San Francisco Beat – Chasing the News
Dusk to Dawn Deadlines
My journalism journey began on a tattered bar stool in a Tenderloin District dive.
“What will you have?” asked Les, an affable Filipino bartender who was browsing the Daily Racing Form.
“Uh, Bloody Mary, please,” I muttered, bellying up to a crowded bar of mostly dawn-to-dusk boozers after being shanghaied by a curmudgeon on my first day as a cub reporter for United Press International.
Les sized me up and returned seconds later with a shot and a beer. Without a blink, I chugged the shot and washed it down with the brew. A couple patrons guffawed and one clapped meekly. “Good,” I ventured in a raspy, but lighthearted tone. “Hit me again!
“Let’s play for it,” chirped Donald Thackrey, a grizzled federal court reporter who had earlier burst into the newsroom, introduced himself and said abruptly: “Come on, I’m showing you around.” He meant, a round of drinks.
Richard ‘Dick’ Harnett, the day Desk Editor who taught an advanced news writing class I attended at San Francisco State as Vietnam anti-war protests flared on campus, had astutely hired me as a summer temp.
Now, he warily nodded OK for my rookie initiation by Thackrey, a cantankerous but highly-respected UPI veteran who quickly scurried me out the door.
Don, who eerily resembled his two prize bulldogs, took me straight to the Polk Street Tavern and downed a waiting bourbon on the rocks before I’d even ordered. Les, the bartender, slickly poured a double shot to take its place.
“Come on, we’ll shake for it,” snarled Don, gesturing for the leather dice cups. Five tipsy patrons reached for their dice cups on cue and the drinking games began.
After passing the tenderloin initiation and a ‘sink or swim’ training period of editing/rewriting rapid-fire news stories, I was assigned the night shift rewrite slot, where desk editor Bob Lurati rang a little bell at 5 p.m. sharp and announced, “Cocktail Hour.” He then mixed a stiff martini with a twist — on the rocks — before expertly tackling the major stories to be updated for the next news cycle.
It was a 24-hour “deadline a minute” newsroom with reporters and editors banging out breaking stories about City Hall scandals, Black Panther politics, airline hijackings, anti-war marches, the spreading AIDs epidemic, and Pacific League Triple A baseball games.
I relaxed and settled in for a wild, weird, and wondrous journalism journey in the surrealistic realm that gave front row access to jumping frog contests in Calavaras County, Silicone Queen Carol Doda’s topless night club show in North Beach, Grateful Dead. Jefferson Airplane and Santana light-show concerts at Winterland, elite wine tastings in Napa Valley, save the redwoods “tree hugger” clashes in Mendocino and the annual squid festival feast at Monterey Bay.
Next stop: North Beach – pool, pizza, and paparazzi in colorful Babylon by the Bay as the daily lists of American boys killed in Vietnam clicked away ominously on the office teletypes while storm clouds shrouded besieged college campuses where students boycotted classes and burned draft cards to protest the war.