In the late eighties, the city desk’s telephone lines became overwhelmed by callers making impossible demands. Phone technology was still the newsroom’s main conduit of raw information and we had multiple lines to accommodate tipsters and sources, as well as reporters notifying assignment editors of breaking news and late inserts. But in the evening, the lines were often blocked with personalities who didn’t understand that our deadline culture required efficient, sometimes telegraphic speech. I heard from many of the same callers nightly, some every fifteen minutes until their mania ran its course. In quick succession, I might answer the phone’s insistent ringing to the complaints of a televangelist’s unhappy wife, a man who called himself Hoboken offering nonsensical editorials, and an unknown presidential candidate reciting a press release. Their confusion and pain altered my consciousness, a case study in neuroplasticity.
Many of these callers could be classified as insane, or using newsroom vernacular, as “crazies”—terms that are neither diagnostic nor precise. But no matter the mental state of those speaking into my ear, all calls to the newsroom could be divided cleanly between those that operated inside and outside what could be printed in narrow columns [End Page 39] of type. Rather than considering the outré callers pests as did everyone else, I appreciated how these special correspondents undermined the paper’s claims on fact and judgment. Their logorrhea seemed to echo the datastorm hovering over the newsroom, a force that in the coming decades would undo the mighty institution for which I worked.
As I listened until my duties or another call forced me to hit the hold button, I would stare into the newsroom, nearly abandoned in the hours hovering around midnight. A few of us remained scattered across that room’s wide horizon. We were waiting for the final replate that would put the paper to bed at some point after 2:00 a.m. Editors sat far away at foreign and national, their heads overpowered by hundreds of monitors glowering with a wicked green light. Nearby was the night city editor, his narrow shoulders hunched over a keyboard. At the desk next to mine the cops reporter gripped a phone receiver to his ear while the rewrite wandered among us, hands clasped behind, waiting for news to break on the phones or wires. The telephone voices boring into my ears combined with the newsroom’s static vistas made me want to distract myself with decisive action. Now that a crude computer network was used to send the stories and headlines downstairs to composing, I had little work after nine o’clock. Aside from giving wide latitude to our callers, I also typed monologues at my desk’s system terminal, of which this is a heavily edited fragment.
During the early evening, the newsroom was packed with some of the world’s finest journalists. At those moments, the fluorescent ceiling panels illuminated a scene that made sense: hundreds laboring with the single aim of producing tomorrow’s paper before our subscribers left dreamworlds and woke to the planet’s turning. I admired the reporters’ terse voices and tough-sounding bylines. Despite their bitter laughter, they appeared unperturbed after being harried all day by human behavior and the language used to describe it. They didn’t seem to mind their work being forced into a stylized fiction by their assignment editors and the copy desk’s strict style. All of us were deformed by the newspaper’s deadlines. But during those null hours in the deep night when I was often the last to leave, I sometimes pitied the reporters and editors who lived dayside lives. They were too hard-boiled to have the [End Page 40] luxury of my after-midnight reveries. I began to see how newspaper story-making had coarsened their thinking, their sensibilities bent by thirty-six-point headlines.
My lowly job made me invisible. Its undemanding duties left me free to observe. When I wasn’t at my desk, the phone pressed to an ear wide open for strange news, I ran errands across the newsroom and through the industrial regions below. On...