I was an unemployed journalist flying in for a job interview. Wearing khakis for the first time in decades, I was hurdling toward Meeting Strangers, my biggest fear in life
I was scared. What If these people hate me? What if I hate them? What if I don’t fit in? What if I black out on AP style for backyard? Does this city’s name really translate to “Dead Jesus?” And what WAS the deal with Elmer Fudd and Bugs in a dress? OK, my mind tends to wander under pressure.
Then I got the text from the guy picking me up at the airport. “Just look for the baseball cap.”
He was standing at the gate with that look that says “Driving to the airport sucks, but it’s still better than settling disagreements between subjects and verbs.” He had a slow, easy drawl that reminded me of so many nights at Sonic with Combest. Untucked shirt, pants with 12 pockets on them, old running shoes. And a baseball cap with a perfectly curved brim. At that moment, I knew things would be OK.
Copy desks always have that one person. Part workhouse, part comedian, part encyclopedia. He was that guy. He worked the slot, that unenviable job where nobody notices as long as you’re perfect, and everyone screams when you’re not.
He would stand next to my desk with three minutes before deadline, calmly looking over my proof and then pointing out with a minute to go, “This page is ready except that you’ve got the word “Ratfucker” in a 60-point hed at the top of the page. You should probably change that, or at least make it two words.” He had “the good eye,” that ability to spot all the stuff you’ve screwed up in the panicky rush that happens in daily journalism.
But he also was a poet. On incredibly tight deadlines, he would write headlines that make you remember why you went into the business. I don’t know how many times I read his work thinking “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that hed? and mentally storing it to steal at a later date. He was a member of the Scripps Hall of Fame for his headlines. Sure, he was inducted during The Drug Era and will forever have an asterisk next to his name for the excessive amount of caffeine he ingested to stay on top of his game, but still. He had The Gift.
But mostly, he was like living with a character from “Northern Exposure,” one of those slightly odd people you rarely come across in life who make you think it’s OK to be a human being after all. He always made me laugh, which is the most precious commodity you can have in a business where you usually just want to cry. His low-key hysterics made me blush, and wince, and howl, and always wonder just what the hell WAS that food order that he placed with my podmate once a week. He made work fun. What more could you ask for?
And then one day, he was gone. He’s a new dad, which weirdly enough seems to be taking a priority over writing headlines like
and such that you crank out on deadline for godless designers who sometimes forget that it’s hard to sum up a story about misogynistic anthropologists in a 42-point one col hed spec.
People come and go in this business. It’s an occupational hazard. Never get too close to the guy in the next foxhole. That way it won’t hurt so much when he’s not there the next day.
This one hurts. A lot.
On the bright side, anytime I see Bugs Bunny in a dress, I’ll think of him …