Monday, February 17, 2020


There are a couple of journalists I happened to read and enjoy without limit back in the days they were alive and writing. Yes yes I know, I'm dating myself but I date well enough thank you. The two I most admired were Herb Caen at the San Francisco Chronicle and Mike Royko at the Chicago Sun Times. Both of them could tell a complete story in their column every week. There is nobody in journalism today that comes close to achieving what they did week after week. The current crop are a sad bunch.

Time and a half, Herb Caen, 1992

Of course, I am not writing this on Labor Day. If I were, it wouldn’t appear till tomorrow, at the earliest. With any luck it wouldn’t appear at all, but editors aren’t as tough as they used to be and they like the occasional day off, too. So, he said with a sickly supplicating smile, here we are, stuck with each other. Hi!
It’s all quite confusing. The up-to-date thing among columnists — and my, aren’t there a lot of them — is to skip writing a column when the spirit moves them, or, more precisely, doesn’t move them. Thus, on some mornings, you pick up the old rag, turn to your favorite fount of wisdom and read that so-and-so “is taking the day off.” If newspapers were accurate, which would certainly make them less entertaining, this sentence would read that so-and-so “has taken a day off” — which one, exactly, we may never know — that that’s why his or her piece is not in place.

The line “Herb Caen Is Taking the Day Off” has never appeared in this sterling journal. I don’t say that proudly. In these enlightened times, this could mean I’m monomaniacal, driven, insecure, deadline-ridden and a good dancer. All these things are true, but the real reason is that I am from the old school. OK, make that the Very Old School. I was broken into “the game” to believe that the deadline was the holiest of holies, holier even than the Grateful Dead or the Republican Party. “Miss a Deadline, Go to Jail” was inscribed on the bumper sticker of my mind, a well-turned line if I do say so myself. Do I hear a second?
One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers was “The Marquis de Sade Was a young Whippersnapper.” The young whippersnappers who are granted columns today think nothing of missing deadlines sadistically or otherwise. It isn’t part of their work ethics, or perhaps they weren’t reared properly, a reflection on their “family values.” The irreducible minimum, I suppose, is one column a week and I know a young whippersnapper who decided to take that day off. He thought it was a funny idea. Got away with it, too.
I’m not saying I haven’t taken a lot of days off, but I write a column anyway because it’s in my contract. Veteran readers say chidingly that “I can always tell when you didn’t write the column,” as though I have this large staff of bad writers who can turn out the old column when this even worse writer isn’t in the mood. Seriously, friends, hack writers like us are not allowed to have moods. It’s not in the job description. At deadline time, “don’t get it right, get it written,” as the boozy old reporters used to say.

As I near the twilight of a lackluster career, I can say without dissembling more than usual that I’m proud to be a columnist, no matter what my batting average. As a baseball manager might out it, “He’s a feisty little guy who can play hurt and put out 100 percent every day.” Yeah, but 100 percent of what? Well, 100 percent of stuff to fit the space, all the way down to the bottom of the page. Sure, I make errors because I’m a feisty little guy who goes after every ball. Like fertilizer, I cover a lot of ground. Sure, I may be one step slower but (that’s enough baseball metaphors — Ed.).
It used to be that becoming a daily columnist meant you’d reached the pinnacle of success in starting as a copy boy (now known as copy person or “associate”), graduating to cub reporter, doing a stint on the copy desk (to this day I admire a well-turned headline almost more than anything in the paper), covering the police beat, the state house, executions and so on. Finally, when they didn’t know what else to do with you, they gave you a column or fired you. “Kid’s got a certain style.” “Yeah, but he makes a lot of mistakes.” “That’s what I mean.”

Well, I don’t know why Labor Day turned into True Caenfessions Day, but a lot of today’s kids who start out at the top with a column owe their jobs to me. Yeah, me, old Herb, his finger flying over the keyboard of his beloved Loyal Royal and calling for copy paper from copy boys who never heard of copy paper and never saw a carbon copy. I said “finger” because I still type with my right index finger and two on the left hand and turn out sloppy copy.
Once upon a time there were only a few columns in this town, so when I defected to the rival morning paper, a goodly group of readers defected also. Upon my return eight years later, the publisher assured me, “That’ll never happen again. One columnist won’t ever make that much difference in circulation. I’m loading this paper with columnists and if one leaves, who’ll care?” That’s why the old Chron was eventually described as having “more columns than a Greek temple.” Some of them are quite terrific, too.

If you’re still with me, Happy Labor Day. I used to put the knock on this holiday as sounding not very festive, but it’s better than no holiday at all. The good thing is that you don’t really have to do anything special about Labor Day. It doesn’t call for a certain kind of food or costume, gifts or rituals. It’s just a plain old day off for people who work every day. Well, most of ’em, anyway.

During a recent holiday party, a sensitive and refined young woman was going on about the plight of the homeless and how upset she was that society was unable to deal with this terrible problem.
My instincts told me to drift to a different part of the house, where someone might be talking about whether it was inevitable that Mike Ditka would try to strangle Mike Tomczak. But that would have been rude of me. Besides, she was standing directly in front of the liquor table.
''Why can`t something be done for these unfortunate people?'' the young woman asked. There was a silence, then I realized she was looking at me and expected an answer.
I resisted the urge to say: ''And why can`t something be done to make you stand over by the platter of chicken livers wrapped in bacon so you don`t block convenient access to the booze?''
Instead, I just shrugged, and she went on about the heartlessness of those who have more than they need and refuse to share with those who have little.
''I read a story,'' she said, ''about some men who live on the lower level of Michigan Avenue and sleep under pieces of old carpet. In this weather, can you imagine?''
I couldn`t take it anymore. So I said: ''You know whose fault that is, don`t you? It`s your fault.''
''Are you trying to be funny?'' she said. ''If you are, this isn`t a funny subject.''
I said: ''You are a do-gooder, and the do-gooders must share the blame for the plight of the homeless. In fact, do-gooders might be the single worst culprits. It was their idea to tear down the flops and empty the loony bins.'' ''The what?'' she said. Her question confirmed what I had suspected. For all her bleeding-heartism, she knew little about modern urban social history. So I explained.
There used to be long stretches of dumpy hotels called ''flop houses.''
These were seedy joints where a person with a drinking disorder (formerly known as a wino or alky) could rent a bed for the night for a minimal price. In other words, a place to come in out of the cold and flop. That`s why they called them flop houses.
There were clusters of flop houses in different parts of town. Clusters of flops were known as a ''Skid Row.''
These neighborhoods didn`t look nice but they had many conveniences: low- cost diners, liquor stores that sold moderately priced pints of skull-popper, and a choice of cheap flops. So a wino could panhandle a few hours a day and then return to Skid Row and find the basic necessities: food, drink and housing. And if you got sick, a police wagon would come and haul you to the County Hospital for free medical care.
But Skid Row offended do-gooders. In the old days it was the various abstinence groups. Then came the social engineers who accused flop house owners of being misery-profiteers. And they constantly demanded that the flop houses and Skid Rows be torn down. They said such blight was intolerable.
They didn`t know it, but they had quiet allies-real estate speculators who could look into the future and figure that land would be worth bigger bucks some day.
And thanks to the do-gooders, it happened. The city`s biggest, most centrally located Skid Row was demolished. The winos and alkies no longer had to plunk down a buck or so for a smelly cot. Madison Street had been purged and the goodness of the do-gooders triumphed.
The only problem was that all those winos no longer had a cheap place to flop on a cold winter night.
This happened in cities all over the country. And it`s one of the reasons why there are so many chronic drunks sleeping outdoors instead of indoors. The do-gooders got rid of the indoors.
At the same time they were eliminating the cheap flops, the do-gooders had another outburst of reformer-zeal: state mental hospitals. They thought it was terrible that people who were mentally ill, but harmless to others, should be cooped up in bleak institutions.
These institutions (nut houses or loony bins, as the insensitive used to call them), were poorly staffed, oppressive, crowded, miserable places. They did little to cure the crazies. All they did was keep them penned up.
That wasn`t entirely untrue. There weren`t enough shrinks, nurses and attendants. There wasn`t enough tax money to hire them. Therefore, many institutions provided little more than food and shelter.
The do-gooders found a solution. Throw open the doors and let them out. At least those who weren`t dangerous, which was the vast majority. Those who needed it would be provided with out-patient treatment.
On paper, it sounded good. Except there weren`t enough clinics to provide all that out-patient treatment. And families often slammed the doors on their deranged relatives. The mentally ill couldn`t work and support themselves. Details, details. So they wandered the streets. And they`re still wandering.
The sensitive, refined young woman finally interrupted and said: ''But all the homeless aren`t alcoholics or mentally ill.''
That`s right. Only about 75 percent of them, if you include the crack heads and other druggies.
''Well, something should be done,'' she said, finally moving toward the chicken liver tray.
That`s right, something should be done. But next time, leave bad enough alone.
Copyright © 2020, Chicago Tribune

This was on my refrigerator in San Diego for 10 years.  From these you might get some idea of  how I used to read the papers. They used to have a lot of what was good and interesting in them with a soupçon of bitters. I get the bitters. The Wall Street Journal doesn't come close and the NYT is just a joke


Brig said...

We may have lived in the back of beyond, but my FIL got us hooked on Herb Caen, and we stayed that way. No one comes close today.

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

YAY, Mike Royko!

HMS Defiant said...

I always looked forward to reading Baghdad By the Bay and good as it was in Emeryville it was better to read it in the City with a cup of coffee.

HMS Defiant said...

He knew the power of words like few others. There's lots of columnists who wrote books. I never read them. Mike was talent on loan. I like Joe Morgenstern but seldom read him anymore and there was always Henninger but again, hardly read him anymore. It may be time to cancel my subscription.

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

Royko was one of the Pearls, that the oyster of Chicago has made!