Tuesday, July 30, 2019

"Now Neil, no more than TWO columns about this."

Not to mention a view, too. 

     The Sun-Times used to have a library—a large one—and librarians, who acquired books and wrangled microfilm, filled clip files and aided reporters searching for information.
      Over the years, as the paper condensed and economized, the library shrank, the librarians were dismissed or died. One awful day the whole thing was eliminated, root and branch, and, as the rare person who actually used the resources there, as opposed to merely dipping my fingers into the internet to flick out a few drops of fact, I took it upon myself to load up rolling cart after rolling cart of books and convey them to my office, along with as many bookshelves as would fit, including a pair of tall, heavy, library-quality wooden shelves. They were seven feet tall. 
     The building maintenance man—who also seems to be gone, now that I think of it—must have helped me, and the shelves must have been unsteady, because under one he tucked a  shim—a thin, splintery slice of wood—to keep it stable. The shim projected an inch from the bottom of the shelf.
      I don't know why this bothered me. Maybe I was upset about the library. Maybe I'm just anal-retentive and annoyed by small things. But I figured I would push the shim forward, so it would be out of sight under the shelf. A simple process. Just gently rock the shelf back, and push the shim in. But I wasn't quick enough to nudge the shelf back then dip down to jam in the shim before the shelf forward again. So I tried again. Rock the shelf back, dip, push the shim.The second time it went in, but only a little, and was still jutting out. So I pushed the shelf back, a bit harder, dipped down to push the shim, tried again, pushed the shelf backward, harder, but this time whole shelf rocked forward and kept going.
     I had time to think, "Oh shit" as the big wooden library shelf pitched atop of me, raining books as it went. A crash was involved, or boom, or noise loud enough to send half the newsroom running to see. 
     So here's the scene. My small office. One fallen bookshelf lying atop dozens of jumbled books and someone beneath it all, a man whose command of the physical world has never been what it ought to be. The assembled crowd took it in in what must have been silent awe, a silence broken by a colleague saying, "Now Neil, no more than TWO columns about this."  General laughter, at least in my recollection. Then hands lifting the shelf off and I crawled out, amazingly unhurt.
     We got the bookshelf back upright. I made sure the shim was tucked out of sight, and began to slowly return the books to their places, chewing on that comment. "Now Neil, no more than TWO columns about this."
     Yes, I have a tendency to write about personal matters. A process that both elevates me, in my own estimation, and ostracizes me, in the views of other reporters. A real journalist, in the eyes of many, goes to meetings. He paws through piles of official documents, discovering financial improprieties that result in actual news, stories of wrong-doing or corruption. The public, the theory goes, has an endless appetite for this. I'm not so sure. I certainly don't.  That has never interested me, not in the way the small occurrences of people's lives, including my own, do. I'd rather write about manhole covers than bring down an alderman.
      But I do think about what he said, at times like this week, when I embarked on writing about my spine surgery. I hadn't planned on it. I had planned on being off work until the end of August. But lying around the house got dull. I was plugging away at the blog, so obviously could write stuff. I wanted to jump back in, early, and needed a topic. I thought about weighing in on the mayor's crack about a Fraternal Order of Police official, pointing out that the FOP are, if not actual clowns—they aren't funny, at least not in the ha-ha funny way that actual circus clowns are— then certainly an organization which couldn't do more to undermine the public image of the Chicago Police Department if that were their intended purpose. I could collect a Greatest Hits of tone-deaf, counterproductive FOP pronouncements on the frequent jaw-dropping misdeeds of police officers, while mentioning that I had only admiration for Lori Lightfoot's sneering non-apology, her crack that she was sorry she had said it aloud. I'm not. I'm glad. I wish she put it on a billboard.  
     But that seemed a small observation to build an entire column around and carried the risk of being dated—the kerfuffle had been going on for a few days already. Besides, I had already had my neck cut open. Did I want to return by immediately shoving my arm into the CPD's cage and letting them chew on that too? 
     So I wrote what I thought was something interesting on the surgery, a piece which turned out to be 2,500 words long. That would be a massive article in the paper, so I decided to whittle 400 words away and run it over three days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That way, I wouldn't have to talk to my bosses or ask anybody for extra space. 
    But jeez, it was also THREE columns. I used to say that if I came upon Jesus Christ preaching the Sermon on the Mount in Grant Park, I would only write two columns. Because people get bored. Nothing is worth three columns. And here I went and did it.
    Why? I found the topic interesting. I wanted to convey the tale. But then I'm biased. I like medical stories. And it's about me, and something I just went through. The first installment ran Monday, and the public seemed to like it. I got dozens of replies--50, easily—which is a decent number. Turns out, lots of people have had that surgery, or were contemplating it, and one role of a newspaper is to reflect readers' experience back at them. 
     So why tell the bookshelf story? Well, first, it's Tuesday, 5 a.m., and I realized I had better get something up here—I spent yesterday finishing the second and third installments of the surgery series, and went downtown to research a column I'm running next week. I didn't bother to write anything for here. The personal nature of the surgery story made me think of that colleague's quip. As did, I suppose, returning to the office for the first time in a few weeks. 
     There is a coda to the bookshelf story, one that I'm not entirely proud of, but that I'll share anything because, heck, I guess  I just can't help myself. A friend who works at a big publishing house in New York called me. The guy who had needled me while I was still under the toppled shelf had sent her a book proposal of his own. Did I, she wondered, know him? 
    "Yeah," I said. "A little. He's a jerk." 
    She asked what he did at the paper.
    "I have no idea," I said. "Some kind of consultant I guess." 
    Oh, she said. From his letter, I got the impression that he was somebody important, a key editor, the axis on which the entire operation revolves.
    "No," I said. "Not as far as I can tell."
     I urged her to avoid him, and she rejected his proposal. Which felt good, at the moment. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Though now it just seems petty. Which is okay too. What's the Nicholas Cage line from "Moonstruck"?— "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice."  My office at the new place is so small there's no room for tall bookshelves, so I'm safe. 


  1. I think the bookshelf story resonates as much or more than the surgery. There are far more clumsy clueless oafs risking life and limb in daily encounters with an unforgiving mechanical world than recipients of any kind of surgery. My favorite surgery story is that of the wife of a baseball player who played for both the Cubs and Sox, whose brain surgeon did 10 surgeries on the day he operated on her, and she was the only one who survived.


  2. You're a Legend. You can write as many columns as you like. Although one more column about the dork you worked with could be interesting. Of course, that would make two.

  3. Although that must have been scary abs embarrassing, that was a funny quip by your colleague. Did he publish his book elsewhere?

  4. My short stay at the Sun-Times included a very temporary transfer to the library staff, where only those with MLS degrees were allowed to perform actual library tasks...the classifying, the microfilming, the research needed for stories. Consequently, I was assigned the tedious task of reshelving the clip files in what was still called "the morgue"...just like in any newspaper movie from the Thirties. Dead clippings about a whole lot of dead people.

    In the late Seventies, when computers were just being introduced to the newsroom and the internet was still in the distant future, the morgue was huge. Its vast repository of clip file folders held countless brittle and yellowing stories that went back decades. The labels on the files included the entire spectrum of society...from celebrities to cop-killers...royalty to railroad conductors.

    As I was on the overnight shift, I could pull any file at will, and peruse it at my leisure, something I spent far too much time doing. The biggest names had the fattest files, and sometimes their names took up entire shelves of folders. A feature writer once told me that the forty years of data on Frank Sinatra would
    easily fill a 62-page "extra" edition upon his demise...and the more suddenly and unexpectedly, the better.

    That coverage (and Frank's obit) didn't happen until twenty years later, but I was still there when Daley the Elder and Elvis died. There was nothing in the world like a big-city newsroom when a "flash" came over the wire and a major story broke. I say 'was' because those days are gone forever...over a long time ago. Oh, yeah...

  5. I very much appreciate you writing about your surgery since I'm getting to the age where this kind of thing is not out of the realm of possibility for me. Many journalists would specifically avoid sharing such an intimate, personal tale but I find it most valuable. btw, perhaps needless to say, if you do decide to write about manhole covers I'm sure you know you need go no further than your bud Bill Savage's Twitter feed on #ManholeCoverMonday.

    1. That I do. Bill and I have already conversed about the steel discs of fascination, and I've talked to a few others too, including the artist who coined the term "Manhole Cover Monday. I had a captivating interview with a guy at Neenah Foundry yesterday, and am hoping to get it in the paper Monday.

    2. Way cool! Neenah seems to make a majority of the manholes in this area. Almost got up to the their factory once. Looking forward to your piece.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.