The Paper Trail

An unsettling photo of me appears in a newspaper article. I am perched on a mound of snow, wearing a corduroy bomber jacket and bell bottoms. My hair is an expired disco perm styled on the wrong side of Funkytown. What appears to be a toaster strapped to my chest is actually a portable listening device described as “the smallest cassette player in the world.” This is contradicted by my headphones, roughly the size of two Denny’s Grand Slam pancakes. The caption reads: “Tom Wolferman displays latest in listening pleasure on the slopes.”

 

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This counterfeit ski photo of me sitting dumbfounded on top of a grimy snowbank represented exactly where I was in life: Stuck on the Bunny Hill of a career that was on a slow downhill slide.

The slopes in question were not in Aspen, but in the parking lot of a strip mall in a suburb north of Chicago where I worked as a classified ad clerk at a community newspaper. A reporter had talked me into posing as a skier – a stretch given the bone density in my ankles. It was the late 70s and the article profiled a local resident promoting his breakthrough electronic invention. Too big, too late, it was about to be eclipsed by the rollout of the mini Sony Walkman.

This counterfeit ski photo of me sitting dumbfounded on top of a grimy snowbank represented exactly where I was in life: Stuck on the Bunny Hill of a career that was on a slow downhill slide.

I had taken the job because it was only minutes from my alternate employment as a food server at a Holiday Inn restaurant. The prospect of working at a newspaper, even a storefront in suburban Chicago, was enticing. Maybe as a waiter I could trade in a vowel for a consonant and become a writer. I could cover breaking news, local politics and lively suburban entertainment. Except I was hired to compose copy for garage sales, used cars and lost Pomeranians.

The office was part of a fifty paper chain. As publisher of the suburban branch, my boss, whom I’ll call Vince, was a loner with a surly, no-nonsense Lou Grant personality. He was at constant odds with the suited executives at corporate headquarters who wanted to nudge him out. Circling 60 and at the waning edge of his career, he was up for a fight.

Beyond classified ads, I also supported Vince’s ragtag team of display advertising reps. While diverse in age, they could have moseyed out of a park district production of “Death of a Salesman.” Most managed to hustle ads in spite of being out of prospects and often out of breath. They’d sell the ads. On an Olivetti manual typewriter I’d pound out copy for local big money merchants ranging from hot dog stands to sellers of women’s intimate apparel.

As part of the job, I also fielded phone calls. Because the office was not equipped with a hi-tech intercom system, Vince capitalized on the 70s trucker fad and bought a CB radio. He rigged the base station next to my desk and planted speakers in the adjoining editorial department. When screening the eclectic mix of calls, I would then page the editors over the CB. It was like a surreal episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Good buddies in Editorial Pick Up On Line 1. Urgent. Subscriber has grown the largest summer squash in Glenview history. Please dispatch photographer ASAP. 10-10.

About a year after I was hired, Vince developed an oddly intense interest in geology and became an obsessive rockhound. After buying an SUV, he spent most of his weekends at local quarries collecting rocks. When he stripped the inside of the vehicle to accommodate his expeditions, he moved the back seat to his office to function as a couch.

It always was comical to see visiting execs from corporate. Vince would be seated at his desk. His superiors would face him about six inches lower in the displaced back seat of a ’77 Chevy Blazer – surrounded by freshly excavated rocks.

In spite of his crusty disposition, Vince and I got along well. He was baffled by my underachieving aspirations, but realized I showed up, did my work and had the temperament to deal with the personalities in the office and the crazies on the phone. While his hands were tied with my paltry salary, he would creatively compensate. Every few months he’d loiter by my desk on a late Thursday afternoon, lean in and mumble, “You don’t look so good. I think maybe you need to call in sick tomorrow.”

As part of my mundane weekly duties, I was tasked with going through phone books to randomly select 55 suburbanites. As a promotional gimmick to lure readers to the classified ads, we’d plant the names on the Super Auto Mart page. If you were a lucky resident who spotted your name among the used Buicks, you could claim free movie passes to the local mall.

For purposes of self-amusement, I began grouping names around nonsensical variations on a theme. I started out discreetly with fruits, locating five last names in Des Plaines that loosely qualified, including Mellon, Appleby and Figg. The next week I played off Morton Grove residents with cruciferous vegetable names, such as Broccolino and Radich. Then it was riffs on spices, like Salterelli and Pepera.

What had started as an hour task, was now taking half a day as I began to fanatically dog-ear the phone book in search of even more ridiculous names to fulfill my increasingly challenging theme weeks.

I never imagined anyone was remotely paying attention. As I became more emboldened, the names I plucked were less cryptic. My tribute to old Hollywood included Gable, Lombard, Garland and Rooney. The jig was finally up when I went with a week of old timey cocktail names that included Tom Collins, B. Alexander, Martini and my proudest find – a resident of Skokie named Schnap.

One day my boss called me into his office and I soon found myself sinking into the Chevy Blazer Back Seat of Shame.

“So, Corporate got a call from some whiney subscriber. He’s accusing us of rigging the Auto Mart movie passes. What do you know about this?”

My career had reached a new low. I was being reprimanded in the back seat of a van. My juvenile impulse made me want to slide my fingers under the cushion to check for loose change and uneaten Goldfish crackers. Instead, I had to be an adult and fess up. I had to tell my boss that I was frittering my workday by populating the Super Auto Mart with names of suburbanites inspired by fruits, vegetables and America’s most beloved bar drinks. No, the names were real. But yes, I was a thumb-twiddling imbecile.

He looked at me with disappointment. I felt like I betrayed his trust. He put his hand on his chin to ponder my fate and finally said, “I think we need to give you more challenging work. I want you to think about joining our sales team. In the meantime, cut the crap with the Auto Mart. And send the crybaby subscriber a few movie tickets.”

I tried to envision joining the “Death of a Salesman” players as the new understudy. I saw a grim future of selling display ads featuring punchy headlines promoting chili dogs and custom-fitted bras.

I ultimately was spared this fate. Within two weeks Vince was gone and replaced. Corporate had finally succeeded in giving him the squeeze. It had nothing to do with my silly stunt, but I still felt bad. When his space was finally vacated and emptied of all geological artifacts, I realized it was also time for me to snowplow down the Bunny Hill and move on to loftier goals.

Looking back on this phase of my career, although newsprint is fading fast, my newspaper stint left me with a lifetime of indelible knowledge. I learned how to sell a used car in three lines or less. I mastered the art of interoffice communications on a CB radio. I know for a fact that sedimentary rocks can enhance any office décor. And after months of exhaustive research, I can confirm that once upon a time someone named Zucchini was living in Des Plaines.

Tom Wolferman is a Chicago freelance copywriter in marketing and business communications. His humor has been published in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader and he has shared stories at live venues throughout the city. For more about Tom, go to www.tomwolferman.com.

Photo by Curt Chandler.

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