Issue 13, Summer 1956
Nobody had much respect for The Labor Leader. Even Finkel and Kramm, its owners, the two sour brothers-in-law who’d dreamed it up in the first place and who somehow managed to make a profit on it year after year–even they could take little pride in the thing. At least, that’s what I used to suspect from the way they’d hump grudgingly around the office, shivering the bile-green partitions with their thumps and shouts, grabbing and tearing at galley-proofs, breaking pencil-points, dropping wet cigar butts on the floor and slamming telephones contemptuously into their cradles. The Labor Leader was all either of them would ever have for a life’s work, and they seemed to hate it.
You couldn’t blame them: the thing was a monster. In format it was a fat bi-weekly tabloid, badly printed, that spilled easily out of your hands and was very hard to put together again in the right order; in policy it called itself “An Independent Newspaper Pledged to the Spirit of the Trade Union Movement,” but its real pitch was to be a kind of trade-journal for union officials, who subscribed to it out of union funds and who must surely have been inclined to tolerate, rather than to want or need, whatever thin sustenance it gave them. The Leader’s coverage of national events “from the labor angle” was certain to be stale, likely to be muddled, and often opaque with typographical errors; most of its dense columns were filled with flattering reports on the doings of the unions whose leaders were on the subscription list, often to the exclusion of much bigger news about those whose leaders weren’t. And every issue carried scores of simple-minded ads urging “Harmony” in the names of various small industrial firms that Finkel and Kramm had been able to beg or browbeat into buying space—a compromise that would almost certainly have hobbled a real labor paper but that didn’t, typically enough, seem to cramp the Leader’s style at all.
There was a fast turnover on the editorial staff. Whenever somebody quit, the Leader would advertise in the help-wanted section of the Times, offering a “moderate salary commensurate with experience.” This always brought a good crowd to the sidewalk outside the Leader office, a gritty storefront on the lower fringe of the garment district, and Kramm, who was the editor (Finkel was the publisher) would keep them all waiting for half an hour before he picked up a sheaf of application forms, shot his cuffs, and gravely opened the door—I think he enjoyed this occasional chance to play the man of affairs.
“All right, take your time,” he’d say as they jostled inside and pressed against the wooden rail that shielded the inner offices. “Take your time, gentlemen.” Then he would raise a hand and say: “May I have your attention, please?” And he’d begin to explain the job. Half the applicants would go away when he got to the part about the salary structure, and most of those who remained offered little competition to anyone who was sober, clean and able to construct an English sentence.
That’s the way we’d all been hired, the six or eight of us who frowned under the Leader’s sickly fluorescent lights that winter, and most of us made no secret of our desire for better things. I went to work there a couple of weeks after losing my job on one of the metropolitan dailies, and stayed only until I was rescued the next spring by the big picture magazine that still employs me. The others had other explanations, which, like me, they spent a great deal of time discussing: it was a great place for shrill and redundant hard-luck stories.
But Leon Sobel joined the staff about a month after I did, and from the moment Kramm led him into the editorial room we all knew he was going to be different. He stood among the messy desks with the look of a man surveying new fields to conquer, and when Kramm introduced him around (forgetting half our names) he made a theatrically solemn business out of shaking hands. He was about thirty-five, older than most of us: a very small, tense man with black hair that seemed to explode from his skull and a humorless thin-lipped face that was blotched with the scars of acne. His eyebrows were always in motion when he talked, and his eyes, not so much piercing as anxious to pierce, never left the eyes of his listener.
The first thing I learned about him was that he’d never held an office job before: he had been a sheet-metal worker all his adult life. What’s more, he hadn’t come to the Leader out of need, like the rest of us, but, as he put it, out of principle. To do so, in fact, he had given up a factory job paying nearly twice the money.
“Wat’sa matter, don’tcha believe me?” he asked after telling me this.
“Well, it’s not that,” I said, “It’s just that I—”
“Maybe you think I’m crazy,” he said, and screwed up his face into a canny smile.
I tried to protest, but he wouldn’t have it. “Listen, don’t worry, McCabe. I’m called crazy a lotta times already. It don’t bother me. My wife says, ‘Leon, you gotta expect it.’ She says, “People never understand a man who wants something more outa life than just money.’ And she’s right! She’s right!”
“No,” I said. “Wait a second, I–”
“People think you gotta be one of two things: either you’re a shark, or you gotta lay back and let the sharks eatcha alive—this is the world. Me, I’m the kinda guy’s gotta go out and wrestle with the sharks. Why? I dunno why. This is crazy? Okay.”
“Wait a second,” I said. And I tried to explain that I had nothing whatever against his striking a blow for social justice, if that was what he had in mind: it was just that I thought The Labor Leader was about the least likely place in the world for him to do it.
But his shrug told me I was quibbling. “So?” he said. “It’s a paper, isn’t it? Well, I’m a writer. And what good’s a writer if he don’t get printed? Listen.” He lifted one haunch and placed it on the edge of my desk—he was too short a man to do this gracefully, but the force of his argument helped him to bring it off. “Listen, McCabe. You’re a young kid yet. I wanna tell ya something. Know how many books I wrote already?” And now his hands came into play, as they always did sooner or later. Both stubby fists were thrust under my nose and allowed to shake there for a moment before they burst into a thicket of stiff, quivering fingers only the thumb of one hand remained folded down. “Nine,” he said, and the hands fell limp on his thigh, to rest until he needed them again. “Nine. Novels, philosophy, political theory—the entire gamut. And not one of ’em published. Believe me, I been around a while.”
“I believe you,” I said.
“So finally I sat down and I figured: What’s the answer? And I figured this: The trouble with my books is, they tell the truth. And the truth is a funny thing, McCabe. People wanna read it, but they only wanna read it when it comes from somebody they already know their name. Am I right? So all right. I figure, I wanna write these books, first I gotta build up a name for myself. This is worth any sacrifice. This is the only way. You know something, McCabe? The last one I wrote took me two years?” Two fingers sprang up to illustrate the point, and dropped again. “Two years, working four, five hours every night and all day long on the weekends. And then you oughta seen the crap I got from the publishers. Every damn publisher in town. My wife cried. She says, ‘But why, Leon? Why?’” Here his lips curled tight against his small, stained teeth, and the fist of one hand smacked the palm of the other on his thigh, but then he relaxed. “I told her, ‘Listen, honey. You know why.”’ And now he was smiling at me in quiet triumph. “I says, ‘This book told the truth. That’s why.’ ” Then he winked, slid off my desk and walked away, erect and jaunty in his soiled sport shirt and his dark serge pants that hung loose and shiny in the seat. That was Sobel.
It took him a little while to loosen up in the job: for the first week or so, when he wasn’t talking, he went at everything with a zeal and a fear of failure that disconcerted everyone but Finney, the managing editor. Like the rest of us, Sobel had a list of twelve or fifteen union offices around town, and the main part of his job was to keep in touch with them and write up whatever bits of news they gave out. As a rule there was nothing very exciting to write about: the average story ran two or three paragraphs with a single-column head,
3c PAY HIKE
or something like that. But Sobel composed them all as carefully as sonnets, and after he’d turned one in he would sit chewing his Ups in anxiety until Finney raised a forefinger and said, “C’mere a second, Sobel.”
Then he’d go over and stand, nodding apologetically, while Finney pointed out some niggling grammatical flaw. “Never end a sentence with a preposition, Sobel. You don’t wanna say, ‘gave the plumbers new grounds to bargain on.’ You wanna say, ‘gave the plumbers new grounds on which to bargain.’ ”
Finney enjoyed these lectures. The annoying thing, from a spectator’s point of view, was that Sobel took so long to learn what everyone else seemed to know instinctively: that Finney was scared of his own shadow and would back down on anything at all if you raised your voice. He was a frail, nervous man who dribbled on his chin when he got excited and raked trembling fingers through his thickly-oiled hair, with the result that his fingers spread hair oil, like a spoor of his personality, to everything he touched: his clothes, his pencils, his telephone and his typewriter keys. I guess the main reason he was managing editor was that nobody else would submit to the bullying he took from Kramm: their editorial conferences always began with Kramm shouting “Finney! Finney!” from behind his partition, and Finney jumping like a squirrel to hurry inside. Then you’d hear the relentless drone of Kramm’s demands and the quavering sputter of Finney’s explanations, and it would end with a thump as Kramm socked his desk. “No, Finney. No, no, no! What’s the matter with you? I gotta draw you a picture? All right, all right, get out a here, I’ll do it myself.” At first you might wonder why Finney took it—nobody could need a job that badly—but the answer lay in the fact that there were only three by-lined pieces in The Labor Leader: a boilerplated sports feature that we got from a syndicate, a ponderous column called “LABOR TODAY, by Julius Kramm” that ran facing the editorial page, and a double-column box in the back of the book with the heading:
by Wes Finney.
There was even a thumbnail picture of him in the upper lefthand corner, hair slicked down and teeth bared in a confident smile. The text managed to work in a labor angle here and there—a paragraph on Actors’ Equity, say, or the stagehands’ union—but mostly he played it straight, in the manner of two or three real broadway-and-nightclub columnists. “Heard about the new thrush at the Copa?” he would ask the labor leaders; then he’d give them her name, with a sly note about her bust and hip measurements and a folksy note about the state from which she “hailed,” and he’d wind it up like this: “She’s got the whole town talking, and turning up in droves. Their verdict, in which this department wholly concurs: the lady has class.” No reader could have guessed that Wes Finney’s shoes needed repair, that he got no complimentary tickets to anything and never went out except to take in a movie or to crouch over a liverwurst sandwich at the Automat. He wrote the column on his own time and got extra money for it—the figure I heard was $50 a month. So it was a mutually satisfactory deal: for that small sum Kramm held his whipping-boy in absolute bondage; for that small torture Finney could paste clippings in a scrapbook, with all the contamination of The Labor Leader sheared away into the wastebasket of his furnished room, and whisper himself to sleep with dreams of ultimate freedom.
Anyway, this was the man who could make Sobel apologize for the grammar of his news stories, and it was a sad thing to watch. Of course, it couldn’t go on forever, and one day it stopped.
Finney had called Sobel over to explain about split infinitives, and Sobel was wrinkling his brow in an effort to understand. Neither of them noticed that Kramm was standing in the doorway of his office a few feet away, listening, and looking at the wet end of his cigar as if it tasted terrible.
“Finney,” he said. “You wanna be an English teacher, get a job in the high school.”
Startled, Finney stuck a pencil behind his ear without noticing that another pencil was already there, and both pencils clattered to the floor. “Well, I—” he said. “I just thought I’d—”
“Finney, this does not interest me. Pick up your pencils and listen to me, please. For your information, Mr. Sobel is not supposed to be a literary Englishman. He is supposed to be a literate American, and I have found him to be one. Do I make myself clear?”
And the look on Sobel’s face as he walked back to his own desk was that of a man released from prison.
From that moment on he began to relax; or almost from that moment—what seemed to clinch the transformation was O’Leary’s hat.
O’Leary was a recent City College graduate and one of the best men on the staff (he has since done very well; you’ll often see his name in one of the evening papers), and the hat he wore that winter was of the waterproof cloth kind that is sold in raincoat shops. There was nothing very dashing about it—in fact its floppiness made O’Leary’s face look too thin—but Sobel must secretly have admired it as a symbol of journalism, or of non-conformity, for one morning he showed up in an identical one, brand new. It looked even worse on him than on O’Leary, particularly when worn with his lumpy brown overcoat, but he seemed to cherish it. He developed a whole new set of mannerisms to go with the hat: cocking it back with a flip of the index finger as he settled down to make his morning phone calls (“This is Leon Sobel of The Labor Leader...”), tugging it smartly forward as he left the office on a reporting assignment, twirling it onto a peg when he came back to write his story. At the end of the day, when he’d dropped the last of his copy into Finney’s wire basket, he would shape the hat into a careless slant over one eyebrow, swing the overcoat around his shoulders and stride out with a loose salute of farewell, and I used to picture him studying his reflection in the black subway windows all the way home to the Bronx.
He seemed determined to love his work. He even brought in a snapshot of his family—a tired, abjectly smiling woman and two small sons—and fastened it to his desk-top with cellophane tape. Nobody else ever left anything more personal than a book of matches in the office overnight.
One afternoon toward the end of February, Finney summoned me to his oily desk. “McCabe,” he said. “Wanna do a column for us?”
“What kind of a column?”
“Labor gossip,” he said. “Straight union items with a gossip or a chatter angle—little humor, personalities, stuff like that. Mr. Kramm thinks we need it, and I told him you’d be the best man for the job.”
I can’t deny that I was flattered (we are all conditioned by our surroundings, after all), but I was also suspicious. “Do I get a by-line?”
He began to blink nervously. “Oh, no, no by-line,” he said. “Mr. Kramm wants this to be anonymous. See, the guys’ll give you any items they turn up, and you’ll just collect ’em and put ’em in shape. It’s just something you can do on office time, part of your regular job. See what I mean?”
I saw what he meant. “Part of my regular salary too,” I said. “Right?”
“No thanks,” I told him, and then, feeling generous, I suggested that he try O’Leary.
“Nah, I already asked him,” Finney said. “He don’t wanna do it either. Nobody does.”
I should have guessed, of course, that he’d been working down the list of everyone in the office. And to judge from the lateness of the day, I must have been close to the tail end.
Sobel fell in step with me as we left the building after work that night. He was wearing his overcoat cloak-style, the sleeves dangling, and holding his cloth hat in place as he hopped nimbly to avoid the furrows of dirty slush on the sidewalk. “Letcha in on a little secret, McCabe,” he said. “I’m doin’ a column for the paper. It’s all arranged.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Any money in it?”
“Money?” He winked. “I’ll tell y’about that part. Let’s get a cuppa coffee.” He led me into the tiled and steaming brilliance of the Automat, and when we were settled at a damp comer table he explained everything. “Finney says no money, see? So I said okay. He says no by-line either. I said okay.” He winked again. “Playin’ it smart.”
“How do you mean?”
“How do I mean?” He always repeated your question like that, savoring it, holding his black eyebrows high while he made you wait for the answer. “Listen, I got this Finney figured out. He don’t decide these things. You think he decides anything around that place? You better wise up, McCabe. Mr. Kramm makes the decisions. And Mr. Kramm is an intelligent man, don’t kid yourself.” Nodding, he raised his coffee cup, but his lips recoiled from the heat of it, puckered, and blew into the steam before they began to sip with gingerly impatience.
“Well,” I said, “okay, but I’d check with Kramm before you start counting on anything.”
“Check?” He put his cup down with a clatter. “What’s there to check? Listen, Mr. Kramm wants a column, right? You think he cares if I get a by-line or not? Or the money, eitheryou think if I write a good column he’s gonna quibble over payin’ me for it? Ya crazy. Finney’s the one, don’tcha see? He don’t wanna gimme a break because he’s worried about losing his own column. Get it? So all right. I check with nobody until I got that column written.” He prodded his chest with a stiff thumb. “On my own time. Then I take it to Mr. Kramm and we talk business. You leave it to me.” He settled down comfortably, elbows on the table, both hands cradling the cup just short of drinking position while he blew into the steam.
“Well,” I said. “I hope you’re right. Be nice if it does work out that way.”