Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Life in the Op-Ed Trenches

I’d just ordered a glass of orange juice and a plate of hash browns in a well-worn diner at the top of a long hill, a five block walk from the third story room I rented above an old family-run print shop with an imposing brass door worthy of a story by Dickens. It was a wet, cold, early winter morning. Not yet six o’clock, the grey sky lay like a lid over the stretch of historic brick townhouses that climbed Liberty Avenue, a commercial/residential gauntlet that formed the main arterial of the Bloomfield neighborhood, in the city of Pittsburgh. The year was 1987.
     Being awake at such an early hour was unusual enough, having had the wherewithal to position myself at the cracked counter of such a sleepy eating place was unprecedented. I was a late riser, accustomed to wolfing down a frenzied breakfast at home before jumping on my bicycle to race perilously down Liberty into the heart of the city, to the editorial offices of the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s long-standing morning paper. My near-miraculous awakening had been spurred by the advent of my latest entry into the editorial pages of the respected daily.
     Having been hired, at the ripe age of twenty-three, as the paper’s sole staff illustrator, I had only recently begun to appear on the Op-Ed galleys, an invitation which had given life to a budding sense of social awareness. Determined to draw with both my mind and my hands, I took these editorial stabs as monumental forums for expression. In my young, overly-idealistic mind, I saw them as the print stage upon which I would enlighten and bring change to the staid order of the depressed industrial settlement I’d called home for much of the decade.
     I had raced out of the gate with my very first such piece, a reactive and cynical criticism of the nation’s cattle farmers and their insatiable demand for federal subsidies. It was a hastily-drawn cartoon, a depiction of a cattleman who looked much like the
Hee Haw buffoon Junior Samples, bemoaning his lot, as his cattle starved around him in the heat of a summer drought. It promptly attracted numerous letters from angry and offended local farmers. Taking this hostile reaction as a clear validation of my power to influence, I’d practically lunged at the next such assignment handed my way, a cartoon meant to accompany a piece by Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, pointing to the hazy ethical arguments of then- Attorney General Edwin Meese, a man who seemed to feel his actions filtered through an intangible alternate universe where scrutiny was left to wholly subjective devices. Seeking to tackle this potent subject with my naïve pluck, I had made it my mission to challenge the paper’s long-standing readership, the working class men and women who sat about me that dour morning, breathing in their black coffee and eggs, pawing through the pages of the Gazette’s early edition. My obstacle to their routine involved more than a shift in perspective or opinion, it was an actual demand for hands-on participation in my art. It was this tactile adventure that had compelled me to set my alarm for the ungodly hour of five, a time for bakers and street sweepers to be roaming the Earth, not editorial cartoonists.
     The interactive hook I’d built my cartoon upon involved optical perspective. Utilizing the old trick of drawing an image in an unnaturally stretched form, I’d rendered my caricature of Meese to run more than three quarters the height of the column. When viewed in the customary fashion it appeared partly out-of-focus, but the caption at the bottom invited the reader to take the paper and hold it so that it was positioned at a right angle to the eye. By doing this, and placing one’s face close to the page, the elongated image would “magically” compress and the identity of the hard-to-pin-down Meese would become clear. Not exactly a groundbreaking premise, but it was nevertheless a concept I had been forced to battle for the previous day, cracking heads with the assistant Op-Ed editor, then the Op-Ed editor, then the editor of the paper himself, before finally finding myself in the cluttered office of the publisher, putting on a cocky show of unearned bravado that seemed to leave each of the previous gentlemen (all old enough to be my father) looking rather bewildered. It was becoming all too apparent that they had hired an illustrator with ambitions far outside the decorative arts (and his own reach). It was an uncompromising desire that would eventually see me packing my things and quitting my post only a few months later, the pathway I’d worn to the publisher’s door having become a trail of increasing frustration and fatigue. But that dreary morning, perched on my counter stool, I was still full of verve, one eye on my greasy breakfast, the other moving about my dozen fellow diners like a hawk, breathlessly anticipating their coming to the editorial page, hoping against hope that they would take my challenge and activate the prescribed action, folding the paper and holding it up to their rough-hewn faces, the steely jaws and ruddy jowls of men and women who I presumed had little time for such artistic conceits.

think about!” I’d declared the evening before, standing in the stately living room of the multi-floored apartment I shared with a photographer and his girlfriend. “I have the power to make everyone in Pittsburgh fold their paper in half and hold it to their face. It could happen all at once. At six in the morning I could make literally thousands of people stop what they’re doing and play my visual game!” I was giddy with the very thought of it, drunk on my own enthusiasm. The afternoon’s victory of will over the paper’s masthead had only heightened my myopic dreams of supremacy. I was a young man who, given an inch, would quickly claim a mile.
     “You’re going to leave newsprint on everyone’s cheek,” grinned the girlfriend.
     “Exactly!” I beamed, failing to catch the sarcasm in her comment. “I’m like the puppet master, pulling the strings. Isn’t it
     The photographer rolled his eyes. “It hasn’t happened yet. How are you ever going to know, anyway?”
     That was the instant I hatched my little plan of clandestine field study. I quickly settled on the most habitual of all the local eating spots, an aluminum-sided bulwark of more than fifty years of service, a multi-generational hash-slinger with roots as deep as the city’s still-smoldering furnaces of iron and steel. Setting my notepad and pen beside my alarm clock that night, I pushed my head into my pillow, my mind full of romantic notions, imagining myself some Diane Fossey of the working class coffee-sipper, my subjects like gorillas in the mist of the cook’s grill.
     It was a moment I’d never have anticipated just a few weeks before, finding myself living back home at my parent’s house in rural Butler County, some forty-odd miles north of the city, scraping by on what little freelance illustration work I could find. I was, in fact, standing atop a ladder, painting the eaves of the house, the day the unexpected call came from the assistant editor of the Gazette, letting me know that an opening had suddenly appeared in their graphics department. It was, of course, a happening far more complex, and bound in incidental history, than one surprise phone call. My relationship with the
Post-Gazette, and its editorial staff, went back to my earliest days in Pittsburgh, to the reckless pursuit of a neophyte’s search for artistic integrity in a city that shouldered far more practical concerns. This was the Pittsburgh of the Reagan era, a defeated metropolis of industry yet to fully acknowledge it had been fitted for a coffin, a city devoid of any real national cultural identity, a place where a dusty warehouse still occupied the block that would become, almost a decade later, the world-renowned Andy Warhol Museum.
     The sad incident that had spurred the phone call was the recent death of the paper’s chief illustrator, a boldly graphic artist whom I had met on my very first visit to the editorial offices, some four years earlier, just a week after I had quit an unhappy and short-lived stint at Pittsburgh’s only commercial art school. Stuffing a series of marker drawings I’d made of the denizens of the city’s pigeon-strewn parks and benches, I’d marched into the bustling newsroom, outfitted in my trademark wool beret and ancient overcoat, commanding the assistant editor’s time, along with most of his desktop. Being a patient and kind-hearted man, he’d heard me out, listening with what seemed genuine interest as I laid out my plan for a Sunday Magazine feature on the city’s street characters, the homeless and aged with whom I mingled every day on my jobless wanderings. Along with copies of my dozen portraits, I presented him with a first-person written narrative of these individuals and the strange world they inhabited. It was a bold move for a failed, nineteen year-old art student with no professional credits to his name. Not surprisingly, the feature was ultimately rejected as being too “narrowly-focused”, but not after it went through the legitimate channels of editorial discussion, the very gauntlet I would regularly face some four years later. Despite this rejection, my debut achieved two invaluable things. One, it gave me a viable contact with an editor, who soon after began offering me freelance editorial illustration assignments. Two, it introduced me to the then-current staff illustrator, the man whose death would create the vacancy I would eventually fill.
     This artist, a forward-thinking individual whose work was just beginning to appear in nationally-prominent periodicals like
The New York Times and Newsweek, was the very first person I knew who had a computer and who was utilizing the earliest graphic programs to aid his drawing. He, in fact, on our third or fourth meeting at the offices, offered to teach me the program and, to my great surprise, give me license to mimic his style (one centered on traditional woodcuts, infused with the bold cartoon flourish of the likes of early Charles Burns). He was asking me to be his “ghost illustrator”. He claimed this was needed as he was getting too much outside work, but didn’t want to give up his post at the Gazette. Being a victim of a furious pride, I instantly declined, refusing to even consider such an invisible tenure. Little did I know, this was actually a very gracious, and ultimately heartbreaking, offer from a man who had been diagnosed with multiple cancers and given only a limited time to live, a man who had somehow managed to keep these dire health issues secret from the majority of his co-workers. Upon hearing that he had died, images of him, a relatively young man, arriving for one of our lunchtime art chats with a perceptible limp, leaning on a walking stick, raced back into my mind. I later learned that he had suffered a series of operations to remove parts of his infected vital organs, surgeries that had literally caused his body to collapse in upon itself.
     Thus, there I was, atop a rickety metal ladder, a paintbrush sticking from my shirt pocket, excitedly agreeing to (unbeknownst to me at the time) fill the shoes of the man who had attempted to steer me in that very direction some two years earlier.
     When I was introduced to my desk the following week, and the full tragic story was conveyed to me by the others in the small graphics department, I suddenly felt a weight upon my shoulders, a challenge to live up to not only my own demanding standards, but to honor the kindness of the benefactor I had never truly recognized. I’d like to be able to say that I achieved something of these goals, but my growing frustration working within the rigid structure of such a long-standing daily paper was to get the better of me before I had the opportunity to establish myself in any lasting way. If I managed to forge a recognizable style in those few short months before I quit in frustration, it went unrecognized, even by me, my usual schizophrenic approach to illustration, reacting to each assignment with a different artistic voice, ruling the day. If I did anything, it was to perhaps awaken the editorial hierarchy to the existence of illustrators who desired to achieve more than a fluency of craft, to those who wanted, and needed, to impart an individual worldview in their work. An idealistic notion, to be sure, but one I still stand by.

“Want another refill on this OJ?”
     I was startled out of my reverie, finding the middle-aged waitress leaning across the counter, her fingertips at the rim of my empty glass. I quickly nodded I was, keen to return my hopefully unnoticed gaze to the grizzled-looking gentleman in the hunting jacket and earflaps, who had just settled upon the territory of my scrutiny, the morning’s Op-Ed page. He held the section of paper against his lap, a shield behind which rose a steady tower of steam from his unattended coffee. I caught a squint and a furrow come to his brow as he followed the lines of my clandestine illustration, to the bottom, where he brought his eyes closer to the paper in order to read the caption I had created using rub-off prestype. I watched breathless, seeing him roll his shoulders and begin to lower the paper, positioning it as I had intended. I could hardly believe it, he was actually following my instructions, doing something I imagined he had never been asked to do with a morning paper in his life.
     It was a moment of victory, one I hadn’t expected to see, for it was almost seven-thirty and I had yet to witness a single reader do more than stare perplexed and move on in silent irritation after encountering my “groundbreaking statement of artistic purpose”. But here he was, the proof of my obvious genius, the blue collar Joe, the no-nonsense vessel into which I would pour my ideas. I straightened my back, rising high against the Formica counter. When the waitress slid my third glass of juice before me I almost declared out loud “Do you
see that? That guy’s folding his paper and holding it up to his face! And I made him do it – with art!”
     But my elation was short-lived. A moment later, the man was shaking his head in apparent confusion and rustling on to the next page, my monumental achievement pressed again into obscurity between the wrinkled pages of a journal that would soon be mingled with the morning’s coffee filters and cigarette butts, lost at the bottom of a neglected garbage can.

To such events do we ascribe experience, the teeth-cutting to a perspective beyond youthful idealism, the lesson learned of our own insignificance to the greater scheme and unfolding of things, but it is still hard for me to not feel that swelling in my chest, that electric moment when I thought I had conquered the world, when I truly believed the images and ideas generated within my skull could reach out and shape the reality of others, if only in a operatively tactile way. And I suppose that feeling has never quite gone away, not completely, not after all the years between then and now, as I continue to struggle through the mornings, my pen and paper the prime tools of my trade. If I can leave anything of permanence with the work I do, be it the editorial cartoons, the sequential narratives, even the more decorative illustrations I am regularly commissioned to produce, I hope it might be to impart that perseverance is its own reward, that sticking to one’s strengths, no matter how meager the return, is something more than just the foolish bluff of a soul forged through idealism, that it can be the validation of oneself, in a world all too eager to wear that spirit down. I also want to believe that it makes a difference, somewhere, to someone, even those no longer tethered to these unfolding days.

Dedicated to the memory and art of Robert Patla.