|My Brilliant Career (Part One)|
FEATURE by Willard Manus
I should have known right away that something was fishy when the guy interviewing me for a job at the Yonkers Daily Times abruptly asked, "What would you like to write?"
Say what? Here I was, a kid just out of college, a rookie journalist fully expecting to start his newspaper career by covering the police beat or high school sports, only to be invited to write whatever I liked--features, profiles, even editorials.
Editorials? My jaw almost dropped. What in hell did I know about politics or world affairs? What in hell did I know about anything?
I stared at the man interviewing me, Ralph Bertinelli, the Times' editor and publisher. He was in his thirties, slender, with black, slicked-back hair and wary, probing eyes. His plaid sportshirt was unbuttoned in the summer heat and showed clumps of black hair on his chest. Between his fingers was a smouldering cigar whose stench filled the tiny office.
"Sure," I said finally, "I'll write editorials if you like."
"Good," he said, then added, "Things are wide open around here. As the only reporter on the staff, you can write about whatever you choose. The rest of the paper we fill with boiler-plate stuff, things off the wire services. The paper is yours, really. Think you can hack it?"
I later learned that Ralph and his brother Gino rarely had anything to do with the news side of things. "They concentrate on distribution and other business matters," said Loretta, the only other person occupying a desk at the Times. A middle-aged, hard-boiled, chain-smoking woman, she handled the classified ads, did the layouts, and dealt with the printers downstairs.
The Times was a skimpy thing, rarely more than eight pages, but it appeared every afternoon and sold at least ten thousand newsstand copies without fail.
There was no appreciable drop-off in circulation when I began to write for the paper, not even when I began cranking out daily editorials. It was ludicrous, really: a 21-year-old kid with little more than baseball statistics in his head suddenly pontificating on the major issues of the day--the Korean War, the coup d'etat in Persia, the development of the Salk vaccine. The editorials read like juvenilia--badly thought-out, inelegantly-expressed juvenilia at that. But no one, especially my employers, seemed to mind.
"Keep it up, kid," was all that Ralph said, chewed-off cigar drooping from the corner of his mouth. "Keep giving us lots and lots of copy."
That I did. I not only wrote two daily editorials but phoned all over Yonkers in search of stories--City Hall, police headquarters, fraternal organizations, high school athletic departments. If something were urgent and hot, I hit the streets and called the story in to Ralph or Gino. The rest I pounded out in the office on an old upright Remington, the sweat streaking down my face, the nearby UPI teletype machine chattering away dementedly.
The pressure was intense; I always seemed to be on deadline with yet another feature to write, but I coped, I attacked those keys, I delivered. I filled the pages of the Yonkers Daily Times with my work, most of which (especially the editorials) made me wince with shame when the paper came off the press.
"I don't understand how anybody could read this crap and not complain to the paper," I said to Loretta one evening in the neighborhood bar where we had gone for beers and burgers.
"What makes you think anybody is reading this rag?" she replied.
"What do you mean? People buy the paper, don't they?"
"Some for the ads, mostly for the numbers results."
"Don't tell me you never noticed! Christ, you really are young and naive," she growled in that smoke-stained, whiskey-ruined voice of hers.
Loretta spent the next half hour wising me up. The Yonkers Daily Times, she explained, was really a front for a Mafia-owned gambling syndicate. People picked the paper up to check whether they had hit the number or to study the betting odds on the ball games. They could even call the paper and put a bet down.
"We're both part of a criminal enterprise," she said with a sneer, then picked up her glass and drained it dry.
Loretta was right about the numbers result--the winning digits were displayed in a box on the back page--and about the betting odds as well. But I chose to remain sceptical about the bookmaking functions of the paper, if only to preserve a few shreds of pride in my work. I wanted to think of myself as a newspaperman, not a petty mobster.
But I wasn't to be allowed even that tiny illusion. Two weeks later, when I showed up to work, I discovered that all the telephones in the office had been removed. A grim-looking, surly Ralph wouldn't say why; it remained for Loretta to educate me yet again.
"Kefauver has caught up with us," she said. "He's this senator whose committee has been holding hearings on organized crime in the USA, especially illegal gambling. The The Yonkers Daily Times was singled out as being a front for a bunch of bookies. Next thing you know, Ma Bell showed up and yanked all our phones out. We are now employed by the only newspaper in the country--hell, make that the world--without a single telephone to its name!"
Things began to fall apart after that. Now that they couldn't find the winning number or the betting odds in the paper, readers stopped buying it at the newstand. Advertisers dropped out as well.
Out of loyalty to Ralph, who was continuing to pay me my seventy-five bucks a week, I kept writing for the paper. I showed up at the Times every day, cranked out my editorials, then put on my reporter's hat. Not being able to phone the office was a real bummer. I had to drive from one end of Yonkers to the other to talk to my sources, then rush back to the office and write everything up against a merciless deadline. I became tense, wound-up, driven; living on coffee and cigarettes.
Then came the inevitable. Ralph stopped paying me for my work. When I complained, he gave me a song and dance about making good on what he owed me, only to fire me a week later. His reason? "You changed a flat tire on your car during working hours."
Thus ended my halcyon days as lead reporter and chief editorial writer for the Yonkers Daily Times, one of the most infamous newspapers in the annals of American journalism.