Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome to New York

    I became a reporter with the New York Post the first week of January 1968. It always had been known as a writer’s newspaper, number three in a city where The Times and the Daily News dominated, but it was at the top of the list of fun places to work, a kind of place that no longer exists.
    My introduction to this feisty broadsheet dressed in tabloid clothing, however, had been on an unusually warm November 20th in 1967, when I was invited to a 4 p.m. interview at 110 Washington Street, in Lower Manhattan. On the outside of that building was the address, but there was nothing to indicate that inside was the largest afternoon daily newspaper in the United States. In the lobby, a maintenance person at a desk motioned me to a bank of elevators, told me to go to the second floor, to turn left, and to walk to the end of the hallway.
    From the elevator, I passed an open men's lavatory that clearly needed to have its ventilation system repaired, and then walked through a door that was one end of an overcrowded coatroom. The other end had swinging saloon-like doors that opened into a packed newsroom.
    The first person I saw was sitting at a small desk, clenching a thin cigar in his mouth, wearing a three-button suit jacket, a button-down shirt and a necktie, pounding away at a manual typewriter; I later learned he was Joe Kahn, one of the best reporters in the news business. When I asked him where I might find John Bott, the city editor, he glared at me through thick glasses and growled, “Do I look like a fucking receptionist?" He obviously did not expect an answer.
    The newsroom seemed on the edge of chaos, with the sound of typewriters competing with shouts and ringing telephones, all of this drowned out by the roar of traffic through windows overlooking the West Side Highway, wide open because there was no air conditioning. The room, with a paint color somewhere between putty and mildew, smelled of a mixture of exhaust fumes, ink, sweat and cigarette smoke. Hanging from the ceiling like stalactites were drinking straw wrappers that had been dipped in jelly from donuts and fired skyward by staffers over the years. On the bare cement floor were wadded up pieces of copy paper and crushed cigarette butts.
    I was ten months out of graduate school and, as only arrogant youth can dictate, I was impatient to advance my career. The Associated Press in Portland, Maine, where I was working, was a dead end, I thought, and New York would be my future. I had written letters in the fall to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Life magazine and the New York Post, and vowed to take the first job offered. The Times’ Abe Rosenthal, then the managing editor, wrote me a polite rejection; the Wall Street Journal offered me a reporting job in Pittsburgh; Life magazine never responded. John Bott wrote that he would like to meet with me.
    The interview, which lasted about 20 minutes, was conducted at Bott’s desk in the middle of the newsroom. He was a short man, hampered by leg braces from childhood polio, white haired, in his 50s, dressed in slacks, white shirt and dark tie. Throughout our conversation, an adjacent door to the press area kept opening and closing as page proofs of the last of seven editions were rushed to him and other editors; Bott at first was apologetic for the interruptions, but after the fourth or fifth time he just smiled.
    As the interview ended, Bott briefly introduced me to Stan Opotowsky, the managing editor who sat to the left of him, dapper in a crisp blue dress shirt, patterned tie and suspenders, and, directly across the desk, to Larry Nathanson, the assistant city editor, whose tie was loosened, checkered shirt wrinkled, khakis stained by spilled coffee. Bott then nodded to me, shook my hand, and said he would be in touch. I thanked him for his time, and, as I headed back past Joe Kahn’s desk, being careful to avoid eye contact, and into the coatroom, a loud bell rang, and the roll of the presses began to shake the building. It was a great sound, a great feeling, and I knew then that I had found my new home.