Joseph Roth has reminded me that I was hired for my first newspaper job 30 years ago this summer. The publisher of a weekly in Northwestern Ohio took a chance on a drunken 26-year-old college dropout who had never studied journalism and whose resume was paper-clipped to a stack of 5-year-old book reviews. I had worked for a car wash, a gas station, a miniature golf course and a sub shop, and as a clerk in a book store and a clerk/custodian for a library. I couldn’t type and still can’t. I had never met a deadline and couldn’t speak the Anglo-Saxon-sounding argot of the trade – slug, hed, lede, graf, widow. With that preparation I edited the Montpelier Leader-Enterprise for the final 16 months of its existence.
In a used bookstore on Sunday I found The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939, the English edition of Roth’s Report from a Parisian Paradise, which I read about five years ago. The title piece, which starts as a professional memoir and wanders into a contemplation of modernity, begins like this:
“I became a journalist one day out of despair over the complete inability of all other professions to satisfy me. I was not part of the generation that marked the beginning and end of its adolescence by scribbling poems. Nor did I belong to the very newest generation, which reaches sexual maturity by way of soccer, skiing, and boxing. I could never do more than ride a bicycle – I couldn’t even freewheel – and my literary talent was confined to making precise entries in a diary.”
That’s an accurate précis of me, circa 1979. I couldn’t do anything else very well so I went to work for a newspaper, and I have no regrets. It’s a young person’s business and requires stamina. I didn’t mind working 60 or 70 hours a week. It seemed exciting and glamorous even in the heart of the corn-and-soybean belt. I had an assistant editor (a home town girl, just out of college), a part-time sports editor who taught high-school science, and a society editor who also set headlines and sold classified ads. It was a picture-perfect small town paper except for me, the big-city kid with no interest in politics and government but who wanted to write about people (my models: Sherwood Anderson and A.J. Liebling). I covered town council and cops while writing features about the R.V. salesman who spent his weekends with a metal detector, hunting treasure, and the visionary pet-shop owner who thought tarantulas were the next big thing.
I didn’t know how good a time I was having – learning to write, interviewing strangers, riding with cops, on occasion even earning grudging respect. And I had a desk and typewriter of my own. Roth, a great novelist, writes:
“The `good observer’ is the sorriest reporter. He meets everything with open but inflexible eyes. He doesn’t attend to what’s going on in himself. But he should. Then at least, he would be able to report on the voices he hears. What he records is the voice of a single second. But who’s to say what other voices might sound as soon as he’s left his post? And by the time he’s set down his impression, the world has moved on.”