A quarter century ago, when I worked there, the newsroom at the New York Daily News was like a museum of lost air -- a smell of paste pots, Aqua Velva and cigarettes stamped out on the floor, the essence of 1948 somehow, a slice of twilight where reporters hoped for the murder story that would make them famous and 50 photographers waited for the Hindenburg to blow up again.
Editors shouted "Boy! Copy!" and sat at the city desk playing a card game with cards so old they were soft. Slap, slap, went the cards, and then you heard the doughy flutter of another shuffle.
Who were these guys? What was the name of the game? Whatever it was, a British publisher named Robert Maxwell all but clinched a deal to buy the News yesterday, and the game is over.
Then again, that's what I thought back then. I was a trainee, an intruder from a terrible present, brought in as fresh blood. I used to feel as if I were walking through the Museum of Natural History, looking at dioramas, the Plains Indians in their tepees, that sort of thing, a gone world. Why did the sportswriters shout obscenities at each other all the time? And those women who sat at the desks in the vast hush of the women's section, some wearing hats -- what exactly did they do? Was it true the big old Speed Graphics were still in the photo department stockroom?
I knew better than to ask. The card players resented trainees. We were wise-guy college graduates, the shock troops of the very 1960s they hated.
They suspected we wanted to write for the News without paying our dues, without spending years sitting on the copy boys' bench in the middle of the room, hauling french fries and coffee for quarter tips. They knew that when we looked out the dirty windows we didn't see the same New York they saw. They were right.
We saw Black Panthers, riots, anti-war demonstrations, gay rebellion, marijuana and the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East.
They saw New York, N.Y., a fabulous town where the Bronx was up and the Battery down, with Friday night fights and a Sunday kind of love, heat waves and crime waves, ferryboats and cafe society, a city of 8 million working stiffs, tycoons, coeds, hubbies, moms, starlets, shylocks, heiresses, bookies and socialites who were oh-so-snooty, all watched over by Irish cops who had big hearts and Italian headwaiters who had none.
Jews were a powerful but benevolent mystery, Puerto Ricans didn't exist, and there were hardly any blacks at all except for the boxers on the back page, their faces turned to rubber by a knockout punch and the flash-frozen spray leaping off the backs of their heads.
A cub reporter was coming in from Brooklyn one day and saw a gigantic fire, people jumping, mothers tossing babies out of windows, the works.
He called the city desk, which had one question: "Black or white?"
Black, said the reporter.
"Give it to the Brooklyn page," said the desk, and went back to the card game, and 1948.
There were all the men: con men, hit men, bag men who delivered hush money and then got caught by G-men after FBI wiretaps were ordered by J. Edgar Hoover, who was god.
And the girls: B-girls, call girls, showgirls, girls Friday. Leggy lovelies and glamour pusses were curvaceous and statuesque.
Joseph Medill Patterson, who co-founded the News in 1919, had broken with Franklin Roosevelt, and the editorials had turned into frothing rants against any trace of liberalism. Steve Allen used to shout them out on his television show, for laughs. Reds! Weirdos! The United Nations was "the glass cigar box on the East River."
The editorials were written by Reuben Maury, a bent old man with a vest, a shaved head and his shoulders up around his ears. Every afternoon when he'd finished savaging the pinkos and State Department cookie pushers, he went into the men's room with a towel, a bar of soap in a soap dish, and a scrub brush. He rolled up his sleeves, and gave his hands a surgical scrub-down. News old-timers liked to boast that he also used to write liberal editorials for Colliers magazine -- it was all in a day's work for a pro like him.
Such strange creatures. Mornings the press agents (known in the newsroom as the United Jewish Appeal) would line up to pitch their clients to the columnists, Bob Sylvester and whoever was writing Ed Sullivan's stuff. The idea was to get "a mention," turn their clients into "an item." It helped if the press agents had snappy lines: "Watch out for the new drink at Joey Vitale's Kit Kat Klub -- they call it the Bowling Ball because three of them and you're in the gutter."
Afternoons, a bookie known as The Ear would come through to pick up bets.
"Hey, Ear," somebody would say. He was missing an ear. He'd been born that way, it looked like, with a question-mark patch of flat skin where his ear should have been, just a lobe sticking out.
"Gimme Tuesday's Child in the fifth at Hialeah and if he wins put it all on Getaway in the seventh."
"I don't take if-money," The Ear would say.
A guy from outside the paper had us place bets with The Ear. All fall, the guy kept winning. We followed his money. We won too. At Christmas, The Ear bought us a bottle of whiskey. How strange, I thought, until I saw too late that The Ear knew something we didn't -- that time was on his side. Our luck ended before the year was out and it never came back. Where is The Ear now?
Where is the copy editor who used to get so drunk that his jaws locked and he could only grunt? Where are all the old headline writers who were forgotten novelists living in West Side hotels and spending dinner hours on the phone to children who lived far away? I was privileged to be present one night when they debated the precise difference between calling someone a "Mafia Big" and a "Mafia Biggie." I think "biggie" was held to be more colloquial.
What I'd hoped was that the News would someday shed its hokey resentment and return to its founding dream of working-class heroism, the sort of thing that was enshrined on the front of the building in 1930 by a social-realist mural showing the rays of the sun, the blessings of Heaven itself, reaching down past skyscrapers to the heroic masses -- a man carrying a sack, a kid with a dog, a cop, a businessman, a woman in a shawl, the men in hats, all of them toiling away beneath the words: HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM. Which is from a line attributed to Lincoln: "God must have loved common-looking people -- He made so many of them."
This sort of sentiment wasn't fashionable in the '60s or the '70s. In the past few years, with Reagan and Bush making it safe for Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch U.S.A. to feel proud of themselves again, I thought the News was looking better, it might come back. The problem was, it had no place to come back to. Its New York had vanished.
A Daily News headline said it back in the '70s when President Ford blocked a loan to the city: FORD TO NEW YORK -- DROP DEAD. The Irish and Italians had left, the cops lived on Long Island, and Manhattan was being fought over by monstrosities -- the homeless on one side and yuppie millionaires on the other, a bonfire of many vanities.
Too bad. I don't know if the News's 1948 New York ever really existed, but I learned a lot from being in that newsroom when people still thought it did.