The days of pica poles and glue pots

In an opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times by columnist Maureen Dowd called “Requiem for the Newsroom,” she bemoaned, chiefly, the fact that so many newspaper people work remotely from home in these post-COVID quarantine days rather than coming into the newsroom to work alongside other journalists amid the turmoil of an active newsroom. It’s too quiet nowadays, Dowd feels. She misses the racket, the essential camaraderie, the arguments, the debates and discussions. The bouncing around of ideas. 

The piece struck a nostalgic chord and swept me back to my early years in journalism; first as a college student typing columns on an Underwood typewriter that was so old it had a two-digit LBUSD serial number indicating it was one of the first purchases made by the district.

And later at the Independent, Press-Telegram where I worked with such now-extinct tools of the trade as pica poles, pneumatic tubes, glue pots, proportional scale wheels for sizing art, page dummies, stacks of newsprint that copy editors would use for counting headlines and maybe most of all the raucous the AP wire machines, one each for state, national and international news — big, pig-iron monoliths that never seemed to cease their shotgun clattering and would go  into bell-ringing frenzies when important news came in about Charles Manson or Patty Hearst or the Reagan assassination attempt or John Lennon’s murder, or any number of hostages and hijackings. When the bells rang, editors and reporters would sprint over to the machines and watch the news come in one letter at a time.

Back then, the newsroom was huge, noisy and smokey; people smoked cigars and pipes and chewed tobacco. The lightweights merely smoked cigarettes. Maybe one or two out of several dozen newsroom people didn’t smoke at all. I don’t know how they ever got anything done.

The room was always alive with shouting and the occasional fistfight between the news editors and city editors over whether a story would go on the front page or the front of the B section.

Copy editors were old guys who would take turns making lunch for their fellow rim rats and, as copy boy, I got fed as well: sardine and onion sandwiches was one lunch I remember fairly vividly.

The city editors were old and seasoned, many of them were World War II or Korea vets and I’ll always recall one editor who occasionally would get out a pen knife and pry out a sliver of shrapnel out of his leg that had worked its way to the surface.

I learned a lot about the business from the old veterans as well as the younger journalists, all of whom collided regularly after hours, though sometimes a tad earlier, at the Press Club tavern right across the street, a sort of demilitarized zone where there were no rules about what could be said and where management and journalists could holler at each other along with pressmen, drivers, printers, advertising reps, classified ad phone workers—everyone who had their part in putting a daily paper on people’s porches.

And now I’m here at the Post, where things are a lot quieter and, while working at home at least some of the time is an option, I’m always among the first to arrive in the Post’s newsroom, because it’s a place that, while it’s a lot different from the newsroom I grew up in, there’s still enough of a racket to keep me busy, happy and grateful to our subscribers for keeping the Post loud.

What’s funny now

John Mulaney’s Netflix special “John Mulaney: Baby J” is, for the most part, a highly likable confessional, in which he details—but not overly so—his time spent in rehab, recovering from a Whitman’s Sampler of cocaine and painkillers.

Still, there’s room, mostly at the beginning, for more of the comic’s meat-and-potatoes material, notably a bit about about hoping as a youngster for the death of a grandparent—not a good one, but one of the lesser ones—in order to get more attention and sweet, sweet sympathy at school, maybe even get the chance to sit in the coveted classroom bean bag chair for the day.

You have to be specific in your wishes; his lesser grandmother died during summer vacation.

Back to drugs: The inevitable intervention was, of course, an unwelcome surprise and one that would be devoid of humor were it not for Mulaney’s retelling. It was a stern but star-studded panel of interventionists that included comics Fred Armisen and Nick Kroll as well as fellow SNL alums Seth Meyers and Bill Hader.

There’s lots of fodder there for a comedian and Mulaney brings the laughter through his ultra-smooth and debonair delivery that has made him so beloved over the past several years during which he’s delivered other Netflix specials including “The Comeback Kid,” “New in Town” and “Kid Gorgeous.”

Send me your tips and feedback at [email protected].

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.