The Selectric years.

Perhaps because the industry is in such a profound slump, I find myself a sucker for newspaper nostalgia — not the “Deadline USA” artifacts of glue pots and fedoras, but the era I was only able to glimpse the tail end of in my earliest days in the biz, that is, the one portrayed in “Zodiac,” a murder mystery in which the San Francisco Chronicle plays a major role.

I’m not a fan of David Fincher — hated “Fight Club,” sorry kids, and thought “Seven” was just tiresome — but with “Zodiac,” I’m softening. It presented a picture of crime I recognize from my newspaper days, and one that stands in opposition to “Seven.” Serial killers tend not to be mad geniuses recreating crime scenes based on Renaissance paintings of the sacrifice of Isaac, say, but just nasty assholes with guns. Crimes are solved, when they are, based on either dumb mistakes made by killers (who tend to be pretty dumb themselves) or lots of not-particularly-cinematic legwork by police. Frequently they’re not solved at all, technically; cases remain open even though cops tell you confidentially that they know who did it, they just don’t have enough evidence to convict. That’s the case of the Zodiac killer, where the circumstantial evidence pointed overwhelmingly to one man, although (we learn in an ending-title sequence) later DNA evidence was inconclusive. That’s how much real crime is — inconclusive, but not.

Like “Mad Men,” “Zodiac” is a painstaking period piece, and it’s possible to get lost in the scrupulousness of its detail — hey, I remember those two-tone mailboxes! Blue IBM selectrics! Corvairs! — and forget what’s going on. But that’s just as well, because what’s going on is a more true-to-life police procedural than most, in the sense that we see not cutting-edge forensics or amazing-coincidence investigations, but turf battles, bureaucratic meddling, reportorial screwups, tough breaks — the usual. A review I read at the time said it “feels long and is meant to feel long.” Titles flash by every couple of minutes: “Two and a half weeks later,” “Four months later,” “Four years later.” The case, like the movie, drags on. Sixties set design gives way to seventies, and then to ’80s. (The main character, as if to underline his obsession-to-the-point-of-lunacy, continues to drive an orange Rabbit through most of these years.)

As this is a true story, I’m not spoiling it to say the conclusion is ambiguous. The star reporter gives in to egomania, then dies of emphysema. (Yes, the smoke-filled newsroom is like a character in and of itself.) The cartoonist loses his job, apparently because of his obsession with the Zodiac case, but we know he would have been dead meat long before this — cartoonists? Like the budget has money for that. But the scene that really got me was one where Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the straight-arrow cartoonist, passes by the bar where Robert Downey, the wastrel reporter, is washing off the day with 80 proof whiskey, along with what looks like half the staff, and they are having a high old time. That’s what I want to remember about newspapers. Not the booze, which took down its share of good people and bad, but the fun. The table in the nearby bar, with the stories you couldn’t get in the paper.

Jon Carroll remembers:

And the movie version of the Chronicle city room was nowhere near as grungy and disorderly as the actual city room. There must have been photographs of the 1969 version around; maybe the moviemakers thought the real thing would be too distracting. (“The truth? You can’t handle the truth.”) The place was awash in paper. The desks were stained and dented. The pillars, shown in the movie as pristine, were covered with old front pages, amusing memos, girlie pictures — was it a hostile environment for women? You bet, but then, so was everywhere else.

The movie shows a little drug use on the premises, which is accurate, more than accurate. There was one reporter who made more or less a full-time living dealing dope. And there was a lot of on-the-job drinking, some of it, like wine-soaked birthday celebrations, entirely sanctioned. And a bar called Hanno’s was virtually an extension of The Chronicle — its telephone number was even printed in the interoffice directory.

The 1969 Chronicle was closer, in both time and ambience, to the Ben Hecht-“His Girl Friday” city rooms of the late ’30s than to the heavily cubicled, almost-tidy room of today.



Dogfighting in Detroit. Everything you probably didn’t want to know. The accompanying video is excellent, more proof that sometimes print people do TV better than TV people. Usage note: The story at that link contains the phrase “gnashes its teeth” in the lead. May I see the hands of those who know precisely what teeth-gnashing is, and think that is, indeed, what the dog was doing? Thought so. My dictionary says, “to grind one’s teeth together, typically in a sign of anger.” Just a nitpick. What-evuh.

Another usage note: Who can tell me what “angst” means? It’s a German word for…? Anyone? Yes, anxiety. That is, fear. Nowadays it’s a catch-all term for anything that means “not happy.” I’ve given up on this one.

Back later. Have at it.

Posted at 9:14 am in Media |

17 responses to “The Selectric years.”

  1. Jeff said on September 20, 2007 at 9:39 am

    . . . and pebbled black AP teletypes that actually did go “ding” every so often; i’ll never forget as a young stringer being in the newsroom when Pope Paul VI died, and the teletype went “ding,” and no one noticed, “ding” and a few looked up, and then a third “ding” when even the ad layout guy looked up from his light table.

    They told me at the bar later that some of them had heard four “dings,” in November of 1963.

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  2. Kirk said on September 20, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Long live the Galleria Tavern, where, on Friday evening, we’d keep pushing tables together to accommodate the newspaper crowd. Some weeks it was just two or three of us; others, there were more than 20 (that was guaranteed when the baseball writer, celebrating the end of the season, bought the first $100 worth of beer — and that was when $100 would buy a lot of beer). There were free appetizers (plenty of rumaki for me, because most people wouldn’t touch chicken livers) and a bosomy waitress named Holly, who brought us a bill whenever it reached $50, so that those of us who stayed to the end wouldn’t get hosed by some of our cheaper colleagues.

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  3. LA mary said on September 20, 2007 at 10:12 am

    When a German friend of mine surprised everyone by marrying someone she knew for only a short time, she said she had turschlussangst. Fear of the closing door.

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  4. Jeff said on September 20, 2007 at 10:26 am

    I’ll have two turschlussangst, with sauerkraut and brown mustard.

    Oh, and a Rhine white, coffee after.

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  5. brian stouder said on September 20, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Fresh-brewed schadenfreude

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  6. nancy said on September 20, 2007 at 10:47 am

    I think AP referred to their teletype alerts as “bells.” And five was the most you could get, for a bulletin (or was it a “flash?”). JFK’s assassination was a five-bell bulletin for sure.

    The problem was, they gave three bells to pretty much everything, so before long, the dinging was just part of the background noise. And there was a lot more of it then — not only typewriters, but phones and yakkety-yakking, too. Nowadays most newsrooms are like an insurance office most of the time, even though the language is still fairly salty. A source close to this reporter said a staffer at a large-circulation daily in the American midwest recently yelled FUCK THIS GODDAMN PIECE OF SHIT at her computer just as a tour group was ambling by. Made him laugh. Me, too. The tour group got a little wide-eyed, but I’m sure it’s not something they haven’t heard before. (Double negative; C/C-; see me after class.)

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  7. brian stouder said on September 20, 2007 at 10:50 am

    The tour group got a little wide-eyed

    AND – they got a story they can share for the rest of their lives!

    Well worth the price of admission, I say

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  8. Julie Robinson said on September 20, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Watching the teletype while visiting Dad at the radio station was a highlight of my childhood. The way the type jumped up and down was endlessly fascinating. (“No, really, I did have toys, doctor.”) And I remember the bells, which did seem to go off frequently. And the already-yellowing paper rolls cycling through.

    But what I really loved was watching Dad edit news stories. On a reel to reel player. For each edit he had to take the reels off, make the cut, and put the ends in a splicer with some clear tape over the top. For a one-armed man, he was poetry in motion. OMG, have I turned into Tim Goeglein?

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  9. brian stouder said on September 20, 2007 at 11:06 am

    OMG, have I turned into Tim Goeglein?

    No no no!!! –

    for THAT you have to shoe-horn in a semi-related quote from Bartletts…maybe a pithy saying from Van Gogh about having one ear, or some such

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  10. Danny said on September 20, 2007 at 11:17 am

    Anyone watching “Mad Men” see the final scene last week with Betty Draper calmly wandering around her back lawn, smoking a cigarette, plugging the disagreeable Truman-Capote-esque neighbor’s courier pigeons with a pump rifle? All the the while, “You are My Special Angel,” playing in the background.

    Hilarious. Nostalgic. Apropos of very little in this thread.

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  11. Connie said on September 20, 2007 at 11:53 am

    I love my computer, but I have a secret nostalgia for the IBM selectric. How many type balls can I get?

    I worked for several years during and right after college at the Michigan State bookstore in the buyer’s office. We did most of our ordering on a punch style teletype and knowing how to do it was considered a highly paid specialty.

    Unlike the now antique machine that I was responsible for: a 5×8 card for all current inventory titles and other titles required by professors, ranked on a series of 4 shelves. The bottom of the cards had a punched in author title code. I could search by the codes, and every card that matched the code was popped up by little wires. Then the right one went out to the floor for an inventory check and back to the buyer’s office. (I was also the person who decided which textbooks we would buy back at 50%.)

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  12. James Moehrke said on September 20, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Ah, newsroom stories, I’ve got a million of ’em.

    My favorite is the one where we had a big birthday party for one of the writers, at the auto editor’s house. He was renting in a retirement community here, you have to be 55 to get in, and no kids allowed, so the retired fire engine that brought the guest of honor raised a few neighborhood eyebrows.

    Later, after the drinking got serious, the publisher’s son was teaching my wife how to play ‘quarters,’ with glasses of beer. About that time he looked up to see one of the cops who’d been called when we got too raucous. “Big blue uniform, big silver star,” is still a mantra for us old-timers, though there are only one or two who were there still actually on the payroll.

    And the new features editor, who had not yet officially started her job, quit the next Monday, after attending the party. We saw her sitting in her car across from the office, apparently wrestling with the notion of whether or not she wanted to work with people like us. We heard later that she’d joined the military instead. We were that kind of crowd, where boot camp was more attractive.

    We don’t have parties like that anymore, pity.

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  13. nancy said on September 20, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    When I was in college, the newspaper staff had a party at the editor’s apartment. She lived in a moderate (for Athens, Ohio) high-rise, six floors or so, with a balcony on every apartment. Her balcony was on the top floor, and overlooked the dumpsters, which on this particular night had just been emptied. A couple of the photographers started playing “basketball” with objects thrown off the balcony, aimed at the dumpsters.

    The police were called when they sent a couple of beer kegs down, which made the basket but also a hell of a lot of noise.

    Years later in Fort Wayne, Alan and I were drafted to host a job candidate for a Friday-night party. This was when budget cuts meant we tried to make candidates stay over a Saturday night, to save on airfare. It was a potluck dinner/barbecue. The guest of honor was applying for the features editor job, and everyone who came would have been on her staff. We all sat around drinking and drinking and drinking, while she barely said a word. Alan burned the chicken. One of the interns occasionally brought the conversation to a screeching halt with such bon mots as, “I just love the new Steve Miller album. Don’t you?”

    She, too, was never seen again. Can’t blame her, really.

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  14. basset said on September 20, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    the Cadillac Party Lounge in Cadillac, Michigan was our newsroom annex – $3.50 all you can eat chicken, fish, or frog legs, depending on what they felt like frying on any given Friday night. throw a cloth over the shuffleboard table and lay the hot trays out, couple of forty-cent beers and you’re all set.

    perfect place to unwind after a long day with the CP-16 and the glue splicer.

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  15. Deborah said on September 20, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    I love this blog, and I love the comments too. No place else like it in my mind. Makes me laugh out loud.

    I’m not a journalist by a longshot. I’m a designer, I’ve worked for a few archtecture firms and have fond memories of parties and get togethers such as you all have mentioned here. Brings back old memories. I’m still in the profession but it doesn’t seem like people are having as much fun as we used to. What’s up with that? Just me getting old?

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  16. MichaelG said on September 20, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    I visited Hanno’s once. Hanno’s in the Alley it was called. It was in 1969 not long after I got out of the Army. I was visiting a lot of bars in those days. One of my drinking buddies was a copy boy at the Chron. They still have copy boys? Hanno’s was a totally unmemorable place as far as bars go. Stone average. The difference was (as it usually is) in the clientele. Nobody was nasty, but I wasn’t part of the group. I didn’t bother me, I understood bar dynamics.

    Now, since I’ve split up with my wife, I go to an old Sacto institution on two or three Friday nights a month. I’d forgotten how pleasant a nice bar can be. It’s such a rough place I took my pregnant daughter and grandson there for lunch in July. They both loved it. And vice-versa. The bartender was shoving pictures of his 2 yr old in our faces. Physically, the place is an ancient dump just like Hanno’s was. A bar’s character is in the people.

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