Chapter 11: Psalm 119:24
Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.
They stopped in front of a six story, concrete block structure that housed the Bank of America. It stood tallest, if not oldest, among the commercial edifices along Wells Avenue, a street that could boast of housing a Cunningham’s Drugs, an S.S. Kresge, and a Jewel Movie Theatre.
“Well that’s the address Dr. Brown gave me,” Mike told Donna as she pulled next to a parking meter in front.
“Well, we’re here,” she said. “Let’s go inside and see if there’s more than just a bank in this building.”
“I’m sorry I took you up on this because it’s looking like a waste of time. I can take the bus for this.”
“And have me miss going out with you on a date?”
They took in their surroundings as they got out of the car. Just ahead of them on the right was a $3.00 all-day parking lot that had a shed with an opening that an old black attendant was resting his elbows on as he sat on a stool. He took a drag off of a cigarette and broke into a coughing fit. Just past the Jewel and across the street was a Sunoco Full-Service Gas Station that had its garage windows boarded up and empty spaces where gas pumps once delivered. A bus stop just ahead of the parking lot had its bench area taken up by a motionless figure lying prostrate. A honking horn and the beginning of exhaust fumes signaled the start of another day. It was 7:30 a.m., and the city of Sylvan was rising from the dead as it had been doing for the past 10 years.
“Don’t say we never go anywhere nice,” Mike told Donna. “Seriously, I appreciate you taking me today, but that’s it. This area is a shit hole.”
“And we’re seeing it together. I just enjoy spending time with you, and you look so nice in that sport jacket.” She smiled and brushed her arm up and down the jacket sleeve.
With the days getting colder as October approached, Donna was wearing a black wool pea coat, and with the morning temperature in the 40’s, coupled with brisk breezes, her fair cheeks were developing some rosiness.
Mike kissed her on one of the apples and said, “Come on; let’s go look.”
They entered the bank building, and directly in front of them was a black ledger with gold trim that boasted of one occupant besides the bank, The Sylvan Northwood Times founded in 1946. Its trappings occupied the top floor. Donna took the elevator ride with Mike and kissed him goodbye when the doors opened. “I’m coming back for you at noon. This place looks like too much fun, and I’m going to have to keep you on a short leash.” She pressed her body against his, her head against his chest, eyes looking up.
“Welcome to our humble abode, Mike.” Dan Davis extended his hand. “Bill believes that his interns should experience first-hand what a real newspaper place looks like, and it doesn’t get any more real than this.” He laughed as he extended his hands outward to envelop his words. “Let me take you on a little tour of the floor.”
Mike took in this man who had been the editor and owner for the past 20 years. He was elderly with bushy eyebrows, a swatch of mostly gray hair clinging to life on the bluffs of his ears, and thick hands which belied his average height. But he could make a knot in a tie.
The tour started with the copy and layout room which was occupied by two young men who were weaving news stories around advertisements and making decisions on what to keep, what to throw away, or what to continue on a back page, getting things camera-ready. They sat at drafting tables, wielding Exacto knives like switchblades, and provided Mike with a gratuitous hello, apparently unimpressed with the arrival of an intern.
One door beyond this was the photo lab that had some shelving containing cameras to the left of the entry. Bulletin boards covered with photos framed a seating area that had two circular tables, each with four folding chairs. There was a fridge and a regular sink on the right wall and some shelving to suggest that the photo lab also doubled as a lounge area. An additional door within housed the dark room which contained the chemicals, the sink, and the tools of the trade like an enlarger as well as dozens of rolls of unused film.
The final end of the tour was the news room which housed Dan Davis in an interior office to the right upon entry. Straight ahead a commons area boasted four mahogany desks, two of which looked directly at Wells Avenue and the two closest which were spared. All four desks had black dial phones, Underwood typewriters, huge glass ashtrays, and bankers’ lamps. On the left wall, there was a small stand that housed a coffee maker, Styrofoam cups, and varied sugars and creamers. The room smelled of new and stale cigarette smoke and burnt coffee, and on this day, so did the one reporter who was not already out on his beat.
He could have shaved his head and his scraggly gray beard and gone with the Kojak look. He could have cut down on his coffee and cigarette intake and brushed with Ultra Brite. He could have pulled away from the bar at the Railroad Inn a couple shots earlier.
Look at this guy, Mike thought. Shit would be pissed if I said he looked like it.
“So I’m a two-finger typist, and look at how faded the fucking keys are on this typewriter,” Phil Snider said to Mike after a quick introduction from Dan Davis. He pulled out the spool, adding, “Looks like this ribbon needs replacing too.” His swollen eyes looked over his reading glasses. “So enough about me, so what do you want to know?” His voice, like a crackling radio transmission, cut through the phlegm, looking for clearance.
Mike glanced at the small mound of butts already beginning to pile up in the ash tray. “I mean, you know, take me through what it’s like to do your job on a daily basis.”
“Oh, you might be sorry you asked Phil that question,” Dan Davis revealed. “I’ll leave you alone because that is going to be a long story.” He laughed and waved a goodbye behind his back as he parted.
Snider waved his hand back toward Davis as though he were shooing away a fly and then drew his attention to Mike. “I’d be happy to, but before I do that, I’ve got to give you a history lesson.” He pointed to Wells Avenue. “If we could go through a time machine, back let’s say 20 years when I first got here, this view might command a little more respect than it does now. That theatre used to have them lined up around the block on a Saturday night to see a first-run movie, not some amateur night slut spreading her legs for guys with flashlights in the front row. That drug store had a fry cook who made eggs from heaven and a cheeseburger to die for, so when you got to heaven you could have some more of his food.”
“So it ain’t what it used to be.” Mike found himself editing Snider’s monologue.
“Nah, it ain’t,” Snider pushed his readers back up to the bridge of his bulbous nose, “but from a journalism standpoint, there are stories to be told.”
Mike looked at Snider’s typewritter and imagined him telling those stories, painstakingly plucking away with two fingers. “What exactly would you say your role is with this paper?”
Snider brushed back the wisps of what was left on his scalp and stroked his salt and pepper facial hair. “What you got down below,” he paused for effect, “is Mayberry gone to Hell.”
“Please tell me Aunt Bea isn’t spreading them at The Jewel,” Mike joked.
“You’re good,” Snider laughed, flashing his tobacco-stained brown teeth. “I almost like you, but nah, the people in the surrounding community have gotten old, in their 60’s and up, like me, and don’t give a shit. After The Jewel went out of business, some young guy comes around and finds a purpose for it. That parking lot doesn’t do much business, but it’s the only one in town. Word on the street is that this guy is looking to buy out Cunningham’s and get in on the death of Kresge’s.”
Mike was impatient but found himself trapped by Snider’s storytelling, turning the pages, wanting to know what’s next. “But specifically, what do you do for the Sylvan-Northwood Times ?”
“I’ve got an educational column that has me visiting the local public schools and Hillview, but I’m mostly on parasite patrol, the crime beat. Sylvan is fertile ground for crime because nobody knows it still exists. I’m talking gambling, prostitution, drugs, etcetera. It’s small scale, but illegal nonetheless. Hey, this coffee sucks; let’s go across the street, get a real cup, and I’ll illuminate your young ass.” Snider reached his tweed jacket with the elbow patches from the back of his chair and pointed Mike toward the door.
“Anyway, Donna, you should have seen this guy,” Mike said on the drive back to Hillview. “He smells like an ashtray, spews out curse words like he invented them, and slurps his coffee, leaving little droplets of it on his mustache, half of which is in his mouth already.”
“Gross, Mike! Do you think you will benefit in any way from this place or this guy?”
“I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. He thinks Sylvan is turning for the worse, and he says that Hillview could feel some residual effects from it as well.”
“In what way?”
“Recruitment of coeds for escort services, strip clubs, and massage parlors was one. He mentioned gambling on sporting events. He talked about drugs.”
“Did he say what he plans to do with all this information?”
“I guess he’s waiting for the right time to blow the lid off of it. This young guy who he claims is looking to buy out the town is an education major at Hillview; go figure.”
“He didn’t give you this guy's name?”
“He told me that it wasn’t information he could provide. Said if he ever needed my school connections, he would let me in on more. Hey, you want to eat early?”
“No, I might just order something later; Mary and I are going to get some studying done tonight, and she needs a friend right now.”
“Did something happen? She okay?”
“She’s fine. You probably already know that she’s a little less direct than I am, and she needs some advice on John.”
“What kind of advice?”
“It’s girl talk, Mike. Let’s just say she really, really likes him, and leave it at that for now. Can we hang out Saturday?”
“Saturday can’t come fast enough.”
John adopted his alter ego during dinner that night. Looking at Mike and Kurt individually, he said, “Y. A. and I are not only business majors, but we’re the hosts of a very popular Sunday night show as well...”
“Speaking of the show,what are the prospects of getting Fred on?” Whatever John’s train of thought might have been, it derailed when Mike interrupted.
“It’s not an easy sell, but I was shooting around with Water J and Little John a couple of days ago, and Little John said he’d work on getting Fred on board. Water and Little John won’t be on the show, but I guess they want him out of the room for a while.”
“Can’t say I blame them,” Mike agreed. “We need to get to the bottom line of what’s up with the Toots photo and where Fred fits in that set-up over there.”