An excerpt from Pete Hamill’s new book “Tabloid City”

Updated
 
An excerpt from Pete Hamill's new book "Tabloid City"
An excerpt from Pete Hamill's new book "Tabloid City"

Here is an excerpt from Pete Hamill’s new book “Tabloid City”

12:02 a.m. Sam Briscoe. City room of New York World, 100 West Street.

 Here comes Briscoe, seventy- one years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor in chief. His overcoat is arched across his left shoulder and he is carrying his jacket. The cuffs of his shirtsleeves are crisply folded twice, below the elbows. His necktie hangs loose, without a knot, making two vertical dark red slashes inside the vertical bands of his bright red suspenders. He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs. His crew cut is steel gray, his lean furrowed face tightly shaven. The dark pouches under both eyes show that he has worked for many years at night. In the vast, almost empty room, there are twenty- six desks, four reporters, and three copy editors, all occasionally glancing at four mounted television screens tuned to New York 1 and CNN, Fox and msnbc. A fifth screen is dark. Briscoe doesn’t look at any of them. He goes directly to a man named Matt Logan, seated at the news desk in the center of the long wide room. Other desks butt against each other, forming a kind of stockade. All are empty.

–We got the wood yet? Briscoe says.

Logan smiles and runs a hand through his thick white hair and gazes past Briscoe at the desks. Briscoe thinks: We live in the capital of emptiness. Logan is fifty-one and in some way the thick white hair makes him seem younger. Crowning the shaven face, the ungullied skin.

–The kid’s still writing, Logan says, gesturing to his left. Maybe you could remind him this is a daily.

Briscoe grunts at one of the oldest lines in the newspaper business. Thinking: It’s still true. He sees the Fonseca kid squinting at his computer screen, seeing nothing else, only the people he has interviewed hours earlier, far from the city room. Briscoe leans over Logan’s shoulder, glances up at the big green four-sided copper clock hanging from the ceiling, a clock salvaged from Pulitzer’s World. Thinking: Still plenty of time.

–What else do we have? he says, dropping coat and jacket over a blank computer monitor. The early editions of the morning papers are scattered on the desk, the Times, the Post, the News. Logan clicks on a page that shows four possible versions of the wood. The page 1 headline. Briscoe thinks: I’m so old. He remembers seeing page 1 letters

actually cut from wood in the old composing room of the Post, six blocks down West Street. The muffled sound of Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room. Most of the operators deaf- mutes, signaling to each other by hand. Paul Sann trimming stories on the stone counters beyond the Linotype machines, his editor’s hands using calipers to pluck lines of lead from the bottom of stories. Everybody smoking, crushing butts on the floor. Hot type. Shouts. Sandwiches from the Greek’s. All gone forever.

One possible front page says Jobs Rising? With a subhead: Mayor Says Future Bright. New unemployment numbers are due in the morning. The AP story will lead what they now call the Doom Page, always page 5, the hard stuff about the financial mess, with a sidebar trying to make the recession human. Names. Faces. Losers. Pain. If they have jobs, it’s a recession. If they don’t have jobs, it’s a depression. Foreign news is on page 8, usually from AP and Reuters, no overseas bureaus anymore, plus features bought from a new Web service that has correspondents all over the planet. Obama Mourns Afghan Deaths. Plus a thumbsucker out of the one- man Washington bureau. The problem is that most readers don’t give a rat’s ass. Not about Iraq, not about Afghanistan, only about whether they can still feed their kids next week, or the week after. Two more suicide bombings in Baghdad. Another bombing in Pakistan. A girls’ school. More stats counting the dead, without names or faces. It has been months since foreign news was used as wood.

–What else ya got? Briscoe says.

Logan picks up a ringing phone, whispers to the caller, but keeps clicking on the various page 1 displays. Bloomie’s Lament. All about more city job cuts, the need for a fair share of the stimulus package, the crackdown on parking permits for well- connected

pols, the @!$%#s in Albany grabbing what is not nailed down. And closing libraries while heading for the limousines. News should be new. This is all old. With this stuff, Briscoe thinks, we might even achieve negative sales. Logan gets off the phone.

–Where was I? he says. Oh, yeah. The Fonseca kid got the mother. Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago. Now he’s shot dead in the street. Logan makes some moves on the keyboard, and then Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing

–That’s the mother, Logan says. The letter is from Stuyvesant. When he was accepted.

She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.

–The quality sucks, Briscoe says.

–Yeah. We don’t have a photographer tonight so Fonseca shot it with a cell phone. Anyway, that’s the vic in the other picture. The dead kid. In his first year in Stuyvesant, after winning a medal for debating.

Logan points to a young man’s body on a sidewalk, facedown, chalk marks around him.

–Then he’s dead, late this afternoon. Shot five times.

–Why?

–The usual @!$%#, Logan says. Drugs. Or someone got dissed. So say the cops. Who ever really knows? But there’s a Doom Page angle too. The mother lost her job six weeks ago. They’re gonna throw her out of the house, and the cops think maybe the kid started dealing drugs to save the house.

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An excerpt from Pete Hamill's new book "Tabloid City"

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