NOTE FROM A RIM-RAT
by Rip Rense
Charlie Nazarian's thick glasses, stubby physique and grey toupee are etched in my synaptic storehouse like something by Gustav Dore. When he died a few weeks ago at 87, I had to give way to a tear and a wistful smile, though I hadn't seen him in 22 years.
Nazarian, you see, did a lovely thing for me once, back when I was a nice kid trying to rewrite the wrongs of the world.
He was a newspaperman. No, not a "journalist" the hifalutin' term of preference by many a pretentious nincompoop. Charlie was a professional copy editor, a man who knew his way around a sentence. Unlike many copy editors today, he didn't gratuitously rewrite, or offer New Age-y criticisms like "this sentence doesn't track." Nazarian weeded out misspellings, planted commas, and trimmed syntax. He was a gardener, not a landscape artist, and he knew it. He was exactly what the job calls for.
When I met him, I was about 20 a copyboy at the old Valley News and Green Sheet in Los Angeles. Nazarian was one of the old "rim-rats," as editors sitting around the "rim" (copy desk) were known, who had fled the strike-ruined L.A. Herald-Examiner for stable suburban confines. He was among a dozen old boys who smoked and drank coffee all day (and other libations secreted in thermoses), laboriously cranking out headlines about rotary clubs and school board meetings.
My job, in part: Bring him and the other rim-rats coffee and cigarettes. I felt honored to do it. These were genuine newspapermen! Little did I realize they were almost as obsolete as linotype machines, and that genuine newspapers were soon to be gobbled up and reconfigured by corporate "bottom-line" artists and crazed egalitarians. Those days now seem quite halcyon to me and guys like Nazarian almost mythical.
As does this little story.
I was eventually promoted to police reporter, where I proudly obeyed the idiotic rules of the job as set down at the time: write up burglaries over $100, robberies over $250, murders, rapes if they seemed to pose a general threat to the community, and suicides but only if they were of famous people.
It was a suicide report that got me in trouble.
I came across it during a routine stop at the Van Nuys LAPD station. The cop had gone to some trouble to note details, to the point that his report took on a Raymond Chandler-esque quality. A 40ish "blonde," as he wrote, had come to L.A. to start over after leaving her husband of 19 years. She had checked into a motel, applied for jobs, then had overdosed on pills and J&B, hanging a "do not disturb" sign on her door. The classifieds, with the "secretary wanted" section circled, lay on a bedside table.
I was mesmerized. So what if the woman wasn't famous this story was important, wasn't it? It was a story of heart, or lack of it, and how fortunes are changed by small acts of kindness. I returned to the newsroom in a haze, hammered out my burglaries and robberies, then found myself typing about the lady who had given up on life in that dingy motel room. What if one of those jobs had come through, I wrote. What if she'd gotten a break? What if someone had been a bit kinder? People needed to be reminded of such things!
I audaciously submitted my earnest little piece to the paper's op-ed page editor. Because it was so unusual for a staff reporter a kid, at that to write for op-ed, the matter was promptly turned over to our new managing editor. This was a hotshot from out of town, and a fellow reputed to be "innovative." I figured my initiative might impress him, but ...
The story had merit, he said, stuffily, yet was just "not right" for the paper.
"Not right"? What the hell did that mean? I thought it was right so right, in fact, that I turned around and mailed it directly to the L.A. Times. The competition.
Treason! This was an Angel trying to pinch-hit for the Dodgers.
The next day, the Times op-ed editor phoned and offered to buy it.
I steeled myself, took a deep breath, and walked into the managing editor's office. Watched his eyeballs turn into Peter Lorre's.
"The Times!" he shouted. "The Times!"
I nodded, and brazenly added that I'd "much prefer to see it in our own paper." (Ah, the audacity of youth!)
"Absolutely not! No deals! No deals!" he shouted, Nixon-like, raising his arms skyward, then adding in ominous tones, "you have a very important decision to make, young man!"
He was right. I did. So I phoned the Times and told them to run it. I didn't care if I was fired. I believed in what I had written, and I figured my own paper should have, too.
The next morning, there was a note in my typewriter not a dismissal from Mr. "No Deals!" who never said a word about the incident again but from Charlie Nazarian.
"Rip," it said. "This was an excellent article in today's L.A. Times. I was very moved by it. One question: why wasn't it in our paper? Charles."
I made my way through the office fog of cigarette and cigar smoke and explained to him what had happened. The old newspaperman said little, but shook his head with disgust, and complimented me again.
I have never felt so vindicated about anything in my life.
Thank you, Charlie. God bless.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.