not much in my case), the old actor was tough, enduring. And so was the social revolution he represented.

Not long after five o’clock Luther stuck his head in my cubicle and invited me for a beer. Startled, I accepted. “Good. Meet me in the lobby in five minutes.”

Our destination was about four blocks north, just off Seventh Avenue South, a corner bar somewhere in the web of twisting sides-streets at the heart of Greenwich Village. My apartment was only a few blocks away yet I had no idea where we were. Luther referred to the place as Mary’s, adding that was merely the bartender’s name and not the official name of the tavern. We bellied up and ordered two bottles of Bud. Well, I attempted to order a Heineken and was met with such a withering glance from Luther that I was relieved when Mary ignored my request.

Another round was delivered seconds after Luther sank his last gulp. When a third round materialized the same way, fifteen minutes later, the taciturn woman behind the bar didn’t touch the shrinking pile of bills and coins on the counter. Thanking Mary for the beers, Luther explained to me, “any decent bartender in New York will buy the third round.”

Another three – or four — rounds came and went until Luther suddenly rose to his feet and bid me farewell. I finished my beer in silence and then followed suit. I was out on the street, smashed, by 7:30. I somehow made my way to West Fourth Street. There a dirty piece of paper stuck to my shoe. It was a ten-dollar bill! I stopped at the first restaurant in my path, one of the few Mexican places in the neighborhood, where I devoured a mediocre burrito. After that I navigated the final few blocks and stumbled upstairs to my humble-ain’t-the-word abode. Though it was early I flopped on the bed and listened to WBLS on the clock radio for a pleasantly hazy hour.

When I awoke the next day, I was a workingman at last.

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