It's a sad story. Stories about death are. But there's cheer in it: A whisper of immortality is louder than the screaming silence of death.
For something like 4,000 reporters and editors, living and gone, it's an historic obituary. It's an institution of towering importance to those who came through it, once a muscular living thing, the City News Bureau of Chicago.
It was the inspiration for "The Front Page." Otherwise, it was virtually unknown except among those who worked for it and the inside staffs of the newspapers, wire services and broadcast stations that for 108 years received and used its round-the-clock dispatches.
It was put to death at midnight last Sunday.
City Press, as most of us called it, was adored and detested, legendary and anonymous, sentimental and cruel -- an elemental news-gathering organization. Its death, however, is the apotheosis of the end -- long time coming -- not of an institution, but of a fashion of chronicling life.
Ten Chicago daily newspapers started the place in 1890, and there were more than that from time to time. City Press covered the city night and day. For 108 years, its newsroom was always working, its door never locked. Now the papers have dwindled to two, and news of crime and violence is on television screens in moments, sometimes from helicopters.
In the fullness of time, City Press, and its purpose, came to their ends, as all things must.
The two usages I was conditioned to deplore in this scribbling craft are the first person voice ("I" -- the Pestilential Perpendicular Pronoun) and journalism about journalists (whom experience instructs me hold little or no fascination for anybody but themselves). Rules are important.
So lock me up, or something. There's only one way to tell this story.
Before I got there, and after, many of America's news figures went through City Press. Lots rose to journalism's pinnacles, such as they are.
Mike Royko started there in 1956, two years before I did, and was one of the senior guys in my time, a first-rate reporter, a fine drinking companion and an unforgiving rewrite man.
I read somewhere the other day that Royko started off at $50 a week, which annoyed me richly. I began at $40 a week, having left a $125-a-week job as an editorial assistant at Newsweek to be humiliated and exhausted.
I was shy, and began by doing copyboy shifts at night.
The night city editor was A.A. Dornfeld, name of Arnold, which nobody used. He was called Dornie, except when he was called Mr. Dornfeld, which was a very good idea until he told you otherwise.
Mr. Dornfeld stood, as I remember him, about 7-foot-2, though it was probably about a foot less. He wore enormous plaid flannel shirts, which I think his wife, Edna, made for him in their house trailer, moored on the edge of a cornfield. He was a mountain of a man, articulate to the point of eloquence, obscene to the point of elegance.
He never called me by name. It was "Boy!" or "Copy!" or curt phrases best only alluded to in a family newspaper. When you got to be taken seriously, on good days he called you "chum" -- and on very good days, "laddie."
Somehow, early on, I got it into my head that Dornfeld was sympathetic, on my side. Then I was put on my first reporting assignment, night west police.
It was the dullest of the four police beats, but like reporters in all of the others, I was responsible for checking out something like 17 police districts. Every half-hour, I had to call the desk to report in or get instructions.
I had done my homework. I'd visited all of the police stations ahead of time. I'd clipped every published crime story in all of the papers as soon as I got notice I would start that shift. At 6 p.m., I made my first obligatory call to the desk. The phone rang three times. Then:
"Dornfeld, City Press!" the voice barked.
"Pakenham, west," I said as firmly as I could. "Anything for me?"
I was just short of terrified.
There was a pause. Then:
"Nothing but ineffable contempt."
The phone clicked dead.
A cruel business
The rules were firm, and they were clear. They were never written down. Well, almost never. Until the last few days of its life, the newsroom on Wacker Drive had on a wall above a row of filing cabinets a large banner bearing the motto: "If your mother says she loves you ... Check it out!"
Legend credits Dornfeld with coining that motto. Dornie said it was another longtime editor there, Ed Eulenberg, who actually said it first.
Anyway, it was obvious, sort of like putting up a sign in the Hershey factory: "Make it taste like chocolate."
You had to get facts straight, and you had to get them now. That was often a cruel business. You dealt constantly with death and dismemberment, with awful losses and terrible fears.
Another rule was that you never let a story get to you, touch you emotionally. Or anyway, you never let it show. Rules are important. That was a big one.
There was an explosion in a plant in South Chicago, an acetylene factory. My half-hourly check with the police district said there was one fatality. I got the name, the age -- 22 -- and the address.
One City Press rule required reporters to talk to a family member or a close associate of every fatality resulting from a crime or accident. There was no shirking this duty.
I called the young man's home, introduced myself by name and job and said I would like to ask some questions. The man who answered confirmed he was the young man's father.
"I am very sorry to be calling at such a difficult time," I said.
"How's that?" the man said.
Oh, God, I thought.
"Why do you want to know about him?" the father insisted, his voice clipped, impatient.
"There's been an accident in his plant. I thought you would know," I said.
"Nope. Dunno nothing about it."
"I am sorry, but your son was in the accident."
There was a long pause. My stomach churned. A sharp ache stabbed my throat.
"Was he hurt?"
I had to answer.
"Yes, sir, I am terribly sorry. The police say he was killed."
There was a silence. I could hear breathing, slow, deep breathing. The wait seemed interminable. And then the father spoke again: "Thank God I don't have to buy the little son of a bitch any more shoes."
He hung up.
I waited three minutes. I called back.
I got the names of his schools, siblings, sports.
Nobody wrote down the rule about not letting a story get to you. Not the one about middle initials, either. (Everybody has a middle initial.) It did not take long to learn the rules. You weren't given long.
The day police shift ran from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., though everybody started out early and came into the office for an hour or so afterward.
The night city editor and overnight editor each got a pile of the entire day's file of copy -- in purple ink on cheap legal-size paper run through a primitive precursor of the Mimeograph machine, the "cyclograph." It was made of solid bronze, and all of us, as copy boys, cranked it by hand. The copy went to the client newspapers through pneumatic tubes that ran in tunnels under Chicago's streets.
The first thing those late editors did was to read through the entire file, often making notes.
When I went on a day police beat, I was living in a house in Hyde Park in South Chicago with five house mates who were in graduate school at the University of Chicago. There was one phone line, not in the room where I slept.
I was fast asleep. Somebody angrily shook me awake.
"Get up, damn it," he said. I looked at my watch. It was 2: 30 a.m.
"Phone call!" he said.
"It's two goddam thirty," I said.
"It's your goddam job," he said.
I rustled myself to the phone in his room.
The overnight editor spoke: "You filed a story at 1: 45 this afternoon on ... " and described some minor police matter. "You list a victim as ..." I don't remember the name now; let's call him George Jones.
"Did Mr. George Jones' mother have a reason for not giving her son a middle name?" I was asked.
I was angry. "How the hell would I know? It's 2: 30 in the morning."
"It's your job to know." The voice was totally without emotion. "Call me back within half an hour with a middle initial or the name of a member of the family who confirms that he was never given a middle name."
"But it's 2: 30 in the morning!"
"Right. And by 3 o'clock you are going to be back to me."
I don't remember the middle initial, but I do remember how angry the cop was who I got to pry it loose from the records in the station house. And I remember learning later that 2: 30 a.m. was the ritual time for driving home the middle initial rule.
Friday, Feb. 26, 1999 -- a week ago today -- was a brilliant, sunny morning in Chicago. From my hotel downtown, I'd heard sirens in the night, which made me think I should be up and working. At daybreak, the city was bustling.
The skyline had changed a lot, of course, in almost 40 years. Downtown is still lavishly prosperous and insouciantly scruffy. The geographic heart of Chicago is too busy for cosmetic concerns. Too busy moving, clashing, selling, buying, making, shipping, committing crimes, building buildings, wrecking buildings, building more buildings. People smiled back at a smile on the street, too busy to fear the look of a stranger.
I walked north to the Chicago River. At 10 o'clock, I approached the building at 35 E. Wacker Drive. I felt something in my stomach, the anxiety that proceeds going to a story. Will there be five other reporters? A dozen? All getting something that I couldn't find out?
The newsroom was a long, sprawling, cluttered, low-ceilinged space. Everywhere there was a hodgepodge of computers and facsimile machines, file cabinets. The walls were covered with maps and clippings.
I introduced myself to Joe Reilly, editor and general manager. He was thoughtful, patient. Then I went to see Paul Zimbrakos, managing editor and a 41-year veteran of City Press.
He was sitting at his desk, a pile of papers and notes in front of him, his computer to his left, a large multi-button phone to his right. The phones were ringing, a lot. Reporters and other callers were asking about the closing; some wanted to bring in their television crews.
Zimbrakos told me half a dozen recent stories, gave me names, dates. All very clipped and precise. Never once did he show emotion.
Zimbrakos broke the conversation to snap instructions at a reporter on the other end of a telephone line. Big court case. Then, very politely, he turned and asked me if he could be of any more help.
Behind him, a television set began broadcasting local news -- including a segment on the end of City Press. Zimbrakos was in the clip, answering the same questions he had answered for me. Here, in the newsroom, his steel-rimmed eyeglasses glinted just as they did on the screen. The light accented his steel-gray, almost walrus, mustache.
He turned, looked at the screen for a long moment, maybe a full minute. Maybe two. He swung back to a ringing phone.
"City News," he shouted. Pause. "Speaking!" Pause. "Hey Beth ..."
He turned to his computer, banged on the keyboard, brought up a file of names and titles and numbers and shouted one into the phone. His face on the television screen was talking about closing down.
He turned to me and said, "Anything else?" and I asked him another question. He was slow to answer. Then, suddenly, I saw it.
His eyes squeezed shut, his lips pressed tight beneath his mustache, his face in pain, jaw muscles knotted. His fingers were tight on the arms of his chair.
Not a single tear showed on Paul Zimbrakos' face.
It's done, gone, over, finished, that face screamed out in its silence. But I'm god damned if I'll break the rules.
I mumbled something incoherent and got out of there.
In the hall, I broke the rules.
Pub Date: 3/06/99