Thursday, February 1, 2007

New York City in 30 Hours, or, Arthur Hasn't Lost His Touch

Arthur and me

An overnight trip to NYC from DC hardly seems worth it on paper. But New York is the city where I was born and raised and lived the first 32 years of my life, the place where I got my start in journalism, so for me it's a return to comforting locale. For Audrey it is a thrilling place to shop and walk around The Village. For Nancy it is a trip down memory lane, the city to which I lured her in 1983 with promises of illustration fame and fortune (which came true) and a lot of stuff about me that was never going to happen, silly girl.

Any way you cut it New York is for us both a sentimental and familiar destination, a place where we can experience the moments rather than being distracted by the locale.

Part of the justification for a trip was to keep a promise to Audrey that we were well on our way towards breaking. She turned 13 last month and we had pitched the idea of letting her turn into a teenager (chronologically, anyway, since spiritually that happened some time ago) in The Big Apple. This plan was logistically challenged since her birthday didn't fall near a weekend and we are not big on missing school for frivolities. Mid-December became impossible because Nancy was swamped with business. And so on, and so on.

But then, out of the blue, I heard that a bunch of ex-Reuterites were going to descend on New York for an impromtu reunion with Art Spiegelman, the best writer Reuters ever had and an important mentor to me. He was going to New York on a routine business trip and, because he is beloved by many and in somewhat ill health, this presented his pals with an opportunity to have a party in his honor. Private room in a restaurant with a dedicated -- open -- bar.

So it was settled. We had reached critical mass. With just a day or so warning we got our acts together. We got to New York on a Sunday afternoon and would be leaving Monday night. Just like real jet setters, only the kind who drive station wagons.

And I'd get to see Arthur for the first time in maybe 10 years.

Hundreds of people showed up, some from as far away as Australia and the UK. California, Chicago, Washington DC and Virginia were represented.

There were great tributes from all the right people. Roast-like stories from times past about Art's terminal innocence ...
"Arthur, that man is hitting on you."
"What do you mean?"
"He wants to have sex with you."
... and straightforward tributes like the story of the newspaper client who, for some reason, didn't need to hear an elaborate pitch to be convinced to renew their Reuters contract.
"Arthur Spiegelman."
I did not get to tell my own story, but I will here.

Arthur gave me chances to write, report and edit that simply were not justified by my resume in the early 1980s for the simple reason that I had no resume. On one occasion during my schooling Arthur let me desk "Tylenol II," a pretty big story about the second time someone had doctored a bottle of the pain medication, creating a national panic.

He sat me down in the middle of a swirling newsroom and gave me scraps of wire copy and hand written notes containing potential bits of the story and he told me to write a new lead -- top to bottom -- the one, given the time of day, that would likely make it into client newspapers of anyone using our coverage. The Money Story. A High Profile Assignment.

My version, drawn from those pieces of paper, came out something like "Tylenol was being pulled off supermarket shelves for the second time in less than a decade ... (para two) Supermarkets that were pulling Tylenol off the shelves included ... " -- and I proceeded to list them.

"NO!!! NO!!! NO!!!" Arthur, standing behind me, bellowed in a voice that I had never heard from him before, an angry voice -- the only time I ever heard an angry voice from him -- at a decibel level that could be heard for miles.

I mean, the newsroom fell silent.

He pulled me from "The Money Story, High Profile Assignment" chair I had occupied for all of about three minutes, took my place in it and banged out in two-finger staccato something like "Americans from coast to coast were in a state of panic over the discovery of a tainted bottle of Tylenol, the second time in ... (para two). "Supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores across the nation were clearing their shelves of the popular pain medication and police were aggressively following leads as the company scrambled yet again to defend its tarnished brand."

I should have just stood there quietly, melting into the landscape, taking it all in, hoping the 200 reporters who had witnessed my humiliation had by now been distracted by their own work.

But, I had no slip of paper about any police stuff. So how the heck was I supposed to know to write that, huh?

"Art, how do you know that the police are following up on leads," I say, like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel.

"What else would they be doing?" He turns around only long enough to let me see a look of incredulity before he turns back to continue writing "my" story. After he cemented the all-important first three grafs, he permitted me to sit down again and carry on.

You just don't get kicked in the ass and then in the teeth and then offered a hand up like that anymore -- ain't it a shame?

As I left the New York party I got to say my little private thank you and goodbye to the man known as "Dr. Lead." As we embraced I told him that the tributes were nice and all but those people had no idea how important he was, how important he was to me.

And of course, Arthur's prose was perfect again. "Somebody did it for me. Now you do it for somebody else."

I should be so lucky.