I still fear the Gray Man. Three out of five days, he invades my dreams. It's always the same. I'm running after him down the mausoleum-dark hallway of the fifth floor of The Sun building. He's solitary, his slumped spine signifying disappointment. "I'm sorry!" I'm yelling, "I'll never do it again!" But he disappears into the elevator and I am left without absolution.
I first met the Gray Man in May, possibly June, of 1971. He was the editor of a curious journalistic entity known as The Sunday Sun, internally and culturally distinct from The Sun or The Evening Sun. He had a corner office in a newsroom that seemed staffed by corpses and ghosts.
He was charming that day, with effort. Enthused by my candidacy, he offered me a job as a copy reader. I gratefully accepted. It took about a week for him to know what a mistake he was making, but I knew even as I smiled and said yes.
I had a flair for vivid language, and I had a writer's voice, sure and compelling, based on the fact that I knew absolutely nothing. I had imagination, primarily for gunfights but occasionally for other things as well.
But I knew I had no business accepting that job. I lacked the detail-attentiveness that made a professional copy reader in the days before Spellcheck. Many things baffled me about the English language. Whose, who's? Mysterious. The apostrophe. That little bugger was an enigma. It seemed to change meanings on you. And spelling. I before E except after C, sometimes. In those days there was no dyslexia, so bad spelling was simply considered evidence of bad character.
Still, I told myself, this would be my entry into the business, and I could somehow wheedle my way to a writing job, and maybe even the dream that haunted me, the movie critic’s post.
I told myself, further, that I would cultivate discipline, notably absent in my life until then, and will myself to a professional level. I sat there, day by sweltering day throughout the summer, cinched up in a tie, smoking like a fiend, occasionally changing a tense or deleting a comma, knocking out haiku designated “3-1-36-Bodoni,” meaning three columns’ width, one line of 36 point Bodoni, our standard headline font. These constructions usually soared majestically, as in “BCC slates fall courses” or “New Ravel resonant, warm.”
But the mistakes started coming almost immediately. Sure, there was a two-week grace period where my idiocies were treated as cute goofs, but when they didn't go away, it got tense. Then there was another monster called The Sun Style Book. It mandated that no addresses be given but only block enumerations ("in the 1500 block of Roland Avenue"), except it also mandated that streets and avenues all be lowercase ("in the 1500 block of Roland avenue.") The establishment on Charles street was referred to initially as "The Johns Hopkins University" and henceforth as "The Hopkins." There were dozens of wanton decrees like that, and all slipped out of my brain like an eel in olive oil.
In his corner office, it seemed that each infraction that got into the paper put the Gray Man lower in his chair. I remember one Sunday opening the paper and realizing I had let a verb and subject occur out of agreement on the first page of our arts section in 5-1-60-Bodoni. I put on a bathrobe, hid in a bedroom with a six-pack of beer and didn’t come out for 24 hours, calculating survival strategies, finally settling on abject begging. But the next day, nothing was said.
But then I committed the fatal blunder. I permitted irony. There wasn’t no irony up at The Sunpapers in them days, hon. Ever, anywhere, anyhow.
I was writing captions for a Sun Magazine story on the Baltimore Clipper. The disaster came on a two-line caption describing the Clipper's most famous nautical triumph. Written naturally, it would have read something like, "In 1842, the Baltimore Clipper set a new trans-Atlantic record, making the transit in 24 days." But when I did that, I had 6 or 8 picas of empty space at the end of the second line. I had to somehow fill that space. So I came up with a content-free space-eater: "In 1842, the Baltimore Clipper set a new trans-Atlantic record, making the transit in a mere 24 days."
Holy Frackin' Tamales! Mother of God, is this the end of Stevie? You would have thought I'd written (in 8-4-84-Bodoni Ital): "Noted photog/pedophile A. Aubrey Bodine arrested in love nest with choir boy at 1535 Roland Avenue, near Hopkins." You people thought I was making fun of your clipper, and you wanted my blood. The letters poured in. The Gray Man, however, just sat in there, sinking ever lower in his chair, leaking sulphurous smoke. He stomped out late that Monday afternoon, stooped closer to earth and death than ever before. I thought I was sunk.
But he never fired me. It was too theatrical. They never fired anyone. They just let you wither, fall to the ground and rot.
Thus there came a day when I got off the bus at the Trailways station on Saratoga and started my half-mile hike to the 500 block of North Calvert street. Something was different. It took a few seconds, and then, as my sports coat fluttered up to my shoulders on the power of a brisk wind, I realized: It was now cold. The season had changed from swelter to shiver. It was fall. And I realized it meant I'd somehow gotten past the 90-day probation period for new employees. It meant, for better or for worse, that somehow I'd have a career on The Baltimore Sunday Sun, and maybe in journalism itself. Suddenly I felt pretty damned good. They were stuck with me!
Stephen Hunter was film critic at The Sun for 16 years and at The Washington Post for 11. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and has published 21 books.