Helen Chappell - October 2007

Newspaper Days


Helen Chappell

     Print journalism may be on its last legs, but I’m pleased to note the Stewart Building is still standing at the corner of Washington and Federal streets, a massive cream colored landmark and, back in the day, home to some of the most underused characters in Talbot County.
      In that day I speak of, I inherited a newspaper job from a friend moving to Louisiana. And that newspaper’s tiny office was housed on the third floor of the Stewart Building.
      Some of you might recall the weekly satellite shopper of the Cambridge paper, set up in the ‘80s, when economic times were far better than now. It had started out with high hopes and a staff of five or six and if left to its own devices, rather than the penny- pinching management of the chain that owned it, might be going strong to this day.
      By the time I inherited the job years later, I became the whole staff. I was reporter, charged with writing seven stories a week, photographer, handed a broken Nikon and told to shoot good pictures. I was also managing editor, assignments editor, community editor, copyeditor, maintence person and receptionist, all rolled into one ball of Brenda Starr wannabe. At that time, I was computer illiterate on top of everything else, so I learned to grind out copy on an old black and white Mac Classic, already outdated, following phone instructions from the IT person in the home office.
      So, high up on the third floor of the Stewart Building, in a cluttered, none-too-clean cell with a wonderful view of the old Maryland National Bank’s Beaux Arts roof, I started my second career in journalism. I was pretty much set adrift from the home office in Cambridge and left to fend for myself, which suited me just fine. As a freelancer, I was quite used to working on my own. As long as I churned off massive amounts of copy, I was pretty much able to avoid interference from the Lord High Editor in Cambridge. It quickly became clear to me that no one down there much cared what I did, as long as I did it on deadline so it made print by Tuesdays, and I settled in pretty nicely.
      Under the circumstances, it was mostly fun and interesting. I didn’t have much trouble digging up feature stories about interesting people and places around the county, nor much trouble writing what people wanted to read. Nice, fluffy stuff about people who create lamps from popsicle sticks and raising awareness of the heroic struggles of foster parents are stories that write themselves. It was mostly good work, and I liked doing it.
Except for the hideously dull government meetings. Nothing could make a proposed sewer project interesting to me, not even all the stories everyone involved would tell that contradicted each other.
      I wasn’t in the Stewart Building more than a month when I realized that I fit right in. In the dingy lobby and up the gray-carpet-that- had-seen-better-days stairs, the former hotel was a rabbit warren of offices occupied by some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.
      In those days, the Stewart Building was cheap rent, an old hotel converted to office space and owned by, it was rumored, some German baron. Since it was and is across from the courthouse, it was a marsh filled with courthouse barnacles. Which suited me fine, because I could sit in the office with the single computer and piles of papers and detritus and sooner or later, all the lawyers would find their way past me. They had to; my office, the cheapest of all, was so inexpensive because it was right across from the bathrooms. I’d dragged some wicker furniture in from home to create a comfy sitting space, and kept the coffee pot going. And well, I am always more entertaining than law briefs.
      I had many excellent chats with courthouse barnacles and learned a great deal about such things as defendants and gossip. Lots of back room gossip. Nothing you could print of course, but that wasn’t the point for me. Now, as then, I just liked knowing little-known facts about well-known people. Small details color in the large landscapes of people’s lives, and the connection between one’s public and private actions can and do come back to bite one. The chatty legal classes invested me with a love of the drama of crime and court reporting that has served me well, and I’m grateful to all of them. So grateful I will mention no names either of the living, the dead or the still practicing.
      And of course, being twenty-five paces from the courthouse’s north door never hurt when a late night verdict was returned by a jury.
      Nor was it such a bad thing to be so near the Pub, where witnesses from law enforcement, defense lawyers and related barnacles would all sit together having a meal and some interesting talk about work. I learned a lot by listening to them remember when. Even if perhaps I crossed journalistic boundaries, what good reporter hasn’t? You build your sources conversation by conversation. Sometimes the jury would return in the middle of a meal, and we’ll all have to leave our food and run back to court, adrenaline pumping. Good times!
      But there were other dwellers in the Stewart Building in those days, too. The third floor was chock full of all kinds of characters, every single of one of them a sturdy individualist in the dreary conformity of Talbot County, a vanishing breed.
      There was Mrs. Heide, the seamstress, who I never saw, but whose sewing machine always seemed to be whirring merrily away behind her closed office door at all hours of the day and night.
      Next to her was Mr. Seth. Mr. Seth was a genealogist. The name Seth has a long history in this part of the world, and the little man in his fussy bow ties and thick glasses loved to talk about his ancestors. And everyone else’s. For him, these people weren’t dead; they were more alive than the folks who were walking up and down Federal Street.
      He’d learned how to do genealogical research at the formidable knee of his dear mother, by all accounts, a most stately matron. The more rich and glorious the dead, the more the Seths, mere et fils, worshipped them. “Mother would climb up on one stool, and I would climb up on the other, and we’d just whiz through those old account books and census forms, me with my finger on one page and her with her finger on the other,” he told me proudly when I interviewed him for the paper. Unfortunately, I never got his feedback on the article I wrote. The same day he read the paper, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
      To this day, I pray that it wasn’t my writing that killed him.
      There was Mike, who ran a company that specialized in cleanup and restoration of homes and buildings following a fire. What I liked best about Mike was his bloodhound Henry, a sweet, gentle creature with the saddest, droopiest face in the world, who knew he could wander into my office anytime he wanted and help himself to a Wheat Thin from the box in the bottom drawer of my desk. I loved Henry.
      Next door, my neighbors and friends were Bev and Annie, who ran the office for Hanks Seafood. No one could have asked for better; they were unfailingly kind to me, and always let me use their Xerox machine.
      Bev was as gruff on the outside as she was softhearted on the inside. With her short hair and brisk manners, she could scare you until you got to know her and. . . her squirrel. Bev had a squirrel who lived in the eaves of the Stewart Building who would make regular visits to her office through a crack in the window behind her desk. Bev left peanuts on the window ledge, and the squirrel would come right in and eat them.
      Sometimes, he’d even eat from Bev’s hand.
      A lot of people remember Annie. She looked like Dolly Parton run amok. She wore a towering blonde wig, rhinestone sunglasses, lots of makeup, stiletto heels and skin tight pants a decade before this outfit became fashionable. She also had a rhinestone pin that spelled out JESUS, which I thought was the most fabulous object on the face of the earth, although probably not for the same reason Annie did.
      Frankly, Annie looked like a drag queen, but she was a real woman. When she was younger, she had been beautiful; she showed me the photos and proved it. Like a lot of beauties who resent aging, Annie did her best to cover it up. She attracted a lot of attention, but I was never sure if it was the kind of attention she thought she was getting. But she was sweet and kind, and like Bev, kept an eye out for me.
      Bev and Annie became my good friends, maybe the best I had in the Stewart Building.
      About the time Annie was killed in a car crash, I was laid off from my newspaper job.
      When I went to Annie’s funeral with Bev, I was amazed to find myself crying buckets of tears. I still don’t know how much I was crying for Annie, for losing my job or for missing the Stewart Building. It was the most fun place I’ve ever worked in my life and I miss it still.