Last day before vacation, and it’s already filled with duties and errands. So not much today but a bit of attention that must be paid:
My ex-colleague William Carlton, arts writer for The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, died unexpectedly earlier this week. The story going around is that he called 911 in the middle of the night, and by the time the medics arrived he was unresponsive. Bill had a history of heart problems and lived alone, as befits the odd duck he was.
How odd? Well, let me tell you who Bill’s previous employer was, before joining the N-S when I did, in the large Class of ’84: The New York Daily News. That paper was already struggling then, and offered buyouts to reduce staff, and Bill took one. Why he was crazy enough to come to the opposite end of the earth from New York City remains a mystery to me, although I asked him several times, and got explanations that all boiled down to a shrug: Why not? He brought a lot to the newsroom — a certain tabloid, rat-a-tat-tat prose style full of puns and wordplay; a gruff personality that could still sparkle, usually when the topic was ribald; and a wide and deep knowledge of the arts that revealed itself in both his work and in his casual newsroom conversation. It was always a pleasure to talk to him and be surprised by his knowledge — he once explained to me why opera singers are the greatest musicians and the truest artists on stage today, and did it so concisely and expertly that I still believe it.
Not that he was a snob. He had an abiding love for boxing, and could explain the ballet of a heavyweight fight with equal authority. I once asked him how George Foreman or Buster Douglas or some unlikely victor had done it, and he pointed to a spot on his chin and said, “See this? There’s a button right here. If you look very closely, it says, ‘The Puncher’s Chance’ on it. Hit the button just right, and goodnight Irene.”
The paper asked Alan and
I me for memories of Bill, but mostly they’re, um, unsuitable for a family newspaper. I remember when a local bail bondsman who owned a few massage parlors was on trial for pandering, and Bill, an unapologetic customer of one of them, explained to a rapt metro staff how the front-room procedure worked. (“But forget Friday nights. The high school football teams tie everything up.”) I remember his story about going out drinking with the Daily News staff after work, and the obscene Algonquin Round Table banter: A drunken photographer sat down opposite a crusty old national correspondent, a woman, and said, “Barbara? I want to eat your pussy.” Barbara took a world-weary drag of her cigarette and said, “Jesus. Doesn’t anyone just like to fuck anymore?”
Alan told them about the time a penguin at the zoo unleashed a torrent of digested smelt all over his brand-new Banana Republic khakis and Bill expensed them. That’ll probably make the paper.
When the turmoil at the paper started, the real downsizing, Bill stuck around to see what the new editor was about. He took her measure accurately in about five minutes, and decided to retire. I don’t know if he ever looked back. I got an occasional e-mail from him, and like so many people you spend eight hours a day with one day and zero the next, more or less disappeared.
Wherever he is now, I hope there’s a good title fight on pay-per-view and and opera across the street. Bill appreciated the whole spectrum. I guess that’s the point.