Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Telegram-Tribune gossip: memoir 22

Two months after the 1980 election, we gathered in the Telegram-Tribune newsroom near a radio turned up loud. We listened to Ronald Reagan's swearing-in as our 40th president then his inaugural address. This same day -- January 20, 1981 -- we also heard crowds cheer for the American hostages in Iran. After being held 444 days, they were finally freed.  
     I loved being around editors and reporters, especially during historic events such as this. Conversations sizzled, no topic too gruesome or mundane: politics, movies, shark attacks, British royalty. Oh yes, top of the news: In February Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer ("Shy Di") were getting married! In July! And it would be televised!
     My ancestors fought in the war of Independence against England, but never mind. I tracked royal news like a Tory. Blame this fascination on a Disney childhood of castles and princesses, and my Barbie doll in a white gown, the perfect bride for Ken. Ah, romance. Since weddings were still my beat, I would watch the extravaganza then write a column. Just five months away, it would be my best yet.
     Meanwhile, newspapers were transitioning to computers. Typewriters at the Telegram-Tribune moved to the corner of a desk or into a storeroom. Teletypes still chugged, phones still rang, but the newsroom quieted. Even chatter among reporters softened because now we sent one another messages. Silent, stealth-like, we appeared to be focused on a story, but actually someone was inviting everyone to a party that night and someone else needed a ride home. We arranged lunch dates or quarreled without making eye contact. Liz screamed at me in all caps, BITCH WHY DID YOU TELL PAUL I'M A LESBIAN???
     Lesson learned: gossip whispered to one person -- true or not -- could now reach an entire newsroom in seconds.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'A real reporter': memoir 21

Two of my favorite co-workers at the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune were City Editor Jeff Fairbanks and his wife Ann Fairbanks. I noticed that when she typed her stories, she read them aloud to herself. I asked why and she explained it helped her hear the cadence of language and to catch repeated words. She was a wonderful writer and I was like a little monkey imitating her. I adopted her habit and have practiced it ever since. When Jeff assigned me the Friday night beat, I was excited. From my journal of October 25, 1980:
It's Saturday morning 1:30 a.m. Can you believe I just drove over 100 miles, wrote a front-page story for today's morning edition and I'm wide awake? The last hour just as I was cleaning the debris from my desk, a call came over the police radio. A woman was lying face down in the middle of Cuesta Grade, northbound lane. So off I went. Got there before the cops. A truck driver, clean-cut, slight build Latino was holding the woman in his arms, speaking Spanish in her hair. She'd evidently just stopped her car on the shoulder, gotten out & passed out. In a few minutes about six CHP and Sheriff's cars screeched up, lights flashing. No one knew what to do & they wondered among themselves whose jurisdiction this was. The truck driver had draped his coat over the now sobbing woman and shielded her face from the many flashlights. He was so tender with her, even as she vomited all over his trousers. A nurse arrived & squinted at the bottles of pills found in the woman's purse. Sleeping pills & tranquilizers. But not enough missing to be serious. They called an ambulance & I shivered back to my car. I didn't get the truck driver's name and the Sheriff just shrugged, "No story."
     Well it looked like a story to me. I drove down Cuesta Grade like a mad woman, composing the lead sentence in my mind. At the paper I hurried from the parking lot, tossed the keys on my desk and started typing: "Stars like chips of ice blinked in the chill air ... "
     The next morning, I discovered a new addiction: the exhilaration of having written an article then hours later seeing it in print and being told by your co-workers that it wasn't half bad. The big guns editor, George Brand, said, "Great. Lead was excellent. Loved your details about the stars." When I told him about the rushing Friday night & writing with a 30-minute deadline he said, "Now that's a real reporter."

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In the newsroom: memoir 20

Though just a newsroom aide at the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune ($5/hour), I was thrilled it involved writing: weather reports, wedding and anniversary blubs and -- most fascinating of all -- obituaries. By 8 a.m. the funeral homes would call with the death notices and I would then try to shape the nicest stories out of the grimmest details. Sometimes I phoned family members to learn more about their loved one so that the obit could have a little warmth.
    Since the T-T was an afternoon paper, my deadline was 10 a.m.
    With the phone cradled on my shoulder, I wrote in a spiral notebook then typed. After observing the reporters, I weaned myself away from this middle step, soon able to imitate them by typing while on the phone. I loved the ding of the return bar and the clickity-swooosh when you pulled paper out of the inked roller. Final step, walking it over to the editor's in-basket.
    It might sound macabre, but I loved writing these short stories, as I called them.
    I got permission to visit local Funeral Homes. Having never attended a memorial or even known anyone who died, I was curious what went on there. Also, I wanted to meet the voices behind the morning calls. These solemn men in dark suits oozed compassion and were gracious about giving a tour. My footsteps were silent on the plush carpet as I crept near an open casket. I touched the pale hand that lay across the chest. Cold as marble. Okay. So now I knew. Obits usually led by name, age, and date-of-death, but I tried to begin with a fun tidbit. From my clippings:  
Emil J. Johnson, a Swedish immigrant who narrowly missed sinking with the Titanic, has died at the age of 91. When the 22-year old discovered another ship was to throw an Easter party, he changed tickets at the last minute ...
      An elder reporter, Betty, aka "The Battle Ax," confronted me one day at my desk. Her angry voice carried through the newsroom as typewriters fell silent and heads turned our way.
     "WHO told you to write obituaries that way?" she demanded.
     I was still new and innocent about her reputation for demoralizing writers. "It just seems more interesting this way," I told her.
     Five seconds is a long time when all eyes are on you. Finally Betty said, "Oh." As she turned to storm through the newsroom, heads whipped down and the cacophony resumed. Later one of the reporters, Ann Fairbanks, said, "Way to go, Kristi. We were scared you wouldn't be able to stand up to her."

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Crazy to quit the LA Times: memoir 19

"You're crazy to quit the LA Times!" Worried family and friends said this over and over.
     "Why must you give up this prestige and good income?"
     "You'll be poor."
     But my co-workers rooted for me. "Go. Get out of the Velvet Coffin while you can." One confessed that she had started there in advertising, hoping to become a reporter, but the non-union Times paid so well she didn't dare quit her cushy position.
     I feared failing, but more so I feared getting too comfortable and never leaving. The paycheck and the ocean out my front door could lull me into becoming a Beach Bum, but I needed more of a challenge.
    Still no openings at the Telegram-Tribune, I decided to move to San Luis Obispo anyway. I had friends there. Maybe in the meantime I could enroll at Cal Poly and work on my elusive degree.
     So in the early spring of 1980 I emptied my savings account, loaded my little station wagon and headed up the coast.
     The very afternoon I arrived, I visited the paper and introduced myself to Managing Editor John Marrs. Over the coming months I kept checking in with him while continuing to write reviews for The Times. Art Seidenbaum sent books along with greetings from our sportswriter and reviewer friends, including Alan Cheuse. To this day I'm happy to hear Alan's voice on NPR reviewing new releases for All Things Considered.
     While waiting, I applied for jobs in the classifieds that didn't require a college diploma. I lasted three days at a nursing home, not because of the bedpan chore, but seeing elderly people with no family made me sad. I trained at Happy Burger, wearing a blond hairnet with sensible black shoes, learning to stock the salad bar and wipe tables. When an accountant named Ed called and asked if I could start the next day, I practically screamed Yes! I ditched the hairnet and hid those clunkers in the back of my closet.
     All summer I worked in Ed's CPA office while he and his assistant Amy carried on a torrid affair. My main job was to field calls from his suspicious wife. When the duo disappeared behind a locked door and the walls thumped, my instructions were: "I'm sorry, but he's in a meeting. May I take a message?" One day Ed and Amy went to lunch and didn't return all afternoon.  That day his wife kept calling the office and finally asked if "they" were together.
    After six months of this, I was tired of lying for them.  "Yes," I answered.
    "I knew it!" she screamed and slammed down the phone.
    Then finally, FINALLY, the Telegram-Tribune offered me a job.

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Two kinds of writers: memoir 18

The more I edited book reviews at the LA Times, the more I realized I wanted to be a reporter. I needed experience though!
     When an office memo announced the famed Santa Barbara Writer's Conference I thought, aha! Eager to sign up, I wanted Art Seidenbaum's opinion. He sat at his typewriter in his book-cluttered office. When I tapped on the window, he swiveled his chair and waved me in.
     I bounced with enthusiasm. He listened. Then after he lit a cigarette he said, "Kristi, there're two kinds of writers. Those who attend conferences and those who stay home to write."
     Hmm. As I digested this, he said, "Go see Epstein."
     Bob Epstein was the View editor. He oversaw news and features for all the arts. I walked around the corner and down the hall, a bit nervous because we only had a nodding friendship. He was gracious and, like Art, he listened.
     "Bring me a scrapbook of published articles, this thick." With his thumb and forefinger, he indicated several inches. "Might take a year or two, but on a daily you'll get lots of experience. Then we'll talk."
     Thanking him, I hurried back to Art.
     He suggested The Telegram-Tribune in San Luis Obispo, four hours north by coastal highway. "It's a good daily," he said, "but it has the reputation of being rough on reporters. Chews 'em up then spits 'em out."
     I phoned the editor. No openings. But in my heart, I decided I would keep checking in with him and get ready to move.   

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