Get Me Rewrite! And a F**king Pastrami Sandwich!

During the 1988 presidential campaign I visited the New York Daily News where an occasional drinking buddy worked as a graphic artist. He told me to meet him in the City Room at noon.

The Daily News building stood in for the Daily Planet in the 1970s Superman movies with Christopher Reeve. It was a storied old heap on 42nd or 43rd street – I fear today’s Daily News operates out of a strip mall near Ozone Park. In the lobby I passed 8×10 (8×10 feet) black-and-white photos from classic front pages, including the haunting “The Most Beautiful Suicide” – depicting Evelyn McHale after she jumped from the Empire State Building. (Included here in the interest of prurient interest.)

“The Most Beautiful Suicide”

When I arrived in the city room, my buddy was nowhere to be found, so I quietly took a seat at an unoccupied desk near the door of the vast info-cavern.

Nearby, the copy editing crew was readying an advance section for Sunday. But first things first – scribes must be fed! They gave their lunch orders to the new guy, very nervous looking, who desperately wrote every order down as fast as he legibly could (good mentors all, they talked fast and kept amending their orders just to help sharpen his mnemonic skills) and prepared to amscray. But the fat man who led the crew – wearing a striped shirt, tails out, with a paisley coffee-stained tie – called him to a halt. “And what are you having Stuart?” He glanced around at his hardened confederates and smiled sadistically.

Stuart glanced behind him. But there was no one there. He looked at me but I quickly looked down. There was only one Stuart. And it was him. And he was fucked.

“Umm, me? I guess a pastrami on whole grain bread.”

A deathly, sinister silence filled the room and then the great leader of these unkempt guardians of the English language bellowed: “Whole Fucking Grain?! A pastrami sandwich on whole fucking grain? Really?” He folded his arms emphatically, like Il Duce in old newsreels, and surveyed his crew, all of whom nodded sadly, and sagely.

“Unfuckingbelievable.”

The leader, who in attitude and appearance rather resembled a pastrami sandwich, again let ominous stillness settle around him, underscoring the gravity of the situation and the profundity (and profanity) of his impending judgement.

“Stuart. It’s a fucking pastrami sandwich. It’s a fucking death-meat sandwich. And you are ordering it on whole fucking grain. This runs contrary to the orderly working of the universe. So listen, you little shit, here is what you are going to do. You are going to go to the deli. You are going to pick up our order. You are going to pay for the entire fucking thing out of your own fucking funds. And then you are going deliver said order and remove yourself to the hallway to eat your whole fucking grain pastrami sandwich while we decide what to do with you. Now get the fuck out of my fucking sight.”

Stuart retreated. In tears. I kid you not.

Pastrami then turned unexpectedly on one of his minions – whose pending humiliation was met by his desk mates not with even a scintilla of empathy but with a barely suppressed glee born of relief.

“How long is it going to take you to write that fucking headline? This is a fucking newspaper. We are not fucking monks laboring in a fucking monastery. We are newspapermen! Let’s have it! Now!”

On the victim’s screen was a double-truck feature by political columnist Richard Reeves. Each Sunday Reeves surveyed how all of the presidential candidates stood on a particular issue: Foreign policy. Taxation. Entitlements. This week’s topic: The War on Drugs.

Pastrami leaned over to survey his underling’s handiwork.

“Read them aloud. So we can hear you.”

Big big tension.

The chosen victim spoke: “Candidates mull drug issue.”

“What kind of pussy would write such a thing?”

“Um, Candidates debate drug policy.”

“Is ‘um’ part of the fucking headline? And Richard Fucking Reeves is analyzing their positions so how is that a fucking debate? Next!”

On it went, each headline worse than the last. Too long. Too abstract. Too fucking stupid.

Finally: “Get the fuck out of my sight. You can eat your lunch in the hall with Mr. Whole Fucking Grain.”

Then a very, very bad thing happened. The Pastrami-in-Chief turned his gimlet eye upon me and gave me the kind of greeting one might expect a habitué of Newspaper Row to extend to an out-of-town ink-stained brethren … you know, out of courtesy.

“And who the fuck might you be?” I knew better than to glance over my shoulder.

I gave a concise explanation using facts and names. “My friend, your colleague, told me to meet him here. He said he’d show me around.”

 “Ha!” he spat contemptuously. He turned to his gang: “Our colleague. Well. So, am I to believe you are a newspaperman?”

 “Yep.”

 “I’ll be the judge of that. Are you experienced?”

  “Experienced enough to not order pastrami on whole grain.”

  He softened. A little.

“Well come over here, young newspaperman.” (I was 27, he was probably in his forties – and always had been.) “We’re having a hell of a time with this headline. Let’s see what you got.”

He sat me down in the slot, where I could not easily get out, and loomed over me while his four companions crowded round. He said, “You have three words, four if they are short. Make them count. I dislike contractions.”

After a long moment, I took a breath and reached for the keyboard: Candidates On Drugs.

A pause pregnant with the fear of terrible retribution.

Finally, Pastrami roared and slapped my back. “Bingo!”

 And that is how I wrote my first and only headline for the New York Daily News.  

 

The Lobby of the old Daily News building in Midtown Manhattan

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