The Printer

An authority on high-performance and racing automobiles. KEN W. PURDY is the author of KINGS OF THE ROAD, BRIGHT WHEELS ROLLING (with James Melton), and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE AUTOMOBILE. Before he became a free-lance writer, he had wide experience as a newspaperman and later as editor in chief of PARADE, TRUE, and ARGOSY.

A Story by KEN W. PURDY

THE office of the Valley Trader had been built as a dry-goods store, with two show windows, one on each side of the doorway. Brown monk’s-cloth curtains ran across the backs of the windows: the poles that supported them hung at elbow height. A YMCA basketball exhibit filled one window: two tarnished silver cups, a silver statuette of a desperately leaping youth, a scuffed ball, soft on the bottom, a basket, a poster printed from a linoleum block listing the season’s games. A couple of dozen jars of home-preserved fruits and vegetables occupied the other window, a card propped against each jar identifying its maker. That had been the publisher’s idea.

“It’s the kind of thing that makes good will,”Mr. Hayward said, frequently. “When you’re new in a place like this, you have to identify yourself with the community.”

I was leaning against the wall, looking out over the basketball exhibit. For ten minutes or so, until the phone rang for the two o’clock Associated Press pony service, I had nothing to do. A thin, powdery snow drifted in the street. A little way down, where the bridge broke the line of buildings, I could see a patch of sky, dark and cold. Across the street the windows of the Greek’s place were steamed from top to bottom, and a soft yellow light fell through them to the sidewalk.

I saw the man come out of the Greek’s, and at first I took him to be a young man. His hat sat at a gay angle on his head, he was wearing a belted camel’s-hair topcoat with pearl buttons as big as silver dollars, and he walked quickly enough across the street. When he had his hand on the doorknob he looked in and winked, and I could see then that he was an old man. He leaned against the door to close it, shutting off the sighing of the cold wind through the crack. He shook the snow off his hat. He was bald. He opened his coat. A big cigarette burn scarred the front of it, but the coat was so big for him that the burned place tucked well under.

“What can I do for you, Pop?" I asked.

“Well, I’ll tell you. Sonny.”the old man said. “You can tell me the foreman’s name.” He looked around the little office, just big enough for Mr. Hayward’s cubicle and desks for the four people who put out the paper. “That’s if you’ve got a foreman here.”

“Down the stairs at the back.”I said. “His name’s Murphy. Here, I’ll show you.”

“Spare yourself the trouble. Sonny,”the old man said. “I can find him.”His shoulders swung when he walked, and the coffee-colored coat flapped around him like a flag around a pole. I watched him go. He hadn’t come up when the bell rang, and then things were busy for a while.

At suppertime, Johansson, the pressman, came into the Greek’s and said that Murphy had hired the old man.

“Win a bet from me, he’s sixty-five years old. Johansson said. “He claims he’s set type in fortysix states. A bottle baby, win a bet from me. He’s fast enough, though. Murph sat him down and he had a line hanging right away.” Johansson bent over the cup and sucked coffee. “A real tramp. I ain’t seen one like him in years.”

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Dulin, Dolan, something like that,” Johansson said. “He won’t be around long enough for you to find out.”

THE old man took a room in the Y. His name was Dolan. Pop would do for his first name, he said, and that was how they had to put him down on the payroll. The first Saturday after he’d come to work he walked over to my desk with his pay envelope stuck in the breast pocket of his coat. It was five o’clock and he was through for the day. The Trader ran a scab shop, but even so the printers worked only eight hours, not the twelve and fourteen of the editorial side.

“I’ll buy you a beer. Sonny,” he said. “Seeing as you helped me get the job, manner of speaking.”

“Thanks, Pop,” I said, “but I’ve got all this county copy to do. I’d better not.”

The old man looked down at me. “What are they paying you?" he asked. “About twenty-two fifty a week, say?”

“About,” I told him.

“They buy all of you for that?” the old man asked. “You come cheap, don’t you?”

Even if I had thought of something to say, it wouldn’t have done me any good. The old man was out the door. He stood in front of the place for a minute. He knotted the belt of his coat, reached up and pinched the dent in his hat, and swaggered off.

I had the beer a week later. Dolan drank whisky. “Happy days,” the old man said. He sipped at his bourbon and set it down. “You from around here, Sonny?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Madison, Wisconsin.”

“That was a nice town,” Dolan said. “The Capital Times. Fella named Bill Evjue ran the paper. A fire-eater. I used to drink beer with another fella on the paper, wrote a column — Ernie Meyer, Mayers. A nice man. That was years ago. You weren’t even born. I came back there later on, must have been ‘thirty-two, ‘thirtythree, something like that, and I set type on the State Journal. I remember the union had a picnic that summer, place was awash with beer. I offered to wrestle the managing editor.”

“Who won?” I asked.

“Tell you the truth, I don’t remember.”Dolan said. “I doubt it was me. He was a big man, redhead. Name was Mich.”

“I was born in Madison,” I said.

“Nice town,” Dolan said. “I don’t remember why I left either time. It wouldn’t matter. Maybe I got tired of it, maybe somebody tried to crowd me. You have to be sharp or they’ll always crowd you. I claim I’m a free man. I’m sixty-seven years old, and the last time anybody told me what to do, and made me do it, was an eighth-grade schoolteacher in Richmond, Virginia.” He laughed, a dry, short sound. “ I’ll bet she’s been dead for forty years,” he said. “Long, long dead, that one.”

He asked for another whisky and another beer. He reached to his coat and pulled a copy of the paper from the pocket.

“This is a terrible paper,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, setting type for such a lousy sheet. Must be I need the money.” He unfolded the Trader. “I set your piece on the bus accident,”he said. “It’s no good. You buried the lead. You’ve got the lead in the third paragraph. I set His Nibs’s editorial, too. He writes like an idiot. He writes like with a pointy stick. Whoever told that ape he was a publisher?”

“Not so loud,” I said. “Don’t you see him over there in the corner?”

The old man peered across the room. “Yeah, I see him now,” he said. “He sees me, too.” He nodded and smiled. “Evening, ape,” he said.

“You’re lucky he’s not a lip reader,” I said.

“No, Sonny,” the old man said. “He’s lucky he’s not a lip reader. This way, he doesn’t know that I’m wise to him and that he’s an ape. You didn’t answer my question. Who told him he was a publisher?”

“It was a unilateral decision,” I said. “He made a lot of money in real estate, so he bought the paper and now he’s a publisher.”

“I see,” Dolan said. “I knew a few like that, here and there. I won a hundred dollars from one of them, long ago. Nebraska somewhere. I can’t remember the name of the paper any more.”

“A bet?” I asked.

“That’s right,” Dolan said. “I had a little dispute with another fella in the shop. We had a little discussion, and in the course of it I told him he was a lousy linotype operator. I told him he was a disgrace to the trade. I told him I could hand-set more type than he could set on the machine. This publisher happened by — he went as editor of the thing, too — and he horned in. He bet me two weeks’ pay I couldn’t do it.”

“Well, how could you?” I asked.

“Because they were both pretty thick,”Dolan said. “I took the bet and we started right off. It was quitting time. The joker on the machine sat there for eight hours and he set I don’t know how many galleys. By morning he was so far ahead of me it was ridiculous. So he quit and went home. I just stood there in front of the case and set type. I set type all that night and I set type all the next day and half the night. I wish I could remember how many galleys I set. I set as many as he had, and a couple of sticks more, and then I went home and went to bed. Man paid off like a little gentleman, too. You see, there was no time limit on the bet. Neither of ‘em had figured I’d stand there and set type for two nights and a day. Just never occurred to ‘em.”He took a sip of whisky. “Some people are printers and some people are something else,”he said. “Me, I’m a printer.”

Johansson had been wrong about the old man. He was no bottle baby, but he did drink a lot. He’d come to work with his eyes half closed, the thin white bones of his old skull bulging with Katzenjammer, but he never missed a day. The Maine winter wasn’t kind to him, and most of the time he had a deep cough, but he set type for eight hours a day nevertheless.

He never got any mail, never wrote letters. He lived a regular life, dividing his time neatly. When he left the shop he’d go to the Greek’s for supper, then to the public library to pick up a couple of books — Zane Grey. Jack London, Alexandre Dumas. He’d sit in his room at the Y and read, smoking cigarettes incessantly, lighting one from another, stubbing them out on a shirt cardboard so as not to have to take his eyes from the page to find the ash tray. At nine or nine thirty he’d go down the street to The Shamrock and at midnight he’d be in bed. Saturday nights he’d go to Trossi’s for dinner — all-cream oyster stew — and he’d tell the waitress that if she played her cards right, she could have a date with him. Sunday he read all day long. Monday morning at eight he’d swagger into the shop, his hat tipped over one eye.

“I like this hick town,”he told Johansson one morning. “I might stick around here awhile.”

“You’re kidding,”Johansson said.

“No.”Dolan said. “A man has to light somewhere, sometime.”

“The old geezer must be feeling his age,”Johansson told Murphy. “And of course he’s flat busted. That figures.”

“He can stick around as long as he wants to.”Murphy said “He’s a good operator.”

Unlike many compositors. Dolan consciously read everything he set. He called me over one day when I was downstairs.

“Sonny.”he said, “I’ve got His Nibs’s editorial here and it won’t read. Here, read that paragraph and tell me what it means.”

I took the dirty, creased copy paper and read the paragraph.

“He must have left a sentence out,”I said.

“Just take it up to him and have him fix it,”Dolan said.

Hayward himself brought the corrected copy downstairs. He handed it to Dolan. “I hope you like this better,”he said jovially.

“I’m not going to like it at all,”the old man said. “It’s a poor piece of writing. But anyway, now I can set it in type for you, since that’s what you want to do with it.”He folded the copy and let the holder slap down on it. His hands dropped to the keyboard and the bright brass matrices began to spill.

Murphy saved his job for him that time. “You’d just better watch it from now on,” he said.

“I should watch?” Dolan said. “What should I watch for?”

Pop Dolan set type for the Trader for two months and five days after that. He’d have stayed on longer. I’m sure, if Hayward hadn’t had an afterthought one day. He’d written a page-one appeal for funds for the Red Cross, and afterward he decided that he ought to put his name on it, so that the readers would know who’d written it. He could have sent someone, but he didn’t often have a legitimate excuse to go downstairs. He poked around in the copy box, and then he went and looked over young Bristow’s shoulder. He didn’t have it. Dolan had it.

“I think I’ll put a by-line on that editorial.”Hayward said.

The old man looked up at him. “Fine,” he said. “ Just give me the copy.”

“What do you mean, give you the copy?”

“Write your name out for me,” the old man told him.

“Don’t you know how to spell my name?”

“Sure,” the old man said.

“Then set it up,”Hayward said.

“I’m a printer, Mr. Hayward,”the old man said. “I’m no gahdamned stenographer. Stenographers take dictation. Printers set type from copy. You want me to set your name in type, give me the copy.”

Hayward stared at him. “You old rummy,” he said. “You smelly old bum, get out of here. You’re damned well fired. Get your pay and get out of here!”

The old man stood up and hit him. It wasn’t much of a punch and it didn’t even move Hayward. He just stood there with his mouth open and watched the old man shut down the machine and put his coat on.

I heard about it that night in the Greek’s. Johannsson told me. “You ever find out his square first name?" he said.

“No.” I said.

“Like I told you when he first showed up,”Johansson said. “A real tramp. Them bums never could hold a job. I knew a lot of ‘em. That guy never held a job for six months in his life, win a bet from me.”