I told Alan not long ago, moments after we’d been nearly sideswiped, at freeway speeds, by a driver whose inattentiveness to the road was inversely proportional to her attentiveness to her phone call: “The miracle is that we don’t have six fatalities a day around here.” And the scariest thing about our near-miss? I don’t think the driver even knew it happened. She was too busy blah-blahing.
Yesterday I came as close as I ever have to becoming a smear on the road. Pedaling my bike down to the library, on the sort of semi-deserted suburban street that I love to ride on, I approached an intersection. I had the right-of-way. A minivan rolling down the side street seemed to be slowing. I went on across. The minivan kept rolling. I threw up my hand in the universal gesture known to Supremes fans everywhere: Stop stop for the love of God stop you idiot I’m so much smaller than you. The driver slammed on the brakes, and stopped a whole 24 inches from my right hip.
You know the punchline, don’t you? Cell phone.
I swear, I’m going to start packing a sawed-off shotgun, loaded with a peppery birdshot, maybe rock salt. Nothing lethal, just something to get their attention.
Well, I always suspected exercise would kill me someday.
Our old pal Adrianne called yesterday, who may be the last newspaper editor in America who’s having a good time at her job. Why? She works for a tabloid, in upstate New York. Tabs still know how to have fun. Big news up in her neck of the Hudson Valley these days — the death of Moses Teitelbaum, the rebbe of the Satmar Hassidim, a branch of which lives in Kiryas Joel, a little village in their circulation area.
“You have your unusual locals in the Amish,” she often tells me. “We have the Hassidim.”
Anyway, the death of an orthodox Jewish leader with devoted followers in two places creates its own news — there were services in New York, then a sprint up to KJ for a second funeral, at 3:30 a.m., so that he could be buried before sunrise in keeping with Jewish tradition. And there was traffic and charter buses and lawsuits, and, of course, the politicians. Gov. Pataki showed up to pay his respects.
“You should see our front page,” she said. “A picture of these kids in sidelocks lined up, and a headline: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO SHIVA?”
Tabs have all the fun.
I once saw some research, very cutting-edge for the time, that wired up a bunch of volunteers with these devices that would track, with some precision, where and how their eyes moved as they read the paper. The idea was to discover, without relying on personal reporting, exactly what things people read as they looked at their hometown daily. When the research was presented, each element on the page — from the 2D page number at the top to the credit lines on photos — had a number next to it, indicating the percentage of people whose eyes stopped long enough to indicate they might have actually read it.
One page had a left-rail digest of short items, marching all the way down the page. Each item had a number somewhere between 17 and 19 percent, except for two, which were up in the 40 percent range. The headline on one was something like “Sex charges filed against parolee” and the other, “Nude body found in field.” I think this indicates, with some authority, that if you want someone to read your work, slap a headline on it featuring the words “sex” or “nude.”
Note that I haven’t done it for this item, as all good webmasters know that doing so is like sending an engraved invitation asking for spam-bots to stop by. Some readers you don’t want.
But my point — and I do have one — is that headlines matter, whether it’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO SHIVA or NUDE SEX AT COUNCIL MEETING. And yet, when I was writing them, the question we most often asked one another was, “Is this offensive? Should we tone this down?”
OK, I’ll stop. Off for another bike ride. If I’m killed by a distracted, cell phone-yakking, minivan driver, I’d like this headline, please: CYCLIST STRANGLES DRIVER BEFORE DYING OF INJURIES.