Preparation Mania

Freelancing for the Penn Gazette (Penn’s alumni mag), in 1980 was my first paying writing job of any significance – almost 20 years after graduating from Penn in supposed journalism. I had tired of carpentry, of mashing various parts of my body with various tools while earning next to nothing. So why not earn next to nothing doing something I was actually good at?

One of my early Gazette assignments – I still wonder at being asked to do this, after only a couple articles turned in – was to interview Noam Chomsky at MIT, a Penn grad.

Chomsky was the world’s foremost linguist and an increasing presence in leftist polemics. The assignment scared the living shit out of me. I’d seldom spoken to anyone even marginally famous, much less interviewed one. So to prepare, I sat down and read every single one of Chomsky’s major works, on both linguistics and social commentary. I was even able to understand a fair amount of it.

Tony, the Gazette‘s editor – whom I knew well from his being editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian the year I graduated Penn – handed me a handheld tape recorder to take to Cambridge. I’d never before interviewed anyone by tape recorder – never even used a cassette recorder. What if it crapped out or I hit the wrong button? Jesus sideways Christ, you don’t want to misquote the world’s leading linguist.

Chomsky’s office hung out in an old engineering building, because MIT didn’t have a linguistics department back then. A low, massive wooden structure, it sported five parallel wings – the schematic of a hand. I liked Chomsky a lot – quiet, concerned and friendly. It was a good interview. I studiously transcribed the interview without noticeable screwup.

The following morning, back home on Baring St., I suffered the worst pain I’ve ever known – in retrospect, probably my first kidney stone. It didn’t seem a great omen – though I was proud of my daughters, getting ready for school, calmly stepping over my howling form as I rolled in agony on the bathroom floor: My histrionics would not undermine their quiet solidity.

Those were the days of cut-and-paste editing on a typewriter. I’d hammer out a rough draft, scissor it into paragraphs, then staple the bits in a new order on other sheets of paper, with new transitions penciled in. Retype and repeat until something approaching coherence appeared.

Later, when the article came out, Chomsky typed a two-sentence response. The second sentence read, “I was very pleased with the way he handled the material and found it in general an excellent piece of work.” No single comment has ever meant more to me.

That year the Gazette received the Sibley Award as the best alumni mag in the country. The following year I joined the staff in the new position of Assistant Editor, with my own spacious office overlooking the central block of the campus. 

Marshall, the Associate Editor, was officed next door. We became good friends. I’d heat tea water in my Poly Hot Pot (yes, it was actually called that!) and rap on the wall when the water was ready. Our chats were the high point of my day.

Priscilla, the thin, trepidatious secretary, had sexy heels. (If you find that incomprehensible, I later met a woman with sexy wrists.)

Editor Tony lived for the Gazette. The smallest factual or stylistic error registered as a smudge on his person. I got along with him fine, but he was known to verbally eviscerate some of the writers, especially women. His one ironclad, undeviating rule of journalistic integrity was to refuse to show an article to its subject in advance for approval. One professor in the ed school unreservedly insisted on seeing a draft I’d written; Tony dumped the article.

My obsession with Knowing All before writing an article would lead me into grotesque preparatory gymnastics. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine giant of skewed short stories, then in his 80s, was visiting Camden, NJ, for some reason (no one voluntarily enters Camden without reason; it likely had to do with Walt Whitman’s residence there a century earlier). I was told to attend his visit and do a few paragraphs for the intro column. To prepare, I read virtually his entire fiction output in advance.

Did that help my one-column story? Damned if I know.

Possibly more bizarre was my warmup for a feature article on a dental school prof who was also a Proust enthusiast (say what?). I’d never read Proust, but I quickly devoured Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. In the article I described Hammond using a long Proustian riff. What a lot of fun! (I still haven’t gone back to Proust.)

Even more fun was the Grace Kelly gala at Penn’s Annenberg Center (Linda at t hat time ran the Center’s box office). The Gazette sprang for tux rental, but none of the plastic shoes that come with would fit my Hobbit feet – and I owned no black shoes. Scuffling around our closet, I unearthed a slightly tight pair of suede loafers someone had given me.

One coat of flat black paint and two coats of polyurethane and voila! – I’d have dared you to tell them from their plastic cousins.

That gala was a gas. Plates of sliced fillet mignon slathered on tables all over the lobby, enough other edibles to feed Outer Mongolia, endless alcohol (including Boodles gin – 90 proof! – almost impossible to get in Pennsylvania). The wide stairs lined with upright Mylar mirrors: I bumped into someone walking up and apologized; turned out to be myself.

Jimmy Stewart and others delivered homilies about Kelly. Bob Hope read from huge illuminated cue cards set up in the side aisle (including parenthetical admonitions such as “cough”). He never had to see his “routine” in advance, confirming my longstanding belief that he was the biggest jackass ever to perform on stage. 

Kelly, a lovely presence, reminisced about Monaco and the “scary” drive leading to her mountaintop home. She died the following year when her car plunged off that drive.

I left the Gazette after a year and a half (during my second year, it again received the Sibley Award). Why? Weirdly enough, I think it had much to do with my private office.

Earlier, managing the UPenn book store, I had overseen a rambunctious gaggle of part-timers. Later, doing maintenance at Miquon, my kids delightful private school, I interacted daily with the kids and teachers in a rolling educational hootenanny. At the Gazette, except for the tea-klatches with Marshall and occasional forays to check out Priscilla’s heels, I felt crushingly isolated.

So I left to join the Welcomat weekly as Arts Editor. Along with the News Editor and a shifting band of interns (including Marshall’s 13-year-old wunderkind daughter Kate), I dealt with a non-stop parade of entertaining freelancers.

I stayed at the Welco for 12 years – my personal record.

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