Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Coin Toss

There’s a scene in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, one my favorite holiday movies, where Magoo, portraying Ebenezer Scrooge, sings as he greedily counts his coins.

“Ringle, Ringle, coins when they jingle,” he goes, while Bob Crachit freezes his tuchas off in the next room, “make such a lovely sound.”

I’ve recently embarked on a mission to clean up all loose change in my house and I have to say that the sound of all that jingling hasn’t been lovely at all.

There are pennies all over the place. They’re in plastic soup containers, glass jars, any kind of canister that can possibly hold pennies…holds pennies.

Part of the problem stems from the dark days of coinage, when banks refused to take your change unless you put it all in those awful paper wrappers.

Nobody wanted to sit down for hours at a time, counting the pennies, then losing count and having to start all over again. So the pennies piled higher and deeper.

I think that’s why pirates buried their treasure. I can't see Long John Silver trying to put all those gold doubloons into paper wrappers. Arrh, Jim Boy, bury the booty and let some other schmuck deal with it.

And they’re just pennies after all. It’s not like they’re really worth anything. When I was a kid if someone stooped so low as to pick up a penny, he was quickly branded a “brown bender” and mocked without mercy.

I did a newspaper story several years ago about a bank in Connecticut that decided to waive the wrapper rule and take the coins straight up.

The place was quickly overrun by every brown bender in a three-state radius. The bank's president called me to thank me for the publicity, but added that “you’re killing me with kindness!”

They pulled in enough pennies to fill an armored car, which swayed from side to side as it drove away from the bank.

But we’re in the 21st Century now; banks don’t need wrapped coins, so my girlfriend advised me to get my tail up to the nearest place with a counting machine.

My first attempt was a bust. I had decided to wash all those dusty old pennies (yeah, I know, money laundering, ha, ha, give it a rest) but one of the suits at the bank told me that wet coins would kill the machine. They want dirty money?

So I trudged home with nothing to show for my efforts except severe case of lumbago.

Take two. I took the bus this time and kept my money dry. One bank’s coin machine has this stupid little character called—are you ready?—Penny Arcade, who guides you through the coin dump in a squeaky rodent voice.

“Boy, you sure have a lot of coins,” the pre-adolescent android said, stating the excruciatingly obvious.

I finally got the first batch of coins cashed in and then hauled out the next one. I went to a different bank this time, which was closer, thank God, and had a counting machine that didn’t talk.

I joked to myself that I’d probably break the machine with all these damn coins. And that’s exactly what happened.

Halfway through feeding the machine my pennies, the little conveyor belt stopped dead and the screen called out for help. I had killed Penny Arcade’s silent cousin.

As I waited for the tellers to fix the machine, I looked at blown-up photos of old Bay Ridge that the bank had put on the walls.

It’s hard to tell when exactly the pictures were taken, but it clearly wasn't Christmas time since people were in their shirtsleeves. You can see the Alpine Theater’s marquee—back when it was just one theater--advertising a Blondie movie from 1946.

Trolley tracks are also visible, so we’re talking about a time when you can actually buy something with pennies. My mother always said how much she loved the trolley, how it was so roomy and comfortable, and how angry she was when they were replaced by buses.

A bank staffer got the coin machine up and running and I finished off the count. I came home satisfied that the house was now penny free.

Then I walked into the dining room and saw a ceramic figure of the Little Girl with the Curl, which my mother had made years ago. The top is bowl-shaped so it can hold fruit or little doodads or, in this case, a hell of a lot of pennies.

Where’s Mr. Magoo when you need him?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Final Edition

It’s seems sadly fitting that I learned on the same day that Editor & Publisher was folding and Tom Flannery had died.

Tom was a reporter at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa., my first daily newspaper job. E&P is—soon to be “was”—the trade magazine for the newspaper industry, which at the time was being printed at a plant in nearby East Stroudsburg.

I subscribed to E&P for years and I even worked there briefly in the late 90s before going to work for

Like a lot reporters, I always went straight to the want ads when the latest issue of E&P arrived because, like a lot of reporters, I hated my current job with a passion and I had to get the hell out before I went berserk.

I did get around to reading the articles, but the job listings always came first. E&P was my lifeline to the outside world and each issue offered some hope that maybe this week I’d find my dream job.

You had to read the ads carefully, though, because sometimes you’d spot a great job, get all pumped to apply, only to see that the paper was located somewhere south of South Succotash and had a circulation of about 12. I learned to check the locations before reading the rest of the ad.

This was before email applications, back when you had to photocopy your resume and your best clips, type up a letter and some labels, and bring the whole thing down to the Post Office so you could mail it. (God, it sounds like I’m cranking up a Model T.)

When I was living in Waterbury, Conn., I went to the photocopy place so often that I made friends with the staff. They got to know me at the Post Office, too.

I answered an ad in E&P for the Pocono Record in 1988, got the job, and that’s where I met Tom Flannery. Tom was covering Stroudsburg Borough Council and seemed to know everybody in town.

He wasn’t shy by any means and he seemed like one of those wise-cracking reporter characters from old black & white movies. All he needed was one of those old gooseneck telephones.

I was driving along North Seventh Street in Stroudsburg one day when I saw Tom walking over the bridge that spanned I-80. I honked my horn and was a little surprised to see Tom’s face go pale.

I found out later that Tom had written some articles about drug dealers from the Bronx or Brooklyn and when he saw the New York plates on my car, he thought someone was sizing him up for a drive-by.

We only worked together for a short time before Tom got a job at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Pa.

Before he left, Tom suggested I take over the Stroudsburg Borough beat and, on his very last day, he saw to it that I covered the arrest of a murder suspect. It was a wild night, but I’m glad Tom set that up because it was also an incredible experience.

Get Me Rewrite

After getting the story and writing up the article, I met Tom at a bar near the paper for a farewell drink.

“Give him as many drinks as he wants,” Tom told the bartender.

I saw Tom once or twice after that, talked to him on the phone a few times more and then we lost touch. I later saw him on the show Nightline discussing a story he had done on a defense contractor in Lancaster and his hard work had earned him a Pulitzer nomination.

I eventually got back to New York and somewhere in my career I worked at E&P for a short time before getting the offer from CNN, my first internet reporting job.

I felt badly at leaving E&P so soon after starting, especially after meeting several nice people there, but even the spokeswoman at the Newspaper Association of America told me to take the CNN gig.

“I enjoy working with you,” she said, “but if you don’t take this job at CNN I’ll kill you.”

I left E&P and I let my subscription run out. We all know what’s happening to the newspaper industry, but I was still shocked that the magazine was folding—not going online, not being salvaged in some way, just shutting down and disappearing. It doesn’t seem right.

When I look at what’s happening to newspapers, I think of the movie industry when it shifted from the silent films to talkies. Looking back, it may seem like it was a smooth transition—we just added sound to movies, that’s all.

But it's a lot different when you’re in the middle of a seismic change, when it has an impact on your life. A lot of good people lost their livelihoods when the silent pictures faded away and that is what’s happening to newspapers.

When I heard about E&P, I started thinking about Tom for some reason and decided to do a web search to see what he was up to.

I was stunned to find his obituary. He had died unexpectedly in June 2004, shortly after filing what turned out to be his last story. He was 56 years old.

A newspaper man and a newspaper magazine are both gone now. Time has no mercy on people or industries. That doesn’t seem right, but there’s not much we can do about it.