Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Last Time We Saw Robert Novak ...

The only time, actually, at least live and in the flesh, was back in '88, when we were in the employ of the daily newspaper located near the confluence of the Loop 610 and the Southwest Freeway and had been assigned to cover a debate among the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination that was being staged, in advance of that spring's alleged "Super Tuesday" primaries in Texas and elsewhere, at Houston's then-spanking new Wortham Center. We watched the debate, listened to the spinners spin their post-debate BS, then sat down at the TRS-80 Radio Shack portable computer assigned to us (the "Trash 80," as it was immortalized in the new biz) to tap out our little story. We remember being quite satisfied with the result (there were more than a half-dozen candidates, and under any circumstances these pseudo-events are kind of hard to write-up on deadline, in a manner both lively and fair and balanced--try it some time!) before attempting to send the product to the home office. When we called in, though, we were informed that the story had not arrived. We tried again, with the same result. And again, but no dice. We spoke with the paper's technical support person, whose advice did not end in a successful launch on our fourth attempt. Finally we called our desk and spoke with an assistant city editor whom we'll call "Chester." We asked Chester (in-house nickname: "Chester the Copy Molester") whether he might be able to take "dictation" from us over the phone, a common practice then and possibly now, but Chester claimed to be too busy. We then asked whether there might be another staff member available to tap-out our story while we relayed it over the phone, but Chester said that, no, no one was available because there had been a big double-murder or something that evening (this, mind you, was the second-largest daily newspaper in the nation's fourth-largest city). So we asked Chester to please let us speak with his superior, the city editor, whom we'll call "Brent," and when we were transferred to Brent* the conversation went something like this:
Us (whiny and pissed-off): "Goddamn, Brent, I'm at this big debate with all kinds of national media here and this frickin' Trash 80 isn't working and it's 5 minutes before deadline so if we wanna have a story in the first edition couldn't you please get somebody there, even a copy editor, to take dictation from me? Please?" Brent* (curtly): "No, we can't." Us (desperate, ever-eager to please): "So what should I do?" Brent (cold, robotically): "You'll have to come back here and write it on a computer."
After concluding the conversation we slammed the phone receiver down as hard as we could and cussed as loudly as we could, then looked around the little press room at the Wortham and noticed that we were all alone except for the Prince of Darkness himself, who perhaps had been experiencing technical difficulties too or had been otherwise detained. "What's the matter?" he asked, and when we explained something to the effect that our immediate superiors were a bunch of sorry cocksuckers he laughed and commiserated. ("Hey," we remember thinking, "this guy is nothing like the asshole he's made out to be!") As we both packed to go Novak related that he was staying at a downtown hotel--we believe it was the Hyatt--and as he had come directly to the debate from the airport he had no idea how to get there but had been told it was within easy walking distance. We gave him simple yet exact directions--"Go out the front of the building, take a left, go to Smith, take a right, keep walking, can't miss it" and hurriedly took our leave. After retrieving our truck from the garage we were on the way out of downtown when we spotted Novak, his clothes bag slung over his shoulder, resolutely hoofing it north across the bayou and wending his way through small nighttime clutches of the homeless and derelict--going totally the wrong way. In a press to meet our deadline, we did not stop to redirect him but honked and waved as we sped past. Upon arriving at our office we tried once again to send our dispatch into the system, this on-site attempt finally resulting in the story's total obliteration and disappearance from the face of the earth. We managed to reconstruct a reasonable but abbreviated facsimile in time to meet the paper's "owl" deadline--there's some quaint newspaper talk for you--but over the next couple of days we worried over the fate of Robert D. Novak, hoping he had found his way to his hotel and was not laid out in the weeds next to Buffalo Bayou. We were relieved when a post-debate installment of his syndicated column appeared in the other local newspaper.

We were to depart the newspaper out on the freeway in just a few months, following yet another unsatisfactory employee-supervisor consultation with Brent, and Chester and Brent were to be not that far behind, moving on, possibly, to bigger and better things where their peculiar talents could be put to better use. The newspaper was put out of its misery some years later. Novak, of course, continued to wander through the wasteland of American politics-governance for two more decades--a happy warrior, of sorts, until the end.

*Who was notable in the newsroom for the incessant nose-picking and crotch-rubbing he performed while in the act of editing copy.


Anonymous said...

How come "Chester" or "Brent" didn't take the dictation? I assume they weren't doing the fact gathering on the double murder. Please elucidate. I find stories about these media outlets called "newspapers" that were printed on paper and distributed to individual homes to be fascinating.


Slampo said...

Anon: Believe it was Tony Soprano who said that " 'remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." With in mind, and to answer your query on this endlessly fascinating topic, I must confess that I don't know since I wasn't physically present at the time. I can speculate, however, that "Chester" may have been setting up his tee time at the north Houston course where he liked to play and that thrice-married Brent was deeply involved in picking his nose or rearranging his, um, manhood while fantasizing about the 6'2'' assistant librarian with whom he was once caught en flagrante in a broom closet. But again, I am just speculating and it's remotely possible that either or both may have been busy.

You're welcome.

Slampo said...
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