Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Newsroom Confidential: Macarthur Park

Curiously, I never covered sports, aside from a few freelance pick-ups here and there. This may shock you since I watch roughly 146 hours of basketball a week. Angelo Cataldi caused this. Angelo is best known for his work as the drivetime host on Philly Sports Radio 610 AM, America's Most Ignorant Sports Radio Station.

He also was an adjunct prof at La Salle. I had him in a Sportswriting class. The mission of this class: make talking about sports as painful a process as possible! Watch a big, dumb oaf brag ceaslessly about the nomination for the Pulitzer he got two decades ago! Watch your classmates mirror his every opinion on sports and sportswriting, even though just hours earlier in the Food Court they had the complete and total opposite opinion!

ASSIGNMENT: Bring in your favorite piece of sportswriting and discuss why you like it so much. (Essentially, a book report. I was a junior at a college charging nearly $30,000 a year.)
WHAT I DO: I bring in a copy of Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," which details the lives of four high school basketball players (one of whom is a 14-year-old Stephon Marbury) from the projects in Coney Island as they try to make it despite growing up in a culture of violence, poverty and despair. A truly amazing book in every way, shape and form.
WHAT HAPPENS: Angelo Cataldi cuts me off in the middle of my presentation! He dismisses my report. The reason? Because he never heard of the book, thus, how could it be any good?

Angelo Cataldi nearly made me hate watching sports. He DEFINITELY made me give up any aspirations of sportswriting, since people like him (or Steven A. Smith or Bill Conlin or Peter Vescey) seem like the ones who are at the top of the heap.

(Side note: I almost got sweet revenge on Cataldi. At the end of that semester in college, La Salle had an auction. One of the prizes was to sit in on the 610 AM morning show with Angelo himself. I won this auction and went down to the studio. My plan was to, if I was brought on the air, to tell everyone live and in person what an idiot Cataldi was. They never let me anywhere near the air, however.)

Most of the sportswriters I've worked with have been pretty awesome folks. I couldn't do their job. As much as I love sports, I have no idea how I could feign interest in a high school girl's volleyball game. At least with an incredibly boring zoning board of appeals meeting, I could pretend like someone gave a shit about what I was reading.

The sports guys at the first newsroom I worked with were pretty awesome. The captain of the team was Jim Jones, the so-called "Dean of North Jersey Sportswriting." When I started at the paper, Jonesy was in his 70's and had been covering local sports for close to 50 years. He was a great writer and more than willing to give his time to teach the ropes of different aspects of the business to a newcomer such as myself. He was also wickedly funny and great at pulling practical jokes.

Being of The Greatest Generation, Jonesy had some problems understanding computers. The Ridgewood News was filled with older folks doing random jobs -- typing in press releases and writing features, mostly. I frequently had to go to Jonesy's office and fix his computer for him.

One day, he came up to my desk and asked if I could help him with the computer. I said sure and ventured to his office (which smelled of a combination of stale beer, cigars and whiskey.) I ask him what's wrong with his computer.

"Do you know this Anna Kournikova?"

I, of course, know her intimately well.

"Can you help me find pictures of her on the computer? I don't know where to find them. I really want to find pictures of her."

I helped a 75-year-old man find pictures of a teenage Russian tennis player.

A few months later, Kournikova would play at a tennis tournament held in nearby Mahwah. Jonesy covered the event, and snapped over 100 pictures of her in action. Only her. Despite hours of tennis matches, he did not take one picture of any other competitor.

He also managed to figure out what hotel she was staying at and took a picture of her leaving her bedroom. That picture was on the front of his door the entire rest of the time he worked at the newspaper.

Jonesy was great. His assistant editor, Brian, was completely insane. When Brian was normal, he was a perfectly fine guy, very personable and nice. When Brian had a few drinks in him -- which, by 11 a.m., was the case -- he was completely insane. Brian always had a story about something going on in his life. At one point, his apartment (more like a room in a boarding house) burned to the ground. He would spend his days in the newsroom cornering folks about where they lived, asking them if they had any extra room so he didn't have to sleep in his car anymore. I don't believe anyone took him up.

I was working late with Tom, Jeff and Alex one night. We were doing our work when Brian came stumbling into our office. His eyes were completely dialated. I know this because he was staring right into my eyes. He wouldn't stop staring at me. He ended up standing two feet away from me, his eyes completely fixated on mine.

"Hey, Gregg." He said this, not even acknowledging the presence of three other people in the room.
"Uhm, hey, Brian."
"Hey, what's your favorite song?"
"Uhm... I don't know."
"Go ahead, give me your favorite song."
"'The Kids Are Allright' by The Who."
"I don't think I know it."
"Oh. It's a great song."
"Do you know what my favorite song is?"
"Uhm, no."
"Macarthur Park. Do you know how it goes?"
"Yes. I do."
"Macarthur Park is friiiiiightening in the dark.... someone left the cake out in the raaaainnnn...."

For the next five minutes, in a falsetto, boychoir alto, this grown man started to serenate me with Richard Harris' epic song. His eyes never left mine. He then left the office like nothing happened.


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