Sandy Martin stepped inside Zolle’s Grill just after 9 a.m. on the Monday before Thanksgiving. His friend Ivan Lowenstein was the only customer sitting at the counter, bent low over his breakfast and chatting with Zolle, who stood behind the counter opposite him. Both looked up as Sandy walked over.
“Thought I might find you here,” Sandy said.
“Coffee?” said Zolle.
“Sure.” He slid onto the stool next to Ivan.
“Hey, what’s up?” said Ivan.
“I forgot to tell you last night: If you’re in town at Thanksgiving, Martha wanted to let you know you’re invited to Orphans’ Thanksgiving at her place.”
“Thanks,” said Ivan, “but I promised my parents I would come home to take part in the traditional holiday bloodletting.”
“My condolences. Any particular subject?”
“There’s always the perennial favorite, ‘Why Aren’t You Married.’ But I’m expecting another round of “Why Are You Throwing Away Your Future.’”
“So they’re still pissed about you quitting law school?”
“More than you can imagine.”
A white cup and matching saucer appeared in front of Sandy. Zolle filled the cup with hot coffee before topping off Ivan’s cup.
“Thanks,” said Sandy.
“Breakfast?” said Zolle.
“Just coffee today, thanks. I need to get to work.” Turning to Ivan, he said, “So why do you go home to take this abuse?”
“Because I’m a good son,” said Ivan. “Plus, four days of my mother’s cooking.”
Zolle looked Ivan up and down. “It’ll take more than four days to put meat on your skinny bones,” he said.
“In spite of your best efforts,” said Ivan.
“Here. Have another biscuit,” said Zolle, a solidly built specimen almost as tall as Ivan but twice as broad. He had straight black hair, bushy eyebrows, and a pleasant face.
“It’s too bad,” said Sandy. “Orphans Thanksgiving is always a great time.”
“I’m sure,” said Ivan. “Please tell Martha I appreciate her invitation and must decline with regret.”
“When do you head out?” said Sandy.
“Wednesday. I’ve got a ride with a friend from high school.”
“But you’ll be back for our Sunday dinner?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Great.” Sandy reached into his pocket and laid a dollar bill on the counter. “Gotta run and earn a paycheck,” he said. “If we don’t talk before Wednesday, have the best holiday possible under the circumstances.”
“I will try,” said Ivan. “And I’m sure I will be tried.”
Sandy’s workday started well. He found a free parking space only two blocks from the office of The Bird. Although the parking meters on the eastern edge of downtown were a comparative bargain, they had a two-hour maximum. Sandy had already gotten two tickets this year for parking at an expired meter, and on a salary of $110 a week he couldn’t afford to play meter roulette.
When the weekly newspaper had started in the mid-1960s it was known as The Great Speckled Bird, but a new owner two years ago had truncated the name in a bid for more revenue and more respectability. He had achieved the first and the pages were thick with advertising, but the second was a harder battle.
The office location reflected the newspaper’s hard-scrabble origins. Three- and four-story cast-iron buildings in this quadrant of downtown had once housed respectable retailers, displaying men’s clothing, jewelry and furniture in their windows. But the economic tide had ebbed. In their place were pawn shops, finance companies, wig stores and bars. The Bird’s offices were above a discount shoe store. Sandy climbed to the second floor, waved a quick hello to Gaby, the receptionist/office manager who handled visitors and walk-in customers, and turned left. Like most newspaper editorial offices, the newsroom was a wide open expanse. At the front were a cluster of six desks forming a horseshoe. At its center was the desk of Managing Editor Katherine Wallace, who ruled the room with an iron fist and a take-no-prisoners outlook. Surrounding her command post were the copy editors who edited stories, wrote headlines, and laid out the pages. Arranged behind the control center were the desks of reporters and columnists: Nine gray metal desks, several feet apart, arranged in three neat rows. Each desk featured an IBM Selectric typewriter to the right of the main writing surface. Against the far wall, partitions created two offices and a conference room.
Sandy strode to his desk, which stood out as the messiest by a factor of seven. He dropped his notebook into the center of a pile and was about to sit when he noticed Katharine standing beside her desk, her erect posture and three-inch heels bringing her to an imposing height of six feet. He marched over.
“Can I ask you something?” he said.
“Sandy, I am confident that you will ask regardless of my answer.” She was seated by this time.
Sandy ignored the jibe. “I thought the university was my beat.”
“It is,” she said. “So?”
“So why did you give Marianne the story about the protest march on Friday?”
“You weren’t here,” Katharine said. “Marianne was free so I assigned it to her.”
“Shouldn’t I have first rights to a story on my beat? I mean, I practically live in the University’s backyard.”
Katharine dropped her pen, folded her arms on her desk, and looked directly at Sandy with her steely blue eyes. “You may not have noticed,” she began, “but news doesn’t always break on your schedule. It needed to be covered. You weren’t around. Marianne was. Period. The end.” She stared a few seconds longer. “Anything else?”
“Guess not.” Sandy was seething but he had no counter-argument. He returned to his desk, feeling defeated. He knew Katharine didn’t like him, but he wasn’t sure why.
Marianne, a slender young woman with dark hair cut short pixie style, was typing at her desk, which was in the row behind Sandy’s. He took two steps in her direction.
“Hey, what’s up?” she said.
“I understand you’re working on the protest march,” Sandy said. “If you need any background about the other student protests this year or anything like that, just let me know. I’ve covered all of them before this one.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I think I’ve got a good handle on everything, but I appreciate your generous offer.”
“Was that sarcasm?” he said.
“No, not at all,” she said. She sat up straighter. “I do appreciate your offer. I’ll let you know if I run into a jam.”
Sandy shrugged. “Okay, you know where to find me.”
“Yes I do.”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?” he said.
“What’s your problem, Sandy? Why do you act like everything I say has some hidden meaning?” she said. “I heard your offer, I accepted your offer, and I know exactly where you sit. Try to control your paranoia, okay?”
Sandy shook his head and returned to his desk. Why is she so prickly, he thought. Always so uptight, always the defensiveness. As though she has to be on guard so I don’t steal something valuable. He sat and tried to get his thoughts organized for the day, which had taken an unsavory turn.
What perked him back up was the notion that he wouldn’t be at this weekly much longer. He shouldn’t even have been here at all, but for an unfortunate mistake during his last year at the university. In an article in the university daily, he had poked fun at the Dean of Students, who couldn’t take a joke. As payback, the dean saw to it that Sandy wouldn’t be hired by the city daily. The Bird was his only other local option, but he fully intended it to be a short-term detour. He was collecting his best clippings and scouting for openings at a number of daily papers, and it was only a matter of time before he could tell The Bird sayonara. #