I have one funny story from my brief time as a clerk for the New York Times in their Washington bureau. This was a long time ago, and I believe the clerk program has since been reformed, but back then, there was something of a hazing aspect to the job.
You worked for 18 months or so doing menial work, then you were rewarded with a tryout as a reporter on one of the desks, usually Metro. You were warned ahead of time—very few tryouts result in job offers, though you made connections that could bring you back to the paper eventually.
I had already written dozens of stories for the Wall Street Journal as a summer intern and been the editor in chief of my college paper. But there I was, sorting mail (usually two Santa Claus–stuffed burlap sacks per day), going on cookie runs for the editors, and taking phone messages.
The minute it hit 5 p.m., I was free and could start reporting—but the policy was no bylines for clerks, though you were paid extra for each story. And occasionally you’d be asked to pitch in on reporting for a breaking story during the day. (Again, no credit was ever given, no matter how much you contributed.)
Of course, I loved reporting, and I hated sorting mail, so I took every opportunity I could to game the system. If a call I took came in with a good tip, I took it and wrote the story (perhaps not mentioning the tip to an editor until the story was ready). If I needed to do interviews during the day, I would sneak them in when I should have been sorting mail or answering the phone.
One day, in the midst of this schizophrenic work existence, a grizzled (cliched but true here) veteran editor on the desk approached me (I doubt he knew my name) with a request: “Kid, burn this.” Then he handed me a piece of paper. A handwritten letter, in fact.
I had no idea what he meant. But I was accustomed to being asked to do incredibly menial jobs. Destroying a document was in general keeping with my responsibilities. If the office had a shredder, I didn’t know about it. So I asked, “Is it OK if I just rip it up?”
He waved me off like I was a pain in the ass. I retreated to the clerk station and proceeded to rip it into pieces and throw it out. I’m sure my mind was on reporting some story or another. I’m sure I didn’t consider how strange a request it was.
A few minutes later, the old editor sees me and asks, “Where is it?”
“In the garbage,” I answer.
He runs to the trash and sees my brilliant work. An old-fashioned cursing fit ensued. I don’t remember the exact words. I don’t remember if actual obscenity was used or just old-timey variations of “idiot” and “numbskull”. I’ve blocked it out. He was not kind.
I do remember the explanation. Before modern copiers, machines like spirit duplicators and mimeographs and hectographs were used for small print jobs. One or the other of these apparently became extremely hot in the process of making a copy (or maybe there was acid involved—I don’t know) and thus was invented the short-handed jargon for producing a copy: “Burn this” or “Burn it.”
As I had not worked in newsrooms in the 1940s, I had no idea.
I did soon find out what I had ripped up. A double-sided, handwritten letter (subject not disclosed) to the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher and owner of the Times.
The editor finally returned to his desk and spent the next hour or so painstakingly taping the letter back together so he could rewrite a fresh one. I retreated to my bags of mail, out of sight.
Later that afternoon, I saw the editor making his way through the newsroom, pausing for a couple of minutes at each reporter’s desk. A few words were exchanged, the old editor pointed at me, and heaps of laughter ensued.
I asked one of the reporters what was said, and the story was the same, except for one detail. In his (repeated) retellings, he said, “Burn me a copy.” Apparently, I was not idiot enough with the actual quote.
Later, a reporter consoled me that it was better to be known for something than nothing at all. Apparently, he had soaked himself in ink his first day as a clerk and had gained an early reputation that way.
It would be a nice coda, I suppose, if I’d spent my career at the Times. But I didn’t much like the prospect of 18 more months of silly tasks when I had perfectly good opportunities in journalism. And several of the Times reporters strongly encouraged me to quit the program—it was a waste of time, they said.
I believe, actually, the clerk program is no more, swept away like a heap of shredded paper.
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