Does a first job set the template for your career? Perhaps it does, in ways we can’t see until we approach the other end. The start date of my initial post-college job fell on the same day as the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
Simmons-Boardman Publishing occupied the 17th floor of an unassuming office tower on Hudson Street in downtown Manhattan. In 1981, the western fringes of Soho were commercial and industrial. Walking to work during rush hour on the morning of March 30, I heard the heavy metal clanking of printing presses rebounding through open windows. On King Street, I came upon a boisterous group of young men gathered in the driveway entrance of a vacant parking garage. I can’t recall exactly what they wore; probably jeans and t-shirts under light jackets. But I remember thinking they weren’t dressed for 9–5 type employment. Their carrying-on rang in my ears down the rest of the block.
Months later I discovered that the old garage was a nightclub. Not just any run-of-the mill disco, either. This garage turned out to be the famed Paradise Garage, home base of the innovative and trend-setting DJ Larry Levan.
At the appointed hour of 9 AM, I presented myself to the redheaded receptionist. Fortyish and friendly, she greeted me in thick Outer-Boroughese. “You must be Mark. Mistuh Milluh ain’t heah yet, deah. June’ll be outna minute. Have a seat.”
The wait was only five minutes but I fidgeted, having no idea what would come next. My heels were cool by the time managing editor June Meyer appeared.
As it turned out, I was in good hands. June was gruff but kindly, a middle-aged grandmother who lived in Queens. Her husband was a retired firefighter, and her son-in-law was currently “with the department.” In the ensuing months, June supervised me like a patient schoolteacher, gently correcting my misspellings and grammatical lapses. Overall her professional demeanor resembled a drill sergeant’s. She was iron-willed about enforcing deadlines and keeping the printers on schedule.
June kept the chitchat to a minimum that first day. Once she’d escorted me to the stark cubicle next to hers, she disappeared into the editor-in-chief’s corner office, where my surprisingly cursory job interview had taken place nearly three weeks previous.
So there I sat at an empty metal desk, staring at the manual typewriter. I stood up, opened the top drawer on a file cabinet. There I found folder after folder marking the stages of magazine production: manuscripts, page proofs, blue lines. Not knowing where to begin, I nudged the drawer and it slammed shut, loudly. I turned around and saw Luther Miller, my new boss, standing at the entrance of the cubicle.
“If you had been sitting here,” he said blandly, “reading the paper and drinking coffee when I walked in By God I would’ve fired you. Good morning, Mark, and welcome.” Luther was in his fifties, medium height with a full head of grey hair, mentally keen though obviously far from physically fit. He was fond of massaging his ample belly while verbally holding forth.
My routine, I soon discovered, would be straightforward to a fault. Each morning began with The Journal of Commerce, which I combed for items about the railroads, making copies for June, Luther and the magazine’s publisher Robert Lewis. In every issue of Railway Age, I was responsible for researching and writing three regular features: New Products, People & Promotions, and my favorite, 100 Years Ago in Railway Age. I was also charged with editing one of the three bylined columns, Looking At Labor by the biweekly’s Chicago correspondent. “See if you can make sense of his torturous prose,” Luther said. So concluded our first editorial meeting, in a blue cloud of Viceroy fumes, as June let loose a hoarse giggle.
Luther was a no-nonsense editor of the old school, applying his twin standards of clarity and brevity to learned treatises on arcane subjects like refrigerated boxcars or The Future of the Caboose. The written word was what he immersed himself in every minute of the working day, interspersing his magazine duties with discourse on everything from the daily Times crossword puzzle to a recent Philip Roth novel (thumbs down on The Ghost Writer). He studied each issue of Railway Age like a raptor, zeroing in for the kill at the first sight of a typo or tautology. Luther abhorred faulty logic.
Early on I decided Railway Age was a train to nowhere. It also became readily apparent that I wasn’t destined to conquer the world of trade magazines. After the first week, I managed to complete the grunt work on time: translating press releases, digging up items from the magazine’s rich archives. But the impetus for pursuing longer stories proved to be elusive. My excuse: I was an under-qualified recent college graduate trying to fake it alongside grown-ups who knew what they were doing.
The mail cart arrived around 9:45 every morning. I would accept several bundles of envelopes from Manny, ruler of the mailroom. Garrulous and childlike, Manny was a disabled Vet. He handed over his packages with inane patter, groan-inducing jokes custom-geared for each recipient.
“Avoid engaging in conversation with Manny,” Luther stated flatly that first morning. “If you get him started on Korea, he can turn psychotic in an instant.” My father saw combat in the Korean War; Manny looked to me like he was old enough to have fought in World War I.
Sorting actual mail from all the generic submissions took forever the first time. Finally, I was left with a pile of press releases and promotional announcements, and no way to gauge their value. It occurred to me then precisely how little I knew about railroads. So I thought about lunch, more out of boredom than hunger.
Around one o’clock I was still fantasizing about food and struggling with signal switchers when a stricken June Meyer gave me the news. President Reagan had been shot outside a hotel in Washington, barely three months after his inauguration.
June turned on her portable radio, and left it on for the duration of the workday. Luther conferred with Mr. Lewis in the hallway before he abruptly bolted for the lobby. “There’s a television set above the bar on Spring Street.”
It soon became obvious, from the news bulletins and from intuition, that Ronald Reagan would survive the bullets from John Hinckley’s gun. I spent the afternoon thumbing back issues of Railway Age and reflecting on the assassination of John Lennon just four months previous. I wrote his obituary in The Michigan Daily; it was my final article there. The line I’d been so proud of — “last night the 1960s finally ended” — suddenly sounded hollow. Clearly, the election of such a conservative president had ended the lingering countercultural era once and for all. After the shooting, Reagan’s truly awesome resilience just underlined the point. Whatever you thought of his politics and persona (not much in my case), the old actor was tough, enduring. And so was the right-wing social revolution he represented.
Not long after five o’clock Luther stuck his head in my cubicle and invited me for a beer. Startled, I accepted. “Good. Meet me in the lobby in five minutes.”
Our destination was about four blocks north, just off Seventh Avenue South, a corner bar somewhere in the web of twisting sides-streets at the heart of Greenwich Village. My apartment was only a few blocks away yet I had almost no idea where we were. Luther referred to the place as Mary’s, adding that was merely the bartender’s name and not the official name of the tavern. We bellied up and ordered two bottles of Budweiser. Well, I tried to order Heineken and received such a withering glance from Luther that I was relieved when Mary ignored my request and brought me a Bud.
Another round was delivered seconds after Luther sank his last gulp. When a third round materialized the same way, fifteen minutes later, the taciturn woman behind the bar didn’t touch the shrinking pile of bills and coins on the counter. Thanking Mary for the beers, Luther explained to me, “any decent bartender in New York will buy the third round.”
Another three — or four — rounds came and went until Luther suddenly rose to his feet and bid me farewell. I finished my beer in silence and then followed suit. I was out on the street, smashed, by 7:30. I somehow made my way to West 4th Street. A dirty piece of paper stuck to my shoe. It was a ten-dollar bill! I stopped at the first restaurant in my path, one of the few Mexican places in the neighborhood, where I devoured a mediocre burrito. After that I navigated the final blocks and stumbled upstairs to my single room. Though it was early I flopped on the bed and listened to funky and soulful WBLS-FM on my bedside clock radio for a pleasantly hazy hour.
When I awoke the next day, I was a (hungover) workingman at last.