Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Digging in at the Los Angeles Times: memoir 17

Sections of the LA Times' building were under renovation in 1978. I wondered about the paint-splattered tarpaulins hanging from ceilings and the pounding of hammers that echoed among the marbled walls and floors. Workmen with tool belts got on and off elevators.
     "They're installing VDTs," Art Seidenbaum told us. He meant Video Display Terminals. Computers. We'd get help learning how to use them, but how strange they were. Big and boxy like a TV on your desk, a green screen.
     Book Review shared the massive fourth floor with all the other reporters and critics for the arts: film, music, dance, TV. They wrote on black Underwood typewriters. I loved the clickity-clack symphony mingled with phones ringing and shouts. Someone always seemed to be yelling over the top of their pod to a colleague with a question, a coffee order, or to discuss interviews with celebrities and film stars. By osmosis I learned the scuttle on who was gay or cheating on a spouse, romances sparked, hearts broken. Everyone was blasé, but I buzzed, wanting to be one of them, gathering info then writing about it. 
     One morning I answered the phone and it was Ray Bradbury, the famous science fiction writer and one of my idols. He reviewed books for Art and they were friends. When Art told me that "Ray" disciplined himself to write every single day, I decided to challenge myself to do the same. Something, anything. Just sit down at my card table by the window that looked out at the ocean and begin typing. I would try to craft stories, even if no one would ever read them. 
     The Times Op-Ed page often published personal essays, so I began submitting 500-word observations about life and characters in Southern California. One by one they were rejected. A note saying, "Too much purple prose," suggested I delete flowery adjectives, and another comment, "Not for us, but keep trying" spurred me back to my little typewriter.
     "Okay," I thought. "I'll just keep trying."

From BLUE SKIES: ONE AUTHOR'S JOURNEY, to be published this Fall.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First day at the Los Angeles Times: memoir 16

Being able to work at one of the largest newspapers in the world was an extravagant thrill. From my journal of October 30, 1978:
     Well, 1st day at LA Times finally arrived! Book Review is on the 4th floor. Took elevator. Restroom stop. Rebrushed my hair, added lip gloss and checked for bad breath. Tried to act calm, collected, and like I'd always worked there. Me. Working at the Los Angeles Times. Only eight months ago I was moping around campus, feigning interest in the school newspaper and mundane classes. If I'd known then.
     Art Seidenbaum welcomed me with an invite into his cozy, cluttered office. He looked marvelous in a gray V-neck sweater, blue shirt and gray pants. Very literary, college professor-ish, a perfect outfit for the cold gray day outside. We chatted for a few moments then I was off to calling the bookstores for their bestsellers.
     I finally figured out how to wander around without appearing to be wandering. You grab a pencil, a stack of something or other like papers or manila folders and saunter with a deep-in-thought look on your face. Nobody would ever guess it was your first day.
     Because Art was the new editor, a New York publisher came with her photographer to learn about the review process. She wanted our small staff for some photos, so five of us gathered in front of the opened book cupboards to show off our stacks of hopefully-to-be-reviewed books.
     About that time Jack Smith wandered in.
     "My, but you're looking dapper today, Jack," Art said.
     "Yes, I have my new jacket on." He stood there looking amused and crisp in his green plaid coat and slim slacks.
     So that's Jack Smith! Finally, those grand columns of Paris, his Airedale and Baja vacations came to life. There really was a Jack Smith!
     He seemed quiet. A friendly quiet, though. He was thinner and smaller than I'd imagined. Appropriately gray for a grandfather. I liked him. I mean, I had always adored his writing and colorful adventures and perused his stories every day they appeared in the Times.
     But here he was, a real living fellow, all dressed up like he was going to take his wife out to lunch or go to a book store and sign autographs for Spend All Your Kisses, Mr. Smith. Art was kind enough to introduce us. I tried not to seem too eager when I shook his hand.
     "I'm happy to meet you, Mr. Smith." I had my pencil safely in the other hand and an armload of papers. I wondered if he knew the truth.
     He smiled. "Thank you."
     I know he'll never remember that moment in a million years and maybe he'll never know how dumb I felt or how thrilled.
     Funny. A spare moment in his life made a whole day out of mine.
From BLUE SKIES: ONE AUTHOR'S JOURNEY, to be published this Fall.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book reviewer, LA Times: memoir 15

In 1977 the campus of Cal State Dominquez Hills was a quick drive from Manhattan Beach. In my quest to be a writer, I had signed up for a class taught by a familiar name: Art Seidenbaum. I felt I knew him from the years of reading his thrice-weekly column about culture and oddball life in the LA Times.
     He welcomed us students as if all were his friends, insisting we call him by his first name. Art was bald with great bushy eyebrows and a smoker's deep voice. His cheer and quick humor put us at ease. When it came time to read our assignments aloud some of us raised our hands only as far as a ribcage, but he spotted the shy ones and called on us. He was kind. At the end of the semester, he and his wife Patty hosted a party at his home in the hills of West Los Angeles. RSVP-ing was easy. His name and number were listed in the phone book.
reviewing book, age 2
     After Charlie Ferrell had hired me for his associate at Southern California Business, Art sent congratulations, which began our friendly correspondence lasting until his death, more than two decades. I thrilled to find a letter in my mailbox from The Times with "Seidenbaum" typed in the upper left-hand corner. When he was named Book Editor in 1978, I wrote to him and asked if he would please trust me to be one of his reviewers. I confessed that my only qualifications were that I loved to read and that in 6th grade I got an A+ for my report on Rascal by Sterling North.
     Two days later a padded envelope arrived with a book inside, and a brief note: write 250 words, pay will be $50 upon publication probably the following month. I about came unglued. I scoured the book, spent a couple days writing and rewriting. How could I possibly summarize in just 250 words? I counted each one and did not exceed the limit. It was my first review of what would be hundreds over the next twelve years.
     A few weeks later I answered the phone, "Southern California Business, may I help you?"
     I recognized Art's deep voice.
     "I need an assistant," he began.
     "It's only part-time though, compiling the local bestseller list and some editing. Would that interest you?"
     "Yes!" It felt as though I shouted, but no one in the office looked up. Their heads were down working or they talked on phones.
     "Come for coffee and we'll talk."
     I grabbed my purse and drove the few blocks to The Times. Parked. Walked slowly through sidewalk crowds, staring up at the imposing stone building. Wow, I kept thinking.
     A guard in the lobby asked my name. My heart pounded, seriously it did, from nerves and excitement. I could hardly believe I was at the Los Angeles Times.
     Art took me upstairs to the cafeteria for coffee. I chatted his ear off I'm sure, so elated and now revved up on caffeine. "Thank you," I said several times.
     He had a bemused smile. "When can you start?"

From BLUE SKIES: ONE'S AUTHOR'S JOURNEY, to be published this Fall.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Assistant editor: memoir 14

When Charlie Ferrell became editor of Southern California Business, the weekly publication for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, he hired me as his assistant. It was 1978. The first day of my first real job, I had no idea what to expect. 
     I drove my white Datsun 510 station wagon into downtown Los Angeles, the ashtray full and my eight-track tape blaring Fleetwood Mac. The Chamber had been started way back in 1888 by businessmen who wanted a deep-water harbor, and also to increase the population -- at the time 1,000 people were leaving the city each month. The Chamber succeeded, boy did they! Rush hour traffic now took nearly ninety minutes from the beach.
fave desk things: pens & dictionary
     Charlie had my desk ready with a typewriter, a stack of brown newsprint, pens, and a reporter's 4x8 spiral notebook. My first assignment was a board meeting in just three hours. I nearly panicked. I'd never done this before, written about corporate stuff. This wasn't going to be a parade with candy.
     The conference room was cavernous. At noon I settled into a back corner and scribbled notes while the suited businessmen and women ate lunch. Prone to daydreaming, and nervous I'd zone out, I taped the whole thing on my little Panasonic--for the first and last time! It meant returning to my desk and re-listening to tortuous minutes of a droning voice, and then typing the report and turning it in to Charlie. From then on I resolved to pay attention and try to get it right the first time. Alas, he rejected my story. I've saved it all these years, so here it is:
     Hanauer spilled his iced tea. His neck and ears turned red. What a mess. Then he stretched a stiff smile over his glaring teeth. The maitre d' scurried over and with the white linen napkins soaked up the spreading tea. The lady next to him scooted her chair from the table, dabbing at her dress. The maitre d' brought another glass of tea. And a bowl of yellow custard.
     Okay, obviously I didn't have a clue about writing a business story. How do you even start? I thumbed through some back issues of the SCB paper and found a familiar lead from my Reporting 101 class called, A Question. As in, "Why did the chairman yawn in the middle of his speech?" That helped a lot. Those first months of reporting events, I started many articles with A Question, but the main one pounding in my brain was, "How on earth am I going to pull this off?"
     I fumbled my way. In addition to my SCB salary, the Chamber began paying me $25 per news release. I was getting the hang of things.

From BLUE SKIES: ONE AUTHOR'S JOURNEY, to be published this Fall.