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The best damn job in the whole damn world

1_ebert.jpgOne of my editors at the Sun-Times once asked me, "Roger, is it true that they used to let reporters smoke at their desks?" This wasn't asked yesterday; it must have been ten years ago. I realized then, although I'm only writing about it now, that a lifestyle had disappeared. When I entered the business in the autumn of my 16th year, newspapering seemed the most romantic and exciting thing I could possibly do with my life. "But honey," my mom said, "they don't pay them anything." Who cared? It involved knowing what was going on before anyone else did, and putting my byline on top of a story telling it to the world. "Roger Ebert" is only a name. "By Roger Ebert" are the three most magical words in the language, drawing my eye the same way a bulls-eye attracts an arrow.

In the way some kids might be awed by a youth gang, I was awed by admission to the fraternity of newspapers. I adopted the idealism and cynicism of the reporters I met there, spoke like they did, laughed at the same things, felt that I belonged. On Saturday nights about midnight at The News-Gazette, when we put the Sunday paper to bed, we gathered around the city desk, tired, released, and waited for the first papers to be brought upstairs. Ed Borman, the news editor was in the slot; Bill Schmelzle, the city editor, had Saturday nights off. Borman would crack open a six-pack. I tasted beer for the first time. I was a man. My parents, my family, my friends at school, nobody, would ever really understand the fellowship into which I entered. Borman didn't care that I was drinking at 16. We had all put out the paper together. Now we would have a beer.

I went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. I walked from the Illinois Central Station up Wabash Avenue, under the L tracks, and saw the building looming on the opposite bank of the Chicago River. A boat was moored at its dock, and a crane was off-loading huge rolls of newsprint. I was assigned a desk in the back row of the city room, in the corner by the window. We shared the floor with the city room of the Chicago Daily News, where Mike Royko occupied the corresponding position.

At about 8 p.m. on New Year's Day of 1967, only two lights on the floor were burning--mine, and Royko's. It was too early for the graveyard shift to come in. Royko walked over to see who else was working. A historic snowstorm was beginning. He asked me how I was getting home. I said I'd take the train. He said he had his old man's Checker car and would drop me at a train station. He had to make a stop at a 24-hour drugstore right where the L crossed North Avenue.

The pharmacist was backed up. "Come on, kid," Royko said. "Let's have a drink at the eye-opener place." It was a bar under the tracks so cramped the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. "Two blackberry brandies and short beers," he said. He told me, "Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser." I sipped the brandy, and a warm place began to glow in my stomach. I had been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in an eye-opener place. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.

2_Front_Page.jpg "The Blackhawks are really hot tonight," I observed to Royko.

He studied me. "Where you from, kid? Downstate?"

"Urbana," I said.

"Ever seen a hockey game?"

"No."

"That's what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights."

A newspaper city room was a noisy place to work. Dozens of typewriters hammered at carbon-copy books that made an impatient slap-slap-slap. Phones rang the way phones used to ring in the movies. Reporters shouted into them. They called out "boy!" and held up a story and copykids ran to snatch it and deliverer it to an editor. Reporters would shout out questions: "Quick! Who was governor before Walker?"

There were no cubicles. We worked at desks lined up next to each other row after row. Ann Landers (actually Eppie Lederer) had an office full of assistants somewhere in the building, but she insisted on sitting in the middle of this chaos, next to the TV-radio critic, Paul Molloy. Once Paul was talking on a telephone headset and pounding at a typewriter and tilted back in his chair and fell to the floor and kept on talking. Eppie regarded him, reached in a file drawer, and handed down her pamphlet, Drinking Problem? Take This Test of Twenty Questions.

When you went on an interview, you took eight sheets of copy paper, folded them once, and ripped them in half using a pica stick. Then again. Now you had a notebook of 32 pages to slip in your pocket with your ball-point. You had a press card. You knew the motto of the City News Bureau: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. You were a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Yes, they allowed reporters to smoke at their decks in those days. Also drink, if they could get away with it. Reporters sent Milton the Copyboy out the loading dock and under Michigan Avenue to Billy Goat's, to fetch them a drink in a paper coffee cup, accompanied by cream and sugar as camouflage. Copyboys were known as wise-ass insiders with an angle on everything, but Milton became a legend. It was rumored that he might be harboring small quantities of retail marijuana on his person. He occasionally engaged reporters on deadline with his opinions about large questions dealing with being and nothingness. He had been a University of Chicago student and still lived in Hyde Park. That explained everything.

3_11624015_LDgig-M-1.jpg It looked so tall when I first saw it (Photo by Dan Price)

One day an inspector from the Chicago Post Office came to our editor, James Hoge, with a puzzling discovery. Several hundred empty envelopes addressed to Ann Landers had been found in the trash behind an address in Hyde Park. With an eerie certainty, Jim called in Milton and asked him for his address. Milton, whose jobs included distributing mail, had been stealing the quarters sent in for Ann Landers' pamphlet, Petting: When Does It Go Too Far? Discussing his firing after work at Billy Goat's, he was philosophical: "Hundreds of kids can thank me that they were conceived."

Billy Goat's and Riccardo's. That's where a lot of us headed after work. Billy Goat's was a dive so subterranean that after you were already on the lower level of Michigan Avenue you had to descend another flight of stairs. Prices were rock-bottom, too. Riccardo's was a good Italian restaurant at the other end of the block, facing Rush Street, with a bar shaped like an artist's palette and paintings representing the arts, including one by the famous Ivan Albright, who among other distinctions was the father of Jim Hoge's wife, Alice. A tall, mournful guitarist and a short, cheerful accordion player circulated playing a limited but perfectly-chosen repertoire.

It was believed that when the original Riccardo's future wife walked into the bar and asked where she should sit, Riccardo told her: "On the floor." His son, an actor, took over the operation and lived above the restaurant. When he sold the restaurant, he was interviewed by our Pulitzer-winning columnist Tom Fitzpatrick. He said that he'd enjoyed running the restaurant, except, "On Friday nights, they let the animals out of the zoo." My pal John McHugh, a Daily News reporter, studied this and said, "Ebert, he means us."

4_30 Copy Moon Landing.jpgJuly 20, 1969: Editor Jim Hoge and reporters watch the moon landing in our City Room

There were true characters in those days. My first assignment was working on the Sunday magazine, where I met Jack McPhaul, a pipe-smoker who had been a reporter since the dawn of time. He did the reporting that inspired the movie "Call Northside 777." His book Deadlines and Monkeyshines was about legends of Chicago journalism. My favorite story was about the day they placed a historical marker under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, where in 1942 scientists initiated the first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

Honored at the ceremony was the physicist Enrico Fermi. Our paper's photographer arrived late. He said to Fermi, "I got a great idea for a panel of photos across the top of the page. First, you're puttin' in the atom. Then, you're splittin' it. Third picture, you're lookin' at the pieces."

Then there was the day Art Petacque and Hugh Hough won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Valerie Percy murder case. Hough was a superb rewrite man. Petacque was our mob reporter. I don't know if anybody ever actually saw him typing, but he had great sources. He even knew all mob nicknames of the top Chicago mafioso. If it was rumored that he sometimes invented the nicknames himself, nobody ever complained. What was Joey (The Clown) Lombardo gonna do? Write a letter to the editor complaining that his real mob nickname was "the Joker?"

Petacque and Hough were a familiar team in the city room. Petacque would walk in looking like the cat who ate the canary, take a chair next to Hough, pull out a sheaf of notes, and start whispering in his ear. Hough would type, stopping occasionally to remove his cigar and say, "You're kidding!" Then Hough would write up the notes, and the story would appear under a shared byline, often on Page One. The day they won the prize, Hough was on a golf course. Petacque walked in, got a standing ovation, climbed up on a desk, bowed, and said, "I only wish Hugh Hough was here to tell you how happy I feel."

5_Daily News closing.jpgMarch 2, 1978: Publisher Marshall Field tells the Chicago Daily News staff of the decision to close the newspaper

I was appointed film critic by Bob Zonka, the new features editor, who became my best friend, mentor, and father figure. To call him beloved would be an understatement. At his funeral, Jon Anderson, a former Daily News columnist, said: "I know for a fact that half the people in this room think they were Zonka's best friend." Anderson, who had been married more than once, added: "I spent more hours talking with Zonka than anyone except my three wives. And more quality time than with anyone."

Zonka's desk was just in front of mine. One day he was leaning back with his feet up, surveying the city room, and said, "Ebert, you're single. Why don't you ask Abra Prentice out on a date?" She was a tall, beautiful brunette, currently famous because while she was covering the Richard Speck trial, the nurse-murderer never took his eyes off of her.

"She's not my type," I said.

"Ebert, my boy," Zonka said. "When you grow up, you will learn that a Rockefeller is everybody's type."

"Huh?" I said.

Abra married Jon Anderson, and together they wrote a gossip column at the Daily News titled "Jon & Abra." When they left to found Chicagoan magazine, the column was renamed "Mort" and inherited by a political press agent named Mort Edelstein. "It made me feel creepy when our space was taken over by Death," Jon told me. I don't believe Jon was including Abra his remarks at Zonka's funeral, but I may have the dates confused. In any event, Jon and Abra have both long since been happily remarried.

6_StudsTerkelandMikeRoykoPBS.jpgStuds Terkel and Mike Royko at the Goat's

Yes, she was a Rockefeller. Better than that, Abra was a reporter. Once when Jon and Abra and I were visiting London at the same time, we made a deal: I would buy lunch, and they would buy dinner. Lunch would be bangers-and-mash in a pub. Dinner would be in a place with no prices on the menu. One night after dinner we were riding in a taxi through Soho and passed the famous Raymond's Revue Bar.

"Jon," said Abra, "I've never seen a strip show. Why can't I see a strip show?"

"Abra," Jon said, "As you know, you can."

We dismounted, only to find that the Revue Bar was closed on Mondays. Another taxi was idling by the curb, with a driver who touted us. "Evening, mates! Want to see the best strip show in town?" We did. As we were being hurried along dark and twisting lanes, Abra said, "This is the very thing they warn tourists to avoid. Isn't it exciting?" As I say, she was a reporter.

We entered an obscure doorway and descended two flights of stairs to a large neon-lit room with a small stage and a couple of dozen tables. It was explained that this was a private club, and it would cost us five quid to become members. Jon paid up. We were given a table in front of the stage, and ordered our drinks.

7_kane1-758549.jpg

"Do you have an account?" asked the waiter.

"Oh, we're members," Abra told him. "Jon, show him our card."

"Yes, madam, but we do not sell alcohol by the drink. Members maintain their private stocks."

Jon ordered bottles of Scotch, vodka and champagne. We wondered if we could take them home with us. There was a three-piece band. A stripper materialized and began to disrobe a yard in front of us. Abra's eyes surveyed the shadows of the room.

"Dodger," Abra said, "why are all those men sitting alone at their tables?"

"I think they are lonely," I said, "because they have to buy a girl her own bottle if they want her to sit with them."

"They all seem so sad," Abra said. She took another look around the room. The stripper finished and left the stage to desultory applause. Abra whispered something to Jon. He was a tall, distinguished Canadian and knew how to handle these things. He rapped on the table with a pound coin. "Waiter!" he said. "Blow jobs for everyone!"

Such, such were the days. But I stray. I intended to describe the electricity in the news room when a big story broke. The moon landing. The resignation of Nixon. The death of Mayor Richard J. Daley. The time when an L train derailed, and we could see it from the office window. The afternoon when Jay McMullen, then the Daily News City Hall reporter, later married to Mayor Jane Byrne, commandeered the paper's suite at the Executive House across the river, and phoned the office to tell us to check out a balcony on the 17th floor. There he was, the phone to his ear, waving to us, standing next to his girl friend. They were both stark naked.

A. J. Liebling once wrote, "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." Not quite right. It also belongs to the people who produce one, even if they do smoke at their desks.

We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

Mike Royko at the Goat's, 1982. (Video by Scott Jacobs)

LeRoy Anderson's "The Typewriter Song"

And the whole building would tremble

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