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By Pete Hamill
Read by Ellen Archer
Read by Peter Ganim
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The head of one of the city’s last tabloids stops the presses. A cop investigates the killing. A reporter chases the story. A disgraced hedge fund manager flees the country. An Iraq War vet seeks revenge. And an angry young extremist plots a major catastrophe.
The City is many things: a proving ground, a decadent carnival, or a palimpsest of memories — a historic metropolis eclipsed by modern times. As much a thriller as it is a gripping portrait of the city of today, Tabloid City is a new fiction classic from the writer who has captured New York perfectly for decades.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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12:02 a.m. Sam Briscoe. City room of New York World, 100 West Street.
HERE COMES BRISCOE, seventy-one years old, five foot eleven, 182 pounds. He turns a corner into the city room of the last afternoon newspaper in New York. He is the editor in chief. His overcoat is arched across his left shoulder and he is carrying his jacket. The cuffs of his shirtsleeves are crisply folded twice, below the elbows. His necktie hangs loose, without a knot, making two vertical dark red slashes inside the vertical bands of his bright red suspenders. He moves swiftly, from long habit, as if eluding ambush by reporters and editors who might approach him for raises, days off, or loans. Or these days, for news about buyouts and layoffs. His crew cut is steel gray, his lean furrowed face tightly shaven. The dark pouches under both eyes show that he has worked for many years at night. In the vast, almost empty room, there are twenty-six desks, four reporters, and three copy editors, all occasionally glancing at four mounted television screens tuned to New York 1 and CNN, Fox and MSNBC. A fifth screen is dark. Briscoe doesn't look at any of them. He goes directly to a man named Matt Logan, seated at the news desk in the center of the long wide room. Other desks butt against each other, forming a kind of stockade. All are empty.
–We got the wood yet? Briscoe says.
Logan smiles and runs a hand through his thick white hair and gazes past Briscoe at the desks. Briscoe thinks: We live in the capital of emptiness. Logan is fifty-one and in some way the thick white hair makes him seem younger. Crowning the shaven face, the ungullied skin.
–The kid's still writing, Logan says, gesturing to his left. Maybe you could remind him this is a daily.
Briscoe grunts at one of the oldest lines in the newspaper business. Thinking: It's still true. He sees the Fonseca kid squinting at his computer screen, seeing nothing else, only the people he has interviewed hours earlier, far from the city room. Briscoe leans over Logan's shoulder, glances up at the big green four-sided copper clock hanging from the ceiling, a clock salvaged from Pulitzer's World. Thinking: Still plenty of time.
–What else do we have? he says, dropping coat and jacket over a blank computer monitor. The early editions of the morning papers are scattered on the desk, the Times, the Post, the News. Logan clicks on a page that shows four possible versions of the wood. The page 1 headline. Briscoe thinks: I'm so old. He remembers seeing page 1 letters actually cut from wood in the old composing room of the Post, six blocks down West Street. The muffled sound of Linotype machines hammering away from the composing room. Most of the operators deaf-mutes, signaling to each other by hand. Paul Sann trimming stories on the stone counters beyond the Linotype machines, his editor's hands using calipers to pluck lines of lead from the bottom of stories. Everybody smoking, crushing butts on the floor. Hot type. Shouts. Sandwiches from the Greek's. All gone forever.
One possible front page says JOBS RISING? With a subhead: Mayor Says Future Bright. New unemployment numbers are due in the morning. The AP story will lead what they now call the Doom Page, always page 5, the hard stuff about the financial mess, with a sidebar trying to make the recession human. Names. Faces. Losers. Pain. If they have jobs, it's a recession. If they don't have jobs, it's a depression. Foreign news is on page 8, usually from AP and Reuters, no overseas bureaus anymore, plus features bought from a new Web service that has correspondents all over the planet. OBAMA MOURNS AFGHAN DEATHS. Plus a thumbsucker out of the one-man Washington bureau. The problem is that most readers don't give a rat's ass. Not about Iraq, not about Afghanistan, only about whether they can still feed their kids next week, or the week after. Two more suicide bombings in Baghdad. Another bombing in Pakistan. A girls' school. More stats counting the dead, without names or faces. It has been months since foreign news was used as wood.
–What else ya got? Briscoe says.
Logan picks up a ringing phone, whispers to the caller, but keeps clicking on the various page 1 displays. BLOOMIE'S LAMENT. All about more city job cuts, the need for a fair share of the stimulus package, the crackdown on parking permits for well-connected pols, the assholes in Albany grabbing what is not nailed down. And closing libraries while heading for the limousines. News should be new. This is all old. With this stuff, Briscoe thinks, we might even achieve negative sales. Logan gets off the phone.
–Where was I? he says. Oh, yeah. The Fonseca kid got the mother. Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago. Now he's shot dead in the street.
Logan makes some moves on the keyboard, and then Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing at a framed letter.
–That's the mother, Logan says. The letter is from Stuyvesant. When he was accepted.
She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.
–The quality sucks, Briscoe says.
–Yeah. We don't have a photographer tonight so Fonseca shot it with a cell phone. Anyway, that's the vic in the other picture. The dead kid. In his first year in Stuyvesant, after winning a medal for debating.
Logan points to a young man's body on a sidewalk, facedown, chalk marks around him.
–Then he's dead, late this afternoon. Shot five times.
–The usual shit, Logan says. Drugs. Or someone got dissed. So say the cops. Who ever really knows? But there's a Doom Page angle too. The mother lost her job six weeks ago. They're gonna throw her out of the house, and the cops think maybe the kid started dealing drugs to save the house.
–Put that in the lede. If it's true.
–I already told Fonseca.
Briscoe glances out the window, where he can see Stuyvesant High School in the distance, across the footbridge over the West Side Highway toward the river's edge. The school where all the bright kids go, a lot of them now Asian. The lights are dim, the kids slumbering at home before Friday's classes, the school corridors inhabited by lonesome watchmen. Briscoe sees the running lights on a solitary black tanker too, moving slowly north to Albany on the dark river. Delivering pork to the pols, maybe. Which way to the river Styx, Mac? Most of the river is dead now. That pilot who landed his plane in the river? Ten years ago, he'd have smashed into a freighter. Now it's nothing but sailboats and ferries. Briscoe exhales slightly. Another dead kid. How many had there been since he started in 1960? Five thousand dead New York kids? Twenty thousand? More than have died in Iraq, for sure. Maybe even more than Nam.
–Anyway, it could be wood, Logan says. Depends on the story.
–It always does, Briscoe says, in a hopeless tone.
He turns and sees Helen Loomis three empty desks to the right of Fonseca. Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown hair. She was shy then too, and what some fools called homely, long-jawed, gray-eyed, bony. Down at the old Post. She sat each night with her back to the river, smoking and typing, taking notes from street reporters and interviewing cops on the phone, her dark pageboy bobbing in a private rhythm. She was flanked by good people, true professionals, but most of them knew that she was the best goddamned rewrite man any of them would ever know. Later, the language cops tried to change the title to "rewrite person." It didn't work. The rhythm was wrong. Too many syllables. Even Helen Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man. In her crisp, quick way, she could write anything in the newspaper. Finding the music in the pile of notes from beat reporters, the clips from the morning papers, files from the Associated Press, and yellowing clips from the library. She was the master of the second-day lede, so essential to an afternoon paper, and she often found it buried in the thirteenth graf of the Times story, or in the jump of the tale in the Herald-Tribune. Or, more often, in her own sense of the story itself. When her questions were not answered, and the reporter had gone home, she made some calls herself. To a cop. A relative. Someone in a corner bar she found in the phone company's immense old street index. Her shyness never stopped her, even when she was calling someone at ten after three in the morning. She was always courteous, she always apologized for the hour, but she worked for an afternoon paper. That is, she worked according to a clock that began ticking at midnight and finished at eight. Now, fuck, everything has changed, even the hours.
Briscoe waves at Helen Loomis. She doesn't see him. Doesn't respond. She is wearing small reading glasses, her body tense behind the computer, peering at the screen, nibbling at the inside of her right cheek. Her helmet of white hair doesn't move in the old bobbing style. Briscoe long ago realized that she hadn't looked loose, or in rhythm, since cigarettes were banned from all the newsrooms in the city. But she comes in every night, always on time, always carrying a black coffee and a cheese Danish, always ready to work. And once an hour, she moves to get her coat and goes down to smoke in the howling river winds.
In addition to a few breaking stories, she writes the "Police Blotter" now, made up of two- or three-graf stories of crimes and misdemeanors that don't deserve to be blown out. Cheap murders, usually at bad addresses. Assaults. Rapes. In the city room, they used to call the column "Vics and Dicks." A young female reporter out of Columbia objected, and it was renamed "Bad Guys" for the reporters and "Police Blotter" for the readers. There was, alas, no music in these tales, no way for Helen Loomis to turn them into haiku or a blues riff. Most of the dickheads now were robbing techno-junk: cell phones, iPods, digital recorders. A digital camera was a big score.
Briscoe knows in his heart that it wasn't the end of cigarettes that took the music out of her. Not really. With Helen, it was the final triumph of loneliness. Young Helen Loomis was only one of many great reporters he'd known who were drawn to the rowdy newspaper trade because of the aching solitude in their own lives. Their own pain was dwarfed by the more drastic pain of strangers. As bad as your own life might be, there were all kinds of people out there in the city who were in much worse shape. Their stories filled the newspapers. And for a few hours, the lives of reporters and rewrite men. Until the clock ticked past all deadlines. And the profane, laughing city room emptied. Helen Loomis was now a straggler at a late-night party that was already over. When the deadline was gone, she had nothing left but cigarettes and loneliness. The music of her prose was gone forever.
Or, hell, he thinks: Maybe it was just the cigarettes.
Now he glances around the room again.
–Let me know when the Fonseca kid finishes, he says to Logan.
And carrying coat and jacket he walks to his dark office at the far end of the city room. Thinking: The kid, that Bobby Fonseca, has loneliness in his eyes too. Except when he's writing. Briscoe unlocks the door. Flicks on the lights. Hangs his garments on a gnarled coat tree he carried away when P. J. Clarke's was remodeled. On his desk, there is a wire rack holding folders. One is marked "Newspapers." Full of dismal news clippings or printouts about shrinking circulation and shrinking ad revenues and shrinking page sizes and rumors of extinction. Layoffs, buyouts, furloughs. The papers themselves were a subset of the main story of Doom, everything that had followed the obliteration of Lehman Brothers that day in September 2008. In the newspapers, everybody was hurting. The Times. The Tribune Company. McClatchy. The Boston Globe. Gannett. The San Francisco Chronicle. Briscoe didn't know if anybody really cared, except the people who made the newspapers, the people he loved more than any others. In his mind's eye he sees the three young techies working on the World website in their small uptown office. Culling stories from the newspaper, from the AP and Reuters. Lots of raving blog messages from readers. This just in. Breaking news. Nobody in the city room bothered to read the site. Not even Briscoe. But one man certainly did. The man they all called the F.P., the Fucking Publisher.
Another folder is marked "Love." Filled with absurdity and betrayals and homicides. Wives killing husbands. Husbands killing wives. Mistresses killing men and men killing lovers. The endless ancient tale. Almost always at night. After two in the morning. When Cain whacked Abel, it was almost surely two-thirty in the morning. Just as surely, it had to involve a dame. If I live long enough, Briscoe thinks, I'll write a book about it. At home, he has two entire file cabinets heavy with folders that are also marked "Love." Enough for twenty books. If I live, he thinks, I might even write one of them.
Romantic love isn't part of the deal much anymore. Now the clips are full of assholes coming home loaded, going for the gun, killing the wife, the three kids, themselves. Iraq War vets. Or gas station attendants. Or men who can't pay the subprime mortgage. Guys whose wives weighed 108 when they got married and are now 308. Or God guys, listening to the Lord's whispered commands in the men's rooms of saloons or the front rooms of churches. They don't often strike in New York. Usually it's in what is laughingly called the heartland. Where there is always a handy gun. When these great Americans are finished with their bloody farewells, some cop stands before the house of the freshly dead and says: "They had issues." Like what? Global warming? Nuclear proliferation? The stimulus package?
Fuck. Stop. His mind is always wandering now, he thinks, like water in a stream that pauses in tiny coves and eddies.
12:08 a.m. Josh Thompson. Madison Avenue and 92nd Street.
He needs thicker gloves. Goddamned New York City is cold, and now it's raining. Spattering the poncho that covers him. The rims of the wheels are very cold, steel ice, his gloves already soaked, so that he can't feel the tips of his fingers. He must feel or he can't control the goddamned chair. Need a blanket too, Josh Thompson thinks. Need a lot of things.
He pauses at a corner, flexes and unflexes both hands. Warm me, blood. Make me feel. He remembers a fireplace in his father's house in Norman, when the Oklahoma winds blew for days, his mother long gone, his father dressed in an old army coat, all of the old man thawing, except the heart. Dead now. The frozen heart gave out and he died cursing God and the Democrats.
Okay. He can feel now. Move on. Toward downtown, where the truck driver said he could find a cheap place to stay. Decent fella. Name of Vic. All gray hair and scraggy-ass beard, but big and strong. At the mall parking lot in Virginia, Vic pushed back the passenger seat and lifted me and the wheelchair at the same time, turned us a little to the side so I could see the country go by. I held on tight to the thing under the poncho. The MAC-10. Loaded. The short barrel wedged under my ass now.
Later, it gets dark and the truck driver stops talking about his daughter in college and starts talking about Nam. Some place called Bon Song. Or Bong Son. Where he got shot in the left arm and three of his buddies got killed. A pass home for Vic. Nothing for his buddies except graves. Wanted to know about Iraq. Josh Thompson didn't say much. Fuck it, the truck driver said. You can still have a life. And Josh said, Yeah. And closed his eyes and faked sleep. Opened his eyes later, saw houses with lights still burning, more malls and truck stops and trucks, all going somewhere, closed them again, then woke up at the entrance to an amazing bridge. Into New York, and Vic dropped him off, said he couldn't go into the city, had to take another bridge onto Long Island, already late.
–I'm really sorry, soldier, Vic said.
–No, man, you been more than kind.
Vic lifted him and the chair down from the cab, then pointed and said, Down there, soldier. They got cheap hotels. All the way down.
Josh Thompson moves now, past dark bags of trash, pushing the wheels harder, careful not to dislodge the gun shoved under his crotch. Nobody on the wet streets. Traffic grinding along to his left, heading in the opposite direction. Stores closed. No place to buy gloves. Or a blanket.
He thinks: How much bread I got left?
And answers himself: Enough.
Enough to get what I need.
12:12 a.m. Helen Loomis. City room of New York World.
She is finished now with another episode of the daily serial she still calls "Vics and Dicks." The clock tells her that she must wait another eleven minutes for a cigarette. Then another two hours before heading home. Her eyes glance at the Post as she turns the pages but she reads almost nothing. She removes the reading glasses, folds them, gazes around the deserted city room. The year she turned sixty-five her normal vision actually got better. She needed glasses to read, but the glasses for seeing signs and streets and taxis were folded in the drawer at home. Now in the city room she sees only ghosts. Kempton, pulling on a pipe, referring to some sleazy Brooklyn pol while quoting Plotinus. Gene Grove and Al Aronowitz and Normand Poirier and Don Forst, all of them cracking wise, and Ben Greene pulling plugs on the switchboard. I have so little interest in heaven, she thinks. I've lived in it.
She often wonders if Sam sees the same ghosts. He was there too, twenty pounds lighter with brown hair and a Camel bobbing in his lips. He no longer smokes but seems more drained than ever. Sometimes he must look around the city room the way I do, she thinks, and remember other rooms in other buildings, the reporters cursing and laughing, making sexist remarks, and racist jokes, and wisecracks about everybody on the planet, including each other, and, of course, the opposition. Jokes about the Times. And the Daily News. And the Journal-American. I hear them still, she thinks. I see them before they needed glasses. There are the photographers, Louis Liotta, Arty Pomerantz, Barney Stein, Tony Calvacca. Each of them rowdy and sardonic and very goddamned good at what they did. They are rushing to show us copies of photographs that will never make the paper. Still wet from the developer. Look at this one! Bodies in Bath Beach with heads torn open by gangster bullets. A woman with wide dead eyes and a severed breast. A shot of blonde busty Jayne Mansfield's black hairy crotch, pantyless and winking, as she sits smiling on a steamer trunk on the deck of an ocean liner.
Helen sees them. All gone now, their names mere whispers in the emptiness. Unknown to the young. Foot soldiers in the tabloid wars. Too many are dead now. But even the living are MIA. Living in gated communities in Florida or Arizona. Now the photographers use digital cameras and send their images from computers out of the trunks of cars or from press rooms at political rallies or the press pens above the fields at the ballparks. They never make it to the city room. There are credit lines in the paper now that she can't match to a face. Now they cover baseball games in new stadiums, but I'm not going. She thinks of the game they cover as scumball. It's not the game her father loved. Not the game she loved too. The game of Furillo and Robinson, Snider and Reese and Mantle. And Willie Mays. Jesus Christ. Willie Mays… Now it's scumball, full of steroids and treachery, played by millionaires for millionaires. Played without joy. And we sit here in an emptied world of reporters who almost never come in, using gadgets for stories, sometimes sitting at home, watching events on television, and Googling to cover their asses.
When I was young, there was a comic strip about a guy named Barney Google. He had a horse named… what the hell was the name? Firehouse? Fast Track? Sam would know. He might be the only guy in Manhattan who would know. I'd better Google Barney Google. Now.
She needs to pull on her coat and go down to the street for a Marlboro Light. But first she reads again the newest edition of "Vics and Dicks." The daily catalog of felonious New Yorkers. Two grafs each. Not a name or a sentence likely to attain immortality.
In Queens, some fat balding unemployed thirty-eight-year-old lout knocked down a seventy-nine-year-old woman at 17-39 Seagirt Boulevard. Grabbed her purse. Shoved her to the sidewalk. Ran. His face immortalized on an overhead video camera. A real tough guy. Meanwhile, out in Bushwick, two employed hookers got in a knife fight on Jefferson Street. One of them was working the wrong turf and a pimp told her to leave and she wouldn't and the pimp's hooker started shouting and the knives came out and they both ended up in the emergency ward at Queens General. Slash wounds on arms, hands, and faces. And, of course, under arrest. The pimp home sleeping, or smoking dope.
Up on Fifth Avenue, near 30th Street, a forty-seven-year-old master criminal named Rodriguez, recently laid off at Pathmark, tried to pry open a bodega door with a broom handle. A pedestrian said, "Hey, man," and the guy walked away. Ten minutes later, he was back, with the broom. He didn't notice the cop now stationed across the street. He started prying again, and, of course, was locked up. Another unemployed dumbbell tiptoed into a dark room, full of exhausted people, in Lenox Hill Hospital. He started lifting a pocketbook from a sedated patient. Another woman shouted. He knocked her down, breaking her elbow, and ran into the waiting embrace of a cop.
On and on. "Vics and Dicks." Now it should be "Tales of the Recession."
Christ, I need a cigarette.
Helen Loomis pulls on the down coat, fastens the hood, gives Matt Logan a wave, taps her wristwatch, and heads for the elevator.
12:15 a.m. Malik Shahid, aka Malik Watson. Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. Outside Barnes & Noble.
Lean, his full black beard buried in the collar of a black cloth jacket, he is gazing at the books in the store window without seeing them. Trying to stay dry. He is looking for someone, anyone he can score off. Too early. Too much traffic on the streets. Too many whores and whoremasters. High heels in the rain. He even tried begging on Christopher Street. Holding an empty coffee cup from a diner named Manatus. Saying the word "change." Humiliated. They went by, the whores and whoremasters. All my age. One old lady dropped a quarter in the cup.
A fucking quarter.
I need a hundred dollars, at least.
Gotta get it tonight. Gotta get it for Glorious Burress. My woman. Gotta get it for the child. To pay a doctor tomorrow. Me, with no I.D. Me, with no credit cards. Me, who doesn't fucking exist in this world. Gotta get money, even if I gotta take it.
The rain comes. On some narrow street of shops and stoops in areaways, he sees a guy coming toward him. Skinny motherfucker. Sees him trip on a curb, then right himself.
Malik's heart quickens. The guy comes closer. His jacket soaked. Malik thinks: Head lock, shove him into that doorway. Punch hard. Head. Or neck. Then balls. Reach into the pockets. Grab the bills. One more in the head. Then walk away easy. Into the subway. To Brooklyn. To the Lots. To Glorious.
But then: a police car appears. Slow. Cop sure to be looking. Malik walks as if without care or interest, hands in his pockets. The drunk goes the other way, humming some tune, fumbling for keys in his coat. The police car eases by.
Malik thinks: I know you are testing me, O holy one.
But I need you. Not for me. For my woman. For the baby. For a clean warm room in a hospital. Oh please. Now.
And wanders on.
12:20 a.m. Sam Briscoe. New York World, his office.
Briscoe is shadowy in the muted light of the cowled green desk lamp. On the blotter, his secretary, Janet Barnett, has left her usual two pale blue folders. One is marked "Bitching." Bulging with printouts of e-mail messages, handwritten letters from pissed-off readers. Why is A-Rod still a Yankee? Fire his ass. Why does my grandson, now nine, have to save AIG when he grows up? Why no editorial about Obama wasting our money on the faith-based initiative? Take the BMWs away from the preachers! The other is marked "Important." He stares at that one, blowing out air like a relief pitcher with men on base.
He glances at the television set, on a shelf beside the bookcase. The remote lies before him on the desk, but he does not use it to turn on the set. He rises out of the expensive chair he bought with his own money to support his back. He stretches, sees the typewriter on the shelf to the right of the television set. The old Hermes 3000. The one he carried to Vietnam and Belfast and Beirut. The one he still keeps oiled. The one for which he buys new ribbons every four months from a hidden typewriter store on West 27th Street. A holy relic.
He lifts the "Important" folder.
On top, a single typed page tells him: Mr. Elwood says you should come to his office at 8:30 ayem Friday. He says it's urgent.
He pictures young Richard Elwood. The F.P. He sees the narrow face that came from his father, the sharp chin, sees him in expensively sloppy clothes, the four-hundred-dollar black jeans, and carefully cut casual black hair. And sees his mother's wide-set peering eyes. Briscoe starts talking to himself without speaking a word. I know what the kid is going to tell me. But why at eight-thirty in the morning? Do I work until seven-thirty and then take a cab to 50th Street? Or do I go home now? Christ, I've lived too long. I'm being summoned to the palace by a twenty-eight-year-old. The dauphin. A kid who spent two summers here as an intern, couldn't get a fact straight. And earned his place at the top of the masthead because his mother died.
In the silence of his office, Briscoe glances at the framed photograph of Elizabeth Elwood, high on the top shelf, beside the framed account from the 1955 Times of the end of the Third Avenue El. There's a photograph there of Briscoe with his daughter, Nicole, standing by the Eiffel Tower when the girl was sixteen. Nicole is now forty and lives three blocks from that tower with her hedge-fund-managing French husband. Briscoe sighs. He looks again at Elizabeth Elwood. How old was she in that photo? Sixty? Thin, with high cheekbones, elegantly defiant white hair, those wide-spaced intelligent eyes, an ironical flick in the smile. Taken around the time her husband died. Harry Elwood. A genius at investment banking, when no bankers aspired to run gambling joints.
In 1981, Elizabeth persuaded Harry to buy the title to the long-vanished New York World. It was Joseph Pulitzer's great New York paper, a smart, hard-charging broadsheet that lived beyond his death in 1911 until the Great Depression killed it. Elizabeth Elwood wanted to revive the World as an upscale tabloid. To be published in the afternoon, out of competition with the Post and the News, who owned the morning. To be published right here, in the building where the World-Telegram once lived. She would run her
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