Just as I was putting the finishing touches on yesterday’s interview with gnome expert Dr. Willem Gelding, news arrived that had me tossing and turning late into the night.
As most of my readers know, I used to be a newspaperman, and over a career that lasted 33 years, I worked for five newspapers.
But I only loved one.
The Houston Post — closed in 1995 — was my professional home for 10 years. I read yesterday via my Facebook feed that the crosstown Houston Chronicle will be moving its newsroom into our old building, completing the takeover they started almost 20 years ago.
Two decades is a long time to remain bitter, but bitter I still am.
Why such strong feelings about a long-dead publication owned by a man called Stinky? A place where I toiled long hours for three editors in chief known as the Prince of Darkness, Mad Dog and Chicken Legs?
Although I can look back now and see its flaws, there was so much to love about The Houston Post and its people.
Let me tell you about them.
The Post was the #2 paper in a two-newspaper town, and the staff lived with rumors about management changes the entire time I was there. I suppose the rumors fostered a siege mentality. You knew you were in a fight, and like any war, you knew you had to rely on the men and women who were fighting alongside you.
We were something special together, covering big stories like the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, the first Gulf War in 1990, and the O.J. Simpson case that started in 1994.
As I lay awake last night, I thought of the names and faces from those times. With few exceptions, everyone had a nickname. Some were silly, most were cutting, but they all signified that you had somehow earned a place in the lore of The Houston Post.
There was Birdy, Larwe, Miker and the Cocksman. BobMarla, Barbarella, Artist Gladys and Artist Leroy. We had Darla and Double Truck, Tidbit, Thunderchief and Timbob.
I can still see Sweet Pea and the Mime, L.L. (the Littlest Laggard), along with The Rapper, her cigarette ash edging ever longer. There at their desks are Bullet Bob, Joe Cool and Rothschild.
There was The Maven, Lasorda and Factor, along with Spuds, Leatherhead and the Throbbing Bone.
We had Mladenka, and later, after he’d killed himself, his Eternal Flame, a smoldering cigarette butt. There was Zud, Cuz, Crash, Opie, Editor Joey, Butler and Big Jim.
Let’s not forget Blossom, Smoking Gun, the Professor, Editor Linbol, the Size Sixes, or that Jamaican guy who always fell asleep at work and didn’t last long as a consequence. I can’t remember his real name.
But the one I do remember — and most fondly — is the old Bertmeister, who would meet us after work at the Jockey Club, lining up three martinis just before last call, his battered yellow T-bird with New Jersey plates still idling out in the parking lot. You see, he knew if he shut off that old rust bucket’s engine, it would never restart.
Bertmeister, critically ill but still working, still drinking, still apologizing for having to leave work before deadline because his shirt was soaked with blood.
That was The Houston Post spirit.
On my last night at The Post, I was interviewing a job candidate when someone burst into my office with the latest rumor du jour. You see, we really didn’t know, we were still filling vacancies.
The job candidate never got hired — never earned a nickname — because that final rumor proved to be the one that rings true.
I got a phone call early the next morning after having worked all night. It was the newsroom secretary telling me to call all my people and tell them to come clean out their desks, we’d been sold to the rival Chronicle, and they had summarily shut us down.
That afternoon I found my building swarming with Chronicle security guards. I cleaned out my desk, but before leaving I found a big manila envelope. On the outside I wrote, “To The Next Occupant of this Office.” I sealed it, and with a roll of strapping tape, secured it to the top of my desk.
Inside the envelope, on a sheet of yellow legal paper, I wrote in red grease pencil, “FUCK YOU!”
I walked out the door.
A couple weeks later, Bertmeister was dead. In retrospect, his fate — like The Post’s — was hardly surprising, but still unexpected. His wake and funeral provided a final punctuation mark for a real newspaperman and a great newspaper, The Houston Post.
When the Chronicle staff finally moves into our building, I hope my message is still there.
I think the Bertmeister would approve.