It seems like yesterday that I showed up for work at a hothouse of ambition called Northeast Neighbors. It was in fact 25 years ago Thursday.
Eight reporters were assigned to that non-descript suite of offices on Bustleton Avenue, most of my new colleagues burning to be the next one invited downtown, some content to be as far from 400 N. Broad as one could actually get in this city.
The editor was a shrewd and fiery character named Buzz Bissinger, who warned me that the job I accepted might entail three to five years of writing feature stories about delis. He made it sound like a sentence.
Buzz himself would be sprung a month later. He moved to Odessa, Texas, to write about high school football, and produced a classic of sports literature, the book he titled "Friday Night Lights."
That first day in May of 1988 the sports writer in our office must have read the something on my face as I looked around the remote outpost and wondered what I'd gotten myself into.
Some noise from the Kelly Services temp agency on the floor above us startled me for a second. He observed dryly, "That must be the start of the presses.” There were of course no presses. What had I gotten myself into?
Already I'd logged eight years of reporting experience on metro newspapers.
I got my first journalism job a few months out of grad school, when the now-dead afternoon newspaper in Norfolk, Va., had just fired their cop reporter, a Harvard grad who couldn’t talk to police, the editor told me. I could talk to cops. I’d learned to deal with the world on the floor of my father’s hardware store – the still-drunk house painters coming in for their early-morning supplies, the neighborhood sneak-thieves, the wealthy few who could afford lawn mowers, those others whose bounced checks were posted on the walls as a warning.
My start in journalism has its roots in that store, too. My dad had a friend who worked as a purchasing agent for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He somehow was able to get me on the payroll for a minimum-wage job cleaning the beaches of Boston the summer after my freshman year at Northwestern. Boston was going through a particularly ugly period. Racial tension over federally-ordered busing for desegregation led to race riots every Sunday at the beach where I was based.. We didn’t do much cleaning of beaches. They’d drop us off in the morning, with our metal spikes and our plastic bags, and pick us up for the first of two Dunkin Donut runs. I had some time on my hand, and it was during those long waits for the truck that I read “All the President’s Men.” Two reporters at the Washington Post -- a real-life Odd Couple if there ever was one – had taken down a corrupt president of the United States. I had found my calling.
Journalism at that moment was as sexy a field as there was for someone with ego, drive, and the need to tell. The fact that I couldn’t write a coherent paragraph was a small obstacle.
I wasn’t the only one inspired by the book. In an 1977 article for Atlantic Monthly called Woodstein U, a contraction of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Ben Bagdikian wrote that there were as many students in journalism courses as there were working newspaper journalists.
I went to J school for the credential, really. Because it would be a way to get clips, then get hired, then collect enough fact to fuel that life of fiction I was intent on pursuing. Quickly I was seduced by fact. People turned out to be even more interesting than my imagination. A year or so into my first job, covering courts in Virginia Beach, a prosecutor tipped me off about an interesting hearing coming up. A Dallas mechanic named Orvall Wyatt Loyd had killed his mother in law with a hatchet after mistaking her for a giant raccoon. For an afternoon newspaper in a Navy town, this was gold. His mother-in-law, Margaret Wise, was a big woman, about 250 pounds in an orange and yellow housedress. They met in the garage. Orvall swung. When police asked why he went at her another 16 times after realizing it was Marge, he answered, “I snapped or something.” That quote – my quote – wound up in a Doonesbury strip that year, on Johnny Carson, Rolling Stone, Esquire’s Dubious Achievements. It was viral before the Internet.
That story not only won me a night of complimentary drinks at the restaurant and bar I called my second home. I met my wife over it. Next, I moved to Louisville, Ky, to work at the Courier-Journal, then a high-minded and slightly tattered broadsheet owned by the Bingham family, true Kentucky bluebloods. I covered schools, then chased a disaster, writing 76 stories about a military charter plane that crashed in Newfoundland, killing 248 peacekeepers returning from the Sinai desert.
But newspapering to me meant big city newspapering. And no big city paper seemed more fun and more hard-hitting than The Philadelphia Inquirer. To those of us in the hinterlands, Philly was a famously weird news town - the home of Gary Heidnik’s house of horrors, where the mayor bombed a block of his own people. When a box of leaking human heads turned up in the UPS facilities in Louisville, I said ‘I bet it came from Philly.’ It had.
In Philly you could have the Front Page experience. Paste pots and pica poles were becoming rarer, but there was still opportunity to raise your blood pressure. I remember one of my first nights at the Inquirer – I’d been there a few weeks – and was working the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. Some guy in Kensington had filled his house with natural gas and threatened to blow up the neighborhood. We sent out our cop reporter. We were pushing deadline. Then the whole place blew up. The night editor, now gone, was called the Commodore, and he was a furnace-faced sailor who got along better with the night clerks than with the yuppie scum they’d been hiring recently.
“Rubin, you’re writing it," he said. "Straight adds.” I knew enough from journalism books that this meant there was no time for rewriting – we’d just slap more paragraphs onto the end of the story as more facts came in. But the facts were hard to make out at the chaotic scene. The Commodore sent a second reporter, who got in a shouting match with the cop reporter at a phone booth over whose piece this was going to be. I did the best I could, as fast as possible. The next day's front page carried three bylines. I felt like I hadn’t let the place down. But what happened the day after that made me realize I had arrived in the big leagues.
Michael Ruane was a rewrite ace, who had worked as a clerk at the Bulletin while a Villanova student. He was also in his done-in-a-day way, a stone genius. He also had fabulous sources around the city, and he produced this lede, this beginning of a second-day story that carried three bylines, his modestly last:
There was no way.
It had been almost nine hours now. There had been the gas explosion, the three-alarm fire and the tons of brick and splintered timber from the collapsed rowhouses crashing down.
There seemed no way that the asthmatic 3-year-old boy could survive underneath after all that. They would find him, all right, but his small body would certainly be crushed, the life pressed out of him.
As morning spread over the pile of rubble on the tiny street in Philadelphia's Kensington section yesterday, few of the people gathered there believed that little Harry Mertz could still be alive.
John Clark, an investigator with the city Medical Examiner's Office, stood by with a body tag, number 3095, that he would attach when the firefighters finally found the child they knew was in the wreckage of what had been his rowhouse.
But as Clark, 32, stared at the mound of jagged debris at 7:42 yesterday morning waiting to perform his grim duty, he spotted something.
It was small and sooty, but Clark recognized it right away. It was a tiny human foot.
And it was moving.
"There's the foot! " Clark shouted. "There's the foot! It's moving! "
I read that and was at once humbled and proud and inspired. This was the place for me.