I do have one of those dreaded round-number birthdays coming up, but if I've been occupationally whacked, I either haven't been told or am too senile to remember it. These very words, as they leap onto the computer screen, give me to believe that I am still in harness, my license to pontificate not yet revoked. I can still deplore W.'s dumb, Clinton's fishhook, Gerald Ford's golf, etc., going back to phlegmatic Ike, till the Job-patient ed and pub finally get fed up. I can misquote, unfairly characterize, slant, take things out of context and commit the other common columnal or columnar offenses that are specified in our mission statement, and at this point I can do them with the confidence of a coarsened veteran, reliable if maybe also predictable, which probably amount to the same thing.
There used to be a nice newspapering tradition that superannuated columnists were pastured out to what was called the crap desk, their assignment there to edit all the energy and interest out of their replacements' copy, thereby assuring an uninterrupted flow of journalistic innocuousness, flat and lame and tired and banal and dispirited as well as of course uninformative, and therefore too tiresome for most of the defamation lawyers to fool with. There on the rim, if you could no longer bore people silly under your own byline, you could insure that others accomplished the feat or task under theirs.
But like most of the proud trade traditions, this one dropped by the chain-paper wayside, and old scribes now, rather than being gulaged out to the copy desk, are just told to beat it. They're told to go on home and enjoy whatever it is that old people are supposed to enjoy. The duration. The twilight. The golden glow. They get no chance to take out their professional bitterness on their juniors, the last opportunity for occupational satisfaction for most of them.
Some of those humiliated titans of the old newsroom are heroes of mine, and I remember them here in the fade. One was the hyperactive old lunatic called Crazy R., who had been kept on as a copy editor out of pity but wouldn't have guessed that he wasn't editorial's one indispensable man. They gave him wire copy out of the trash barrel and let him mark it with personalized stylebook chickenscratch which the composing room understood as a signal to just throw the stuff away. Crazy R. was no less diligent, no less attentive to duty, for the articles he edited never once making it into print.
The one tool R. couldn't do without was his pica pole. No one knew why and R. never said. One day some of his churlish colleagues filched the thing from his desk drawer and put a dead pigeon in its place. This was a dead pigeon that was pretty far gone, too. R. came in to work that day, opened the drawer as usual, then closed it, and went to work. He finished his appointed tasks but got more and more agitated as the day wore on. Finally one of those heartless colleagues said, "Hey, R., where's your pica pole?"
"Don't know," Ray said.
"Well, have you looked in your drawer there?" they asked him, and he said, "Yeah, but nothing in there but a fucking dead pigeon."
Another of those immortals was Muttering L., so called because it had been many years since he was known to have attempted genuine communication with another human being. L. never said anything to anybody - at least insofar as anybody could tell - but he did mutter. The muttering seemed at times meant to convey certain states of mind, including general contempt and categorical disgust, and at other times it seemed Leon's way of criticizing the puerile, incompetent copy he was assigned to edit. Anyway, he would mutter for a couple of hours each morning, then, having cleaned out his basket and spiked his daily wire-copy allocation, repair to a barroom across from the old Marion Hotel and continue the muttering, only directing it as a succession of cocktail glasses.
L. was slick bald and was severely stooped from having lived hard and unwisely, and his most noticeable personal adornment was a wad of cotton, about two inches long, that protruded from his right ear. The one protruding from his left ear was almost as noticeable, but was shorter by a good quarter inch. They might've been the opposite ends of the same cotton wad, except that L. would remove a wad occasionally to trench the ear vigorously with a bent paper clip, then carefully replug it, an operation that required a carpenterial or plumberial assiduity. This grossed some people out; fascinated others. I always assumed that L. used the cotton to shut out an ever more hateful world, but I found out after he was dead and gone that he hadn't hated the world at all but had maybe loved it a little too much to let it go willingly. In his youth he'd been a ladies man of legendary parochial repute, and it was old age that he was mad at, and always muttering at, there in the ruined boll-sprouting Don Juan shell.
As with Crazy R., the news editors never gave L. copy to edit that had the remotest chance of making it into the paper, and L., still sharp enough to realize as much, instead of editing the copy in the usual manner, filled the margins of teletype featurettes with either angry blank verse or with tender reminiscences about the byronic good old days. These last ranged from sentence fragments to whole purple paragraphs. One, which made its way into a fellow rim-man's personal collection, concerned L.'s reign as the city's marathon dance king during the Depression and enumerated sweaty trysts at elegant starlit rooftop soirees with notable debutantes. As I recall, L. had inserted this one into a lengthy AP news feature that had the textbook lead, "Someday man will harvest the oceans."
My own favorite among L'.s collected anecdotes was one concerning his attention to proper grammar even in flagrante delicto during an orgy, but it's not something I could get away with retelling here.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.