A wannabe TV writer starts his dream job amid the stuff and staff of nightmares. 2,220 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I guess it was the mid-fifties; the only way I can visualize New York in those days was in the leafy fall and the cold gray days of winter. It comes back to me like one of those art house films. Everything seemed painted in white, black and gray.
I was living a great life back then. I’d survived the Korean War and dodged working at my father’s bookkeeping firm by using the G.I. Bill to get into City College. That’s where I graduated with my English Lit degree and decided to practice my new craft in the NBC mailroom. A great job if you have no other ambitions in show business. You make all the right contacts and you have a little gambling book on the side. If you don’t screw up the mail, you’ll have a job for life. It was there I came to know Mort Schumacher, the Head of Programming, and started dumping my scripts into his mail slot.
I did this for three months: banging away at my father’s old Underwood at night and finishing a script every two weeks. The first one I personally handed to Mr. Schumacher and told him how much I wanted to write for television and why it was my life’s ambition to become the Chekhov of the electronic media age, and on and on. After, I’d just leave little notes attached: “Here’s another one! Hope you enjoy… Rocky.” Or, “Cranked this out in forty-eight hours and no sleep and seventeen cups of coffee. If you get the chance, please look it over… Rocky.”
My real name was Lucius Bauderchantz and my family called me Luther and my friends, Lucky. It was in the service — because of my stocky build, curly dark hair and bent nose — that they started to call me Rocky, after Marciano. This confused the hell out of my parents; when people would call the house and ask for Lucky or Rocky, mom and dad weren’t sure if they’d forgotten about another son hidden somewhere.
All of my hard work finally paid off one day when I was summoned to Mort Schumacher’s office on the thirty-eighth floor, all brass fixtures and wood paneling.
“Cut it out,” was what Mr. Schumacher wanted to say to me. He was a bald little man with huge horn-rimmed glasses that made his eyes the size of hubcaps. If you saw him on the street you would mistake him for a butcher or an accountant instead of one of the most powerful men in broadcasting.
I said, “Yes sir,” and made my way towards the door.
“Hey, kid…” he said to me just before I left, “pick a horse for me.”
I turned around and saw he had the Racing Form in his hand. I came back to his desk and looked at the line-up for Belmont that day. I pointed to a name I liked. “Sympatico,” I said. “In the third race.”
He looked up at me with surprise; his eyes even larger than before.
“Of course.” Hell, I didn’t care. He wasn’t going to give me a writing job. What did I care if the little bastard lost a couple of Gs on a horse? Was he going to fire me from the mailroom? Good. I could be making more money sweeping out Macy’s basement.
A week later, Duke, the King Of The Mailroom and Head Bookie for NBC, tells me they want to see me on the twenty-seventh floor.
The old man just shrugged. He was in the middle of sorting mail and listening to the daily racetrack reports on the radio. “Personnel called and said you were being transferred to the twenty-seventh floor. Like I don’t have enough work to do. They turn around and short me one mailroom guy. Clean out your cubbyhole and get up there.”
I kissed the old creep on the cheek and squeezed him in a bear-hug and he let out a gasp like it was his last breath. The twenty-seventh floor! Writer’s World! Heaven in a skyscraper…
I threw all of my junk into a mail crate and ran to the elevators with Duke chasing after me and shouting, “Get that crate back here when you’re through with it. That’s federal property!”
I was sweating when I got off the elevator and shaking as I walked towards the receptionist. She was buxom, as they used to say, with lots of blonde hair piled high on top of her head. She had too much make-up on, even for a receptionist, and her lips looked as if they dripped blood. Bored, she watched me approach while she snapped her chewing gum.
“Mail’s already been picked up,” she admonished, seeing that I was still wearing my mailroom smock. “Don’t you guys talk to each other?”
I threw off the smock. “No, I was told by personnel to report for work here.”
She went through the pile of papers on her desk. She would pick up one, look at it closely and then discard it; pick up another one and then throw it in the trash basket beneath her desk.
She finally found it. “Okay, here it is: Lucius B-B-au-der…”
I stopped her before she hurt herself. “It’s Lucius Bauderchantz but just call me ‘Rocky,’ okay?”
She seemed happy with that. “Well, Mr. Rocky, let me tell you something: the writers around here are a bunch of animals and I need some help. I mean, I can’t be expected to do everything around here, can I?”
“Well, the new position is officially called ‘Writer’s Assistant’ but you’ll really be assisting me on keeping some control over this circus, okay?”
Again, I agreed.
“Okay, so you have a pen, Sweetie?”
I grabbed one from the pencil cup on her desk and she handed me a slip of paper.
“Now, write this down. I need you to change typewriter ribbon, make the coffee, and take some dictation. You know shorthand, right?”
“Of course,” I said. But, of course, I didn’t. But I write really fast.
“…Straighten out the files, book hotel rooms for all the guests, get tickets to Yankee Stadium, pick up the newspapers in the lobby, drive people to and from the airport –”
I panicked. “I don’t have a car!”
She stopped and looked exasperated. “Rocky, dear, you don’t actually Drive. You hop in a cab and go to the airport, pick up the guest, help with the luggage and drop them off at the hotel. You gotta make sure they know the rehearsal schedule, too. Got it?”
Yeah, I got it alright. I’d be doing all the work and she would continue to slap on layers of make-up with a spatula.
She reached over with a limp hand. “I’m Babs…”
Of course you are. What did she want me to do with her hand, kiss it? I shook it instead but the truth was I would have waxed her toenails for this job.
“Okay, Rocky, now you go down the corridor, make a left three doors down. There’s a cardboard star hanging on the front of the door. Big joke, right? Be careful; they bite.”
I was halfway down the hall before she could finish. The star was a ragged piece of cardboard cut from a box. It had been there so long that its points were beginning to curl up. I rapped gently and could’ve sworn I heard, “Enter,” from inside the room. I opened the door slowly and slid the mail crate in front of me.
I was almost through the door when a dart hit my crate with such force it buried itself in the “S” of the “U.S. Mail” legend written on the side.
“Nice shot, Hattie. You almost killed the mailboy…”
“Better luck next time.”
“Don’t stand there, honey. You’re in firing range.”
“Hey, kid, you ever play William Tell?”
“Is that my lingerie from Saks?”
“Is it lunchtime already? And here I am with half my egg sandwich still unfinished.”
“New shoes, kid? I could use a pair. What size are you?”
And on it went. This was my introduction to the writing staff of the Pepsodent Parade Of Stars, a variety series that had a different guest host every week. One week they’d have Bing Crosby, the next Bob Hope or Jackie Gleason. Jimmy Durante took his turn and even Fred Astaire was on twice. To me it was a very big deal; in the very near future I would be meeting some of these high caliber stars.
“Close the door, kid, we’re getting a draft.”
“Oh, sorry…” I closed the door behind me and my back was against the Wall. I was facing a firing squad. The room was a mess and there was so much smoke I could barely make out the three forms huddled around a large square object that I assumed was a desk. There were books, papers, newspapers, ashtrays, coffee cups, pens, pencils, shoe trees (that’s right, shoe trees), a baseball, a football and a catcher’s mitt piled high. I only knew it was a desk by the fact that I saw wooden spindle legs trembling under the weight on the deep-pile carpet.
Two men sat on either side of a woman, who was placed in front of a typewriter.
“Excuse me, son, but move. You’re right in Joe’s way.”
I turned around and there was a picture of Joseph Stalin that had been cut out of a magazine and stabbed through with a pushpin into a dartboard. Joe was riddled with holes. I slipped my way out of the target area and put the mail crate on the nearest and cleanest desk.
The man who’d asked me to move approached. He looked like a political crony from a Frank Capra movie: thin as wire with a few remaining hairs slicked back off his forehead. His face was creased into a permanent grimace and there was a cigarette balanced in the corner of his mouth. He wore a loud broad tie with matching suspenders and he looked older than the Brooklyn Bridge.
He held out a warm papery hand, which I shook. “Earl’s the name,” he spoke through the smoke. “Over there, that’s Milky or Mike Hanover, if you prefer, and Hattie Voss, Bryn Mawr, Class of… What class, Hattie?”
“Class of None Of Your Goddamned Business.”
She was shuffling a deck of cards. A plump middle-aged redhead in a business suit, she’d been pretty at one time in her life. “Hey, kid, you play bridge?”
Milky or Mike came over with his hand extended. “Didn’t catch the name, son.” He was stocky like me but a little taller. He had wavy white hair like a snowdrift and black horn-rimmed glasses.
“Lucky or Rocky, whichever you prefer.”
“How about Stanislaus?” Hattie asked, without taking a break from the cards. “Stanislaus Walkavia Mittenfield. It rolls off the tongue and down the shirt and off the shoes and onto the floor.”
“Are you lucky?” Earl asked. He was crushing his cigarette into an ashtray that was already piled high with butts. He sat down at the table, put his feet up and lit another cig from a silver-plated lighter.
“Not all the time–”
“Well, Rocky it is then,” Earl said, crossing his legs and unfurling the newspaper in front of his face. End of conversation.
I moved over to the clean desk and began to unpack the mailbox. I didn’t have a lot of stuff: coffee mug, a Dodger pennant, a picture of my parents on the beach at Coney Island and about three hundred tacks because you never know when you’ll need one.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I turned around and it was Milky. He didn’t seem mad; in fact, he had this big grin on his face. He looked over at Earl and Hattie and gestured with his thumb towards me. “Can you believe this kid?”
The other two didn’t seem that interested. Hattie kept playing solitaire and Earl flipped the newspaper over to the sports page.
I stood there, half unpacked, with my jaw dropped. “What?” was all I managed to say.
Milky walked over and put a fatherly arm around my shoulder. “This here is Jack’s desk. John Francis Donnelly. Wounded, much-decorated hero of the Second World War. Former Yankee prospect, lover, fighter, personal friend of Joey D. and the Mayor himself. Drinker of aged whiskey and particularly attracted to auburn-haired ladies with freckles, not unlike Mrs. Donnelly. Father of seven. Yes, I said seven children. He’s Catholic and also something of a fashion plate if I can say without making Jack sound like a fruit basket. And, most importantly of all, head writer for the Pepsodent Parade Of Stars.”
Milky delivered his oratory in one breath, not surprising since he was built like an operatic basso profondo.
“So I can’t sit here?”
Milky shook his head one more time, in that pitying are-you-having-a-stroke-or-do-you-not-speak-the-King’s-English type of look.
I settled in and asked for a folding card table and chair from the basement. My old boss had the pleasure of bringing them up to me. Duke took me aside and whispered, “Up here two minutes and you’re already slinging orders? You’ll fit right in with this group of assholes.”