"Hello, Sweetheart." That's what I said when the gal in the newsroom picked up the phone one day last week. Her name is Della but we call her Sweetheart. That's just the way we are. Newspaper guys. Bunch of cards. Laugh a minute. We call her "gal," too. That's just the way we are. Witty. Devil-may-care. Sexist pigs.
I was out on assignment. Hadn't seen the office for days. My beat is books and writers. It's a tough beat. Reason I was on the road: A bunch of authors in New York were picketing a publisher. It was bringing out a new edition of "Peter Rabbit." Animal rights crowd was up in arms. Upper West Side seething with unrest. Next thing, blood in the streets. I had to be there. When a big story breaks, you can't keep Scoop away.
That's what Sweetheart calls me. "Oh, hello, Scoop." That's what she said when she picked up the phone. "You again, huh? What's happening this time? Norman Mailer having triplets? Heh heh heh." That's the way she is, that Sweetheart. Hell of a gal. Talks out of the side of her mouth, just like the guys. That's why we love her.
"Okay, Sweetheart," I said. "Cut the comedy. Hot news waits for no man. Get me rewrite." Just like that she stopped fooling around. Made the connection quick as you please. It rang a couple of times, then answered.
"English department," some gal said. What? I was nonplused. That's what we call it in the newspaper game: nonplused. It's a Ben Hecht kind of word: classy. Last time you read it was probably in "The Conning Tower." F.P.A. The New York World. Swope. Pulitzer. Hearst. Good old days. Runyon. Winchell. Broun. They were all nonplused. That's why we loved them.
Well. I was so nonplused I lost my cool. What I said to this gal was, "English department?" Just like that. In italics. A cool newspaper guy never talks in italics, but I did it. Hell, I just did it again.
So there I was. Half out of breath. Feeling like a damned fool with all those italics tumbling out of me. But the gal on the line was cool as a cuke. "Yes, English department," is what she said.
"But I want rewrite!" I said, barely keeping the italics out of it. "This is Scoop! I've got a story that's hotter'n a prairie dog in heat! I don't want any English department! I want rewrite! "
"Scoop," she said, getting familiar a little quick for my taste, "Scoop, you've got rewrite. Haven't you been reading the papers lately, Scoop?" I had to admit I hadn't. The pressure of events had been too great. I was behind on my reading. "Okay, Sis," I said, "fill me in on it."
"No," she said, "go read the New York Times yourself. The story's inside the A section. Headline reads, 'Yale Weighs Challenge to Newspaper's Owner.' Read it and call me back."
So I found the story and I read it. "Yale University is weighing whether to challenge the ownership of the St. Petersburg Times," it said, "in a move that could make the Times the property of Yale." It went on to talk about confusion over a will, and the Internal Revenue Service, and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Yale, the story said, claimed an "obligation to investigate the possibility" that under the will the paper belonged not to the Poynter Institute but to Yale.
I read it and then I read it again. Damned if it made any sense to me. So I called the office and went through the same rigamarole. "Hello, Sweetheart. Get me rewrite." "Hello, Scoop. Just a sec." "English department."
"This is Scoop," I said. "So what do Yale and the Poynter Institute and the Saint Pete Times have to do with me?" And that's when she told me. That's when the ---- hit the ---.
What she told me was that the Saint Pete business was all a ruse, a ploy, a trick. A wily stratagem: That's what Ben Hecht would have called it. A diversionary tactic: That's what S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall would have called it. Yale may have been making public moves to take over the Saint Pete Times, but behind the scenes Yale was closing in on The Washington Post.
Whatever Yale wants, Yale gets. "So you see, Scoop, you're working for Yale now. The School of Economics has taken over the business section, the poli-sci department is running the national desk, and you -- lucky you! -- get the English department."
For the second time in a single day I was nonplused. I had to stall for time. "Uh, what's your name, Sis?" I asked. "I am Clothilde Haight-Ashbury," she answered, "and I will thank you not to call me Sis. My friends call me Mother Jones, though whether you will ever be any friend of mine is certainly open to question."
Hmm. This clearly called for a more diplomatic approach. I went into my Richard Harding Davis mode. "Madam," I said as politely as possible, fearful though I was that "Madam" might be taken as an insult. "Madam, I wish to give no offense. All this is news to me: a bolt from the blue, to coin a phrase. Please elucidate the particulars, begging your pardon."
"I will be happy to do so. Now that Yale University is sole proprietor of The Washington Post, you report not to Book World or Style but to the English department. You no longer have an editor, but a chairman. Pardon me: a chairperson. At the moment this person is at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, delivering a paper called 'Wilted Flowers: Images of Detumescence in the Fugitive Poetry of Lady Grizel Baillie,' so for the moment the department is closed."
"But what about my story?" I asked, fairly foaming at the mouth. "What about the Peter Rabbit Riot? This news is hotter'n a Texas barbeque festival! Roll the presses!"
"Oh, calm down," is what this creature said. "You're on the academic schedule now," she said. "Publish or perish may be the name, but the game is publish every, oh, 15 or 16 years. A week off at Thanksgiving, a month at Christmas, two weeks in the spring, three months in the summer -- hey, Scoop, welcome to the real world. Put the Peter Rabbit Riot on the back burner. Go spend the winter at the British Museum."
"But what about rewrite?" I asked. "Without rewrite, who's going to punch all the right cliches into my hard-boiled scoops? Who's going to make sure I misuse 'presently' and 'hopefully' and 'tragically'? Where are my editors?"
"Oh, we don't have editors anymore, Scoop. We have English professors. I realize that you are what we at Yale call a 'mere journalist' and don't know about such things, but the Yale English department just happens to be the mother church of semiotics and structuralism. At Yale we don't 'edit' you. We deconstruct you. By the time we're finished with your prose, the only people who will be able to read it are tenured Lacanist scholars holding Yale PhDs. At last count there were 12 of them. By the year 2006 they will be ready for your exegesis of the Peter Rabbit Riot. So take your time. Relax. Give yourself a treat: Read a bit of Paul de Man, or Jacques Derrida. You know: Light reading."
It was more than I could take. I hung up on her. I know it was hanging up on my career -- on those rye-soaked nights at Bleeck's saloon and those 3 a.m. poker games with the other newsroom studs and those green eyeshades and galluses -- but principle comes first with a guy like me. One farewell phone call, and then I was gone. "Hello, Sweetheart... . "
"Sweetheart? Where do you get this 'Sweetheart' business? You can call me Ms. Della, buster. I've got tenure now, and your --- is -----."