24 January

On Being the Change. How Sean Got Me My First Job At The New York Times

by Jon Katz

You must be the change you wish to see in the world...” Mahatma Gandhi.

I’ve always seen change in this way: When I can’t change a situation, I am called to change myself rather than look backward or complain about my life.

My daughter has never once asked me for advice about getting a job, and at first, this hurt a bit. I’ve had lots of good jobs, why wasn’t my experience worth anything to her.

But then I recalled my own life and realized that I had never asked anyone for help or advice, either, least of all my father. I wanted to do it myself.

There is a part of us – our soul, I think – that either believes we have something to offer the world, or that doesn’t. Children are either encouraged to believe they are valuable and can contribute or feel inadequate and incomplete.

I guess I was a mixture of both.  The son of a friend – he wants to be a journalist – called me the other day and asked my advice about getting a job. He didn’t really want to start at the bottom; he wanted to start closer to the top.

I don’t fault him for that; I did start at the top. But his world has little in common with mine.

In the late 60’s I decided I wanted to be a reporter.  I was eager but very much adrift. I’d left college, I had the writing itch, but I had no idea how to make that work as a living. Emotionally, I was pretty messed up.

I wanted to start at the New York Times because that was the best paper in the country, and I lived in New York City and had worked for several weekly journals no one had heard of, covering the turmoil of that time.

And what the hell, it was a fantasy of mine to work there.

I loved my life, living in Greenwich Village and venturing out at night to cover riots, demos, and police battles with protesters. I was paid peanuts but got into the habit of writing what I liked to write.

We had an apartment on Washington Square which cost about $200 a month.

Like our time, I sometimes had the feeling the country was coming apart. I also learned that we are a fickle people; today’s passion often cooled, vented, or disappeared with change.

One day, tired of poverty, I took the number 4 subway up to Times Square, where the old Times newspaper building loomed just down 43rd street from Times Square, walking past a gauntlet of hookers, shocked tourists,  and people we called bums and beggars.

I could hear the giant presses rumbling and roaring all the way down the block and certainly inside the fancy gilded lobby on the street.

An older, clearly Irish security guard was sitting behind a desk in the lobby, scanning scores and scores of people as they marched past him. No frisking, no IDs, no metal detectors, people just walked in.

He said his name was Sean, and his brogue was as distinct as the rumbling.

This was my first attempt at a  real job interview and one of the world’s most storied newspapers.  I can’t imagine what I was thinking. I had no college degree, had no resume,  knew no reporters didn’t have a single reference.

What I did that day would be considered unbelievably arrogant and presumptuous today, of course. Now, I could never make it past security into the building.

I came up to the guard; he gave me a stern but not unfriendly gaze. “Can I help you, Sonny?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I want to work as a reporter here; I want to apply for a job.”

His eyes widened a bit, and he asked me two or three questions about what I was doing, where I was from, where did I live. I explained I had not graduated from college and had never worked on a daily newspaper before. But I was curious, hard-working, and I loved to write.

I knew that my lack of experience would be a problem, especially at a paper like the Times, but it didn’t bother me. I knew I would be a good reporter; I just had to find some editor who believed me. Just give it a go, I thought.

All I could lose was my pride.

I handed Sean a copy of one of my articles in one of the weeklies I wrote for $2. I had this instinct to be nice to him; he was, after all, the gateway. And he hadn’t just tossed me out of the building.

I was happy, hungry, and broke. I guess, also full of myself.

Every night, Dinner was one slice of Sicilian pizza and a coke at the pizza place down from the two-bedroom apartment I shared with three women and my friend Matt. We all at two meals a day – cereal and a banana for breakfast, pizza for dinner (one slice.)

At night, we roamed the village, haunting the clubs and cafes that were the gathering spots for the stars of the sixties.

I loved living there; I could look out of the windows onto  Washington Square, there was a sense of drama, community adventure in the city. Bob Dylan was singing at the Cafe Wha. There were plenty of seats, no charge for admission.

Sean read my piece,  looked me up and down, and then held up a finger, asking me to wait.

He picked up the phone and called someone in the newsroom. I later learned he called the city editor. “I’ve got a kid down here in the lobby,” he said, “wants to work at the Times, be a reporter one day.”

I half expected him to say, “he doesn’t smell.”

He waited a minute and then said, “OK, kid,” go on upstairs to the newsroom. It was on the 3rd floor if I remember correctly, and I could still feel the presses’ rumble beneath my feet. I got excited. At least I got into the newsroom.

I was lucky that day.

I got upstairs, wandered into the vast newsroom, and asked the first person I saw – it turned out to be Harrison Salisbury, a hero of mine after he walked across China with Mao on his great march during the revolution there, and went on to win every journalism award there was for his coverage of the Chinese Revolution and the  Soviet Union.

My jaw dropped seeing his white silvery hair and listening to his gentle Midwestern twang. He stopped his work to help me. Some people remember what it was like to be young, some forget.

At the Times and elsewhere, I learned that the biggest and most important people were almost always the nicest and most considerate.

Mr. Salisbury got up and walked me over to the city editor, whose name and face I can’t recall. The City Editor, a harried, gruff speaking man,  didn’t invite me to sit down; he peppered me with a dozen questions about why I wanted to be a reporter and what kind of reporting I wanted to do.

Then, after ten minutes, he said, “okay, I’ll give you a job as a copy boy helping  Mr. Salisbury, taking his stories page by page over to the copy desk (they called it the”Bullpen:”) to be edited before it went into the paper.  And anything else he wants or needs, he added.

In my spare time, he said, and at my own expense, you can root around New York looking for some stories for the Times. If we publish it, you get 3 cents a word. Get to work and good luck.

Mr. Salisbury said I was on the track, if I found good stories, I had a shot to become a city desk reporter. It would take a while.

I never expected to get hired that first visit, yet I wasn’t stunned either. It seemed right. I loved working for Mr. Salisbury, who I worshipped then and now.  I followed him around like a Lab. And I loved newspapers.

When Mr. Salisbury had typed a piece of paper for a story, he held it up over his right shoulder, saying nothing,  and my job was to spot his upraised arm,  rush over, grab it out of his hand and rush it over to the Bull Pen, page by page and in seconds.

Soon, he had me doing some research for him, and he invited me to show him any writing I tried to do for the paper. We talked a lot about newspapers, and I loved hearing his stories. Walking with Mao across China?  I was awestruck.

My weekly income increased about tenfold, and I could actually buy real food for my roommates and me. I got a whole pizza the first night I got paid, and a bottle of scotch, our bellies were full.

Good times, important times. I got many dates telling the women I met that I worked for the New York Times, even as a copy boy.

The copy editors’ boss was an aggressive little man named Sammy Solowitz; if I didn’t get to Mr. Salisbury in seconds, I got my ass chewed out in public.

I wrote several stories for the Times – no bylines for newcomers – but after six or seven months, I quit to take a reporting job at the Atlantic City Press, a city I loved and where I’d finished the last two years of high school.

Mr. Salisbury went overseas and I didn’t want to put in my several years of running copy back and forth.

I knew the Times wasn’t right for me — too big, too formal, too many rules, too many years of interning, too snooty,  and too much apprenticeship, too much editing. On one level, I loved the place; on another, I just knew I needed to get started writing right away.

Mr. Salisbury had tried to get me to stay, he thought I had a real future there,  but he also said he understood. Atlantic City bristled with energy, corruption, and mystery. My editor said I could get to work on the big stories right away.

There was no better place for a young reporter on fire. I started getting my own awards.

The paper, loaded with chain-smoking and usually drunken Irishmen, spoke to me.

It was fun from the first minute to the last, and I was a top reporter right away. A couple of years later, I was hired by the Philadelphia Daily News, and then the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then The Washington Post. I was on the way.

(I didn’t like The Washington Post either, something about Washington just scared me, I think, especially then.)

A few years later, I went back to the Times building to see if Sean, the security guard was still there.

He was, but by then, IDs were required and there was a scanner, and he had several helpers. He was delighted to see how things had turned out for me.

I gave him a Brooks Brothers cashmere sweater; I think he was pleased and surprised.

I could not have done any of it without him.

I tell this story and remember it not to glory on about the old days, but because it says so much to me about the country and how very different it was for an ambitious young writer who never finished much college, was broody and confused,  and had no powerful patrons to argue my cause.

I’ve never figured out what gave me the gall to walk into the New York Times like that and ask for a job. I’ve had a dozen great jobs before becoming a full-time author, and I have yet to write a resume in my life.

In journalism, my writing spoke for me, and it still does. I didn’t need a degree.

Does this kind of world exist still, and can it still work? Curious, I went on the Times website today to see what the hiring process is like now. It starts by writing an application online.

Of course, the journalism I knew does not exist today, and if I had stayed in newspapers, I’d probably be teaching at a community college now or retired somewhere in the South, driving my neighbors to their doctor’s appointments.

I doubt I’d be doing this blog. I’m so glad I missed their decline; I got to see their glory.

I realize I would never have gotten into the door today. I think of all those other restless and confused kids who ignore conventional wisdom and skip past the rituals and things you are supposed to do to do what they love.

My daughter had a different track.

She went to Yale, graduated on the dawn of the Great Recession, worked in a liquor store for a couple of years, wrote a book, and then got a good job supervising baseball coverage for a national sports website called the Athletic.

I have never talked about how my writing life started, and she’s never asked me. Trading memories is just not part of our relationship.

She always wanted to do it herself and in her own way. Good for her. There is always a way to get through.

 

 

6 Comments

  1. I think you, me and Carl Bernstein were about the last kids without college degrees to be hired as Washington Post reporters. You guys turned out pretty well! I’m proud to be in your company.

  2. My God….Harrison Salisbury! What an experience…what a different time. My family always read the Daily News, when I went off to NYU on the A train from Queens in 1974, all my professors had a copy of New York Times and I fell in love with it…though I never mastered the Times fold to read on a crowded subway. As we moved around the country no other paper ever came close and it was a happy day when I could get a digital subscription.

    I think our world has lost something when a scrappy kid is pushed aside in favor of the degreed….Thank you for this wonderful story…Russell Baker, William Safire, Pauline Kael, James Beard… you were in storied company.

  3. Jon…
    I’m glad you shared this experience. You were honored to work with a personal hero. But as you said, it’s unlikely this would happen today. The personal touch is purged from the hiring process.

    But also, you were smart to recognize the environment wasn’t right, and to seek more appropriate opportunities. I fell into a dream job as a technical manager for international development projects. But after six years of international travel, I was spent. A position as a hands-on technical contractor was a timelier fit.

    When I first hit the job market, entry-level technical positions required college degrees. But on starting, I found that earlier non-degreed peers were doing my job very capably. And they were savvier about company practices than we green rookies.

    It seems that non-degreed starting opportunities now rest with positions specialized for a technology or trade. Educational paths include junior colleges and trade schools. A county school district here offers technical training for both adult and high school students, leading to certification and licensure.

  4. Jon, I still remember the smell of Mr. Peanut on the boards and the saltwater taffy – AC had the best eateries!!!!! All those smells on the hot salty boardwalk !!! Love AC. The whole shore has the best beaches ever.

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