Newspapers, then and now
There are threads that appear and reappear in our lives. Some we recognize and some may even give us pause. For me, newspapers have always been such a thread.
I was a newspaper boy, and as I reflect on those days I realize that my paper route took me out of my narrow world of school and friends, to a world beyond the familiar, a neighborhood of large and small bungalows, most with one-car garages, listing wooden fences and squares of patchy lawns.
I knew the people on my route, meaning those who subscribed. As for those who didn’t, after finishing my Sunday delivery, I’d work up the courage to knock on their screen doors. If they answered the door, well, we’d stand there, peering at one another through a scrim of wire mesh, and I’d ask if they might want to take the paper. Had they asked me, I would have been hard pressed to explain why they should subscribe. What I knew about the Oakland Tribune was that it consisted of sheets of white paper, blocked headlines, columns of words and the inside peppered with small and large ads for appliances, clothes and cars. As for all the stories above the fold and below, I never read a word.
The paper was a huge part of my life and yet it wasn’t. I often rode my bike through Brookdale Park and I’d see older men sitting on benches, newspapers held open in front of them, reading intently.
I recall not long after I became a paperboy, walking downtown and passing by what must have been a union hall. Men, dressed in rough clothes, wearing hats, were seated on wooden benches, not unlike church pews, waiting for what I assume now was work. What caught my attention as I gazed through the window was that almost to a man they were reading newspapers, held like white sails, all lost in that day’s news, a haze of white smoke drifting above them.
I glanced at their faces, partly obscured by the papers, wondering who they were and I felt a momentary connection to them. Perhaps two or three were reading a paper I had delivered the day before. I glanced down at my hands and saw the familiar ink embedded in the crevices of my palms, a reminder of the 60 papers I folded every day.
As years passed, the memories of my route and newspapers dimmed. I knew that they were referred to as “the press.” But I had no idea what that really meant: massive rolls of newsprint, drums of ink, linotype machines, all resulting in the papers that sat upright on racks or on the counters of corner kiosks. Their bold headlines marked moments, some greater than others. I will always remember the blocked black words, “PRESIDENT KENNEDY KILLED IN DALLAS,” seeming so breathtakingly final, conveying the wrenching grief that rippled across our country. It was the same with MLK and Bobby.
I still recall when my awareness of newspapers shifted. I was in the Peace Corps, stationed in Cartagena, Colombia. For reasons that escape me I was in Bogota. It was late in the summer of 1968. Pope Paul VI was visiting Colombia, part of a Latin America tour, and the city vibrated with anticipation. I was having breakfast in a hotel dining room, seated at a table covered in white cloth. Colombia was a very Catholic country and I knew this was momentous.
Looking around the large room, I noticed men and women seated at tables leafing though notebooks and talking animatedly. At their feet were portable typewriters in black cases. They were clearly journalists there to write about the man from Rome. In that moment I wanted to be them, to cover this story, to be part of that headline that would soon emerge. I wanted to be out in the all of it.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.