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`Tough' Reporter, Gritty Town

I WAS doing what the journalism books say: staking out my beat in Pittsburgh. After I'd had a look around and felt disgusted with the filthy Pittsburgh air, I found myself a decent eating place. The Associated Press had hired me, from New York, and after I'd passed the style test one of the vice-presidents said, ``Which do you want - Buffalo or Pittsburgh?''

I said, ``Give me Europe.'' I had always imagined myself as a correspondent, but hadn't realized I had to pay my dues.

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``Everyone wants Europe. What do you know about Europe?''

``I've hitchhiked it. I've grown up in it. I got relatives.''

``You don't say? Well, first you're going to learn how to write. Buffalo's social - a lot of politics. Pittsburgh's a tough town. You can go places from Pittsburgh, if you can learn to walk it. Try it six months.''

``Okay.''

The joint I found to eat in was around the corner from the AP office. It was where the Teletype operators went, not the writers I was trying to prove myself to. I had eaten with the writers, at their place, when I got off my shift at midnight, and found out something about true newspapermen and women: They can't let go. They don't just walk away from their work. They rehash it till three in the morning.

To stay fresh, I had to quit sometime. So I went around the corner, where dirty newspapers blew on the side street and the Greek, Andreas (Andy), had my dinner warm and waiting. I could still hear the wall of Teletypes clicking away in my mind - I used to wonder whether the world charged them or the Teletypes kept the world hyped - and Andy would come out of the back kitchen, wiping his hands.

``Swiss steak today?'' he'd say, sliding a plate in front of me. I never ordered. He just gave me supper as if it were a boarding house. It was one less thing to think about, after answering the ``nut line'' all evening. Part of my apprenticeship was to listen to long stories about some woman's husband embezzling at work, she said, or flying saucers, or occasionally checking a story that made the BBB-wire, state news.

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Andy would lean his Popeye arms on the counter, a respectful distance from my plate. He liked to talk this late at night, before he went home at 1 a.m. He got philosophical. The Pittsburgh late streets were lonely then; after coming down from the nervous news center, the lights of tall apartment buildings, and beyond the great smokestacks to the cold street, I didn't have to eat dinner alone.

``You're no hard-boiled newsman,'' Andy said to me once.

``I don't look tough?'' I said.

``Don't get tough. Too many tough people already.''

I almost didn't go back. I thought Andy was my friend. I was sure I was becoming a tough wire-service man - hey, I ate at midnight in the Greek's joint after my shift. At least friends should back you up in your image of yourself. But I guess he liked me, because he piled on seconds and desserts and at the second month, when I went to pay my bill, it was the minimum.

My break came when a New York editor couldn't make the installation of a new bishop. My tough Irish editor, Jack, said, ``Get out there, Strom.'' It would be a minor AAA-wire story, national. I was writing it up in the office, and Editor Jack said, over my shoulder: ``Leave out the flowers, son. No one cares what kind of flowers were in the church.''

Next came a story about a car crash, he said: ``No one in California will be interested if the old woman left 11 cats on her porch - just say the car left the road, and her age.''

Finally, as I wrote about a man who got talked down from a bridge, in a dismal rain, Jack said, ``Forget the weather. No one will be interested in the weather.''

`Yeah,'' I said to Andy one night, ``it's just a matter of style. I can be tough, too.''

``Sure,'' said Andy. ``Sure,'' snapping open his Greek newspaper. ``Listen to this.''

He read me a story in translation about a man who built up a plantation in Tanganyika, a Greek, who lost his farm to a change of government. He came to New York. He was caught stealing fruit as a homeless man. The Greek community rescued him. In his pocket he had a half-written book of poems and a picture of his wife. ``That's a story,'' I said.

``It's got something, eh?''

``True,'' I said, picturing Jack cutting the sentimentality of it to shreds.

``I got to handle Pittsburgh,'' I said. ``If I do that, I can go anywhere. Europe. Even Greece.''

``Everywhere tough now. You to got to look for a little something.''

I continued my beat, taking off my jacket at 4 p.m. in the office, checking my box, writing up the state car crashes - then walking across town to the Pittsburgh Press to check sources there, swapping stories (as the AP is a cooperative), checking the mayor's office, the sanitation department, etc. Then duty on the phones at night - which is what an AP job is. Learning to write expanded telegrams, off the phone.

I was sitting in Andy's after midnight, bemoaning my sedentary state of affairs, not even getting a chance to get ``tough,'' when I saw the flash of a gun for the first time pointed in anger. For a moment I thought it was a joke, a friend of the Greek's, as he knew his name. I forget it now, I'll call him ``Joe.''

``Cut it out, Joe,'' said Andy, stiffening, as he casually wiped counters.

``I mean it,'' said the man. ``I need the dough.''

Andy went to the register and thoughtfully counted out some ``dough.'' Then he reached under the counter for a box, unlocked it, and counted out some more. The man didn't say ``All of it'' or I'd known I was dreaming.

Andy stared at the man, sternly, then handed him the cash in his fist. ``Wait,'' he said. Then he walked into the kitchen and brought him out a plate of food. The man looked at him, incredulously. ``Eat,'' said Andy, as if his patience might run out. The man had the gun lying on his lap, barrel in my direction! He ate, got up, and left.

I smoothed my hair down; it was standing on end. ``Did you owe him?'' I asked.

``He robbed me,'' said Andy. ``First time I've ever been robbed.''

Up in the office Jack was coaching me. ``No one will care in Fairbanks, Alaska, what Joe ate. Just say, Man gets robbed and feeds villain afterward.''

The story, half a paragraph long, played 22,000 newspapers in what the AP calls a ``bright'' - a little filler to cheer up corners of papers. Jack patted my back. ``You were in the right place for a story.''

I told me editor, ``You gotta look for a little something - sometimes.''


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