Roving Reporter Reaches New Heights
'You're going to be our George Plimpton,' the Editor announced. The Editor in question was running the Pitt News, a campus newspaper that came out weekly on Thursday, if I remember correctly. I looked at him in some alarm.
'I don't play football,' I replied. 'No Football is my bottom line.' In case you don't remember, George Plimpton was a reporter who was famous for trying things out on an amateur basis. He actually participated in a few pro football plays, and I wasn't eager to emulate him. I am not built like a linebacker.
The Editor laughed. He was dressed for his own kind of success: sleeve garters – I don't know where he got them – an eyeshade (ditto), and a fat cigar. This was the early 70s, and we did all sorts of things. Like smoke indoors.
'I want you to interview Nathan Davis,' he said. 'He's the director of Jazz Studies. And I want you to play with his band and report on the experience.'
'Oh, okay,' I said. 'If he'll have me.' I wasn't sure if an accomplished ethnomusicologist and saxophonist, who'd played with Ray Charles and other greats, was going to be keen on letting me pound ivories. I mean, I played church piano and a little pump organ back then. I went off to do the interview, anyway.
Prof Davis turned out to be a great guy and a good sport. He gave me lots of juicy quotes about jazz and why learning it was good for music students. He was perfectly laid back about me playing with the band at a rehearsal session. His piano guy was cool about it, too, not blinking an eye when I confessed I had never, ever seen a chord chart before. I got a quick lesson and some encouragement and had a ball. I mean, instrumentalists, catchy tunes, what's not to like? Great educator, that Nathan Davis.
I was about to meet some more great educators. I used to stroll over to the News office on Wednesday evenings to help out. They needed volunteers, especially ones who could spell. The Editor liked my rewrites of Associated Press copy.
'You sure you're not a journalism major?' I confessed that I had never darkened the doorway of a journalism class. 'Then how do you know how to write inverted pyramid style?' he demanded suspiciously.
I remarked that I had been reading American newspapers since the age of eight and was a good parrot. He laughed. He also explained why they wrote in this style: it was important to put the crucial information at the beginning so that the editor could lop stuff off the end as space required. Things were different in the days before virtual space – you know, when 'cut and paste' involved actual sharp implements and real glue.
On one particular evening, the theatre and music critic showed up with his copy and hovered anxiously over me as I blue-pencilled corrections. I changed 'The boys' choir has developed to become' to 'has become', and he protested.
'That's an unnecessarily fussy phrase,' I commented mildly. The Editor happened by and read it over my shoulder, thoughtfully removing his cigar from his mouth.
'I'd have changed it to 'is',' he remarked. The critic sighed. At least, I thought, he's not writing about the Chancellor's wife again. The Chancellor's wife was a famous opera singer. Andy had panned her charity performance. We had Got Phone Calls.
My next assignment was the Blooper Reel part. The Editor called me at my dorm one morning and said, 'The Education Department sent this over this morning. They really want somebody to cover the national symposium on educational testing. It will be boring as heck. Just go over to the Cathedral and tell them we sent you. Write something nice about it.' I said I'd do my best.
Since the meeting was billed as a formal symposium, I figured I'd better dress for it, so I put on a suit and tie. I thought I'd try to stay at the back of the crowd and be inconspicuous among the no-doubt serious-minded academics…I ran a comb through my hair, grabbed a notebook and pen, and headed across the street to our 42-story Gothic Revival university building. I had been told to find the elevator operator for the central lift.
He listened to my tale and nodded. 'Yep, they're on the 42nd floor. Get in. You'll have to take two elevators.'
Wow, I thought. At least I'll finally get to see what it looks like from up there. Sometimes, the top of the Cathedral of Learning is shrouded in fog. It is a gloriously ridiculous building which looks like this on the main mezzanine:
The elevator was old: the gated kind. Very impressive ride. Somewhere in the middle (I can't remember which floor), I changed elevators. This one required a key. The operator let me out (my ears were popping) and pointed me in a direction. 'They're back there,' he said. He didn't sound impressed. I was, though. I was 19, and the words 'national symposium' had the ring of significance to me. I approached cautiously.
The first thing I saw was a giant table display. Oh, wow, it was an architect's model setup of the whole university campus. Since the campus was spread out over a not inconsiderable portion of Pittsburgh, it was impressive. I snuck a look at it but was afraid to linger: I might be missing an important address. I headed off in the direction I'd been pointed in. I didn't have too far to go: the Cathedral is tall, but it tapers. The top room isn't all that huge.
As I rounded a pillar I heard a voice call, 'We're back here!'
They were, indeed, 'back there': about half a dozen men and women lounging on sofas in what looked to be a sound stage set meant to indicate what the 60s called a 'conversation pit.'
'Oh, good,' grinned the leader. 'A student! Just what we needed. Come have a seat.'
I was shocked, and more than a little embarrassed. But I sat down, as instructed, next to a lady who was obviously Somebody in the Field. They handed me an agenda. I thanked them and noted with relief that their names and bona fides were printed there so I could put them in my article. (I can't remember them now. Give me a break: this was half a century ago.) I prepared to listen, and maybe ask questions.
But oh, no: they wanted to ask me questions. Had I taken the SATs?
What did I think about them? Did they test what they were supposed to test? Did I feel they were culturally biased? Well, yes, as a matter of fact…
They had probing questions. They had theories to test out. They had themselves a guinea pig and they were absolutely delighted. Wait, I wanted to protest, I'm supposed to be interviewing you! Suggesting that I was only there to observe did no good at all. Worse, these academic heavyweights acted like my opinion counted. This was a new experience for me.
Once I got over the shock, I started to enjoy the banter. These lovely people cared about testing. They cared about students. And they were fun to talk to. Eventually, they even let me ask questions so I could write the article. I got the Pitt professor's campus mail address so I could send him copies. We talked for a couple of hours, and when they broke for lunch, they gave me a tour around the 42nd floor so that I could enjoy the view and look at the campus model some more.
As I said, fifty years have passed. During that time, I've done a bit of test design myself, and even freelanced for the SAT people at one time. The Editor became a real grown-up correspondent and won the Pulitzer Prize. The Pitt News has gone from glory to glory: these days it has an online edition (which I read), wins all the university journalism awards, and even has paying positions for its staff. Even the Student Union building, where the offices are, has been renovated – although it still retains the Gilded-Age glamour of its origins as a swanky hotel.
In the narrative of an era, I suppose reminiscences like these are doomed to end up on the cutting-room floor. They singularly failed to make history. But hey, whenever I'm in Pittsburgh, and look up at the Cathedral of Learning, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was once on the 42nd floor.