THE MEMOIRS OF GERALD NACHMAN:
FROM PIGS TO BLOGS
"Naw, I've got to stay late, Sid.
That darned Nachman kid poured
hot lead on his foot again, so we're
all way behind."
A career that spans the hot
lead era to the laptop age
After a month-long break to cover the railroad journey across America that
the 15-year-old Jerry made with his dad in 1953, we return to the chronology
of his professional career.
By GERALD NACHMAN
The journey that led me eventually to becoming a New York journalist began humbly enough in a couple of primitive San Jose print shops.
My grandfather marveled to me at all the scientific advances made during his 85-year-lifetime, while I would stifle a yawn. I am now my own grandfather, astonished at what half a century has wrought in journalism since I worked at my first professional newspaper job on The San Jose Shopping News while still in college. OK, kid, stop yawning.
I was 19 and a columnist for the campus paper, The Spartan Daily, and the editor of the humor magazine, Lyke, but my job at The Shopping News cut me down to size quickly. I swept up the back shop, delivered advertising proofs by bicycle to downtown stores and poured molten metal into ingots (called pigs) for the clanking teletype machines. It was like working in a blacksmith shop.
On those noisy ancient machines, type was created by linotype operators--cranky old guys, often deaf--banging out sentences on a keyboard that created rows of hot lead, which then cooled and were moved into a page form (a metal frame the size of a page), locked down with wooden screws and hammered into place with mallets.
Its amazing to me that I actually was a part of this medieval scene. Like David Copperfield toiling in a blacking factory, there I was, standing at a huge steaming metal vat, clutching a giant ladle and scooping molten lead before ver-r-r-y carefully pouring it into ingot molds.
The solid ingots dangled from a hook on the Linotype machine before being lowered into a red-hot pot, re-melted and then recast as a line o type. Im not sure I have that process exactly right, but its close enough to give you an idea of newspapers before the Information Age, pre-electronic type, computers, Google, YouTube, blogs and all that, which are as scary to me now as pouring hot pigs were then. If you splashed any molten metal on the floor, it would squirt away in droplets like mercury. You had to be nimble enough to jump out of the way, lest you get scalded.
Most of the job, however, consisted of bicycling from store to store, delivering proofs of ads to a marketing person at places like Harts (the big department store in downtown San Jose), Montgomery-Ward, Mosher Ltd. and countless hardware and shoe stores, baby shops and groceries. It was a fairly humdrum way to break into newspapers, but now I can brag how I began at the gritty ink-stained bottom.
I stayed there a year or so, until my bike broke, and then got a job shelving books at the college library, which lasted a week because I didnt get many books re-shelved. I was too busy re-reading kids books from my childhood - Homer Price, Make Way for Ducklings, The 5000 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, The Five Chinese Brothers, Thousands and Thousands of Cats, etc. I would sit down between the stacks, cross-legged, lost in an old baseball book Id devoured as a boy--The Kid from Tompkinsville and Young Razzle, by the great John R. Tunis, the Tolstoy of boys' baseball novelists.
I despised menial work, still do, one subconscious reason I decided that writing was a much better way to earn a buck. I also had a one-day job at a shoe store, restocking shoeboxes in the back room, but didnt go back the next day. At junior college in Oakland, I worked in a dreary Laundromat on Saturdays for a year, a robot task that involved taking wet wash out of a washing machine, dumping it in the spin-dry, then throwing it in one of the big driers. Try eight hours of that some time. I smelled of ammonia all weekend.
Such boring, backbreaking labor made journalism all the more desirable. You got to sit at a typewriter and write little stories with your name attached to them. How nice. Typewriters themselves are now, of course, antiques, but I cant bear to throw any of my old ones away: a portable Olivetti I got in the 1960s, a state of the art machine that weighs about 10 pounds; a sleek black Remington Noiseless that looks like something out of The Front Page, which I bought mainly because I loved its `30s look; and a thin lightweight Hermes I took on junkets--the laptop of its day.
I somehow missed the entire Selecteric Era, going from an office Royal at The Chronicle to a computer--kicking and screaming every step of the way. When I was hired by The San Francisco Chronicle, my only stipulation was that I wouldnt have to use a computer--this was in 1979, at the dawn of the computer era. I could barely thread a new typewriter ribbon.
The managing editor, Bill German, went along with my demands, incredibly though it seems now, so for my first two years there I composed my copy on a standard typewriter and an editorial assistant would retype it into the system, which often resulted in all sorts of typos when it wound up in the morning paper.
Finally, in self-defense, I decided to learn to manipulate a computer, but I was the next to last one at the paper to use a typewriter. The paper's most popular columnist, Herb Caen, famously, used his loyal Royal right to his final column. The Royal now lies in state in The Chronicle lobby, with a yellowing sheet of his copy rolled in it.
Before I went to The Chronicle, I was still writing for The New York Daily News but from San Francisco, a bizarre arrangement. My wife, Mary, and I wanted to move back to California, so she devised an argument for me to present to The Daily News: since I didnt write about New York in the column, there was no point in living there. Also, the paper had let me escape miserable New York summers in Oakland every year, so it wasnt such an improbable proposal.
Mary had a possible job offer, which I made sound far more definite, hinting that it would be unfair for me to keep her from a good job (this was in 1977, during the height of the feminist movement). I also pointed out that it would be cheaper for the paper if I lived in San Francisco (one less desk); and finally, I noted, in case of an earthquake in the Bay Area, The News would have a man right on the scene.
When I went in to talk to Mike ONeill, the executive editor, he gave one of his big har-har-hars at the earthquake argument but told me he thought I was making a big mistake to leave New York now just as I was building a following.
Looking back today, I think he was right. Leaving kept me from following through on some magazine possibilities, like a New Yorker tryout, but the idea of moving back to San Francisco was really a domestic matter--a way to jump-start our marriage after a year apart. ONeill gave in, reluctantly, and we pulled up our New York roots and headed west--me for the third time.
In practice, it was a bad idea logistically. In that communications dark age, I had to call in my column in by phone to The News, dictating the entire thing to a copy desk man, or mail it special delivery and pray it got there on time. A few times it arrived late, so I was forced to dictate every column, a frustrating business.
Usually the desk guy in New York was in a hurry and misheard words or phrases, creating maddening typos and syntactical goofs in lines that didnt make sense in print; puns were always garbled. Worst of all was dictating what I hoped was a funny column to a desk guy who never responded, let alone laughed. He no doubt resented having to type up a goddamn piece from some prima donna columnist whom he no doubt envisioned basking by a swimming pool in California (New Yorkers think San Francisco is about 10 miles from Los Angeles).
When I broke in at The Oakland Tribune in the late `50s, newspapers still used pneumatic tubes, like in department stores, to zoom copy to the back shop from the desk--or the rim as it was called, when all copy desks were horseshoe shaped and desk guys wore eyeshades and arm garters, cigarettes jammed in their their teeth. In that day, boys and girls, there were society pages and womens sections, where fashion editors (like Esther Walker at the San Jose Mercury) wore hats while they typed at their desks .
Much was made by the San Francisco press about the fictitiously tidy Chronicle city room in the movie Zodiac. Like all city rooms, it was a hurricane-tossed hodgepodge of stuff, the one physical aspect of newspapers that still holds true today--wobbly stacks of old photos and press packets, reporters notebooks, funny headlines, silly photographs and every sort of idiotic publicity trinket; I still have a few myself, like a mug with Liberaces embossed signature and a dozen promotional T-shirts I sleep in. Newspaper offices must look lived-in or you cant trust the movie. Many reporters desks are Watts Towers of found objets djunk.
For all the electronic changes, newspaper still cling to their ancient vocabulary and quirky spellings--heds, led, ledes, decks, grafs, taglines, kickers, ears, air, boxes, cuts, cq, widows. The mechanics of newspapering has changed but not the jargon. Most of what I learned about back shop life was as a student journalist on the San Jose State Spartan Daily, a nifty little paper that often ran 10, 12, even 16 pages, all packed with ads. Pre-Silicon Valley, San Jose was centered about the college plus a few packing plants (Del Monte, etc.) where students worked during summers and brought back horror stories of what supposedly got tossed into the fruit cocktail cans.
The Daily was the citys third paper, carefully studied for stories by editors at the San Jose Mercury and San Jose News. The only reason I got my first job out of school is that editors there had been reading my stuff for two years, without me realizing it.
Each weeknight, a different team of Spartan Daily staffers would drive out to Globe Printing, on the edge of town, where the paper was printed, staying up late, often past midnight, until a typo-free proof of the next days paper was produced. We had to hang around a tiny office while typos, factual goofs, overlong headlines and upside down photos were corrected, an arduous task that, nonetheless, threw student journalists together and produced a few dalliances and even weddings.
The challenge was to talk, charm or otherwise coerce the printers to make changes other than typos that they were often reluctant to make for mere purposes of clarity or aesthetics. They were gnarled old timers and we were green kids, so it took plenty of negotiating skill, jollying and dogged persistence to get the printers to make a little word change as the hour grew late and they just wanted to get home.
Today, of course, a few clicks on a keyboard is all it takes to make a minor or major fix in the finished text, but in 1957 it required pulling proofs. This task was achieved by a printer laying a sheet of paper across a form with the type locked into place, prior to which he rolled glistening ink across the typeset page.
Once a sheet of newsprint was in place, he would pound the type with a mallet to produce a blurry but legible proof, which we then pored over with our black copy pencils, hungrily hunting for mistakes. The printers then would take the corrected proof, recast each new line of lead at the Linotype, loosen the form, remove the offending line and drop in the fresh one, still warm to the touch. This they did with great dexterity, plus their ability to read a line of type upside down.
The day I left The Spartan Daily, I made sure to get a souvenir hot off the presses - my last byline cast in handsome silver lead. It still sits atop my roll top desk, like a spent silver bullet from the past. Blog that!
©2007 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This special extract from a work in progress is published by special arrangement with the author. All inquiries about this work should be directed to the author by use of the Talkback feature below. This excerpt first posted here July 9, 2007.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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