They were characters straight out of a Damon Runyon story; to this day, I’m not sure whether the job attracted a certain breed or created them. Memories of toiling overnight on the sports desk at what was then the Westchester Rockland Newspapers (now The Journal News) cause my throat to tighten and make me smile.
It was the mid-1970s, and I had just graduated from Syracuse University’s School of Communications. My job interview was with Guido Cribari, the newspaper’s sports editor, a dapper and fast-talking man who frequently sat in his office with the lights out and typically dressed in plaid or checkered pants, white shoes, an expensive golf shirt and no socks. During my interview, he never asked me about my skills or background, instead boasting that he was the first Italian ever to play golf at a once-restricted country club. My credentials for the job, in fact, were unimportant. No one, it seems, was breaking down Guido’s door to work overnight on the sports copy desk.
This was years before desktop computers and electronic filings. Pneumatic tubes transmitted stories from local sports editors throughout the county to the copy desk at the county bureau in Harrison. I would wait nightly, with less-than-eager anticipation, for the arrival of these missiles that would contain the handwritten results of a Briarcliff Manor-Valhalla soccer game, a preview of the Ossining basketball team, or an exclusive interview with the Croton-on-Hudson wrestling coach. We edited the stories, wrote the headlines, and laid out each local sports section, later marching into the composing room, where the stories, keypunched into cold sheets of copy, would be pasted onto large boards. Would headlines and copy fit? Usually they didn’t, which meant that in the early-morning hours, when the rest of the world was turning over for several more hours of sleep, we rewrote “heads” and worked with the composing crew to try to cram eight-inch stories into five-inch holes.
The composers, with names like Duke, Vinnie, and Fast Joe, were survivors of the pressroom transition from hot to cold type. These were lunch-pail guys who would cater to the #MeToo movement like my 10-year-old dog would to obedience training. Any woman brave or naïve enough to enter the room would instantly elicit the comment: “Wouldn’t you like some of that?”
One night, the Mamaroneck sports editor, on the phone with a local high school coach, asked the Mount Vernon sports editor, sitting next to him, to keep quiet. Not getting any response, he put the phone down and jumped atop his colleague, the two of them rolling across the desk.
Angry young men, we would frequently start our nights riled up by disparaging notes left by our daytime superiors. Sugar Bear, the kindest term we used to refer to the newspaper’s managing editor, would often castigate us for writing “wooden heads.” My friend, John Glascott, who spent less than six months on the sports desk before having the good sense to get an MBA, says he is still waiting for an answer from Sugar Bear — who has long since passed on — on how to write a clever headline for a story on Ursuline beating Maria Regina 2–1 in girls field hockey.
I never got used to the hours nor, most disturbingly, falling asleep regularly in my car on the drive home. I tried unsuccessfully to find a normal regimen, but sleep always proved elusive and sporadic. I lived with a roommate named Bruno in a pre-World War II-built apartment in Mamaroneck. My first night there, I distinctly remember leaving for work after Bruno had made a huge vat of spaghetti sauce for a dinner party he had hosted. His friends were passed out in the living room, while in the kitchen, an army of cockroaches swam the backstroke in the tomato sauce.
The sports staff were sui generis. They were colorful, offbeat, and memorable — some of whom were borderline deviants and many of whom were otherwise unemployable. Two of the local sports editors were raging alcoholics. A third had a propensity for “adopting” a high school athlete every year and squiring him around town. He got fired when he ran down from his seat in the bleachers, during the countywide high school wrestling championships, slapping in the face his young friend, who had lost his match.
Guido avoided confrontation and would only pull the plug on those whom management insisted be let go. He just wanted to be left alone to a life of playing golf and palling around with the county’s rich and influential. The worst thing you could ever do was to cause a rift with any of the county’s prominent country clubs or its members. I created a hailstorm by writing a story about a platform-tennis championship at one of those prominent country clubs, making snide and sophomoric comments about the preppy attire, accents, and attitudes of the members. The complaints that soon poured in left Guido unamused. He went on a lengthy tirade, undoubtedly fearing that he would become the first Italian at the club to lose his golfing privileges.
On Friday nights, the local sports editors joined us in the county bureau to put the paper to bed. One night, the Mamaroneck sports editor, on the phone with a local high school coach, asked the Mount Vernon sports editor, sitting next to him, to keep quiet. Not getting any response, he put the phone down and jumped atop his colleague, the two of them rolling across the desk. Once the fight was broken up, the Mamaroneck sports editor got back on the phone and casually resumed his conversation.
Tom Whelan, one of the few adults in the department, was a bigger-than-life figure. Tommy was the sweetest, most gentle-hearted of men, spread out over more than 300 pounds. With his size, wispy, white hair and round, red face (the result of years of drinking), he could have been the prototype for Santa Claus. On several occasions, I left work with Tommy early in the morning, headed to one of his favorite hangouts. Here, his fellow alcoholics (who else frequents a bar at 8 a.m.?) would pepper him with questions on this racehorse or that boxer, buying him drinks and treating him like a deity.
Tommy’s nighttime routine called for him to walk into the newsroom about 2 a.m., perhaps after covering a boxing match or countywide awards dinner, usually cradling a greasy Italian dinner. After polishing off his meal, he would doze in his chair (which we would refer to as “Whelanized,” because his weight had created a permanent bend in the chair’s spine) for several hours before writing his story. I never met a person Tommy didn’t like, except for the copy-desk chief — a Napoleonic, tight-assed, and universally detested figure who, rather than taking the time to edit Tommy’s long-winded sentences, would indiscriminately slash sections of his stories.
Al Mari was the newspaper’s sports columnist, the proverbial big fish in the small pond. A legend in his own mind, Mari would brag about having the home telephone numbers of many of the pro athletes he covered. His credibility was forever tarnished, however, when I overheard him one night calling one of his so-called good friends from an NBA team. “Hey, Mike, it’s Al,” he started. “Al Mari… Al Mari, Westchester Rockland Newspapers.”
A trivia buff, Mari would slouch on the newsroom floor, betting that he could name the costar and the year of every movie made by Burt Lancaster (or was it Gregory Peck?). He blustered about his romantic conquests, which one time got my fellow deskman, Tim Gould, to quip, “Hey, Al, that’s nothing. I’ve been laid three times just telling women I edit your copy.”
As for me, the ride lasted until I was “shipped out” to work days in Yonkers, eventually becoming a news reporter and then leaving journalism behind to work in public relations. I resisted the move, a little afraid to leave the security of working overnights with my fellow misfits — probably the same feeling a prisoner experiences after being released from jail. It took me awhile to get used to living again on the outside.