Remembering My First Newspaper Boss: Marilyn Schaefer

I said good-bye to factory work, and being a cook, and delivering snack food, and a lot of other kick-around jobs when I got a part-time position as a reporter with the Northeast Times in 1984. I would stay for a year and now remember, as the Times celebrates 75 years of publishing with this issue, putting together the edition marking the 50th anniversary of this Northeast institution. The late, great editor Marilyn Schaefer, who’d been at the Philadelphia Bulletin before it closed in 1982, hired me, as she’d sometimes liked to put it, “right off the truck.”

I lived in Fishtown, drove a beaten-up Gremlin, and worked part time at a grocery store to make the rent. Making the rent, actually, wasn’t as difficult as it might have been because my buddy was the landlord. He’s a plumber who spotted the regentrification trend early. Every month, he’d come into the old Farmer’s Choice on Girard Ave. where I was slicing deli meat and give me a wave. I’d fork over the rent. (And yes, I’d wash my hands afterward — usually.) Then, after work, we’d head to one of the local bars and down a good portion of that money. Ah, youth!

I was intoxicated on more than just Schmidt’s in those days. I had always dreamed of being a writer. My father had his doubts, and suggested that perhaps writing was something I could do on the side, the way people take up square dancing or woodworking. Members of our clan often left school early (in Dad’s case, in eighth grade) and worked at the textile mills in Frankford or Port Richmond or Kensington and never questioned their station.

Still, by the time I’d started maneuvering through the minefield of young adulthood, one of my older brothers had gone off to college, and the other to war. Meanwhile, the mills were closing.  Dad realized that the possibilities, both good and bad, were boundless.

Still, Dad was right to be wary on my behalf. I was a late bloomer. It took me 10 years to get through college at night school. Along the way, though, I worked as a stringer for the Northeast Advisor. They actually paid me; something like $15 an article. That hooked me.

When I finally — finally! — graduated, I sent some of my clips to Marilyn. She said, “Keep in touch.” Boy, was that ever the wrong thing to say. I called sometimes twice a day for a good three months. I would run to a pay phone (remember them?) after delivering bags of potato chips to supermarkets. I might have even dialed the number (remember that?). A colleague on staff at the time recalled this fellow who maintained a barrage of relentless begging.

“Some guy named Frank keeps calling you, Marilyn.”

She was often busy putting the newspaper to bed, which I came to understand later is a process begun at weeklies almost as soon as the last edition had been put to bed. I learned that journalism is a lot like a cement mixer. It needs to keep moving. Of course, once in a while I’d talk to her and she’d again end the conversation with “Keep in touch.” Then, one day she called me in and I was hired.

I’ve been more excited at other times in my life: when I got married, when my child was born. Still, this was the defining moment of my young adulthood. People were going to read my stories. I couldn’t believe it. The Times in those days was located in a ramshackle old building on Frankford Avenue, with narrow staircases and pigeons nesting near windows that didn’t open. Seemed like heaven to me.

I was so excited that on that first week on the job I did something that my old Northeast Times colleagues (and I’ve kept in touch with most of them) still joke about. I decided to sleep overnight in a Salvation Army homeless shelter on Frankford Avenue and then write about the experience. Just. Because. I. Could. The strangest thing about this adventure was that I’d decided to leave my wallet at home. I had no identity. I didn’t exist. I wonder how long it might take somebody to identify me if I’d run into foul play.

I didn’t really sleep that night, of course. I lay in the dark taking notes about what I saw and overheard. I came in the next day and wrote it in one sitting. Marilyn exclaimed, as was her wont, “This is wonderful, Frank!” and ran it on the front page. Before I got a chance to thank all the little people who’d been with me on the way to the top Marilyn read my other piece for that week and exclaimed, “This is horrible!” which was also her wont.

Still, I wondered if the Salvation Army article had a chance of getting an award. At that point, the foundation of the planet shifted, the currents of the rivers began running the wrong way, the oceans cascaded to the center of world, a chorus of seraphim sounded, and traffic on I-95 ran smoothly. A voice came from the heavens and said: “Frank Diamond will never, ever, ever win a journalism award.” And so it has been.

There are awards that you can’t put on a shelf however, and they’re the kind of awards that don’t gather dust. (At least so say the lucky showoffs who’ve actually won real awards.) Working at the Northeast Times was like working at a zoo. I mean that in a good way. The other members of the staff and I were all young and ambitious and loud and loved to have fun. I never laughed so much on a job. I remember when we were writing about the government cheese giveaways and I noted that I was eligible.

Marilyn not only encouraged us, she’d often join in. She understood that we were heading in a direction very much different from our friends who worked in the trades, or got their business degrees. Odds were that we’d never make as much money (though some of my colleagues went on to do very well) so we might as well enjoy ourselves the way insurance agents, or accountants, or computer programmers could never really enjoy themselves. (This was before people could work from home and do a Mexican hat dance around the kitchen table — do you hear me neighbor?)

Pause. I’ve tried hard to not let Marilyn take this piece over only to learn that old editors never die, they just look over your shoulder from another dimension. Marilyn was the best newspaper person I’d ever worked with. I can hear her still.

MARILYN: I’m a newswoman, babe. I don’t stop being a woman just because I’m in newspapers.

ME: I want to say that you’re the best newspaper person, not just a woman.

MARILYN: Why don’t you just write “editor,” babe? That would work. And it’s fewer words.

Even 25 years later, with Marilyn dead nearly a decade, she still wins. Notice I didn’t say she “passed away.” One of my first days on the job I wrote that somebody had “passed away.” Marilyn came storming out of the composing room.

“Frank!” she exclaimed. “People die! They don’t pass on or go to a better place or commune with angels. In newspapers, people die!”

There are so many things I could tell about the hilarious year that made me realize just what H. L. Mencken meant when he descried newspapering as “the life of kings.” I got to speak to movers and shakers in the city. I bumbled my way through an interview with former Mayor Frank Rizzo, suggesting that he was through. (He’d run again for mayor at least once; and remained a force in the city to the last.) Rizzo was gracious; the mayor at the time, Wilson Goode, was intimidating. I interviewed the late Senator John Heinz before a town meeting, asking if people got upset or angry in such venues. Heinz laughed, and said: “You’ll see!” Answer, yes. I loved talking to the people of Northeast Philadelphia. Notice I didn’t say “ordinary” people. Nobody’s ordinary, Marilyn taught. Everybody’s got a story.

I want to thank the Northeast Times on its 75th anniversary for giving me a real shot at happiness. When you think about it, that’s a strange turn of phrase for anyone living in one of the modern industrial democracies to use. It’s like a fish being thankful for being given a real shot at wetness. Talk about life of kings. We have three meals a day (at least) and live better than 99 percent of humanity that ever existed. Still, look around. Do you see a lot of bliss?

A New Yorker magazine article a few years ago explored just what makes us happy and quoted Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia as defining it as “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.”

I routinely enter this zone when I write, which is not to say whether what comes out of this dream-state is any good. That’s for Marilyns, er, editors, to judge. It just feels good trying. Still, the secret of happiness is probably more complex than that. The New Yorker mentioned that “a bit of voluntary work” should figure into the equation.

Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt to get at least one stinking journalism award.

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