1. Opinion

Papers from a career in papers

Published Dec. 19, 2013

To: The New York Public Library

Re: My "papers."

I note with interest that you have just paid the author Tom Wolfe $2.15 million for his papers, which include stories, drafts, notes and personal mail, including correspondence with his tailor and swatches of cloth. I am here to offer you a similar deal. My papers will include the following:

• A copy of the cover of my first book, The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death, which had been overnighted to me by the publisher at the last minute, as a courtesy. The cover looked handsome, but "Hypochondriac" was spelled "Hypochodriac." It was the first and only time I ever got to say, and mean, "Stop the presses."

• Multiple copies of a certain genre of fan mail, printed in block letters by Sharpie, across my column itself. In the era of snail mail, these would come regularly. They were seldom complimentary but always concise. My favorite one simply said, "YOU ARE AN IDOT."

• A clipping of my first story in the Detroit Free Press, which had hired me in 1976 to cover state government but whose city editor, John Oppedahl, liked to give all newbies, as a sort of initiation, the crappiest story possible. I was sent to check out reports of a runaway pig on the Ford Freeway. It turned out to be true, but I could not find the pig. Eventually I discovered, on deadline, that a city sanitation worker had subdued the pig with a ball-peen hammer, taken it home and eaten it.

• A clipping of my first Page 1 story in the Free Press in 1979, and a clipping of the following day's paper, containing my first correction. Because I wrote the correction, it was somewhat charitable to me. It said, simply, "In an article yesterday about the Michigan State Lottery, the name of a Michigan State University statistics professor was misspelled. He is James Stapleton." What the correction did not note was that the "misspelling" identified him, in all 13 references, as James "Templeton."

• A clipping of a sensational if irresponsible story of mine revealing that under an old law somehow still on the books, it was legal to kill house cats in Michigan at any time, in any way and for any purpose. The law was quickly rescinded before any cat holocaust occurred, but not before the newspaper received a mailbag of letters (included) from third-graders as part of an organized campaign to get me fired.

• Two sets of panties received in the mail, addressed to me, several years apart, that may or may not have been from ardent admirers. They are roughly size 64.

• An audiotape of a 1997 phone conversation between Rodney Dangerfield and me, which establishes that he really and truly talked like that.

• An audiotape of an impromptu living room concert by the hot British alt-rock band the Bevis Frond in which, lacking bongos, the drummer used, to excellent results, the somewhat overweight family dog.

That's all for $2.15 million. If you throw in an extra half mil, you'll also get this:

• A clipping of the Washington Post's Style Invitational humor contest, which I edited, from Feb. 5, 1995. It featured two large cartoons asking readers, "What is wrong with these pictures?" The joke was that everything was wrong with the pictures: They were a riot of three-headed people, upside-down houses, etc. But there was also, drawn very, very small, a crudely rendered, unmistakable, public-bathroom-style illustration of male genitalia. The artist had put it in as a joke, and I hadn't noticed it until it was in print, in the paper, and distributed to 600,000 households. I didn't get fired because my boss, Mary, looked at it, declared it could not possibly be that awful thing because the august Washington Post would never do that, that it must be "a gun or something." I kissed her.

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group


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