“Belly Up To The Computer, Boys!”

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!

24 Responses to ““Belly Up To The Computer, Boys!””

  1. 1 MikeQ September 4, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Welcom back, Scrib! You’ve been sorely missed. Great “news beat” story about the reporter/regulars.

  2. 2 Jennifer September 4, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Lovely post…

    Good to have you back!

  3. 3 HyeFye September 4, 2011 at 10:47 am

    So true, Scib.

    As an ink-stained wretch of many decades, your tale got me thinking about my apprenticeship years at the dawn of the computer age. You see, I was a wide-eyed youngster in the newsroom of a large Midwestern daily when they got their first computer system. This was an aging Rust Belt city, very heavily unionized newsroom, and these dang machines were … an issue. Work now needed to be done at your desk!

    On the ground floor of our newspaper HQ, outside and down one door, was a bar where all of us congregated every day/night/morning depending on your shift. I’d postulate that more editing work was done in the sticky booths of that bar than at any desk in the newsroom. You’d often find the city editor there with a stack of paper and a red pencil (yes, they still did that back then).

    But these newfangled machines ruined that! Uproar! Anger! Wanna strike?

    In the end, a beautiful solution: The bar was in our building. A line was somehow run down, and one of those things then called a “terminal” was installed in one of the booths.

    I haven’t been back there in more than 25 years, but I like to think the bar and the computer are still there.

  4. 4 scribbler50 September 4, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Mike Q: Thanks, Bud, now you have something to read on your Saturday break!

    Jennifer: Good to be back, my friend, thanks a lot!

    HyeFye: That was absolutely terrific, Sir, the real deal in spades! And I love the part where a line was run to the bar. Thank you very much for sending that in.

  5. 5 d-a-p September 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    good to have you back and this story really was a great birthday present…
    thanks as always,

  6. 6 scribbler50 September 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    d-a-p: Happy Birthday. old friend, and many more!

  7. 7 Ken September 4, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Every city that had a big daily paper had a bar that catered to the newsroom staff. That was back in the days when many reporters had not gone to college. And they drank.

    Our big paper was the voice of the Yankee establishment that once ran the state. It dominated the political consciousness of public and pols alike.

    The writers and editors used to congregate in a little hole in the wall place a couple of blocks down from The Big Theater Company. I was too junior to hang around with them.

    All gone now. The bar, which shared its building with a Japanese restaurant, is gone, the building torn down. The new breed of the reporters don’t drink anyway. The Yankees sold the paper years ago, and now it only seems like a matter of time before it ceases to publish. The daily paper is pitifully thin, and the Sunday edition isn’t much better. Their very building is for sale. No takers yet.

    The connections made in that bar proved to create a big favor for me one day. But that’s for another day.

  8. 8 scribbler50 September 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Ken: Same around here, my friend, great old bars shutting down and that colorful breed of reporter a thing of the past.
    Thanks, Ken.

  9. 9 Comradde PhysioProffe September 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Dude, this is fucken magnificient! We need fuckers like that pounding the keyboards, and the sad decline of the press is that there aren’t those motherfuckers like that around anymore. Now we’ve got assliking fucne suckease doucjefuckees.

  10. 10 Paul Cutlip September 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    When I was an undergrad we would have ‘fluids’. It was a get together in the Paleontology lab on Friday afternoon. Professors and graduate students and undergrads would come by for beer and chips and conversation. I thought it was good and important. Ideas were exchanged sometimes good sometimes terrible. But it was a valuable chance to see each other in a much less formal setting. Alas, the no alcohol on campus (unless you’re plying a donor) policy caught up with us and they shut it down. We tried moving it to a bar but it was never the same really.
    I guess my point is that sometimes in this scurrying around that life seems to be people do occasionally come together and pause in meaningful ways. And that pause has real value.
    Welcome back Scrib we missed you and thanks for the great story.

  11. 11 physiobabe September 5, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Magnifico, il mio miele.

    One of my happiest memories was picking up the newspapers (usually the Village Voice, or Daily News because I loved Pete Hamill and McAlary) and reading them on the train during my commute. I arrived at the office, proud that my fingers were marked with newspaper ink (though my first stop was the washroom to soap my hands). There’s something about a sense of touch, that tactile feeling when holding a newspaper or a book that’s always given me pleasure.

    Wonderful to have you back, Scrib!

  12. 12 scribbler50 September 5, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Comrade: Dude, thanks a fuckin’ lot for the fuckin’ compliment and your commentary. I fuckin’ appreciate it!

    Paul Cutlip: Nice story, Paul, and I completely agree. A post-work sit-down with “fluids” can prove most enlightening. If not just enjoyable.

    physiobabe: Good to be back, bella mia, thanks for that story. And I’m with ya’, “Babe”, holding an actual paper will always be my preference!

  13. 13 Chris September 5, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Scrib, welcome back and I couldn’t agree more with your story. In my area, Cincinnati, we use to have many newspapers, now that is all gone and we are down to only the Cincinnati Enquirer. Just last year we lost the Kentucky Post which was a great little newspaper, now it only exists online, sadly. The Enquirer itself gets thinner and thinner with more and more ads all the time. It is quite sad. The worst part about it, especially for a mid-western city, or really any middle of the road city, is you lose your local stories. Ranging from politics to who had the best brownies at the last bake sale or something. As a result you can lose valuable information. The best thing we can all do in my opinion is buy newspapers, subscribe. The reason they are going out of business plainly is money, subscribers fall and as result they have to layoff and cut back. I will admit I read news online but I also have the NYT and my local Enquirer delivered every day, and I am anti Kindle, and pro physical book, it really loses something when you can’t hold it in your hands. Anyway that is my two cents and you came back with a bang sir. Have a good week.

  14. 14 Pieter B (@DragonCalf) September 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    My Big Science company used to have regular Friday “fermentation seminars” during the Daylight Saving Time months. It was a time for decompressing, collegiality and getting a feel for what everybody was working on. Alas, those days are gone, and with them a sense of community and the feeling that the company recognized that the people who work here are grownups.

    Yes, I know that there was a huge liability exposure, but there were people keeping an eye on things and arranging for folks who’d had one too many to get home without driving. Everything changes, doesn’t it?

  15. 15 Pharm Sci Grad September 5, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Seems I’m late to the party but let me add my “Welcome Back!” to the pile. Good to see you sir, good to see you!

  16. 16 scribbler50 September 5, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Chris: Thanks for that heartfelt account, man, the death of a small local paper seems even sadder to my way of thinking, because it’s not just a paper that dies in that case but, as you point out, that sense of community and voice of a town that dies.
    Thanks again.

    Peter B: Yes, everything indeed does change so I guess we just have to live with the memories of those days of “fermentation”. But I’m glad you added that business at the end where no one drove home “over-fermented”, not just because it’s the right thing to do but to add that I’m not promoting drinking in this post, just for the sake of drinking, I’m simply describing a certain culture, a now defunct, hard living culture where a bar was a place to meet and where stuff got done.
    That said, “Cheers”, man!

    Sci Grad: Good to see you too, Miss, good to see you too! And not to worry the party has a long ways to go. 🙂

  17. 17 Anonymoustache September 6, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Grt 2 hv u bck, bro. Awsum post!

    Pardon the brevity. Sent from my Pretentious Douchebag Accessory powered by Blackgoople.

  18. 18 scribbler50 September 6, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Anonymoustache: LOL, Bro… U R… er… ummm….whatever the hell is text-speak for one funny son of a gun.
    (Powered by quill and ink transposed to keyboard)

  19. 19 Irishirritant September 6, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Welcome back Scrib, I still subscribe to 2, and still subscribe to human encounters where you hear glass and ice sing, and language is used in fucking complete sentences…sometimes.

  20. 20 scribbler50 September 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Irish: Nice to be back to hear the “glass and ice sing”. (And nice turn of a phrase you writ, real Irish poetry!)

  21. 21 brenda cullerton September 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Just this post (vs piece) alone, Scrib, is the silver lining to whatever losses we all endure, thanks to the computer. I mean, once upon a time, we might never have had the joy of listening to you and your marvelous stories. Anyway, I remember Runyons and this other joint where the guys from the News hung out. Wish I could remember the name. Welcome back. You were/ are always sorely missed.

  22. 22 scribbler50 September 8, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Brenda: Thank you so much for the too kind words and you’re right, the big wide world the computer has given us (LEAST of which is this blog!) more than makes up for whatever has been lost along the way. But I had to lament the loss of one little corner of it.

    Was that other bar, of which there were many, Costello’s on East 44th Street?

  23. 23 GregN September 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    This reminds me of my days behind the bar in Chicago, circa ’73-’75. I worked the day shift, 11-6 or so, and had many of our town’s finest reporters and columnists as lunch customers or for happy hour. Didn’t matter, drinking took place at both. So many memories of these guys (and they were guys, rightly or wrongly), many the same as yours. I was quite proud when a Pulitzer winner wrote that I was the best day bartender in the city in an ‘odds and ends’ column.
    As for the computer? Without it I wouldn’t have learned what happened to all those guys over the years. Some are “big guys at bigger places”, some are dead. But there was time we were all together.
    Thanks for taking me back!

  24. 24 scribbler50 September 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Greg N: And thank you for sharing that story, a good one. And a belated congratulations for “Best in City”!

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