Dinah Washington

Actually, to preface this, I do know what triggered this weird little memory. Someone I know this morning mentioned a weird newspaper headline she saw:

Republicans turned off by size of Obama’s package

It got me thinking of two of the weirdest headlines from my not-very-intellectual first newspaper, the most heinous and evil Waterbury Republican-American. And I thought back to the two wackiest heds I’d seen there. Both were from the mid-’80s.

One was in the sports department, where I worked. I can tell you it was unintentional — the deskman who wrote it was clueless and sexless, not to mention one of the biggest characters I ever met in a business full of them. It was a short, two-column story about a local team eliminated from the state high school volleyball tournament:

Pomperaug girls put out

The best was from around 1987 — when the American was still a separate afternoon paper, and the guys putting the features page together were just trying to fill a three-column hole on the page. And they found an Associated Press wire story about some music guy they didn’t really know much about:

Miles Davis blows

And those two bits of weirdness had me seguing today into my weirdest moment in a decade full of weird moments at a weird paper. And it had to do with a long-ago, long-deceased R&B great.

*****

Well, you see, whippersnappers, back in between the eras of hot lead type and pagination, in the early days of computers in newsrooms, desk editors would lay out stories on paper in the newsroom, then send the hard-copy layout dummies via those wonderful old pneumatic tubes to the composing room, then eventually send out headlines and copy via computer.

At the other end, the stories would appear on photo film on a developing machine. Someone would rip the paper off the machine, run it through a waxing machine and bring it to the compositor, who would cut it with an X-Acto blade and a ruler and then position it on the page.

But it wasn’t an exact science. And there would be times when you would need a line or two of filler to fill out a page when the story wasn’t quite long enough.

And in a throwback to the old days, AP still occasionally sent out dozens of one-line fillers for those times they were needed, accompanied by headlines of the same size that usually said the same thing as the copy. They were little dinky things along the lines of this:

14TH PRESIDENT

Franklin Pierce was our 14th president.

Or one that made me feel old:

SINGER IS 40

Singer Joey Ramone is 40.

And there was one blurb once that made the sports section. I saw it that day when I got into the office and knew it wasn’t right:

SINGER IS 63

Singer Dinah Washington is 63.

Wait a minute — Dinah Washington died in ’63. But this little blurb came out in 1987-88, when she would’ve been 63.

Anyway, I didn’t think anything of it. I had the usual sports desk duties to take care of that night: answering phones, taking scores as they came in from some meaningless event or another, just the usual drudgery bullshit.

Depending on our duties on a given night, our shifts ran from 5:30 to 1 or 6 to 1:30. And the last hour or so was brain death. You could only look at stories on the wires for so long.

And when the phone rang at that hour, it was usually some drunken idiot — maybe a guy who forgot to call in his modified softball league results before deadline and wanted to still get them in (“But this is modified softball!” one guy pleaded to me one night); or someone who wanted to know the score of the East Bumfuck State men’s basketball game on the West Coast because he had money on it; or my favorite — obviously in a crowded place, obviously slurring, saying, “Look — I want you to settle something for me …”

Jesus, shoot me now …

But this one night, I was sitting there with the desk editor, counting all the bricks in the high-arched ceiling of our converted-train-station newsroom, when the phone rang about 1 o’clock. Shit.

“SPORTSSSS …” I said, in a voice that was loud and obviously annoyed at what was to come.

Well, the voice back was just as loud, and it was obviously inebriated, and it was obviously black, an older man. I could hear the bloodshot weariness of his eyes in the voice. And  it was obviously even more annoyed, and he said something I was definitely not expecting:

Dinah Washintin DAAAID!!!”

Click.

And I might have been the only person in the newsroom, at that time or any other time, who would’ve understood what he was so upset about, much less what he was talking about.

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2 Responses to “Dinah Washington”

  1. It's Drew! Says:

    If I ever crank call you, I know what I’ll say.

  2. jmucci Says:

    Interesting story Fran. Funny too. I knew Dinah had died… but I never realized she daid.

    You’ll have to write a blog, sometime, on some of your other experiences working for the Waterbury and New Haven newspapers. I’d love to hear just why the Wtby newspaper was that much worse than the New Haven one. It sounded like they both weren’t too good.

    Also, glad to see you are posting some of your old stories on here. Who knows… maybe that will help to land another job. If some prospective employer sees what kind of work you’ve done in the past… ya know?

    By the way, have you ever seen that HBO show “The Wire”? Excellent show from a few years ago. Anyhow, the 5th and final season sort of delved into the Baltimore newspaper business (creator David Simon worked for The Baltimore Sun… I think… for about 20 years). I’d be curious to get your take on that aspect of the show.

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