Here’s a story about where a single memory can take you.
I was playing radio roulette and I hit the country station in the middle of SHeDaisy’s “Little Goodbyes.” In the song, the clearly disgruntled girlfriend brags that she “left the litter and took the cat.” This actually happened to someone I know, at least 15 years before this song was on the radio. His wife called him at work and told him to come to the airport if he wanted to dissuade her from leaving. He headed to the airport. She, meanwhile, was at their home, plundering it with her new boyfriend, who was always described as “an elderly cab driver.” (Given our ages at the time, the cabdriver was probably all of 40.) They also took the stove. Months later, I went over to feed the (new) cat and saw the forlorn gas connection, sort of like the stalk of a dead bouquet that someone couldn’t bear to throw out.
This happened to a colleague on the night crew of the San Antonio Light, the year I worked as rewrite. In the lull after hitting my first deadline, I would write a serial novel about my co-worker’s attempt to right the wrongs done to him. This rather raggedy tale, which included such characters as the Man Who Would Eat No Cheese (and Keep No Dimes), the Colonel and Pointy-Nosed Gus, made him laugh. He was really the most satisfactory reader, slapping the flat of his palm against the desk as he read the evening’s take. When I didn’t know how to move the story forward, I blew something up.
You would be justified in asking: Um, Laura, was this a fair use of work time? As I said, it was done in the lull after hitting deadline. I was, in fact, a terrific rewrite because the only skill that can truly be taught in the hothouse atmosphere of journalism school is speed. I still remember banging away at the (often broken) manual typewriters in Fiske Hall, Room 317. They couldn’t make you write better or smarter, but by God they could make you write fast.
Besides, newspapers used to have an amazing tolerance for tomfoolery. Computers helped change that, as jokes became more costly. My father remembers working the old-fashioned U-shaped copy desk, where editors scrawled funny headlines on scraps of paper and then threw them away. Do that on a computer and, well — More Mush From the Wimp, anyone? This was the fake headline that a Boston Globe copy-editor put on a Jimmy Carter speech, and it ended up in the paper. As my father loved to point out, the writer was promoted.
I adored rewrite. Although I can’t find the photo, I can see me in a b-and-w shot by a staff photographer — I’m wearing a straw cowboy hat, one of those then-ubiquitous oversized Adrienne Vittadini sweaters, and holding a bottle of over-the-counter painkillers in my hand. I was smiling broadly. The job fit me so well, far better than that sweater. I was speedy and a clean, decent writer, who could see the holes in others’ stories better than I could see my own.
The classic rewrite takes dispatches from the field and writes the story from scratch. Computers began to kill that process, especially on papers with evening deadlines, but we still had situations were someone had to call in notes. I remember a murder-suicide. Two brothers, playing with a gun. One shot the other by accident, then killed himself out of despair. I remember how I fought with Ben Siegal, my first true mentor, about the order in the lede. He said it must be chronological, while I believed that what made it news was the secondary fact — the suicide after the accidental killing.
The reporter on the scene was Javier Rodriguez. He did a good job, gathering quite a bit of detail. He told me the brothers had been eating canned spaghetti.
“Canned spaghetti?” I said. “Great.”
The “great” echoed back in my headset, my fingers stilled for a moment.
It wasn’t long after this that I asked to leave the rewrite shift, deciding that I was, perhaps, a little too good at it.
So — has a song every catapulted you into a surprising corner of the past?