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Excerpt: Just Enough Liebling

In a piece from the new collection of classic work by the legendary New Yorker writer, the author recounts his first, fumbling attempts at a career in journalism.

By A.J. Liebling - October 8, 2004

NOVEMBER 6, 1947

A police reporter sees more than he can set down; a feature writer sets down more than he possibly can have seen. I was eager to get a job as a police reporter after I took my degree. As a maraschino cherry on the sundae of academic absurdity, the degree was entitled Bachelor of Literature, although what literature had to do with rewriting the Times paragraphs I never found out. I went swimming on commencement day.

There were no police jobs going; in fact for a while there seemed to be no jobs going at all for beginners. The assistant city editor—I seldom got as far as the city editor himself—would ask me if I had had experience in Denver or Texas. They seemed to think it cheeky for a New Yorker to ask for a job. Translating the Italian book for Max and Denison, I had read a lot about the immigrant custom of getting a job in a firm and then bringing on all one's paesani, peasants from the same village in Apulia or Lucania. It seemed to be an old custom in New York newspaper offices too, except that the paesani came from places like Binghamton and East St. Louis.

I have always thought that a dozen young men fresh out of the top third of the senior class in the liberal-arts course at Columbia, N.Y.U., C.C.N.Y., or Brooklyn College would make a more valuable reinforcement for a newspaper staff than the same number of men freshly arrived from the bush with ten years' small-city experience apiece. The New York boys would be more mature emotionally and more literate. They would have a local news background acquired from reading New York newspapers all their lives. Also they would romanticize themselves less. I have known out-of-towners on newspapers whose primary urge toward journalism had been a consuming desire to escape from Iowa.

I know this is a controversial subject, and I seem to be the only one on my side of the controversy, due to the continuous rumble of logs being rolled for one another by the staunch Hoosier-Sooners and Razor-backed Rocky Mountain Boys, but I am sure I've got something.

I looked about for a job for portions of six weeks. It was summer, and the beach at Far Rockaway diverted me from job hunting pretty often. Then a copyreader named Laurence J. Spiker in the sports department of the Times called Professor Cooper one day and asked the old boy if he had an ex-student with the makings of a copyreader. By this, I presume, he meant a broad bottom and a captious disposition. Coop recommended me, and I went unromantically to work sitting down. In the back of my mind was the thought that after a tour of sedentary duty I might convince some editor I had experience enough to use my legs. This was a faulty line of thought, for trained copyreaders are usually harder to find than reporters, and few editors will turn an experienced copyreader into an inexperienced outside man. It often, but not always, works the other way—when a fellow's legs give out he comes inside, providing he can read and write.

In addition to the frustrated reporters who know exactly how a story should be covered because they have never covered one, and the superannuated reporters who are just resting their feet, there are in every newspaper office the congenital, aboriginal, intramurals. They are to be distinguished from the frustrates because they have never even wanted to see the world outside. They come to newspapers like monks to cloisters or worms to apples. They are the dedicated. All of them are fated to be editors except the ones that get killed off by the lunches they eat at their desks until even the most drastic purgatives lose all effect upon them. The survivors of gastric disorders rise to minor executive jobs and then major ones, and the reign of these nonwriters makes our newspapers read like the food in The New York Times cafeteria tastes. It is as if, in football, only bad players were allowed to become coaches. Indifference to language thus becomes hierarchized. The proprietor wouldn't know decent writing if he saw it; the managing editor wouldn't know decent writing if he saw it. No one who even aspires to be a managing editor will admit knowing anything about writing if he knows what is good for him.

At any rate, I went to work. It was arranged that I was to receive eight dollars a day, six days a week. My pay was on a daily basis so that, if the Times found my work inadequate, it would not feel obliged to give me a week's notice. It was a paper with sensibilities. After I had worked there five months I was raised to 50 dollars a week. My parents moved back to Manhattan from Long Island in the fall of 1925, and since they insisted that I live rent-free with them in an apartment hotel near Central Park, I found my salary more than adequate. This gave me a less than realistic first impression of the economic aspect of newspaper work.

I spent eight months on the Times, and they gave me my first and, I am thankful, only sample of what must be the common experience of the great majority of workers—a clean, painless job without any intrinsic interest. Sports copyreading is as easy to learn as how to play a fair game of anagrams. You check on scores: for example, you make sure, in basketball, that the field goals and foul goals do not add up to more or less than the final score. If they don't check, you give some player a couple of extra points, or maybe deprive him of one or two. This goes for baseball, football, and any other game you can think of. We never did have a copyreader who could fathom a cricket score, so that copy always went to type just as it was brought in, handwritten, by a long-haired British gentleman who attended the matches, most of which, I think, were held on Staten Island. Reader interest was nil, but Major Thomson, the sports editor, thought cricket high class. The cricket correspondent also covered chess matches. There was a copyreader, John Drebinger, who understood what the chess reports were about, and he would sometimes protest at the small size of the headline he was ordered to put over a chess story. "That's a hot match!" he would complain. "Lasker held to a draw in 63 moves!" We called him Bogglejobble, after the Russian chess-master, Bogoljubow, one of his favorites.

* * *

This Thomson was an extraordinary sort for a sports editor. He was a Canadian of the type that plays British, and had been a captain in the First World War, but he seemed more like an old trouper than an old trooper. He was a tall man with a purplish face and black hair parted in the middle. He liked to wear colored silk shirts, white flannel pants, and white buckskin shoes in summer. He walked with long, determined strides, as if he were continually on his way to do something important (but what?), and he acknowledged a profound dislike for sports of all kinds. Frederick P. Birchall, the managing editor of the Times> was British and choleric and walked the same way. I am not in a position to say that the sports editor patterned his manner on Birchall's, since I had known neither before their conjuncture on the Times, but I have noticed a mimetic tendency among executives on other papers. It is a constant of the newspaper business.

The very existence of the Times sports section marked a concession to frivolity on the part of Adolph Ochs, the great merchandiser of stodginess, but the old man had determined that if he had to have a sports page at all, it would be as uninteresting as possible. Thomson was an ideal choice to keep it that way.

One night some boy with pimples in his voice called up from Brooklyn to tell the Times about a particularly unfascinating contest between two Catholic-school fives. I took the call and noted down all the drear details until I got to who was the referee. "Who was he?" I asked. "I don't know," the kid said, "and anyway I ain't got any more nickels." So he hung up. We couldn't use a basketball score in the Times without the name of the referee. So I wrote in "Ignoto," which means "unknown" in Italian. Nobody caught on, and after a while I had Ignoto refereeing a lot of basketball games, all around town. Then I began bragging about it, and after a short while my feeble jest came to the ears of Thomson.

"God knows what you will do next, young man," he told me after the first edition had gone to press on a bitter night in March. "You are irresponsible. Not a Times type. Go."

So I lost my first newspaper job.

This is excerpted from Just Enough Liebling, by A.J. Liebling. Compilation copyright © 2004 by the Estate of A.J. Liebling and the Monsell Estate, and published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Most essays in this work originally appeared in The New Yorker in slightly different form. You can buy Just Enough Liebling at Amazon.com.



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