For You, The Stars
Chapter Nine: Installment 2
It was only when working on the school paper that I managed to pull off real all-nighters, probably because there were always a bunch of us there, at least through the wee hours, and there was a real risk of humiliation of the paper didn’t get put to bed before the guy from the printer, whom I christened “the embarassing man,” arrived around 7 am to pick up the blue sheets. I don’t know why, but it always ended up taking nearly the whole night, Wednesday night, to get the whole paper sorted out. This had been true in high school as well. By coincidence, I had edited my boarding school’s weekly paper as well, and the pattern was exactly the same, except without girls.
In high school, at least, there was a sense of privilege involved in being allowed out of the dorm at night to work on the paper. We didn’t cheat much. Oh, there was the occasional fifth of bourbon sneaked in the dark room, maybe a bonghit here or there, and probably much more of that before my time, but mostly it was all business. We tried to make our paper look like the New York Times despite the tabloid layout, and we worked hard at laying out the pages and copyfitting the headlines. When I started on the high school paper I was a typesetter on the aging compugraphic machine. It had no memory: it exposed a line at a time on the photographic paper, using dodged-out negative film strips and lenses to shoot the different type sizes. If you wanted a different font, you opened the hood, unhooked a font strip and strapped a different one on, hopefully oriented the right way.
If there were typos we had to do it again, cut the bad lines out or wax the replacements right on top of them, hoping not to leave visible ragged edges in the copy. If the mistake walked lines, we’d end up having to redo an entire paragraph. When things were getting tight on the deadlines, someone would stand over my should and watch the tiny ticker-tape style LED readout and shout if they saw a typo so I could back up and fix it before it became irrevocable.
We always got punchy at night and occasionally I’d end up slipping a joke into the copy, which was risky because if it didn’t get caught by a proofreader it would end up going into print. I’d also sometimes have to include placeholder copy or notes when the articles weren’t entirely done, say when we we were waiting for a quote or a call to tell us who had won the game on the road. At first I’d type the comments in brackets or curly braces but those were hard to spot when our eyes got bleary. Eventually I came up with the convention of using boldface for the notes, but even then I remember once publishing a major parents’ weekend issue, a big print run, and having a key article with “Dean: REPLACE THIS SECTION” in bold in the middle of a column of copy.
We upgraded the compugraphic machine my senior year in high school, getting one with a full screen, small by today’s standards but huge if only because you could go up and down and fix typos on lines above the one you were currently typing on. Even more important, the thing had storage, in the form of floppy disks. Not diskettes, but actual disks, the 9-inch form factor. If you needed to make serious changes to a piece you didn’t have to cut and paste, you could open up the file, edit, and print again. It wasn’t exactly desktop publishing yet. We still used the film strips and we couldn’t lay out whole newspages, but it was a giant leap forward.
Even though by then I was the editor of the paper and not responsible for typesetting I still took my turn on the compugraphic just because it was fun. When I went to college I vowed that I was done with school papers (I’d been doing them since grade school) and staying up all night once a week. In fact one time when I was in the infirmary a school doctor asked me about my habits and told me that staying up all night was worse for me than smoking weed or drinking too much. I don’t know if that’s actually true but it stuck in my mind.
Then I needed money and the weekly paper advertised for typesetters. That was something I knew how to do, so I went down and got the job. I liked hanging out there. The paper was run by really smart glasses-wearing girls at the time, and they were kind to me, and they laughed when I slipped jokes into the copy. One time we were running a big two-page spread in the middle of the paper chronicling a student’s junior year in Africa. She was your typical waspy blonde and had written a scene about being shepherded through a village by the local chief. “Is that your new wife?” people had asked the chief, and he had grinned and demurred. I couldn’t resist slipping in a false line. I had the chief say, “No, it’s just some white bitch I’m fucking.”
Twenty minutes later when someone read the line, it causes a riot. We weren’t politically correct. The women’s center was just down the hall in Aaron Burr, but our office was cynical and obnoxious humor was the order of the day, so that line kind of made my reputation, though we were careful to excise it from the final copy. It ended up being kind of catchphrase, an all-purpose non-sequitur punchline when it got late and we were running short on fresh air.
Eventually the paper ran short of money and offered me a staff position and before I knew it I was back in the school newspaper game. I had thought of maybe trying out for the daily paper, the Prince, at some point, or maybe trying to be an AP stringer. It was the stringers who usually ended up getting jobs at the Times and other top papers, but somehow I got sucked into the alternative-paper world and I stuck there. I earned status by staying late on Wednesday nights even when I was junior, and eventually I was chosen as the next editor-in-chief. It felt like déjà vu.
Maura used to write for the paper sometimes. She was a serious creative writing student, a jock (she rowed crew), and kind of known for her tough exterior. Just about nobody knew about my on-again off-again courtship of her but she came to editorial meetings and sometimes told me I intimidated people, the way I ran them. I guess I was kind of imperious: cutting people off or mocking them sarcastically. I was very sarcastic by then. I had another good friend on the paper, a friend of Maura’s, Katie Carr. I also sort of had a crush on her. She was from New York too, a dirty blonde, one of the guys, sort of a husky voice, a Dead Head. She wrote an op-ed for the paper once about having a crush on Bob Weir and rejecting the rumors that he was gay, what with his short shorts and his pink guitar.
She was in fact dating a guy from my grade school in New York, the classic preppy jock asshole, a guy named Johnny Black. Except he went by just John now. I still called him Johnny, to remind her that I knew him when he was sixth-grade bully. He was one of the AP stringers and he was in one of the exclusive eating clubs and I didn’t know what she saw in him. Katie was always trying to get Johnny and me to meet and be friends. “I like both of you,” she said, “but Johnny says you hate him.”
“Oh, I hardly know him,” I said. “But he was a jerk in school.”
“He’s different now,” she said. But I saw him around campus and he had always snubbed me. He hadn’t made it any easier for me to fit in when I arrived on campus as a freshman and I thought she was too good and too smart for him.
Katie and I got close from those late nights together. My crush got stronger but she made it very clear, in the nicest possible way, that I did not have a chance. She also knew about my frustration with Maura, and she didn’t object when I wrote a half-mean bio line at the bottom of one of her pieces. We usually had these little bios in italics at the bottom of the first column of each article. They could be boring: “Joe Bloggs is a freshman in Mathey College,” or informative “Sally Sue Frelinghuysen works with leprosy victims in Trenton, NJ, each Sunday,” but most often they were little gags. Writing them, along with the captions and the headlines, was one of my prerogatives as editor of the paper.
Maura Romas is a woman trapped in the body of a woman.
It really captured it. Maura was a little butch although totally straight and very attractive. This line was my way of teasing her about her brusqueness and the way she kept gving me the cold shoulder. At the same time it was kind of cruel: I was humiliating her in front of the whole school, or at least the thousand or so people who read the weekly. She gave me the evil eye next time she saw me.
Katie was always looking out for me. Another prerogative of the editor-in-chief was that I could commandeer the short page-two op-ed page whenever I wanted to write a little something. I used it to comment on campus politics and culture most of the time. Sometimes it was fluffy, like a piece about being a Yankees fan and the summer I worked as a vendor at the stadium. One night I wrote an anguished piece about my bad procrastination habit, kind of meta-piece about not getting my piece written on time and always finishing the paper - and everything else - at the last minute. Katie took me into one of the empty offices and said that although I had the right to publish whatever I wanted that what I had written was too self-revealing and that for my own good she thought I shouldn’t run it. Unstated but obvious was the thought that it was a tad self-indulgent and navelgazing as well. Why should anybody care with my struggles to get my act together?
Another time Katie and I went out to dinner at a tavern just off campus to hang out and talk about how life was going for both of us outside of the paper. Later that year she dropped out of school and took some time off because she felt that her life was getting out of control. Someone said she had entered rehab although she didn’t really have any addictions. Maybe drinking, but I never saw her drink more than most people on campus. I think she really just needed a break. The treadmill from growing up in New York to prep school to Ivy League college could be brutal. I’m not trying to say yuppies need sympathy or anything like that, just that the whole sequence could start to feel like a nonstop conveyor belt and I understood the desire for some people to jump off and question things. That wasn’t my way, though. I wanted to hurry it up and get it over with. I was eager to get out into the world.
At this dinner we joked about which celebrities we were most like. People sometimes told Katie she looked like Madonna. She didn’t, except that she was blonde and thin and had high cheekbones and somewhat sharp features. But her cheeks were always rosy, even when it wasn’t cold out, and she definitely looked waspy and not Italian.
“You kind of look like Sean Penn,” she said to me. I knew this wasn’t true but I found it kind of flattering, especially since Penn and Madonna were married at the time. This was before he supposedly tied her up and they split. I think because my hair is kind of gingery and my nose is kind of big and I liked to wear a jean jacket back then and act sort of tough - that’s why Katie reached for the analogy. “Plus,” she said, “you’re Irish, right? McDermott? That’s got to be an Irish name.”
“Irish and German and Scottish,” I said, “mostly. But a bunch of other stuff too. I’m a mutt.”
After we ate and had had a few beers I asked Katie “How do people see me?” She was the kind of friend I could ask a question like that. I wouldn’t want to know anyone else’s answer.
“You seem really tightly wound,” she said.
“That’s because I need to get laid,” I said.
She laughed but she didn’t argue the point.
“The thing is,” she said. “You have to realize: this is a jock school and you’re not a jock.”
I knew she was right. It’s not part of the Ivy image but it was a continuation of the whole boarding school culture I’d come to loathe. It was all about sports and lockerroom bullshit. I never knew my way around that stuff. My only revenge was that I made friends with women easily, even if I couldn’t convince any of them to sleep with me.
Bella, Cecilia’s older sister, was one of my closest friends and was acknowledged to be one of the hottest girls in the school. I always felt like a bit of fraud hanging around with her, but I was willing to bask in her reflected popularity. It was the same thing with Suzy Baxter. I figured it made me seem cooler to have friends like that, but I’m not trying to say we weren’t really friends, because we were.
When I was actually spending afternoons getting stoned with them I wasn’t thinking about how it helped my status. It was only when we went out, went to parties or wandered around campus that I thought about people seeing my with these pretty girls and thinking I was cool. My brother even said it to me, a couple of year later: “Daniel, you always surround yourself with beautiful women.”