First off, and just so you don’t think your friendly bartender happens to be some fossil pouring from a rocker, know that he thinks computers really are a good thing. In fact they’re a great thing… the greatest thing since man-made flight or those pots for cooking pasta noodles that feature the colander straining thing right in the lid. That kinda’ great! It’s just that for all the wonderful things we enjoy that have come our way through the Internet (this blog for one, he blushes as he types in those words), so many others have gone the way of the Edsel. Or damn close to it.
Things like the near extinct art of “letter writing”, which I’ve talked about here before, and that wonderfully intimate feeling you get when you actually hold someone’s words in the palm of your hand. (With the scent of perfume?) Or actually holding a book in your hands which, in ever increasing rapidity, has morphed into scanning your eyes down a damn plastic screen. And lastly and most unbelievably, the language itself, for crying out loud, the one once used by Shakespeare, 4 it’s sadly gotten 2 tedious 4 some 2 employ. Can you imagine Shakespeare himself, dear reader, sending this message to a BFF in MO (that’s “Merry Old”)… What do U think of these wds 4 my next play, Bro? “2 B or not 2 B, TITQ.” To me it somehow loses that Billy Boy zing!
Now of course I’m being a wise ass here but I’m just trying to make a point… the point that many traditions are slipping through the cracks. And computers have a hand in it.
Like this one…
There was a time for me in days of yore when I first started pouring for a living, that “happy hour” placed me right in the middle of the news. But not in the actual pages of the news for conduct above and beyond, or a scandal involving myself and Cher’s third cousin, on her father’s side, but for pouring drinks for the boys who worked at Newsday. Because every day around five o’clock when they made their way to our bar, a bar aptly named Runyon’s for Damon Runyon, just by their mere presence they put me in the news. As in, “in the know”. For the things I heard and the stories they told were nothing short of priceless, and nothing short of a gift to this New York neophyte. And looking back, four names come to mind now.
There was Mike McAlary, pugnacious Mike, whose beat was covering hard news. There was Denis Hamill who wrote from the heart, just like his brother Pete, of the struggles of all the little guys out there who were heroes. There was big Bob Drury, a sportswriter then, who wrote with a voice which transcended mere balls-and-strikes reportage. And finally there was my dear friend, John Cotter. John was the city editor in charge of this crew. This then raucous crew.
Every evening when they walked in the door they flipped the meaning of Happy Hour, because no one in the joint was happier at that moment than me. It made my day. They made me feel like a real insider sharing the pulse of their city, and, just by the way they put things, the beat of its heart. For whatever was going on at the time, what might be tomorrow’s headlines, I would hear them discuss in their cuss-filled, Runyonesque rants. Or riffs. They filled in the gaps of all of the why’s and most of the underlying wherefores, while giving each other a possible lead in the process. In other words, real “networking”! You’d hear stuff like, “You know who the fuck he is don’t you? He’s the guy from that Ozone Park thing, you should go after him next ’cause this prick’s involved.” Or, “I know someone who knows her, she doesn’t just do his books she’s a real player in this.” And the names of those (he’s) and (she’s) could appear the next day. In print. But more important than the scoops that I got, directly or just by eavesdropping, these guys were really aces when it came to being people. And I mean that. They were polite, they were generous, and never a trace of, “Do you know who the hell I am?” As I said, good guys all.
But this was just my little corner of the world where stuff like this went on, there were bars all over New York that hosted such sessions. Bars that were normally chosen because of location. For when the stories were filed and the work was done and the steam had sufficiently built to the point of a whistle, a nearby pub was where that steam got released. And each paper had a favorite. The most famous of which was The Lion’s Head bar located down in the Village, which in its case geography wasn’t a factor because being the mecca for all news writers everyone at one time or another paid it a visit.
But not any more. And not just because The Lion’s Head closed but because that world itself has sealed up its doors. That world where stories came alive while leaning on a bar. And, to the point of this post, computers played a big part in that. Because a lot of these writers work from home now, which sorely diminishes comradery, if indeed these people still have their jobs at all. It’s no secret that all of the on-line news has taken a bite out of newsrooms, if not in some cases consumed these newspapers completely. Many journalists are solo acts now and not really part of a team, a team that used to meet every night for a drink. And a cuss, and a story about this great big city they loved. Meaning… they don’t belly up to the bar any more they belly up to their computers with a hot cup of coffee.
An ironic thought came to mind just now regarding this thing called the computer, hidden in these words once told to me by Mike McAlary. He said (after telling him I wanted to try my hand at short story writing), “Do yourself a favor, man, and learn to write on a computer ’cause it’s the greatest. I just started using one and I can’t believe how easy it makes the whole process. You can move things around, like whole fucking paragraphs, it corrects spelling, and do stuff I don’t even know how to use at this point. It just makes everything faster!” Well little did he know at the time of those words this thing he had called “unbelievable”, this thing that had rightly made “everything faster”, would one day slowly kill that world he had cherished. Ironic indeed.
And to speak now of truly great losses, the world has long since lost Mike McAlary who died of cancer in 1998 just months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He was only 41. He is presently being immortalized in a play called “Lucky Guy”.
My friend John Cotter is also gone, he died of a heart attack in 1991 at the tender age of 48, two days before he was about to take the reins at the The New York Daily News as managing editor. John, to all who knew him, was truly a prince.
And on the positive side to round out this group, Bob Drury had a brief career in television, and a long, distinguished career to date as an author. He’s written several books, mostly non-fiction, the latest of which is “Last Man Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Viet Nam”. It’s an amazing, exciting account co-written with Tom Clavin.
And finally, I’m happy to report, Denis Hamill is still Denis Hamill, still writing human interest stories with his great big heart in The New York Daily News. But more notably, and in addition to the several screenplays he’s written, he’s authored at least ten novels since those days at Runyon’s. Beautifully written novels in that distinct Hamill voice.
And what about me you ask? Well I’m still pouring drinks, which of course you know, and still in love with those pots with the built-in strainers!
See you next week-end, dear reader, it’s good to be back!