The Daily News: Floating on the Stormy Sea of Beer and Straight Vodka

Original Publish Date: Spring 1990

Originally published in the Spring 1990 edition of The Minnesota Daily Alumni Association’s Daily News magazine, which celebrated the student paper’s 90th anniversary

I worked at The Daily from ’62 to ’66, actually on the Ivory Tower, the literary magazine that came out in place of the paper on the first Monday of the month, which true Daily people generally loathed and despised. They were engaged in the manly pursuit of news and we wrote poetry and fiction, which was what girls did, they thought.

Our office was in the newsroom, at the east end of the basement of Murphy Hall, and when we walked in the door and through the reporters, they stopped yelling at each other and stared at us as if they had never seen us before in their lives. The word “degenerate” seemed to hang in the air.

In the fall of my sophomore year, I sent poems to the Tower, which were accepted, then a story. The poetry editor was Peter Stitt, who now edits the Gettysburg Review, a great magazine, and Beth Moller was editor. I became fiction editor, then editor and then I quit because I was about to flunk out of school. Most people at The Daily had bad grades. We spent most of our time there and skipped class with carefree abandon: it was our way of being an adult. To sit in Walter Library dredging through the silt and mud of the 19th century was dreary labor compared to the fun of sitting in the Daily offices, grimy, strewn with papers, loud, full of smoke, and write patiently on yellow copy paper in a battered Underwood typewriter a column or a story, especially one that sneered at the Administration, and the next morning, bright and early, pick up a Daily from a paperboy as you walked onto campus and see your work there, your name, your very words, in print, even now being read by all forty-two thousand students at the University.

Upstairs, the J-school was run by number crunchers, social scientists, dwarves. Downstairs we considered ourselves the tenders of the real journalists, writers like Sevareid and Salisbury and Max Shulman and Thomas Heggen, who came from The Daily. Most of us came from the sophomore journalism writing course taught by Mitchell Charnley, George Hage, and Robert Lindsay, the best writing course ever offered. I thought so then, I still think so. We wrote reams of every sort of writing — interviews, reviews, humor columns, features, and hard news, the anthracite of the business — we wrote every day and our stuff was read and marked up with red pencil and shot back. Lindsay had a firm policy of giving an F to any submission that contained a spelling error, a cruel blow to a sensitive writer, but it absolutely taught you to copyread. Charnley was an old newspaperman and a stickler for form, not fond of fancy or self-conscious writing (my favorite kind). Hage was a tall gentle man, a humanist and a true intellectual for whom the great writers of the genre — Thoreau, Twain, Mencken, Crane, Orwell, Liebling were always real and present. He was my mentor and I tried to write things to make him laugh. He had a wonderful loud laugh, like a horse laugh, if there is such a thing.

We worked late in the basement, drove downtown to Commercial Press and read proofs there in the old print shop that smelled of hot lead and ink and of hot potato chips from the Old Dutch factory downstairs. We drank beer at the Big 10 and the Mixer’s and learned to smoke. We felt absolutely superior, writing, doing real work compared to the student politicians who sat around debating, passing resolutions, playing silly games. At the Tower, an extraordinary bunch of talents gathered, including Patricia Hampl, Jonathan Sisson, Lewis Hyde, Jim Moore, Sam Heins, Franz Richter, Scott Wright. Of all of us, Patricia is the real shining star, the one who breaks through and who somehow vindicates her colleagues. Her work will outlast us all, I think.

We got a little vindication one spring, after finals, at the Daily staff party over in Crocus Hill. All the reporters and editors and the boys of the sports page were good and drunk by the time we Ivory Tower folks arrived in a lilac convertible. They were wandering around the yard, singing, putting their arms around trees. We saw our chance, which wasn’t hard to see. We offered them a guided tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old haunts. Some of them had heard of him and knew that he wrote about romantic young people like themselves. “Follow us.” we said, “we’ll drive slow.” We led them through the streets, a gang of fifty or sixty young journalists floating on the stormy sea of beer and straight vodka, and we pointed out random houses to them: Scott’s birthplace, his grandma’s, Zelda’s home, his school, the church he attended, the bar where he beat up Hemingway, Gertrude Stein’s home. Some of the current luminaria of Twin Cities journalism and P.R. were in the crowd, and they were rapt pupils, though listing to starboard. We stopped at each site and gave an impromptu talk. “Here’s where the Ice Palace used to stand, next to that gas station. Here is where the Great Gatsby lived, whose real name was Finnegan.” We led them west, almost to Snelling Avenue, and then we waved goodbye and slowly sped away.

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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