Vacant Copy Desk


    Any opportunity to slag ungrateful former employers should be exploited. What follows is one such instance.

    Bad enough the Quarropas daily, The Reporter Dispatch, absolutely abrogated its responsibility by glossing over an unsupported police shooting in November 2011. A shooting that resulted in a resident’s death. A citizen uninvolved in any criminality but in that most American of pursuits. He just wanted to be left alone. His death should be inexcusable, yes. I almost understand the newspaper’s inaction, though. That’s just a culmination of the broadsheet’s crawl into timidity.

    However, the R-D’s most recent avoidance of expected reportage deepens its tailspin into irrelevance. 

    The event precipitating this post contained those classic elements which lead to articles prompting even casual readers devour then mindlessly babble about. Sex. Drugs. A prominent person’s involvement.

    Lurid? Yes. Sordid? Sorry. This puppy does not sink to that depth. Maybe next week. While lurid aspects cannot be varnished, nor should they, these can be elided into the “service to the community” rubric.

    Play it off as “Why, sure, the subject matter runs against the decency standards readers expect of a family newspaper. But the editorial board felt it important our public be made aware of such people in our midst, among our most vulnerable.” Hollow as it sounds, false virtue always rings louder and with greater conviction than the real thing. 

    The incident enveloped a former administrator at a local high school, one of New York State’s most prestigious. The accused allegedly nurtured a hooker and cocaine habit. In some precincts whores and dope alone would’ve sufficed. Yet the kicker is he’d previously headed the school drug prevention program.

    Can’t interdict what you haven’t snorted, now can you?

    A real newspaper should’ve sifted through those facts down to the molecular level. Dungeon ought have been high. Indignity might’ve been wide. Certainly given the R-D’s coverage area, subscribers among the nation’s highest educated and wealthiest, moralizers and other blowhards could’ve extemporized reams of harrumph-worthy quotes.

    Moreover, the story not only featured working girls and nose candy but also nestled in the tentacles of a criminal enterprise. Middling by major corrupt big city standards, it easily exceeded what afflicted us here in sleepy leafy suburbia.

     Here in Splendor crime that heats up casual conversations usually originate from embezzlement (the more audacious the amount the better) or convoluted spousal riddance. Of the latter, any sustained interest threshold must be high. A school custodian murdering his wife rates little. The custodian of some renowned organization accused of blotting or having been removed arouses the tongue wagging equivalent of saucer-eyed gawking. 

    While the janitor’s wife’s loss is no less felt than a local maven, or any woman who passes for a doyenne around these parts, it’s unlikely the first belonged to an empty, ego-buffing society nor owned plenty of envy-fueling possessions. Having been a self-sacrificing parent or kind helpful neighbor is good; being known for crazy profligacy, sloppy promiscuity, a giant weakness to abuse Schedule A substances, and barely maintaining whatever vestiges of a sham marriage, now, well, that’s several above-the-fold, exhaustive, repetitive page one stories!

    The kind The Reporter Dispatch must’ve sworn off years ago.

    At least before the R-D tut-tutted such unseemly behavior. Back at the turn of the century (the 20th into our present one) a perfect suburban nightmare manifested itself onto rear lawns and finished basements throughout our various Moneyvilles. Not only were minors holding drunken soirees while their parents were conveniently elsewhere, but these had devolved towards bacchanals.

    One of the neighborly joy merchants (NJM) saw a niche to be lucratively fulfilled. So he did.  

    Frankly I don’t understand how our generation transitioned into being squarer parents than our own. At our Quarropas High parties, dads slapped down keg deposits and provided several bottles of distilled spirits (always head-snapping and breathtaking, though seldom particularly good), while moms proctored from afar (yet never too far) in order to limit as many as possible embarrassing one drink too many/puke on shoes moments.

    Infused with sufficient foolhardiness, inhibitions crushed, id’s rampant, couples paired up and vanished into dark spots. Well, dim spots to let Nature gush her course. Who among us were so in the bag we actually believed adults never knew their teens had stumbled off behind handy copses of shrubbery or the roomy rears of sedans or station wagons to consummate the process of becoming women and men through the Mystery Dance? No doubt there was apprehension. Yet weren’t parents more mature then?

    Probably had something to do with them having endured the Depression and World War II.  

    Old folks anxieties aside, they made efforts to have “the talk” with us. Skip birds and bees, let’s go right to bananas and donuts. If those who’d guided us into our lives until that point couldn’t quite explain the biological-anatomical-emotional vortex, their school taxes paid for teachers and health professionals who demonstrated bananas’ capabilities and may’ve suggested how donuts should be eaten. Lessons also included sheathing low-banging fruits and methods blunting ill-timed oopsies. IUD’s halted a lot of lifetime IOU’s.

    As sops to the religious, abstinence was mentioned. Preventative measures, however, were thoroughly discussed. Which all probably answers why pregnancies were rare throughout the Quarropas High Class of 1977.

    Who can imagine such open education today?

    The sex part was a hole the NJM capably filled. Supplying bachelor party entertainers was his mainline. But necessity created new revenue streams.

    Brainwashed and guilt-tripped by teen abstinence and temperance scolds, the same cohort with whom I traveled forgot their own formative years. They have left mentoring their young to the superior, blinkered and joyless. Instead of maintaining awareness by being present while their own teens cavorted, activities shared-aged, oft-absent parents themselves often indulged growing up now induced subterfuge. Because youth won’t be denied. A time which some of us glorify. The NJM eased that subterfuge. As in real life, all facilitation demanded was money.

    What better place for readily disposable income than Quarropas and its surroundings?

    The NJM provided female entertainers. Who knows maybe a few of them supplemented their income through realizing boyhood fantasies … without any frustrating negotiations or fumbling beforehand. Straitlaced figures suggested the NJM might’ve also supplied drugs, but such suspicions remain unfounded.

    Hookers at our teen parties couldn’t have been imagined. There wasn’t any need for them. Few Quarropas female attendees back then had qualms regarding exercising their sexuality. After all, sex was, and remains, a healthy developmental activity.

    Stories abounded about neighbors being disturbed by our copulation. (Ever notice sound travels farther at night?) Too bad not enough of those who became parents extended past license to their own daughters today.

    Anyway, what had been on the suburban Gen Y QT naturally succumbed to youth’s belief in its own invulnerability. Tracks stopped being covered. Clique-ish jealousies fermented. Dimes got dropped. Enter the police. Wither the fun.

    Rather than get past being aghast that working girls mixed among the golden future, here was an opportunity to tilt a mirror on suburban splendor. What are they called? Soul searching articles. Ones where trenchant questions produce unintentionally revelatory answers.

    Instead, the R-D hewed to safe ground. Blame solely buried the NJM, a flesh peddler and maybe worse. No need to grill anyone else over 40 on how well they knew/monitored/controlled their teens.

    The R-D response was unsurprising. Nothing bothersome. Nothing provocative. Nothing controversial. It had become SOP since the earliest 90s. Two culture shifts clearly signaled the broadsheet’s retreat from incisive coverage.

    A major Hudson Valley manufacturer announced it intended transferring production overseas. A country where coolie wages prevailed. Take your pick. The entity was quite profitable. Municipal tax concessions had been extracted. In a term we know well today, the company had been among the first to claw back benefits and wages from its employees. A gesture no doubt making shareholders squeal with Mr. Burns-like delight.

    Not enough.

    Although the R-D chronicled impending loss and displacement, it never asked truly pertinent questions. How much is enough? When does greed blur the line between honest and excessive realization? And what happened to the mutually beneficial compact between labor and management? How did shareholders’ (shareholders, people who have nothing to do with the products themselves) concerns fracture that balance, one which had earlier spread and bolstered the country’s prosperity?   

    Another instance where the broadsheet could’ve been ahead of today’s curve was admittedly imperceptible to most occupying that newsroom. If I hadn’t attended Arizona, I too might’ve missed the transformation.

    Here in the ethnically loud and proud Northeast, Puerto Ricans and Cubans formed for the longest those grouped together as “the Spanish.” Just threw them in a big pot and called them Spanish. Like stew. I wrote with people who ate at restaurants which stated which cuisine they offered yet when asked specifics about the meal could only reply “it was Spanish food.”

    Cuchifritos and black beans & rice are beyond merely “Spanish.”

    My former colleagues could not, or would not, differentiate individualities.

    A gradual thing. Fortunately, I find the Tea Party odious or I’d liken the newer arrivals to something from The Body Snatchers. One morning, or brought into clarity over numerous mornings, I saw campensinos milling on sidewalk corners. I’d accustomed myself to seeing day laborers in the Southwest. Only after a while here did their appearance register.

    Mexicans. Guatemalans. Other Central and South Americans. Distinctly different physiques than “our” Spanish. I eventually must’ve mentioned these manifestations in passing, but in that newsroom curiosity was an itch infrequently scratched.

    No one considered The Reporter Dispatch a prestige post. Its ambitions were modest. Cachet, such as it was, derived solely from proximity to New York City. Until margins of return hijacked the newspaper’s purpose, gathering, sifting, then informing and advocating for the community’s greater good, the broadsheet ably fulfilled its mission. Never exceptional, the R-D had been a reliable read.

    I had a good laugh when The New York Times realized and reported the newer Latino influx erupting in the R-D’s suburban backyard. Same way years later the Times picked up the disputed police shooting which occurred in Quarropas. An incident the R-D has done its damnedest to ignore altogether. 

    Maybe in the old days – and having been reared here, I remember some of the old days – when The Reporter Dispatch perched on a Main Street address, a cloudy killing involving the police would’ve roused more than disinterest after parroting PD spokesperson responses. Oh, it would’ve been gangbusters. Who from that newsroom wouldn’t have been nosing around the scene, pestering, wheedling, kibitzing?

    Cops understandably reticent regarding the shooting, no door near the scene should’ve been spared pounding by reporters. And their questions could’ve been among the simplest: What did you hear? What did you see?

    By the way, which might happen first? The R-D wearing out shoe leather around the shooting site or the Times book section reviewing The Horse Whisperer?

    Decades ago the “local paper” forsook its centrally located, albeit cramped, aerie for a campus spread in what passes for exurbia around here. The broadsheet traded immediacy and engagement for roominess and growing detachment. Residing outside Quarropas must provide distant views (and shrunken urgency) than those afforded inside city limits.

    But intrepid reporting demands intrepid reporters. After attrition and wholesale dismissals what capable staff remains after cleaving the personnel?

    When I read The Reporter Dispatch these days, truly rare occurrences, I recognize few bylines. One or two former skillful colleagues lucky to linger, to let the scourge bypass them; unknown others calling to mind sharks and roaches who are supposed to survive after humanity nukes itself out of existence.

    A self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one. The newspaper’s fate, not bequeathing an irradiated planet to vermin and predators. 

    Long before fiscal interests usurped the broadsheet’s greater purpose (from serving the public by informing it to squeezing the last shekel possible prior to declaring newsprint dead) the R-D had sapped its human components. The last editor I served under heralded what portended.

    Serviette. Talk about failing upward. Kept as a perennial third or fourth in line, he might’ve retired from whatever the R-D became. Instead, opportunity lifted that boob beyond his abilities. Meager as they were.

    The broadsheet believed in promoting from within. A good policy, certainly, if it’s a capable line of succession. Serviette was the chain’s weak link. Which is why he he’d been stuck while others leapfrogged him.

    Unfortunately for Quarropas journalism, a series of bigger and better paydays elsewhere culled Reporter Dispatch hierarchy. Rapid vacancies shoved Serviette into an unaccustomed position. Leadership. By virtue of longevity and zero alternatives he got rewarded a masthead title and corner office.

    Serviette carried a pedigree. He’d graduated from the West’s premiere private university. Hint: it wasn’t Southern California or Brigham Young. Bonehead dolt as he proved himself, Serviette was an uncomplaining grinder. There’s something to be said for perseverance. Even if the course taken is an endless circle. That acknowledged, Serviette had the people skills of Quaaludes mixed with bourbon. As well as an inflated sense of himself.

    Behind him was his nemesis, a conniving striver named Seven Iron. The newspaper had recruited Seven Iron from the Johnny Appleseed part of Ohio as part of a team. But the head departed for more lucrative shores leaving his ass behind.

    Seven Iron found elevation into the nation’s No. 1 market heady. His bravery was admirable. We didn’t intimidate him at all. Other interlopers alighting on the right side of the Hudson might’ve suffered trepidation. Their steps could’ve been unsure. Seven Iron, though, whether bluffing or not, progressed like a man assured.

    And he pulled it off. Until he didn’t.

    The second best part of Seven Iron? He was a backstabbing schemer. Seven Iron’s worst attribute? He was a backstabbing schemer. As long as one factored this trait in while dealing with him he was quite manageable.  

    Seeing Serviette for what he was, and believing himself a better candidate for an erroneously awarded corner office, what didn’t Seven Iron do to undermine Serviette? Until today I don’t know why Seven Iron struggled. Left to his own impulses, Serviette would flounder, stumble, flail and fail by himself. All Seven Iron needed doing was sit back and relax.

    Scorpion as he was, Seven Iron couldn’t wait. Impatience cost him the very prize he craved. A little control and the treasure would’ve crawled to him.  

    At least Serviette had a shade of decency. A light shade, but discernible from whatever colored Seven Iron.

    Possessing a surname that could’ve swung open all kinds of local doors, Seven Iron endured an ironic turn. He didn’t belong to any one of the Tribes. He was as Christian as a hypocritical Southern Baptist; so Aryan in appearance he seemingly just could’ve goosestepped away from a Bund rally.

    Once Seven Iron distinguished his gentile colleagues from the newsroom’s Chosen cadre, he confided in several of the former his discomfort at being mistaken for Jewish. Particularly when it came to the area’s, ah, more persnickety golf clubs.

    Who among us sympathized with him or his handicap? Eventually Seven Iron conceded defeat and skulked back to Ohio.   

    Ah, but Serviette.

    I look back on Serviette and see hubris. He is Ovid material. Serviette’s inflated self-esteem fatally blinded him. Believing he’d risen on his own merits rather than happenstance, it further clouded his already hazy thinking.

    For a time Serviette did no wrong. He did so because of the people propping him. He had a killer staff. Despite petty office bullshit and clear misallocations of assignments, as well as perverse failure to offer just rewards, competent reporters who nonetheless enjoyed their jobs and produced consistently good copy comprised much of Serviette’s staff. We made him look better than he was. All would’ve remained fine had Serviette’s undeserved exalted state not confused him. Simple realization of how he’d acquired his height should’ve staved off what proved his downfall.

    An Empyrean nature overwhelmed him. Those of us he didn’t alienate, he chased off. Naturally resentment grew in any who stayed. While no one actively plotted toppling him, what had been previously deflected began sticking to him.

    Serviette’s recourse? Entrusting his career unto the hands of writers and editors who couldn’t decide whether “tweak” was an adverb or adjective. People who when they scratched their heads drew splinters. Now as then it’s hard to see how matters could’ve ended any differently for Serviette.

    In essence Serviette became a shit magnet.

    His dismissal gave me great pleasure, though too late and from afar. By the time he’d been canned, justly, and scrambled into a desperate grits-and-gravy gig down in Dogpatch, I was long gone, baby. Gone along with many others.