In a Newspaper Office
by Charles Hoy Fort
We saw a head thrust in the doorway; the door closed on its neck. It was so high that we wondered who was standing on a chair. Cheek bones that went up, mustache ends that went down, long thin nose, and sunburn all over; that is the face that looked in so long that we were well acquainted with it before a camel's hump of an Adam's apple and a high collar with a red ribbon for a necktie followed. Then came lankness that ended in trouser ends crumpled from being pushed into boots.
He looked around as if our office, which was only the Brooklyn edition of a New York newspaper, were one of the marvels of the world; and then, by a series of angles, just as you would fold up a metal ruler by its joints, an angle at his ankles, an angle at his knees, another at his waist, he sat down.
I paid him no attention. "Doc" White began to write, and Foster studied a notebook. We were on salary and were not straining our eyes for extra work; we never saw callers who might have stories that some one would be sent out on. But young Bingler, who was on space, looked interested. The more he wrote the more he was paid; and that boy had a vocabulary that would astonish if not pain you; for "mundane sphere" he was paid twice as much as for "earth," so polysyllabic he always was, and of a man slipping on a banana peel could write a book. A generous young fellow, but space-writing makes one so mean that he had been known to turn "Smith" into "Smithers" for three more letters. You can figure out that gain for yourself; sixteen hundred words to the column, and for a column four dollars and a half.
Said Bingler: "Well, is there anything we can do for you?"
The caller rose and rose and kept on rising. When all of him was in a straight line, he asked:
"Are you the editor?"
That was flattery, indeed; Bingler was so young that the last caller had thought him the office boy.
Said Bingler: "Well, no, I can't say that. But the editor is busy, and I'll do as well."
"Then can you give me a job? I've been on several Vermont papers and want to catch on down here."
Said Bingler, shortly: "There are no vacancies." Of course a space writer would say that. Bingler would be glad to see the staff cut in half, whereas we on salary had been grumbling for a month. Bonner had been discharged for using his position for something not unlike swindling, and no one had taken his place.
"There's no doubt about the vacancy," grumbled Foster; "but that specimen would never do."
Now I'm practical and don't go in for sentimentality, but I must admit that I can be sympathetic when I have a good business reason for being sympathetic.
"Why don't you give him a chance?" I asked. Another man would take the navy yard at least from my burdens, and burdens have no attraction for me.
I said: "There's the editor inside that partition; speak to him."
"Need anyone?" said the city editor. "Not at present. I have three men more than I can keep busy now." Just like him to say that! How about me, I wanted to know! I certainly was not of the unoccupied three, and, leaning back, I thought bitterly of my burdens.
The sun-out Vermonter returned to his chair. Well, it was at Bonner's desk, and he was in no one's way; so, if he wanted to rest, let him.
He seemed to be having a pleasant time of it. He had a large and bulgy scrapbook with him. And, looking over newspaper clippings in it, he chuckled. Then he must have found something funnier yet, for up went a bony hand, and he hid his mouth with rows of knuckles. He tried to read some more, but positively had to shut that book; seemingly there were such humorous things in it that he could not read and control his mirth.
The city editor -- "Old Buttons" we called him -- stirred uneasily, coming out to walk up and down the aisle between desks, as he would after sitting too long.
He stopped before the figure convulsed over the scrapbook and darted out a long finger that bent backward at the tip, which was his way of beginning when he had anything to say.
"I believe I told you I had nothing at present."
"Well, I'm waiting; just waiting. Perhaps you'll have something in the future for me." He returned to the scrapbook, but what he read there was seemingly so humorous that he had to snap the covers and gaze at the ceiling to conceal his delight.
And Old Buttons went back to his roll-top desk. So unaccustomed to being disregarded was he that he seemed at a loss; it was an experience for which he was not prepared.
I was pleased with Vermonter and the uneasy city editor; they helped to while away the time until evening, when I went out to report a political meeting and a speech. Not that any reporting was necessary. Just describe any meeting you've seen, and the description will do. As to the speech -- it was in typewriting, but there were not enough copies enough to go around. Bungway of the Standard got a copy, and I went with him to his room to take it down, both of us agreeing at what points to interpolate "Applause!" "Laughter!" "Great Applause!" Had a pleasant evening, taking a nap in Bungway's operating chair, bought because it was a bargain; formidable looking but comfortable.
Went back to the office, where Tinkler, the night editor, asked me how near I got to the meeting; the long-drawn Vermonter was still there.
At eleven o'clock in the morning, he had not gone. Foster, who as emergency man had closed the office, said that the caller had spent a pleasant night, refreshing himself from a bundle of ham sandwiches and reading his scrapbook.
Said Foster: "It's chuck filled with his own stories written for Vermont sheets, he told me. I couldn't be bothered to read them, but he says they're not at all bad."
Old Buttons strode out into the general office. His stride seemed to indicate fear that another defeat would cost him his authority over the staff.
"Didn't I tell you yesterday that I had nothing for you?"
"You said `at present.'"
"Well, that was yesterday."
"Now, see here, there's nothing today."
"Then perhaps there will be to-morrow."
I began to hope. Perseverance will do a good deal, you know; and if he could only wear Old Buttons into taking him on, there would be a burden taken from me. The truth is I had as much to do as any three on the staff, and not a cent more for it. Between you and me, I'd have written his stories for him, just to show him how to write, for the sake of having another man. I believe I have said I am a pretty practical fellow, but I'm not without my grain of human kindness, and I began to plan to help the poor devil. You know yourself that it was not right that I should have to do the work of three men.
But Old Buttons!
The old fellow looked at the Green Mountain stack of joints.
"To-morrow never comes; you'll be tired waiting," he said.
Of course we laughed more or less heartily at that, and the old fellow's self-respect was restored so that he could go back and look over marriage announcements in search of notices a year or so late, which is the way most of our romances were found.
I went to the vacant room next door and took a little nap on two chairs, for I had been brutally overworked; and, as there was no assignment for me, it was evening before I returned to the office. Went to a hospital, where I had a smoke and a nip with the house surgeon, who convinced me that reports of negligence and cruelty were unfounded. Sent out on something else, as you may be sure. Always something for me to do, poor drudge that I was!
It was midnight when I got back to the office. Vermonter was looking over his scrapbook, lifting knuckles to his long, thin grin.
The night editor suddenly chuckled. He was up to some of his nonsense, for he looked at Foster and me for moral support.
Said the night editor: "You want an assignment, my friend?" Night editor was not much of a position; dignity was too trying, and he had to turn to a little pleasantry now and then.
Vermonter went up like the lengths of a telescope and saluted.
"Well, you go down to this address and see Mr. Grayson. Ask him about the comet, and don't come back without a good interview. We have a cut to go with it."
Ethan Allan stepped over chairs, desks and a newspaper rack to make a straight line for the door.
I said: "Don't count on me, when that fellow comes back. I don't want any `Continental Congresses' and `Great Jehovahs' thrown at me! You can play Ticonderoga with him by yourself." For I very well knew old Grayson, who went to bed at nine o'clock, was frenzied by the sight of a reporter, and was made rabid by the mere mention of astronomy, because a star expert had run off with his daughter. Old Grayson did not know a comet from a moon.
Ethan came back in an hour.
"Well?" said the night editor. He looked to assure himself that we were still there.
Said Ethan: "There's no use handing in that interview; it's unfit for publication and would use up all your blanks. I punched him in the eye, though just easy, to brush his teeth out of my chest." To this day, of that interview we knew no more.
The simple fellow went back to his desk, seeming to think that, having had an assignment, he had a right to be there. To one of my worldly wisdom and experience it seemed pitiable to see the uncouth, ingenuous fellow down here, where he could never take care of himself, and could never learn the sharpness of city ways.
Next morning was Thursday--pay-day. The boys were making out their bills. Green Mountains was still there. Bingler turned in a roll of columns pasted together, as long as one of those ribbon paper-strips we made swords and guns of when very young. Green Mountains got a bill head from the office boy and, dating it, wrote on it. He went to the roll-top desk and handed it in.
Then Old Buttons glared.
He said: "Young man, I've been easy with you, letting you sit here out of the cold, thinking perhaps you didn't know much of city ways, but impertinence is going too far. What's this bill for? You charge for wearing out a chair? Just take that trunkful of humor of yours and find the way to the stairs, if you haven't forgotten; it's so long since you came in."
Green Mountains, with lean face devoid of expression, stood holding out the bill.
Old Buttons snatched it.
"Forty cents? What for?"
"Last night I had an assignment that brought no space, so I'm turning in for time."
"It's true," said I, though trying to protect the night editor. "Tinkler had something brought in about the `ring' and thought it was a fake, and had no one else to send out."
Old Buttons growled: "Mr. Tinkler had no business to do that; he should have waited for some one to come in. Where were you? Asleep somewhere again?" Then turning to the Vermonter, he cried: "By heavens! You want an assignment?"
Said Green Mountains: "By heavens, I do, but prefer it without comets or stars!"
"Then," said Old Buttons, "then -- " He meant to give the fellow something that no one could do. Not an impossibility could he think of; so he said, good-naturedly: "Here, go out on this clipping. You may be able to work it up. If you can handle this satisfactorily, I may have something else. I have three men more than necessary, but you may try pot luck."
I followed Bennington Monument to the hall and asked him what the assignment was. One likes to find out about things when having nothing else to do.
Monument showed me the clipping: a pet dog buried by sailors in the navy yard. And, between you and me, Old Buttons must have thought it over and picked out that assignment purposely. It was the hardest kind to write. If bungling with a humorous story, at the worst one will be guilty of only nonsense or farce. But pathos! It's a precarious plunge through mawkishness and falsity to pathos lying beyond. Few ever get beyond.
"Well, good luck to you!" I said. But to myself I said: "Such a story could never be written by this map of Lake Champlain."
Now, whether it is in the best of taste or not, the truth is, that pathos is in my line. I have written stories that have brought tears to my eyes. I have written stories that have made me exclaim to myself: "After all, you must be a pretty good fellow to have such depth of feeling as this!" To be sure, Old Buttons did not share my opinion of me--I am frank, you see. He held me strictly to facts and routine, so that very seldom had I opportunities. And there was I, longing for just a bit of pathetic work now and then, as I have known those in serious walks to turn at times to jest and nonsense, or if comedians, to yearn for tragedy.
I would do something generous. I really wanted to help this poor, green fellow, for the truth is, that I could no longer stand the strain of doing three men's work; and unless there was another on the staff, likely enough I should break down.
I had covered my morning's work, having returned from a tour of the municipal buildings, where I sat and gossiped with janitors to while away the time. For several hours I could have a little greatly needed rest.
Do you know what I did? Run down from overwork as I was, I sat down and wrote the dog story myself. No one would know, for I can write two hands; my naturally ornamental style and the cultivated newspaper hand of fat, squatty letters easily read.
The subject interested me from the beginning. I wrote it emotionally; I wrote it straight from what I felt. On my word, I had never before done anything so good, and I have never done anything so good since. You know how it is -- I'm trying to be simply frank and not boastful -- but at least once in his life a tyro may be moved so that his work may be as good as that of a master of the writing art. I'm no tyro, of course, but we'll say that something like this was the way with me.
So I wrote about the little dog and its fate, and the sailors, hard and rough, but with hearts that could be touched, after all.
I was still writing when Maple Sugar returned, having written and rewritten.
His scrapbook was still under his arm, though he dared not look at it for fear of doubling his forehead to his knees.
He whispered over my shoulder: "Was it only something funny I could turn out what would jolt your ribs, but I must say I've got a good story, as it is."
I really felt sorry for him. Even his conceit, which is a failing that I detest, seemed mere ingenuousness. He little thought what I was doing for him, through pure compassion and no other motive; I finished my story, having taken great pains, which seemed more than he was capable of, just as he was writing the last page of his. Up in the right-hand corner I signed his name, which I had learned, for it was in enormous letters on his scrapbook, and placed the copy on the desk of the copy reader, who was too busy to look up.
And then trouble! In a moment the obelisk would turn in his story. How account for two? Suppose his should be read first and slung into the basket! It might be months before we should again come so close to having another man on the staff. Of course, I was not sure, but I could feel that my story would give him Bonner's desk, and that his would mean -- freighting it back to Vermont!
And there was his story on top of mine on the copy reader's desk.
Old Buttons called me.
He said: "It's about time you had something to do. I should think you'd be ashamed to see Foster doing his work and most of yours! Well?"
I laughed. Old Buttons would have his joke, though from his glare you would never have believed him joking.
He said: "Make half a column of this new library; here is all the data. Don't let me speak again about this lounging and shifting work off onto others."
Would have his joke, setting on to me, because, of course, I understood him; then, equally of course, he would not admit that I was doing the work of three others. In returning to my desk, I snapped Vermont's story from the top of the pile of copy.
And not a moment too soon. Old Buttons called to the copy reader:
"Mr. Knobscot, let me see that young man's story. Alfred!" And the office boy slouched from desk to desk.
Then Old Buttons and Knobscot were reading copy.
Old Buttons said -- well, the accepted spelling seems to be "Ugh!" It was more like "Rrrjjkwww!"
He said: "Oh, dear, dear, dear! What, what, what!"
Vermonter could be aroused, after all. I glanced at the story I had taken from the pile on the desk. It was something that Foster had placed there while Old Buttons was joking with me. Then how account for the story I had written? For the copy reader was looking it over, and, though I was troubled, I was pleased to see that he was moved by it.
"Rubbish!" shouted Old Buttons. He never had any self-control when looking at bad work.
Said Knobscot: "Well, this business has its compensations, after all! This is great! It's worth the wading and threshing to strike something like this once in a while!" And there I could never have credit, because authorship could not be owned by me.
"Rot! Let this be the last of it! Silly! Foolish!" shouted Old Buttons.
Knobscot, laying down the copy, said: "This is great and real! To come across something like this only once a year, makes everything worth while!"
And angry Vermonter cried: "At any rate, give me back my stuff! It's not going to be pasted on your wall to be laughed at the next ten years!
"Ain't mine!" he added, as Old Buttons jabbed the manuscript at him.
"That's mine," he said to Knobscot. "It's all right, is it?"
"The best in years!"
In some way the manuscripts had been mixed, after all.
And, although the office boy was suspected, no one knows to this day who wrote my story. Altogether, it was a pretty good joke on Old Buttons, who had, of course, groaned and writhed purposely, not knowing that the pathetic little masterpiece he read was mine.
Life is disgusting! Vermonter is today one of the big chiefs over on the main sheet, and I'm still doing three men's work at eighteen a week. Life is disgusting, is what I repeat!
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