November 15, 2022
By Arthur H. Gunther III
These virus-changed days have many office workers toiling at home in PJs, unlike the cubicles of 2020 and, blessedly before that regimented isolation, the large open room filled with desks, in turn overflowing with individual collections of paper, coffee cups, stick-it notes, Rolodexes and assorted family photos. Just like the old Rockland Journal-News city room in Nyack, N.Y.
I was one – also blessedly – of the longtime Damon Runyonesque newspaper characters as a photographer, writer and editor, working alongside truly gifted people, who in their natural questioning, even irreverent ways, sought the “who, what, when, why, how and where” of local stories. One of those ink-stained stiffs – the term is lovingly applied – was the late Nancy Cacioppo, a general assignment reporter and then history and arts writer.
After retiring to Cape Cod, Nancy generously schlepped back to Rockland County and introduced me at an event. In her address, she noted some of the seemingly strange moments encountered both in the city room and by me as a staff photographer. I say “seemingly strange” since, in the news business, the characters that are the information gatherers magnetically attract the characters that live among us. So, really not strange.
I offer some of the anecdotes related by scribe Cacioppo:
There was the day that some hard copy got stuck in the pneumatic tubes up to the composing room and came out as confetti, and the time when someone planted a dead mouse in the tubes sent back to editorial.
We had a tile floor that was cleaned weekly at 4 a.m. A crew would arrive and mop bleach-laden water all over the floor. The staff, busy at their typewriters, would simply lift their feet. We had our nostrils cleared in the process, never missing a beat as we wrote.
There was the night the police radio call out of Orangetown had cops collaring two burglars on Van Wyck Road in Blauvelt. The crooks, who were from Queens, weren’t too sharp, claiming they were just lost, looking for the Van Wyck Expressway near Kennedy Airport.
Our colleagues were also memorable. Among them was one managing editor, a brilliant writer and layout genius, who kept a bottle of homemade moonshine in his desk; a scribe who had to sit outside in his car wrapped in a blanket evoking his muse before he could write a story; a reporter who paced the newsroom before he got the “lede” (first paragraph) right; and a scribe who typed all her notes from shorthand before she wrote her story. (It was her way of assuring accuracy.)
As a photographer, I went to an artist’s home off South Mountain Road in New City to shoot a picture for a story. Her young son opened the door and asked me to sit on the sofa. Twenty minutes later, I asked where his mom was, and he said, “She’s taking a bath, and you will just have to wait.”
Another time as a lensman, I was puzzled after finishing one pre-publicity shot when the lady of the house asked me to call her dog in since, she told me, “he only answers to strangers.”
You can’t make these things up. It’s life.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.