My Ears Are Bent
Except for a period in 1931 when I got sick of the whole business and went to sea, working on a freighter which carried heavy machinery to Leningrad and brought Soviet pulp logs back, I have been for the last eight years a reporter on newspapers in New York City. In the summer after I left the University of North Carolina in 1929 I had an appendix operation and while getting over it I read James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” a book which made me want to become a political reporter. I came to New York City with that idea in mind. The first story I remember covering was a Jack the Ripper murder in a Brooklyn apartment house; an old woman had been strangled with a silk stocking and cut to death in her bedroom, the walls of which were virtually covered with large, lascivious photographs.
I was a “district man” at night for The Herald Tribune. I sat in an easy chair which had fleas in it in an old tenement across the street from Police Headquarters in Brooklyn hour after hour, waiting for something violent to happen. All the newspapers had offices in the tenement. When something happened the man on the desk at Headquarters would let us know and we would leave our tenement offices and hurry to the scene of the murder, or stick-up, or wreck, or brawl, or fire, or whatever. Then we would telephone the news in to a rewrite man. I covered districts for about four months. I covered Brooklyn, the West Side of Manhattan, and Harlem. I liked Harlem best.
In Harlem the reporters had a shack—the district man calls his office “the shack”—on the ground floor of the Hotel Theresa, the biggest hotel in Harlem, and we used to sit in the doorway in swivel chairs and look out at the people passing to and fro on Seventh Avenue, Harlem’s main street. There were four reporters in Harlem at night, three from the morning papers and one from the City News Association. My colleagues were veterans. The thing they disliked most in a reporter was enthusiasm, and I was always excited. When I got on the telephone to give my office a story—in the booth I used to try to balance the telephone receiver on my left shoulder the way they did, but I never succeeded—they would stand outside and point at their foreheads and make circles in the air, indicating that I did not have any sense. We would take turns making the rounds of the police stations. On the rounds we would sometimes drop into a speakeasy or a night club or a gambling flat and try to pull a story out of it. I got to know a few underworld figures and I used to like to listen to them talk.
One was Gilligan Holton, a Negro who ran a honky-tonk of the “intimate” type—it was in a basement—which he called the Broken Leg and Busted, a saloon name surpassed only by the Heat Wave Bar & Grill, a more recent establishment. When I worked in Harlem many wealthy men and women from downtown got drunk up there every night and Holton had a quantity of information about them, some of which would gag a goat. I remember one well-heeled woman who used to come to his basement place; she was in the habit of having Negro men, mostly tapdancers, examined by a doctor before she had affairs with them. She had a grown daughter. I used to see this old sister and her grown daughter slobbering around the Harlem bars every night. Until I came to New York City I had never lived in a town with a population of more than 2,699, and I was alternately delighted and frightened out of my wits by what I saw at night in Harlem. I would go off duty at 3 A.M., and then I would walk around the streets and look, discovering what the depression and the prurience of white men were doing to a people who are “last to be hired; first to be fired.” When I got tired of looking, usually around daybreak, I would get on the subway and go to my $9 a week furnished room in Greenwich Village. When I got out of the subway at Sheridan Square I would get a Herald Tribune to see what the rewrite man had done with the stories I had telephoned in hours earlier. I had a police card in my pocket and I was twenty-one years old and everything was new to me. By the time the Harlem trick was over I was so fascinated by the melodrama of the metropolis at night that I forgot my ambition to become a political reporter.
Harlem was the last district I covered. After that I was brought into the city room and allowed to write my own stories. I worked under Stanley Walker, a slight, calm but unpredictable Texan, who was the most celebrated city editor of the period. I did general assignments, mostly crime. The only kind of crime I liked was gangster funerals and they threw a lot of big ones that year. Crime, especially murder, was difficult to cover on The Herald Tribune because we were under orders to avoid the use of the word “blood” in a story. One of the owners did not like that word. On some stories it was impossible to be sufficiently exquisite. For example, I remember going down to a speakeasy on Elizabeth Street to cover the throat-slitting of a petty gangster. It was one of those speakeasies with artificial grapevines wired to the booths. After his throat had been cut this gangster had crawled out of his booth and stumbled all over the place, losing blood with each stumble. The little establishment looked as if blood had been shot in through a hose. . . .
I got tired of hoofing after dime-a-dozen murders—that year it seemed that all the people in the metropolitan area were trying to murder each other—and one morning I went downtown and got a job as a deck boy on a worn-out Hog Island freighter, the City of Fairbury. We tied up in Leningrad for fourteen days. Two of us met some freckled, brown-eyed girls who worked on the docks—even the winch- drivers were girls—and took them to a Charlie Chaplin movie in a theater on the Prospekt of the Twenty-fifth of October. The girl I was with would give me a nudge in the guts with her elbow and bellow with laughter every time Chaplin fell on his face, and it was one of his roller-skating films. Next day the two girls got us all tickets on the railroad to Detskoie Selo, which used to be the summer residence of the Czar’s family but now is a rest home for workers and their children. It is south of Leningrad and the flat, swampy country reminded me of eastern North Carolina. Somewhere on the tremendous estate the two girls picked some wild strawberries, and that night they made some cakes, a wild Russian strawberry on the top of each cake. We ate them and got sick. I remember how proud they were when they put the cakes on the table, smiling at us, and how ashamed we were, an hour or so later, when we got sick. We figured out it was the change in the water, but we couldn’t explain that to them because we knew no Russian. In Leningrad we swam naked each day in the Neva, under the gentle Russian sun. One afternoon we got together, the seamen from all the American ships in the harbor, and marched with the Russians in a demonstration against imperialist war, an annual event. One night a girl invited me to her house and I had dinner with her family, thick cabbage soup and black bread which smelled of wet grain. After dinner the family sang. The girl knew some English and she asked me to sing an American song. I favored them with the only one I could think of, “Body and Soul,” which was popular in New York City when I left. It seemed to puzzle them.
I left the freighter when it docked in the Port of Albany, New York, to unload its cargo of pulp logs. I took a bus to New York City, and a few weeks later I got a job on The World-Telegram, an afternoon newspaper, where I still work. Most of the time I have been assigned to write feature stories and interviews and in the course of this assignment I have been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world, including George Bernard Shaw and the noted ever-voluble educator Nicholas Murray Butler, and I have long since lost the ability to detect insanity. Sometimes it is necessary for me to go into a psychopathic ward on a story and I never notice the difference. In a newspaper office no day is typical, but I will describe one day no more incoherent than a hundred others. When I came in one morning at 9 I was assigned to find and interview an Italian bricklayer who resembled the Prince of Wales; someone telephoned that he had been offered a job in Hollywood. I tracked him to the cellar of a matzoth bakery on the East Side, where he was repairing an oven. I got into a fight with the man who ran the bakery; he thought I was an inspector from the Health Department. I finally got to the bricklayer and he would not talk much about himself but kept saying, “I’m afraid I get sued.” I went back to my office and wrote that story and then I was assigned to get an interview with a lady boxer who was living at the St. Moritz Hotel. She had all her boxing equipment in her room. The room smelled of sweat and wet leather, reminding me of the locker-room of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien’s gym on a rainy day. She told me she was not only a lady boxer but a Countess as well. Then she put on gloves to show me how she fought and if I had not crawled under the bed she would have knocked my head off. “I’m a ball of fire,” she yelled. I went back to the office and wrote that story and then I was assigned to interview Samuel J. Burger, who had telephoned my office that he was selling racing cockroaches to society people at seventy-five cents a pair. Mr. Burger is the theatrical agent who booked such attractions as the late John Dillinger’s father, a succession of naked dancers, and Mrs. Jack (Legs) Diamond. He once tried to book the entire Hauptmann jury. I found him in a delicatessen on Broadway where he was buying combination ham and cheese sandwiches for a couple of strip-tease women. He pulled out a check made out to him and proved that he had sold and delivered a consignment of cockroaches to a society matron who planned to enliven a party with them, the cute thing. Mr. Burger said he had established a service called Ballyhoo Associates through which he rented animals to people. “I rent a lot of monkeys,” he told me. “People get lonesome and telephone me to send them a monkey to keep them company. After all, a monkey is a mammal, just like us.” I wrote that story and then I went home. Another day another dollar.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from My Ears Are Bent by Joseph Mitchell. Copyright © 2001 by Joseph Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.