"Whatta We Got for the Folks This Week?"

High and mighty deliberations at a big newsmagazine.

SCENE ONE

The office of Pete Smithers, a senior editor whose responsibilities include the Lifestyles section. Among the magazine’s writers, it is assumed that Smithers’s only conceivable qualification for high office is his unique ability to lean back from his desk at a terrifyingly drastic angle—his legs absolutely straight, his heels hooked precariously on the edge of his desk, and his Bass Weejuns spread at the toes to form a perfect V-shaped frame through which he can regard the writer standing before him, like a man sighting very carefully through a large gunsight.

The writer whose duty at the Lifestyles story conference is to serve up potential stories for Smithers’s approval is Fred Becker, a “floater” who moves from section to section, depending on which regular writer is away—and who feels himself in imminent danger of being switched suddenly to the Medicine section, where the regular writer often finds that the symptoms of the disease he writes about cause him to feel too ill to continue.

For the half-dozen people seated in Pete Smithers’s office, waiting for the Lifestyles story conference to begin, the bottoms of Smithers’s shoes were the only part of him visible, although a clipboard he was holding on his lap occasionally bobbed into view. Fred Becker noticed that Smithers’s Bass Weejuns were either new or resoled. Smithers’s voice seemed to emerge from somewhere below the desk: “All right, Fred, whatta we got for the folks this week?”

Becker looked over his clipboard—a signal for the others at the meeting to adjust their own clipboards, ready to list the stories Smithers accepted. Sitting with Becker in Smithers’s office were Carol Goodenow, the Lifestyles researcher; Keith Johnson, a quiet man from the wire desk; two photo researchers (for reasons unknown to Becker, photo researchers, like FBI men and nuns, traveled in pairs); and Genine McIntyre, Smithers’s secretary, a lavishly dressed and carefully made-up young woman known around the office as La Contessa.

“Well, we’ve got the one from California about people drowning in hot tubs,” Becker said.

“Is that a trend?” the voice from behind Smithers’s desk said.

“I don’t know if you can call it a trend, exactly, Pete,” Becker said. “It’s not really at the point of being the thing to do in California, or anything like that. More of a phenomenon than a trend. I guess people just get all relaxed in there, and smoke a little something, and chant their mantras, and get in touch with their bodies, or maybe lose touch with their bodies— and they sort of slip beneath the waves.”

“Didn’t we already do drowning in hot tubs?" Smithers said. “Genine?”

“Scalding in hot tubs,” Genine said. “We did a sixty-liner on scalding in hot tubs last year. Some of the people who were scalded did drown, but it was a scalding piece, really, not a drowning piece.”

“I thought I remembered a piece we did on drowning in hot tubs,” Smithers said.

Becker shrugged. It did seem as if everything to be written about hot tubs had already appeared in the Lifestyles section. He himself had done one story on new hot-tub designs and another story on a study showing that the subject most discussed by people sitting in hot tubs in Marin County, California, without any clothes on was real estate.

“Drowning in water beds,” Genine said. “Scalding in hot tubs.”

“Put it on the list,” Smithers said.

Everyone in the room listed the hot-tubs piece on his or her clipboard. The two photo researchers compared clipboards to make certain they had the same wording. “What else we got, Fred?” Smithers said.

“Well, there’s this two-thirds stocking story, also from California.”

“Tell me more about that one,” Smithers said. “Does that mean they’re wearing two thirds of a stocking? Which two thirds? What’s the point, anyway?”

“Well, I don’t know too much about it,” Becker said. He was actually hoping that Smithers would decide to drop the two-thirds stocking story. He didn’t like doing fashion stories. What he really wanted to say was that it might make sense to wait until Trish Webster, who was sometimes detached from the Show Business section to do fashion pieces for Lifestyles, happened to be available. He knew, though, that suggesting a woman writer for a women’s fashion story would upset Carol Goodenow, who was the chairperson of the magazine’s women employees committee. When Carol was upset, she often started to cry. That upset her even more, given her belief that women were no more likely to burst into tears than men were, so once she started crying there was almost no stopping her. Becker liked Carol Goodenow, and he tried to avoid doing anything that might upset her. “As I understand it,” he went on, “it’s not really about wearing two thirds of a stocking. I don’t think. It’s more like two-thirds’ length. Two thirds of the way up the leg. Or maybe two thirds of the way toward the knee.”

“Two-thirds stockings! Jesus!” came Smithers’s voice from behind and below the desk.

“I guess it really doesn’t sound all that interesting,” Becker said. He glanced over at Carol Goodenow. He thought he had seen her lower lip start to quiver, but he might have been imagining it. “I mean, I guess we’re about due for a stocking story,” he went on, trying to make certain Carol didn’t think that he was sounding negative simply because the story had to do with women’s fashions. “I’m just not sure that this is it.”

“Let’s scratch it,” Smithers said.

Marks were made on clipboards. Nobody said anything for a moment or two. Smithers’s desk chair creaked. La Contessa adjusted one of her eyelashes. Keith Johnson, the wire-desk man, looked as if he might fall asleep.

“Then there’s this thirty-liner on obscene topiary that was written last week but didn’t run,” Becker said.

There was another short period of silence. Finally, the voice from behind the desk said, “Obscene topiary?” Smithers, who had scheduled and edited the story the previous week, had apparently forgotten what it was about.

“Dirty bushes,” Becker said, working on the theory that the simplest explanation was always best for Smithers.

“In the bushes?”

“No, dirty bushes—bushes made into statues with, well, sexual overtones.” Becker looked to see if his careful choice of words had succeeded in refreshing Smithers’s memory without embarrassing Carol Goodenow, who was made uncomfortable by talk of sex in public. Carol was blushing slightly.

“Didn’t we do dirty bushes?” Smithers said. “Genine?”

“Last week we did dirty bushes, but it didn’t run,” Genine said. “A thirty-liner. Spaced out by that piece on grown-ups chewing bubble gum.”

“Put it on the list,” Smithers’s voice said.

“Then Cravens, in Indianapolis, suggests a story on this little town in central Indiana that’s supposed to be the sex-change capital of the world,” Becker said.

“Jesus!” Smithers said. “Dirty bushes. Sex changes. This is getting to be the goddamn Porno section. Isn’t that a Medicine story?”

“Well, Cravens slugged it Lifestyles. He thinks the real story is that this little town that used to be a limestone quarrying town was down on its luck because not many buildings made out of limestone are being built these days. And then this doctor there started doing a lot of sex-change operations and it became a sort of cottage industry—renting out rooms for people to live in while they’re waiting for their breasts to grow, that sort of thing. Kind of put the town on the map again. Now, apparently, other things are happening with their economic development committee, although I notice Cravens doesn’t say exactly what.”

“Jesus!” Smithers said again.

“I hear Medicine’s going to be all taken up this week with this big wrap-up on the pancreas they’re doing,”Becker said, beginning to wonder, despite himself, precisely where the pancreas was. “So maybe we can grab this one.”

Smithers mumbled something that sounded as if it might have been “goddamned queers,” but it was hard to be certain. Carol Goodenow, her embarrassment over the subject temporarily put aside, leaned forward, apparently at the ready to take down any addition Smithers might provide to a list she kept of remarks he had made that were offensive to one group or another. It was a long list. Many of the remarks sounded rather dated. When stories about homosexuals came up in Lifestyles story conferences, Smithers was likely to become visibly red in the face—visibly, that is, if someone happened to be standing directly in front of his desk, and was thus able to peer down at him through the other end of the gunsight—and mutter something like “pansies” or “goddamned fairies.” At a story conference for Show Business, another section Smithers presided over, a proposed story about a gay production of Romeo and Juliet—with Romeo as a bartender in a leather bar and Jules as a swish interior decorator— had brought Smithers forward in his desk chair with a crack so sharp that most of those at the conference dropped their clipboards. “The queers are everywhere!” he had shouted, as he arrived abruptly at a more conventional posture—sitting upright behind his desk, as Bob Bingham, the Show Business writer, later put it, “like a normal human being.”

“Apparently, he isn’t very good at it—the doctor,” Becker went on. “From what Cravens says, it sounds like people are always drifting into Indianapolis for repairs. I don’t know exactly what the problems are. Cravens says something about ‘things not on as well as they might be.’ ” As he outlined the story to Smithers, Becker began to think that writing it might be only marginally preferable to dealing in detail with the pancreas. “We could get into legal problems, I guess, mentioning that sort of thing,”he added.

Keith Johnson, who had never spoken a word in a story conference, as far as Becker could remember, suddenly blurted out, “I guess that’s why they wear their pants tucked inside their boots out that way,” and started to cackle. Great grunts of laughter came from behind Smithers’s desk. The photo researchers began gigglingCarol Goodenow had turned scarlet. Becker was afraid she might simply bolt from the othce, but she seemed to be keeping her chair by an effort of will.

“Pants tucked in!" Smithers yelped from behind the desk. “Put it on the list. Christ knows whether Woody’ll let it in the magazine, but at least I’ll be able to spend the week reading what Craven files. Is that all?”

“Well, there’s this suggestion about disco banks,”Becker said.

“That’s a Business story,” Smithers said abruptly. “We did disco banks last March,” La Contessa said.

“It’s still a Business story,” Smithers said. “Jesus! Disco banks! The queers are everywhere.”

SCENE TWO

The office of Woody Fenton, the managing editor—a folksy, slightly foggy man who often puzzles the writers by commenting on some news event with a single “gosh" or “wow,” but is treasured by them as being “not overtly harmfulHe has just returned from Washington—where he was to have had his first private presidential briefing—accompanied by his deputy, Ralph Holbrook, known to the writers by names that include N.R.F. for No Redeeming Features.

“Well, Jack,” Woody Fenton said. “What do we have for the folks this week?” Fenton was leaning back in his office chair at a moderate angle, with his legs crossed. His clipboard was resting lightly on his desk. The magazine having assigned desks in sizes corresponding to rank, the managing editor had one about the size of a ping-pong table. Late one closing night, after Woody Fenton had finally gone home to Mamaroneck, a dippy copyboy and two drunken copy editors had held a roller derby on the managing editor’s desk. Andy Wolferman always claimed that when he had his first audience with Fenton, upon joining the magazine, the managing editor started to come out from behind his desk, presumably to shake hands, but forgot the purpose of the journey by the time he finished it—with the result that he simply stood in front of Wolferman, looked him up and down, and said, “Golly.”

Fastened to the desk was the terminal for an intercom system that had been installed during the regime of the previous managing editor, Walter Heinlich—an abrupt, humorless man known among the writers and researchers as The Hun. The intercom system connected the managing editor’s office with the offices of the eight senior editors—who, at the time, were often said to have been chosen according to how frightened they were of Heinlich. The intercom system itself had its frightening aspect: when the managing editor flipped the button connecting him to, say, Pete Smithers’s office, the signal summoning Smithers to the small black box on his own, somewhat more modest desk was a horrifying drone that had been compared to the sound of two hundred industrial vacuum cleaners in chorus. Senior editors tended to be vigilant about not keeping the managing editor waiting—even after The Hun was succeeded by the amiable Woody Fenton. During Heinlich’s reign, the senior editor in charge of the Business section leaped so quickly toward the intercom from a couch, where he had been studying some cables, that he fell over a low coffee table and broke his ankle. The managing editor’s console signaled the presence of a senior editor on the line with the sort of soft chime that is sometimes heard as a summons to floorwalkers in a particularly posh department store.

“Welt, we’ve got the Secretary of State on the cover again, Woody,” Jack Thompson said. At the beginning of every work week, just after the story conferences in the sections were over, Thompson and Ralph Holbrook and Max Eisen, the chief of correspondents, met with Fenton in his office. Thompson always read the list of what had been scheduled for the week—all of it scheduled, of course, subject to the approval of the managing editor. No one had ever been able to figure out what else Jack Thompson did; the writers sometimes referred to him as Assistant Managing Editor for Reading the List.

“We’ve already got forty pages of Rappaport’s file in from Washington,” Max Eisen said. “We’ve got files coming from ten overseas bureaus. With the general strike in England, we’ll probably charter a jet to get Maddox’s file to the telex in Paris.” Eisen, a dapper man who was known for the ease with which he spent the magazine’s money, loved to charter airplanes. On scheduled flights, he always went first-class—he expected his correspondents to do the same—but he tended to refer to even first-class travel on a regular airline rather disparagingly as “going commercial.”

“I like the Secretary of State,” Fenton said. “Good guy.”

Holbrook and Eisen both nodded.

“He gives a hell of a briefing,” Fenton went on. “Really swell. Remember that briefing he gave during the last Southeast Asia business, Ralph?”

“I wasn’t at that briefing, Woody,” Holbrook said. “You and Max went down for that one, and I was minding the store.”

“Right. That’s right,” Fenton said. “I love that boardroom they have at State. Great paneling. One thing you’ve got to say for the guys at State, they know paneling.”

Holbrook nodded. “They’re good at it,” he said.

“You know who gave great briefings?” Fenton said.

The other three shook their heads.

“Westmoreland,” Fenton said. “Westy. I loved those briefings. In Saigon. He’d get you up on the roof of one of those buildings and show you the rows of tanks and choppers. Golly, I love choppers.”

“Hell of a machine,” Holbrook said.

“We had a chopper in the Saigon bureau,” said Eisen, who enjoyed buying various sorts of conveyances as much as he enjoyed chartering them.

“I remember that chopper,” Fenton said.

“Two choppers, really,” Eisen said. “A chopper and a backup chopper. I hated to see them go. When Saigon fell, all I could think about was that those little bastards got both of my choppers.”

“Good food, too,” Fenton said. “Westmoreland put on super briefings in every way. Lots of maps. Overlays on maps. Gosh!”

The others nodded, uncertain whether the “gosh” applied to the irony of a commander whose briefings were that good being defeated in the field or to the wonders of map overlays.

“Shame about that White House briefing, Ralph,” Fenton said.

“Well, those things happen, Woody,” Holbrook said, withdrawing his pipe from the side pocket of his jacket.

“Funny that was the first time we’ve been asked,” Fenton said. “I know we’ve given the President a hard time on the wildlife thing, but still . . . Anything scheduled on the President’s wife being ill?”

Thompson looked up and down the list. “No, nothing in National News,” he said. “And I didn’t see anything on the wires. Medicine’s got nothing but the pancreas.”

“Guess it wasn’t serious,” Fenton said. He reached over to a rack on his vast desk, picked up a pipe, and, to Holbrook’s astonishment, started puffing on it successfully without relighting it. “Do you know how many times Heinlich was briefed at the White House?” he asked.

“I don’t think so, Woody,” Holbrook said.

“Fourteen times,” Fenton said. “That’s something.”

“It sure is,” Holbrook said.

“That’s a lot of times,” Eisen said.

Fenton puffed on his pipe a while, then said, “Wow!” □