Dog Days Tale: Honesty Is the Best Policy – Mostly
My brother Mike picked up the ringing phone: “Nonantum Times,” he said, listened a moment, then handed me the receiver.
I put my hand over it and raised an eyebrow at him. “Ted Epstein,” he whispered.
Ted Epstein was a lawyer in downtown Boston. He was also a board member for the Nonantum Times, the new low-budget suburban weekly newspaper of which I was the founding editor. That is to say, he was one of my bosses.
“Ted!” I said into the phone. “Got any good news for me?”
There was an awkward pause on the other end. Then, ”l’m afraid not, Chuck,” he said.
“Oh no,” I said, “don’t tell me our first big investigative scoop isn’t gonna happen.”
“Not this time, I’m afraid.” Ted cleared his throat. “I called my contact in the corporation commission office. He looked up Ronald Kennedy Paving & Asphalt, and they had no contracts with the City of Nonantum. Didn’t make any political contributions there either.”
I blew out a disappointed sigh.”Well, spit!” I said, or something that rhymed with spit. “I had my hopes up on that one, Ted. Thanks anyway, and let me know if you hear anything more.”
Mike was waiting when I hung up. “So, no luck on shaking up the mayor’s election campaign?”
I shook my head. “Nope. Our anonymous inside tip didn’t check out. Looks like there’s no road contractor named Ronald Kennedy who’s been getting lots of no-bid road contracts from the city, and in turn is bankrolling Mayor Schmidt’s re-election campaign.”
“Umm, that’s not all,” Mike said. “I got more bad news.” He held up a small black object that looked a little like a blow dryer. “Our Lectro-Stik just died. How are we gonna get the paste-up done by deadline tonight?”
“Oh, split!” I cried, or something that rhymed with split. “What next?”
Here I have to explain that this conversation took place in the autumn of 1971, ages ago, in another century, another millennium, probably another galaxy. It was back in the days when spam came only in cans, viruses only made people sick, recycling was something you did on a bike, and a cell phone was only used in jail. It was so long ago that if you wanted a desktop computer, you needed a desktop twenty feet long, and a bank balance of a hundred grand.
And if you were going to publish a small suburban weekly paper like the Nonantum Times, you also had to have a Lectro-Stik. One that worked.
In those distant years before word processing, newspapers were written on typewriters – you may have seen one of those in the Smithsonian’s new Museum of Dorky Old Fart Technology, or in your grandma’s attic – and the finished articles were typed in skinny columns. These columns were cut up with scissors and pasted onto big sheets of heavy graph paper, the size of a newspaper page.
The Lectro-Stik was a crucial paste-up tool. It melted beeswax, which oozed out the bottom on a small roller. We rolled the hot wax onto the backs of the columns of paper for paste-up. Beeswax held the paper down, but you could also un-stick and re-stick the columns to move them around, which often happened. Melted beeswax also smelled good. (I suppose it was even organic, but who knew?)
Mike and I, the entire staff of the Nonantum Times, spent many days, and many nights too, bent over a table in our dank church basement office, listening to rock music while pasting and re-pasting these skinny strips into position on the page boards as each weekly issue took shape.
The whole thing was then taken to a printer – and by printer I mean, a person who ran a printing shop, not a buzzing square boxlike thing on your desk which runs out of ink cartridges every hour or two.
This process often felt tedious. Yet it was, I felt certain, my first big stride down the road to journalistic glory. But on a morning like this one, with our big scoop gone, staring at a dead Lectro-Stik, and with our production deadline looming, that glorious path wasn’t so easy to make out.
A Lectro-Stik was a simple device, electric but not remotely electronic. And it was reliable. But ours was also old, a hand-me down, like everything else about our little newspaper; and today it had given up the ghost, melted its last beeswax, stuck its final news column.
“All right,” I said, “I’ll have to get a new one. It’ll set us back on paste-up, though. Can you find out who has one?”
Mike went to work on this, while I wrote up a summary of the campaign for mayor of Nonantum, minus my hoped-for scoop about crooked paving contractors. Soon the phone rang again, on the other of our two lines; this may have been our only luxury.
“Hey, Chuck.” It was Susan Bain, a wannabe arts critic in town who kept pestering me about doing book reviews and such.
“What’s up, Sue?” I asked. I had something of an unspoken half-crush on her, which I think she suspected.
“It’s John Updike,” she said. “He’s got a new novel out. Can I review it?”
“You know the question,” I said: “does the novel mention or take place in Nonantum?” I wasn’t hiding my skepticism.
“Well, the story is set in a suburb, she said.
“Sorry, can’t do it,” I said “unless it’s about Nonantum. Sue: have I mentioned that we’re a local paper? Besides, I don’t like Updike. Can’t you find a novel about Nonantum? Or a biography of a famous Nonantumite? I’d have you review one of those in a minute.”
Sue snorted. “But there aren’t any Nonantum novels,” she countered; “nothing ever happens there. And nobody famous ever lived in Nonantum; or if they did, the first smart thing they did was move away. Even the Boston Strangler never made it to Nonantum.”
She had a a point. Salem had witches. Boston had the Red Sox, and the Strangler. What did Nonantum have? Well, it had me. And I had no time to chat. “Keep looking,” I told her, and turned back to typing my article.
I was ready to cut up columns when Mike nodded at me over the phone receiver again. ”It’s Judy Drake,” he said. “At the Phoenix.”
“Chuck! I got an idea for you!” she said. Judy was one of those people the word “perky” was invented for; but I was glad to be distracted. Judy was the culture editor at the Boston Phoenix, the big downtown weekly paper where I used to work. She got to cover the really big events in town, like new movies, plays, the symphony, and above all, the big-name rock concerts.
When I worked at the Phoenix she doled out free concert tickets like lottery prizes, and we all lapped them up. Boston had a lot of big events. I had seen Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, even Johnny Cash this way.
Those giveaways also worked great for the owner of the Phoenix; as long as we kept humming the latest concert tunes around the office, we forgot to notice that he didn’t pay us decent wages or benefits. But heck, who needed health insurance when we had a chance to see Frank Zappa, or The Who, for free? (Ah, youth.)
I was still a sucker. “Do you know,” Judy asked, “about the concert at Boston Garden tonight?”
Did I? Didn’t everybody? It was Sly and the Family Stone, who were still hotter than a firecracker after their many hit records, like “Everyday People,” “Dance To The Music,” “Life,” and their show-stealing gig at Woodstock.
I hadn’t made it to Woodstock, but I had watched the movie more than once, and their pulsing rendition of “I Want To Take You Higher,” with its “Boom-chocka-locka-locka” refrain was engraved on my brain cells. “Oh, Sly!” was all I could say.
“Sooooo, how’d you like to go?” Judy teased. I could hear her grinning all the way from town.
“Me?” I shouted. “But, Judy, I’m not worthy! So, who do I have to kill?”
“Well,” she said honestly, “I admit you weren’t my first choice. But our frontline reviewer just came down with food poisoning. So I need a hurry-up replacement. And I’ve always been able to count on you. Promise you’ll have me a review by noon tomorrow, 500 words, and two tickets are yours. Pick them up by 7:30, just say Phoenix and your name at the box office. Oh, and I’ll pay $25 too. You up for it?”
Was I up for it? If pythons, cobras and pit bulls were guarding every entrance to the Boston Garden, I’d do it. If the toughest units of the North Vietnamese army had just parachuted in around it, I’d still die trying. If – well, more realistically, if it meant I’d have to stay up all night afterward, writing the review and finishing the paste-up for the Nonantum Times, I’d still do it.
Now the day was looking up. Who needed a scoop about the mayor when I could watch Sly in that fabulous white leather jacket with the eighteen-inch long fringes, bouncing around his organ and shouting at us to “Stand, for the things that you know are real.” Who needed –
Well, I knew that WE still needed a new Lectro-Stik, and fast, if our paper was ever going to get finished. Mike reported he’d only found one, at the big art supply store over by Harvard Square, which the manager said he’d save for me. “Ask for Ed.”
A little later, I headed out, for a news conference by Andy Carmello, the guy running against Mayor Schmidt. Andy’s manager had promised me a one-on-one interview with the candidate, which I figured would have to fill in for the missing scandal story. Firing up my cantankerous old Saab, I headed for the rendezvous, at the other end of Nonantum.
When I got there, tho, it turned out Mr. Carmello had been suddenly called away, to shake hands at an office building somewhere and have lunch with campaign donors.
“Oh Grit!” I muttered, or something that rhymed with it, when his manager told me. Instead he steered me to Mrs. Carmello, who was ready to tell me just what a Wonderful guy and father her Andy was, and just what a wonderful mayor he would make, yes sir. Her enthusiasm was completely sincere, and completely free of any actual information about his political ideas or campaign promises.
I finally escaped, to the nearest Mickey D’s drive-thru for a quick lunch. (Yes, my children, they did have Mickey D’s drive-thrus even in those distant days; some things, after all, are just timeless.) When I parked at the art supply store in Cambridge, tho, it was past two o-clock.
Inside, their one remaining Lectro-Stik was gone. Sold.
“Sold?” I shouted at the manager, whose nametag said, “Hi, I’m Ed.”
You ask me then, it shoulda read “Dead,” despite his seemingly genuine chagrin. “But,” I pleaded, “you said you’d hold it for me.”
Ed turned his head. “Hey, George,” he shouted through a doorway behind him, “did you sell a Lectro-Stik while I was at lunch?”
“Yeah,” a voice boomed back. “It wasn’t on the regular shelf, but I found it. Guy said it was an emergency. What?”
George’s “What” was short for, “What did you expect, man, you hired me to sell things, right?”
Right. Ed shrugged apologetically.
“But,” I said weakly, “I’ve got an emergency too. Where can I find one?”
Ed held up a “not-to-worry” finger, and reached for the phone on the wall behind him, one with a 25-foot coiled cord on the receiver.” Let me check our other store,” he said soothingly.
After a few moments, during which I gnawed off all my fingernails, Ed smiled and hung up. “They’ve got three,” he announced. “And they said they’ll hold one at the counter just for you.”
“Great.” Relief rolled into me like a big glug of my favorite strawberry milkshake. “And your other store is in –??”
“Worcester,” he said with a smile, proud to be part of a growing enterprise. “It’s just three turns off the Mass Turnpike.”
Worcester?? My fantasy milkshake came spewing up again. Worcester was more than an hour west, that is, if there were no traffic jams. And a hour back. Not to mention the three turns from the Pike, which were three chances for me to get lost. (This was also the age when GPS was short for German Potato Salad.)
But there was no help for it. Go west, young man, was the only advice that counted, and I headed for the car.
Actually, I only got lost once on those three turns, and it was just a little past five when I pulled back up onto the MassPike, a new Lektro-Stik snuggled by my side, and turned east toward Nonantum, and more important, Boston. I figured I could still make it to the Garden by seven-thirty for the tickets. It would be close, but those pythons and pit bulls better watch out, because this guy was ready to rumble.
At least I was until the long line of red lights showed up on the slope down toward Framingham. Twenty-five miles to go, and there was a backup. Solid. Stopped dead. And no way to get off.
People were climbing out of their cars, walking back and forth. Several cop cruisers with blue lights flashing zipped by on the shoulder. Someone came ambling by and said it was a tractor-trailer truck rollover. The driver was okay. “But we’ll be here for hours,” he groaned.
I stared down the long columns of red lights, getting brighter as the autumn evening came on. So much for my dreams of rocking the Garden with Sly and the Family Stone. So much for my review.
The review! “Oh, Twit!” I shouted, or something that rhymed with it, the review! What about Judy Drake, who had done me this great boon? I owed her 500 words. At least I’d need to call her and say I was trapped west of Framingham, likely never to be seen again.
Peering down the line of cars, I could make out a service area entrance several hundred yards ahead. Driving slowly on the shoulder, I crept towards it. I couldn’t get off the Pike there, but at least they would have available that marvelous new invention, the telephone, and I could let Judy know. And Mike: there would be nothing left for us but another long night of radio rock and paste-up.
But as I stepped into a phone booth there, ready to dial Judy’s number, an idea came. ”I’ve always been able to count on you,” she’d said. Maybe there was a way I could avoid letting her down, and at least limit the humiliation of this day.
I dialed a different number. “Hello, Sue? It’s Chuck. What are you doing tonight?”
Sue Bain was guarded. ”Chuck,” she said, “I have a boyfriend. I am not going out with you. Forget it.”
“No, wait,” I shouted, “it’s not like that.” I explained about the concert, and my damage-limitation idea: “How about YOU go to the concert, write the review, put my name on it, and leave it at the Phoenix office in the morning. Judy Drake will be none the wiser, you get the concert and a clipping to show. Then I won’t be on her bad list for leaving her stuck without a review for the paper. Everybody wins.”
Sue hesitated, so I knew she was tempted. “Put YOUR name on it?” she said. “But that would be a lie.”
“Well,” I said, “call it editorial discretion. A pseudonym. Anyway it will be one of the smaller lies in American journalistic history. And I’ll give you the $25 bucks too.”
“But,” she persisted, “what if Judy finds out?”
“She won’t,” I said, then added in a singsong, “I want to, I want to, I want to take you HIGHER.”
I heard her heave a sigh. “Okay,” she said. “I do want to see Sly. The box office by seven-thirty, right?”
“Right,” I said, ”and the copy to the Phoenix by 9 AM; Judy doesn’t get there til ten usually. Plus I want your personal blow-by-blow description of the concert after I get my paper done and to the printer. Bye!”
That night turned out, alas, just as I expected: Mike and I spent it leaning over the table, trimming and arranging our copy, sticking it, un-sticking it, moving it around, and re-sticking it, all with our nifty new Lectro-Stik. The closest we got to the concert was hearing a few songs by Sly on the radio. We finished about 3 AM, dropped off the copy in the printer’s night deposit box, and I staggered home.
I came in late the next morning, still groggy, but already looking ahead to the next week’s issue, when I wasn’t dozing off in my chair.
Mike snapped me out of one of my dreams. ”Hey,” he said. “Phone’s for you.” To my inquiring stare he whispered, “Judy Drake. The Phoenix.”
My stomach went cold. “Err, hi Judy,” I croaked.
“Chuck,” she said. “Interesting review. But I’ve got a few questions.”
“Interesting”? I knew that “interesting” was Judy’s word for copy that didn’t qualify for her usual adjective of “great.”
A few questions? My throat went dry. “Okay,” I croaked again. “I mean, Fine! Shoot.”
“Well,” she said, “here’s three: First, what is it you didn’t like about the bass player?”
“Ummm, sure,” I said. “And, uh, the second one?”
“What was it,” she asked, “about Sly’s singing that you said was ‘off-center’?”
“Right. Uh, yeah. Got it. And third?”
“The new song,” she said, “the one they did in the encore. What was the name of it?”
“Okay,” I said again. Then cleared my throat. And coughed. I thought maybe I had forgotten how to breathe.
“Chuck? You still there?”
Oh, I was there. And I was so, so busted. ”Um, Judy,” I said slowly, “there’s something I need to explain.”
And then I confessed. Told her the whole stupid sob story. Local politics. Harvard Square. Worcester. Traffic jam. Deadlines. Desperation.
“You what?!” she cried when I started. Then she heard me out, and after that there was silence on the phone.
“Judy?” I ventured after a year-long moment.
“So,” she said, “you’re telling me a dead Lectro-Stik was behind all this?”
“Well,” I said defensively, “I still think I might have made it, if it hadn’t been for the truck rollover.”
In my mind’s eye I could again see that road to journalistic glory: but now there was a big billboard in front of it, lit up by spotlights. It read, “Exit Here, Turkey: End of the Line For You.”
But then Judy did a wonderful thing. She started to laugh.
“You klutz,” she scolded. “Of course I forgive you. It’s only a concert review. Don’t worry about it. Give me Sue’s number and I’ll talk to her.”
In my mind, that doomsday billboard hadn’t disappeared; but at least the spotlights had been turned off. “Jeez, Judy, thanks a million,” I breathed. “I don’t know what to say.”
“How about, ‘I’ll never do something that silly again.’”
I repeated it.
Mike was watching as I hung up. “You’re damn lucky, you know” he deadpanned.
“I’m lucky as chit “ I said, or something that rhymed with it. “Let me call Sue to give her a heads up.”
But the phone’s ring beat me to it. I waved at Mike, who grabbed it. He looked up and whispered, “Ted Epstein.”
The lawyer. One of my bosses. I shook the grogginess from my voice, and tried for my best impersonation of a Professional Journalist. “Yes, Ted?”
“Chuck,” he said.”You won’t believe this. The guy from the Corporation Commission just called back. Turns out he’s partly deaf, and he thought I said Donald Kennedy instead of Ronald. It’s Donald who had no dealings with the city of Nonantum. Ronald, no relation, is all over them. No-bid contracts, the whole bit. AND he’s the top campaign contributor too, just like you said. I’m getting a packet of documents tomorrow.”
Bingo. And deafness aside, it was an easy mistake to make. In Massachusetts we had hundreds of Kennedys to spare, in and out of politics, honest and crooked.
“Holy grit!” I shouted to Mike, or something that rhymed with it. “Our scoop is back on!”
I slapped him on the back. “Let’s get a burger, celebrate at the drive-thru. Apple pies too. On me.” I’m a big spender when I get happy, and become frontrunner for the Pulitzer Prize.”
In the car, the radio went on, and who else could it be but Sly and the Family Stone. They were doing their new number, “You Can Make It If You Try,” and I sang along all the way to Mickey D’s, just as if I was sitting there in the Boston Garden: with only them, and us, and twenty thousand of our closest friends.
Copyright (c) By Chuck Fager
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