Thursday, May 28, 2009

Iowa Passage

Amy forwarded to me a plea for info from local columnist Starshine Rochelle, who was writing a piece on California marriage laws being less friendly to gays than Iowa's, except she had never been to Iowa and needed inside info. So I wrote this paragraph up in a few minutes and, since George has set the preening precedent for posting pieces he has both written and liked, I decided to follow suit. Besides, I'm on a memoir blogging roll.

I lived in Ames, Iowa for seven years. Home to Iowa State, it was one of two oases (along with Iowa City, a truly great college town) in the vast landscape of corn, soybeans, and agri-business. Still, it was a great place to raise a family--houses twice the size for a quarter of the price, no underclass or upperclass to speak of (since anyone who struck it rich moved immediately), and great, cheap pork chops. In my case, I also had a lot of guy friends to play basketball and poker. Plus, one could live in the small city full of trees and not realize it was Iowa until a trip into the vast surrounding flatness. I spent seven years surprising myself every time I took a drive.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pressing History

I went to for my regular dose of Red Sox news and found a piece of history, mine and my family's. Of course, finding it online also underscores the more general history, the digital age heralding the end of news on paper.

For me, this story of the end of days for pressmen recalls the beginning of days for my adult life. I worked at the Globe's pressroom from age 16 through college. My dad was there for 35 years. My three brothers all worked there, DJ for over 20 years. The guy in the video (very well done, no? great accents!) who says he's the last of ten or twelve is my cousin, Bill McHugh, also featured in the article.

As the article conveys, the ink was inescapable, suspended in the air, coating the presses, the walls, the floor, the plate glass windows looking out on Morrisey Boulevard so that they seemed from outside to be tinted against the sun, but it was ink, in our hair, under our fingernails, up noses and ears, in our very pores. Even the locker room, the tiles in the showers were covered in ink. Some guys, my brother Brian among them, never got used to it. For the rest of us, it sucked, but it was just part of the uniqueness of the place.

The noise, too, was inescapable. The presses were each three stories tall and 30 yards long. The pressroom at the Globe had ten presses when I was there, and I think they since added one or two. When they were cranking out thousands of papers an hour for a Sunday paper run of 750,000, the drone was so loud we would have to yell into each other's ear to be heard. I remember lying in bed at 7 am and the roar still droning in my ears. Some guys wore ear plugs, and the Globe began testing our ears in my last years there, but, in fact, I know of no one who developed hearing problems. These thunderous machines simply defined the place, the atmosphere, the industrial rumble of the proletarian world faintly audible as white noise in the business and editorial offices.

The work itself was miserable, tedious, and, at my low-man status, exceedingly easy. Up the union ladder, the work got progressively more interesting and challenging, paper handler, apprentice, journeyman. Learning to be a journeyman pressman took years. As lowly "plate boys," our main job was to pick up the inky paper off the pressroom floor and bale it for recycling. It required about ten or fifteen minutes of actual work an hour, at most, but we had to hang around to clean up if a press "broke down," which meant lots of paper on the floor.

The hours weren't attractive either, at least for most folks, though I didn't mind the 10:30 pm to 4:00 or 5:00 or whenever the run was done in the morning. It felt special to be working while everyone else slept. But most of the work was weekends, especially Saturday nights printing the big Sunday paper. That was certainly a drag, and I dreaded getting THE CALL (I was a "sub" and so on call) to work a Saturday night.

The people were equally singular. Or I should say the organizational culture was singular. We were all guys, of course, in itself a mark of a blue collar. We were also over two hundred, from 16 to 65, probably two thirds of us Boston Irish (I was watching an Irish movie with DJ once, and when the credits rolled he quipped that they read like a Globe payroll report), lots of Italians, one black guy, and, as the video captures, lots of family groups. I hung out with guys like me, with fathers or uncles in the place, working our way through college, though some were lured by the money and security and became "regulars," lifers. I never saw any of them outside of work, but I liked a lot of them, and we had some fun. I remember one time, the only time I ever left for a lunch break, about 2:00am, four of us piled into someone's car. We still wore our inky clothes, so we brought newspapers to protect the seats and rugs. We drove into the combat zone, where the cops chased the hookers from corner to corner. Whoever was driving stopped where a couple of ladies were waving at us. One of them reached into the passenger seat window and grabbed Jay Geninino's crotch. We all howled with laughter when driving away, as the hapless hooker discovered that her hand was covered in ink. (Jay is the guy in the video talking about being devastated if the Globe closes. That is, I think it's the same guy.)

Though I couldn't wait to get out, though my dad wanted nothing more for me than something better than the Globe, the job clearly worked in my favor. The best was the summer between sophomore and junior years. I lived with friends in Brighton and would take the T to work at 7:30 on Saturday morning, work until 6:00 or 7:00 Sunday morning, making more money in that long day than my friends working five and six days a week at Ho Jo's or wherever. I spent the rest of my days that summer playing ball, exploring the city, and reading. It was a blast. That was the Globe for us. It enabled our lives.

When we were young and driving into the city to visit relatives, we'd pass right by the Globe on the Southeast Expressway. My dad would always say, "Bless yourselves, we're passing the Globe." I thought he was serious, and avidly made the sign of the cross. As a teenager working at the Globe, I was certain my dad had always been making fun of the Globe (and us) in the working man's spirit of "take this job and shove it." Now I'm pretty sure it was both.

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