Monday, April 8, 2019

Holy Week in the composing room

It’s Holy Week, and on this particular night, about 30 years ago, I am filling in as makeup editor in my newspaper’s composing room.

The job has nothing to do with lipstick and rouge, though it does involve working with a few people who I sometimes think — in my less charitable moments — deserve the kind of facial makeover that Estee Lauder never envisioned.

Most of the people in the composing room are nice to me; they dutifully cut and paste up the type after it comes out of the film processor that has replaced the Linotype machines. But a couple of them are incompetent and incomparably rude. One of them can’t be trusted to cut type correctly — his nickname is “Chainsaw” — and when he puts type on a page it’s often crooked. The only way he could consistently put it on straight would be if his shift coincided with a major earthquake.

And there’s the production manager, whose duties consist of sitting in a little office, reading a newspaper and chewing gum, then coming out to the newsroom to chat with the managing editor, then going back to his office — and more gum! — then, as deadline approaches, coming out to the composing room and harassing already harried editors.

The makeup editor job is basically troubleshooting: cutting stories that are too long; finding ways to fill space because a story is too short; looking for stories and pictures that are missing. And when I’m not doing all this, I’m trying to anticipate problems as the clock keeps ticking.

This being Holy Week, the paper has been running a daily series that retells the Easter story.

A small picture goes with it — an artist’s rendering of the face of Jesus Christ.

And it’s missing.

I know that every morning someone from the newspaper’s library comes into the composing room, collects the pictures from that morning’s pages and brings them to the library to be filed.

So I hustle across the building to the library.

Over the years the library has improved. It used to be that if you went in there looking for, say, a picture of Julie Andrews, you had to look in a file cabinet and find a small folder with her name. This would direct you to a large manila folder in another file cabinet, a folder marked with a number, such as 4537.

Upon opening the drawer in the bigger file cabinet and finding Folder 4537, you would be likely to find a few pictures of Julie Andrews — but only after sifting through pictures of the Empire State Building, a circus elephant, a guy in a hard hat pointing at something, a kindergarten class from a local school, the same guy in the same hard hat pointing at something else, and about a dozen other unrelated images.

You know that theory that says that if you take 20 monkeys and sit them at typewriters, one of them will eventually type “King Lear”? I am reasonably sure that one of the 19 other monkeys invented this filing system.

Luckily for me, the filing system has been revamped. Unluckily for me, I can no longer dive in and find something myself. Instead, I’m now required to ask a clerk to find it for me.

Tonight the clerk is a guy named Bob. He’s an older gent and one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

And he has a hearing problem.

Bob used to be assigned to a night shift in the wire room, where he didn’t have to deal with people much; he spent his shift collating stories from the wire service machines. But those machines have been replaced by a computer system, and he has been reassigned to the library.

Whenever you talk to Bob, he looks at your lips, even though he wears a hearing aid. Having dealt with him a lot, I know enough to enunciate when I tell him that I’m looking for a picture of “Jesus Christ.”

But I can tell that he’s not understanding me, and I am sympathetic; “Jesus Christ” can’t be an easy name to lip-read. So I try again, a little louder, as if that would help much.

“I’m looking for a picture of JESUS CHRIST!”

He’s still not getting it.


By now I’m worried that he thinks I’m yelling at him. But he finally understands me, and he walks to one of the file cabinets, opens a drawer and pulls out a small cardboard folder.

On the folder is typed “Jesus Christ.” In the folder is my Holy Grail of the moment, the drawing of the Savior Himself, complete with crown of thorns.

But there’s no time for champagne — I have to rush back to the composing room with my find and await the next crisis.

I’m sure the wait won’t be long.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Still Henry after all these years

When I was a kid, Sunday mornings were a sacred time.

A time when my siblings and I would gather around the most venerated object in our house.

Our TV set.

And at 9 a.m. we would watch the Sunday morning movie on Channel 3.

And we would watch it until our parents almost forcibly pulled us away so we could attend this thing called Sunday Mass.

But it didn’t matter much because we knew that Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule would prove triumphant and things would turn out all right for whatever young couple they were trying to help. (Of course, the Universal contract players who played these couples would go on to have fairly undistinguished careers before fading out completely, but Bud and Lou could do only so much.)

Although I enjoyed all these folks, there was one other component of the Sunday movie rotation who meant more to me.

A guy whose movies always began with his mom calling to him in a voice that was one-tenth mother love and nine-tenths Armageddon:


Henry, played by a young actor named James Lydon, was Charlie Brown years before Charlie Brown was Charlie Brown.

Henry was the world’s most incompetent high school student. There was nothing he couldn’t screw up.

And although I was much younger, I could identify with that. Sure, I was somehow able to read at a very early age, but ask me to tie my shoes? Or ride a bike? No sir. I was all thumbs. (I was probably all toes too, but no one ever asked me to do anything with them.)

So I sympathized and empathized as Henry, always a well-meaning sort with the purest of intentions, would get into a bit of trouble, then a dollop of trouble, then a tractor-trailer load of trouble, until he would finally, somehow, and unlike me, emerge victorious in the end.

Only Henry Aldrich would form his own band, then manage to run afoul of crooks and gamblers. Or swallow a serum that somehow caused him to enter a supposedly haunted house, where he surprisingly didn’t run into Bud and Lou or Red Skelton, who at the time were plowing similar cinematic turf.

Then there was the time that Henry, as editor of his school paper, was suspected of setting a series of arson fires that he himself was covering. The real pyromaniac was caught, but the real mystery — how a high school kid was allowed to cover real crime news — was never solved.

I thought about Henry a few weeks ago while I was watching an episode of “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the vintage western that catapulted Steve McQueen to fame. In this episode, a woman hires bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by McQueen, to find her husband, who has fled after being falsely accused of murder.

Randall eventually finds the guy, brings him in, and justice prevails.

The guy was played by James Lydon — Henry Aldrich! Still getting into trouble!

Just a few days later, I watched an episode of “Trackdown,” the vintage western that catapulted Robert Culp to fame. In this episode, Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, played by Culp, is confronted by a woman who says she can provide an alibi for her boyfriend, who is in the town jail, accused of murder.

It turns out that the woman is lying, but the real killer, who heard about her story but doesn’t know she’s lying, tries to kill her, muffs it and gets gunned down by Hoby.

So the boyfriend goes free. And he’s played by — all together, now — James Lydon, Henry Aldrich!

The show (which, surprise surprise, was produced by the same company as “Wanted: Dead or Alive”) never goes into the question of what happened to James/Henry’s wife from “Wanted.” Did she die? Or, more likely, did she finally get fed up and divorce him?

Perhaps we’ll never know. But I am happy to say that, as of this writing, Mr. Lydon, who also had a distinguished career behind the camera (he was one of the people behind TV’s “M*A*S*H”), is still with us at the age of 94.

I hope that he is well and that finally, after all these years, he is keeping out of mischief.

But I’m not uncrossing my fingers.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Newsroom Memories: The Fantastic Mr. Fah

It’s a Monday night in the newsroom, about 40 years ago, and with nothing else to do I pick up an obituary to edit.

The paper has no assigned obituary writer. Obits are written by interns or by whichever reporter is lucky enough to pick up the phone when a funeral director calls to dictate the death notice.

Most obituaries get a 14-point headline with just the person’s name. This obituary, for one Walter J. Fah, has a 36-point, two-column, two-line headline, which means that Mr. Fah had some claim to fame.

Upon examining the obit, I find that Mr. Fah was once mayor of one of our regional communities.

Editing the obit seems like a simple enough job, but I notice that Mr. Fah’s two sons have a different last name.

Well, it’s possible, I think. But of course I am duty-bound to call the funeral director and check.

Our conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, I have a question about the Walter Fah obit.”

A pause.

“You mean ‘Smith,’ don’t you?”

“No, Walter J. Fah.”

“You mean Smith — Walter J. Smith!”

Then I remember that the two sons are both named Smith.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “Was this guy a former mayor?”

“Yes! Mayor Walter J. Smith!”

“OK,” I say, and the conversation ends soon after, or at least my side of it does. For all I know, the funeral director is still grumbling about it, and who could blame him?

I finish working on the obit, then walk up to the managing editor and tell him that we almost had a headline saying “Former Mayor Fah Dies.”

He is not pleased.

I then talk to the night city editor, who is in charge of the intern who took the call.

I then see him walk up to the intern, whom I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since.

The night city editor eventually gets back to me.

He gives me the same explanation that I have often heard from reporters in similar — if not quite so blatant — situations:

“He says that’s the way they gave it to him over the phone.”

Fah, Smith. Yeah, anyone could get those confused.

And the phone excuse is ingenious because phone calls in the newsroom aren’t recorded or otherwise documented.

At least reporters who take obits over the phone are usually accurate. But as the years pass, the interns come and go. Granted, taking obits is a good test of whether a student or newcomer can master the basics of newswriting, and some interns turn out to be good.

But over the years I will see such things as:

“He was a Full Bright Scholar.”

“He worked for Floor Shine Shoes.”

And my favorite:

“He was a veteran of World War II, having served in Pernissia.”

When I saw that one I walked across the room to someone who was part of a follow-up crew after the Normandy Invasion.

He never heard of Pernissia either.

So I called the funeral director. Luckily, as I recall, it wasn’t the same guy who helped shepherd ex-Mayor Fah -- I mean Smith -- to his final resting place.

And now the answer you’ve been panting for:


Well, at least Tunisia and Pernissia sound a little bit alike.

The good news is that the paper eventually assigned a full-time employee, a capable J-school grad, to write obits. The bad news is that a) after some years this guy moved on to another job at the paper; b) the obituary job was assigned to clerks who didn’t have the news sense that God gave an ostrich; and c) someone had to go and invent the fax machine.

This means that instead of having to take the time to dictate obits over the phone, funeral directors everywhere could type up an obit and fax it anywhere.

So we were flooded with obits from all over about people whose links to my area were hazy at best, and the clerks typed them up in full and sent them directly to the copy editors.

At one point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an obit for someone who merely drove through my hometown.

And I found myself spending as much as two hours a day working on obits before getting to the other news of the day.

Finally, relief came from an unexpected source: the ad department. There were so many obits coming in, and they took up so much space, that management decided to make money from them. This meant that all obits had to go through the ad department, and the folks in the newsroom weren’t allowed to touch them. Oh happy day.

From unhappy personal experience I have learned that the newspaper’s obits can be quite costly.

But if you retired from the newspaper, as I did some years ago, you get a free obit.

It’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Big Delete

Many years ago a friend of mine had an idea that he said might someday benefit his survivors.

When the time came, he said, the survivors could place the following prerecorded greeting on his answering machine:

“Hello, this is Lou Rappaport. I can’t come to the phone right now because I am dead.”

I think there was more to the greeting, but I’ve forgotten it.

Back then the idea would have been simple enough to carry out; this was before answering machines — and seemingly everything else on the planet — went digital, when both the outgoing and incoming messages were recorded on easily replaced cassettes.

At that time, “audiotext” services were the new thing — you could call a number and find out all sorts of information, sometimes for a nominal fee.

Lou hoped that his recording — truly the ultimate in outgoing messages — would turn into a fad, especially among college students (“Hey, let’s call the dead guy!”) and that the nominal fees forked over by these folks would provide at least a nominal nest egg for his survivors.

Lou’s plan never went beyond the idea stage, but I thought of it not long ago when a little sign on my landline phone (yes, I still have a landline) told me that there were too many messages on it, and if I didn’t erase them I wouldn’t get many more messages.

So I went to work — hitting the Play button, then erasing one message after another.

Then I came to a message from Lou.

I remembered it. He’d left it a few weeks ago. He’d taken care to assure me that nothing was wrong — we’d reached the stage in our lives when phone calls more and more often meant that something bad had happened to one of our former colleagues. Lou said he’d just called to chat.

After I received the message I called him back, partly because we hadn’t chatted in a while, and partly because — you guessed it — I wanted to let him know that someone we knew had died.

And now, after hearing his message again, I paused before hitting the Delete button.

Normally I would have just hit it and gone on to the next message. But it felt strange to hear his voice again, even though there was nothing unusual about it.

Less than two days after leaving the message, Lou himself died unexpectedly, apparently of a heart attack.

I wished that his message had been on a cassette. I could have removed the tape, replaced it and saved it.

After a moment, some instinct told me to hit the Delete button and move on.

I really wish Lou had followed through on his money-making scheme.

It sure would be nice to hear from the dead guy again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Happy 10th birthday to whatever this is

Ten years ago this week, I shot an arrow named Murphy’s Craw into the blogosphere.

I did this some months after accepting a buyout from the newspaper job I’d held for 30 years.

Although I was a copy editor at the paper, and although I still do freelance editing and proofreading, I’ve always considered myself to be primarily a writer.

In my youth I was inspired by folks like Robert Benchley, who had worked at newspapers and magazines. From Benchley it was a short trip to the worlds of S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and many other folks.

And even before I made Mr. Benchley’s acquaintance, there was Rob Petrie, who wasn’t really a real writer but a character played on TV by Dick Van Dyke. Rob was able to hang out all day with other funny folks like Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell. Gee, writing sure looked like fun!

During my time at the paper I was occasionally permitted to write humorous articles that sometimes were published. This made me feel even more like Benchley and his colleagues.

So after I left the paper, I figured I’d start this blog, and I figured that it would function like a newspaper column.

Has it worked out that way?

Well, not quite.

I found out that it’s hard to come up with something new to say every day. Or even just three times a week. This unpleasant insight gave me a new respect for the columnists whose stuff I’d worked on at the newspaper.

Take 47 weeks (assuming five weeks off for vacation), multiply it by three times a week and and multiply the result by 10 times a year, and you have 1,410 newspaper columns.

During that same period, I’ve produced 362 blog posts, including this one.

And this year alone I’ve produced only four posts, again including this one.

So there’s obviously been a whole lot of slacking going on.

Of course there is a difference. The folks whose columns I edited had considerably more motivation — namely the fear of starving.

But that’s really no excuse.

Nor is the fact that I had a really bad summer, which included a catastrophic accident and the resulting death of someone very close to me. Not to mention that since that someone’s funeral, three close friends have also passed away. I guess as one gets older, life seems more and more like a deadly game of dominoes.

My relatively paltry output raises the question of whether Murphy’s Craw should continue.

I invite your opinions on this.

In the meantime, I’d like to think that I have more to say. Then again, is it a lot more, and is it worth saying?

I can’t tell you because I don’t have the answer yet.

So for now I’ll write on, blogging against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past — which is where I get a lot of my ideas anyway.

Thanks again for listening.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Dear Valued Customer....

You recently received a survey from Bank of Omnipia because:

• You visited a Bank of Omnipia banking center (formerly known as a bank — ah, those quaint old days!).

• You visited a Bank of Omnipia banking center and used the Bank of Omnipia ATM.

• You didn’t use the Bank of Omnipia ATM because there were already 14 people stuck in that little hellhole of a room, waiting to use the only available Bank of Omnipia ATM within 500 square miles, so you instead walked a couple of blocks to the M&U&L&C&T Bank’s ATM, which was inexplicably free. (Of course, we mean “free” in the sense of “not being used,” not “free” in the sense of “not costing anything to use” — you didn’t really think we meant that, did you, you big silly?)

• You completed a transaction with the help of one of our few remaining tellers. (Yes, it’s amazing they’re still around, isn’t it, but once we finally get that pesky Endangered Financial Minions Act scuttled, it’ll be merely a matter of radioing that friendly guard who always stands outside the building and wishes you a pleasant day, and he'll finally be able to show what he can do with that Sig Sauer he’s always been itching to use.)

• You had a consultation with one of our two remaining Banking Counselors after sitting on a bench for 30 minutes and wondering why we don’t get rid of all four of those unused desks and use the vacated space as a dance club. (Not a bad idea, actually, and we thank you for suggesting it, although you do, of course, realize that by opening this email you automatically gave up any rights to any profits realized from this or any other suggestion.)

• You walked past a Bank of Omnipia banking center.

We have received your completed survey, and we thank you for your time and input.

And now, to help us further enhance your banking experience, we ask that you complete the following survey about your survey experience.

Please rank each of the following statements on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Begone from my life, you scum-sucking usurers!” and 10 being “MM-MMM! What a delicious bowl of buffalo excrement that was! May I have another?”

a. I was delighted to receive your survey.

b. I was so delighted to receive your survey and so eager to complete it that I immediately closed the porn site I was looking at.

c. I deleted the survey and refocused my attention on the porn site I was looking at.

d. Ten seconds later, I received the survey again, along with a snotty note from you referring to my apparent “predilection” for oxen, orange marmalade and Moms Mabley, though not necessarily in that order.

e. I threatened to report you to the Federal Reserve Board.

f. You threatened to send screenshots from the porn site to my employer.

g. I completed the damn survey.

h. You thanked me for completing the survey and informed me that the "whoosh" I had just heard was the sound of those screenshots zooming through the internet to my employer’s HR department.

i. I said, “Hey, that isn’t fair! I did what you asked! I completed the thing!”

j. You emitted a chillingly diabolical laugh, which you then permanently installed on my hard drive so that I would always hear it when I boot up my computer. You then said, “You actually expected us to be fair? We’re a bank! We don’t have to be fair! My, you’re even a bigger silly than we thought!”

We again thank you for your time and input.

And we also hope you will consider establishing a brokerage account with our affiliate firm, Commodities R Us, Except When They’re Not. We can easily set up an appointment with our Account Representative. True, the amount of money you have to invest is at best negligible and your credit score is a little lower than the average January temperature in Verkhoyansk, Russia, but our Account Representative just went through the mother of all messy divorces and could really use a good laugh.

And as always, thank you for being a Bank of Omnipia customer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Queen of the Palace

Late on a Saturday afternoon some years ago, I settle into a pew at a local church where a vigil Mass is to begin in a few minutes.

In the pew in front of me, a woman sits by herself.

It’s Frances from the Palace.

That’s not her real name, of course. It’s not what it says on her Social Security and Medicare cards, or on the property tax bills that she gets for a fairly sizable chunk of land that (I’ve been told) she owns in the Eastwood business district.

But to me, my family and perhaps countless others, she is, has been and probably always will be Frances from the Palace.

The Palace is the movie theater that she owns – part of that fairly sizable chunk of land.

The theater was founded by her father in the 1920s, and when he died, she took it over.

You might say that my family and the Palace have a sort of history.

According to family legend, many years ago Frances from the Palace’s father threw my uncle out of the theater for laughing too loudly.

At a comedy.

As absurd as this seems, I’m willing to believe it. My uncle, who grew up to be a Catholic priest, a librarian and a published poet who was acquainted with people like Marshall McLuhan, was a sucker for comedy, both high and low – more often low. As an adult he would often visit my family when I was a kid, and if his booming laugh didn’t cause an unthinkable amount of damage throughout the city, I suspect it was because the elephants at the local zoo were probably too old to even think about stampeding.

I can still remember lying in my bed upstairs at night and hearing him shamelessly roaring downstairs, probably at something Ernie Kovacs or Victor Borge had just said or done. It’s a wonder that my bedroom floor, and me and my brother’s bunk beds with it, never came crashing down into the living room.

The other Palace legend involving my uncle was recounted every so often over the years by his victim – his sister, otherwise known as my mother. They were kids and had just been to a nighttime showing of “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.” Afterward they walked home, my uncle tormenting her in the dark every step of the way. The family house was probably less than a mile from the Palace, but from the way my mother told the story, it might as well have been in Australia.

Frances from the Palace’s father was gone by the time we six Murphy kids discovered the movies. By then the Palace was well established as something that is rare these days: the neighborhood theater. On special occasions – a new Disney release or re-release, for example – we might go downtown to Loew’s, RKO Keith, the Eckel, the Paramount or the Strand (where I saw my first film, “Tom Thumb” with Russ Tamblyn), but otherwise “Let’s wait till it comes to the Palace!” was a familiar phrase in my non-affluent family, perhaps running a distant second to “Children are starving in China!”

And now I need to mention that there was a time in my life – please understand that I was very young, though that’s hardly an excuse – when I would go to the Palace with my older brother on Saturday afternoons for the express purpose of seeing movies that featured Jerry Lewis. Perhaps I should send some of my spit to for one of those tests they’ve been advertising; perhaps my DNA would reveal that I have a wee bit of French blood, and perhaps this would explain why I was eager to see “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Errand Boy” and “Who’s Minding the Store?”

But there was something special about these matinees – something I don’t think Mr. Muscular Dystrophy Telethon would appreciate. For at every matinee he was upstaged by Frances from the Palace, who would patrol the aisles with a flashlight, looking for kids playing cards or – the big mortal sin – putting their feet up on the seat in front of them. And when she caught one of these kids in the act of defiling her family trust, she was, shall we say, not exactly quiet about it.

I especially remember the time she swept the stage – while the movie was playing. I can’t say for sure whether this was during a Jerry Lewis opus – surely he would have noticed her mid-scene and yelled “HEY LAAAAAAAAAADY!”

Years later, I underwent a traditional rite of passage at the Palace: going to my first movie that was rated “M, for Mature Audiences” – “In the Heat of the Night.” I would like to be able to report that my girlfriend and I really got into the spirit of the thing in the balcony, but I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was with my older sister and my aunt (my uncle’s other sister, a Catholic nun), and as long as Frances from the Palace ran the place, she never let anyone into the balcony.

After I moved to an apartment in Eastwood, I went to the Palace more often. Frances from the Palace was still there; she no longer gave out tickets, but just took your cash when you came in the door. She especially liked it if you paid her in dollar bills.

A colleague of mine once told me that she had been to the Palace with a male friend of hers. After they came in the door, the friend had the audacity to ask Frances from the Palace if she took credit cards. He might as well have shown up at Kitty Hawk and asked the Wright Brothers if he could have a window seat with extra legroom. And to this day he probably doesn’t know how lucky he is that Frances from the Palace didn’t arrange for him to have special seating in the parking lot, under the cement.

Frances from the Palace died almost 13 years ago. A nephew took it over and did a great job of refurbishing it before selling it last year. It no longer regularly shows movies but is available for special events. I even attended a party once in the balcony area, which looked great.

And I still sometimes think back to that Saturday afternoon in church.

I remember Frances from the Palace as she turns and sees me in the pew behind her. I respond by giving her my best polite smile. Surely she must recognize me. I’ve been coming to her theater off and on for decades. And I always remember to bring dollar bills.

Frances from the Palace doesn’t return my smile.

Instead she turns around.

And picks up her purse.

And places it in the pew in front of her.

I boycott the Palace for at least the next six months.