One More for the Road

From Washington City Paper:

By my count, I’ve had a hand in producing roughly 450 print issues of Washington City Paper since I joined its staff as the City Lights editor in the fall of 2012. Several stand out for reasons good and bad—massive Best of D.C. books that had us working around the clock, stories we knew we’d beaten our competitors to, an issue sent to the printer so late that we feared it might not come out. The rest ebbed back into the ocean after cresting on Wednesday nights.

From a technical standpoint, my generation of City People has a significantly easier time producing print issues than our predecessors did, assembling our issues with trackpads and keyboard commands while they used knives and paste. In the paper’s nascent days, when it was still produced in Baltimore, the staff sent pages and materials back and forth on a massive fax machine. That was an improvement, former publisher Amy Austin says, over the previous method: On Monday nights, she used to deliver the necessary files to the Greyhound bus station, where they would be ferried north.

Print issues were commodities. Readers grabbed them from delivery drivers before they could even drop off a stack at a business or a street box. The need for news, for criticism, for event listings, for classified ads, or a good story was immediate, and the internet has only expanded that pleasure center.

In my time at City Paper, the issues shrunk. Advertisers moved online and found ways to reach the specific audiences they were looking for. Competitors arrived on the scene, offering their own irreverent takes on life in the District. Still we pushed forward, filing dispatches on abandoned car parts, shameless developers, and the characters entering and exiting the Wilson Building. Newer annual issues, such as the Answers Issue and the People Issue, still demanded a place on a coffee table or in your hand at a coffee shop. 

And then came a novel coronavirus, the enemy of almost everything but especially independent arts venues. We muddled through what we hoped was the worst of it, but eventually had to face a harsh reality: Our advertisers and many of our readers are elsewhere. We meet readers in their email inboxes more frequently than we meet them on the street. A bar that hosts live music is most focused on paying its staff right now.

So this is the last regular print edition of Washington City Paper you will see. In the weeks leading up to this issue, I found myself thinking about those departed characters whose shadows hang over the institution. Of Jim Graham, the AIDS advocate and former Ward 1 councilmember who would register his complaints every week without fail but still stop by a holiday party. Of Marion Barry, the main character of D.C.’s home rule era and of countless City Paper stories, who transformed the District in so many ways. Of Michael Mariotte, the punk-rock drummer who decided to kick this whole thing off. Of David Carr, the tough but transformational leader whose wisdom on craft and reporting are still being passed down to generation after generation of aspiring writers. What would they say? (Carr, I’m guessing, would tell us to keep working.)

. . . .

Washington City Paper will still be around, albeit in digital formats and with a smaller staff. And we will still do our damnedest to get it right.

Link to the rest at Washington City Paper

PG hadn’t heard of this particular newspaper in Washington, DC, before and is always a bit sad when he hears of any enterprise that people worked hard at starting and continuing is going out of business or cutting back substantially.

When PG started working a long time ago, he was in Chicago and the city had five newspapers, two that published in the morning, two in the afternoon and one daily paper that catered to the large African-American community.

When he entered the station, morning and evening, he would automatically buy a newspaper, read it while he rode on the train and deposit the paper in a trash can when he got off the train.

Chicago had a lot of good newspaper columnists during that era. PG’s favorite was Mike Royko, who had a unique, sarcastic and jaded take on a lot of things in Chicago.

Here’s an old Royko column, written in 1972, on the day Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team, died.

Jackie’s Debut a Unique Day

All that Saturday, the wise men of the neighborhood, who sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside the tavern, had talked about what it would do to baseball.

 I hung around and listened because baseball was about the most important thing in the world, and if anything was going to ruin it, I was worried.

 Most of the things they said, I didn’t understand, although it all sounded terrible. But could one man bring such ruin?

 They said he could and would. And the next day he was going to be in Wrigley Field for the first time, on the same diamond as Hack, Nicholson, Cavarretta, Schmitz, Pafko, and all my other idols.

 I had to see Jackie Robinson, the man who was going to somehow wreck everything. So the next day, another kid and I started walking to the ballpark early.

 We always walked to save the streetcar fare. It was five or six miles, but I felt about baseball the way Abe Lincoln felt about education.

 Usually, we could get there just at noon, find a seat in the grandstand, and watch some batting practice. But not that Sunday, May 18, 1947.

 By noon, Wrigley Field was almost filled. The crowd outside spilled off the sidewalk and into the streets. Scalpers were asking top dollar for box seats and getting it.

 I had never seen anything like it. Not just the size, although it was a new record, more than 47,000. But this was twenty-five years ago, and in 1947 few blacks were seen in the Loop, much less up on the white North Side at a Cub game.

 That day, they came by the thousands, pouring off the northbound Ls and out of their cars.

 They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes·suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes, and straw hats. I’ve never seen so many straw hats.

 As big as it was, the crowd was orderly. Almost unnaturally so. People didn’t jostle each other.

 The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. So everybody looked slightly ill at ease.

 For most, it was probably the first time they had been that close to each other in such great numbers.

 We managed to get in, scramble up a ramp, and find a place to stand behind the last row of grandstand seats. Then they shut the gates. No place remained to stand.

 Robinson came up in the first inning. I remember the sound. It wasn’t the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long, rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.

 When Robinson stepped into the batter’s box, it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The place went silent.

 He swung at the first pitch and they erupted as if he had knocked it over the wall. But it was only a high foul that dropped into the box seats. I remember thinking it was strange that a foul could make that many people happy. When he struck out, the low moan was genuine.

 I’ve forgotten most of the details of the game, other than that the Dodgers won and Robinson didn’t get a hit or do anything special, although he was cheered on every swing and every routine play.

 But two things happened I’ll never forget. Robinson played first, and early in the game a Cub star hit a grounder and it was a close play.

 Just before the Cub reached first, he swerved to his left. And as he got to the bag, he seemed to slam his foot down hard at Robinson’s foot.

 It was obvious to everyone that he was trying to run into him or spike him. Robinson took the throw and got clear at the last instant.

 I was shocked. That Cub, a hometown boy, was my biggest hero. It was not only an unheroic stunt, but it seemed a rude thing to do in front of people who would cheer for a foul ball. I didn’t understand why he had done it. It wasn’t at all big league.

 I didn’t know that while the white fans were relatively polite, the Cubs and most other teams kept up a steady stream of racial abuse from the dugout. I thought that all they did down there was talk about how good Wheaties are.

 Late in the game, Robinson was up again, and he hit another foul ball. This time it came into the stands low and fast, in our direction. Somebody in the seats grabbed for it, but it caromed off his hand and kept coming. There was a flurry of arms as the ball kept bouncing, and suddenly it was between me and my pal. We both grabbed. I had a baseball.

 The two of us stood there examining it and chortling. A genuine major-league baseball that had actually been gripped and thrown by a Cub pitcher, hit by a Dodger batter. What a possession.

 Then I heard the voice say: “Would you consider selling that?”

 It was the black man who had applauded so fiercely.

 I mumbled something. I didn’t want to sell it.

 “I’ll give you ten dollars for it,” he said.

 Ten dollars. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what ten dollars could buy because I’d never had that much money. But I knew that a lot of men in the neighborhood considered sixty dollars a week to be good pay.

 I handed it to him, and he paid me with ten $1 bills.

 When I left the ball park, with that much money in my pocket, I was sure that Jackie Robinson wasn’t bad for the game.

 Since then, I’ve regretted a few times that I didn’t keep the ball. Or that I hadn’t given it to him free. I didn’t know, then, how hard he probably had to work for that ten dollars.

 But Tuesday I was glad I had sold it to him. And if that man is still around, and has that baseball, I’m sure he thinks it was worth every cent.

Here’s a link to more Royko columns

PG felt a little sad as he read the Royko column because he can’t remember when he last read a physical newspaper.

1 thought on “One More for the Road”

  1. [commenting to follow without Subscribe button]

    In the meantime… I also had never heard of this paper. And I grew up in Arlington, VA. But I was a kid. I did, however, try to sell GRIT newspaper for a while. Didn’t work. I was a kid.

    Reply

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