The Trappings of a Good Newsroom

A Good Newsroom …

It doesn’t matter if it’s the New York Times, The St. Augustine Record or the Flagler College Gargoyle. As far as I’m concerned, a newsroom is a newsroom is a newsroom.

I’m thinking this because I spent the past week working with the “kids” of the Flagler paper.

They listen to alien music and talk in a strange free-flowing language I can’t seem to understand.

I’ll say it: I think I’m getting old.

But it was a blast (even if they did call me Old Man Magoo.) Sure, no police scanner, AP feeds or people yelling, “I brought pruning sheers if that page isn’t down by six,” but it was the same old thrill.

I always loved newsrooms because you never knew what was going to come your way. And you never knew what was going to be thrown your way.

I’ll tell this little story since I don’t work at the Record anymore, making it a little harder to fire me. One day someone threw a ball in my direction (I swear I was not participating) and it ricocheted off my computer. Now, a ball has 20 million places it can ricochet to, but this one decided to pick a full glass of water. It toppled in a giant flood, and despite the 20 million places it could have spilled to, it drowned my keyboard instead.

I stared in shock expecting sparks to fly. When they didn’t, I turned the keyboard over to drain it and fish fell out. I swapped it with another, left it upside down overnight and was amazed to find the next day it actually worked. To this day I’m sure someone at The Record still wonders why there are high-water marks on the keys.

These are the kinds of things that go on in newsrooms. And I’m hoping to bring more of what I learned over the years at The Record to the Gargoyle.

There are a few criteria (ingredients you might call them) that I think are highly necessary to make a successful newsroom, and some of these have already been mastered:

• Food needs to be ground two floors deep into the rug. It should never be identifiable — not even as liquid or solid. A good newsroom floor should be covered in great stains covering vast sections of the floor.

In slow times, you can use them as ink blot tests, or pretend they’re chalk lines for bodies. “What happened to him that he’s shaped like this?” And if anyone high-up asks, you blame it on someone from the pressroom with ink on his shoes walking through.

“Honestly, I know it looks like pepperoni, but it’s red ink!”

• There should be a map the size of a basketball court on the wall with every street in the county on it. Forget the fact that no reporter dashing out the door to a fire or some breaking news event will ever check the map, and inevitably will call 10 minutes later lost and out of gas.

• There needs to be a stack of newspapers piled up so high (no one claims ownership of the pile, yet it grows higher every day) that it causes the steel supports in the floor to sag so much that chairs roll downhill toward it.

• There must (despite rules strictly forbidding it) be some kind of food source kept in a Tupperware container that (despite the fact it could be either three weeks or 11 years old) everyone eats.

And the Tupperware will never be cleaned, meaning leftover petrified bits hard as marbles get mixed in, chipping teeth and lodging in throats.

• A newsroom should never be clean. It’s a sign that work isn’t getting done. Journalists don’t clean. They wallow in their own slovenliness. Like packrats, they store everything ever given to them for the simple reason that it’s much easier to fill up file drawers with pens, magnets and handfuls of candy than actual files.

• And finally, various projectiles should always be nearby. I learned very little from that spilled glass of water.

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Cold and the Winter Snow

My wife called her cousin in Long Island, New York, just to see if they were OK. It was the blizzard, you know? Twelve inches of snow had fallen — an inch an hour. The roads were impassable. The front yard now stretched for snowy miles. The cold was pounding on the front door, demanding to come in. The insulation in heavy jackets had called a strike, tired of all the overtime and demands to keep people warm in steadily declining conditions.

The salt had frozen. The wolves were out asking people for spare change. The snow was marauding through town, drunk and kicking over street signs. And if the federal government didn’t start dropping-in hot chocolate, people were surely going to die.

Well, these are things I figured happened in a blizzard. I’ve never witnessed one firsthand, and never want to. Check that: Most of me doesn’t — the part that gets so cold that my internal organs tie-up into Christmas bows and makes my toes want to drop off and crawl to warmer climates.

I’m third generation from Tampa, and before that, two-thirds of me came from places where you’re lucky if ice will last in your drink. My DNA is coded to withstand heat, like Teflon, and has several warning labels about letting the temperature get below 50. “Caution: In freezing temperatures, skeleton may eject from body. Look for it in Key West.”

I don’t know blizzards, but some strange part of me — the part I’ve asked doctors to surgically remove and then beat with a mallet — longs to see one. To see the mountains of snow. To step out into it, only to find it has swallowed me whole and that I’m trapped until spring, when it thaws. To shovel paths and chip ice off of windshields. To get frostbite and finally try out hypothermia.

Just like most northerners don’t understand what it’s like to go through a hurricane — “I thought it was some wind and TV reporters pretending to get blown away” — I haven’t an ice crystal of knowledge what it’s like to bear the brunt of a blizzard.

I have a romanticized few of snow, and it never involves the bone-curdling cold, being trapped in your house or how it makes heating bills resemble third-world debt.

I’ve only seen snow a handful of times in my life.

As boys, my father used to take my brother and me to Gatlinburg, Tenn. There they have a mountain where you can go skiing and sledding Tennessee-style, which is to say Dolly Parton serenades you and there are moonshine stills on the trails.

They never had any real snow — any powder. It was has-been snow, now frozen solid like icebergs and lying on rocks and paths like drunk men on the couch watching football games.

“Hey, pass me the peanuts,” the lazy snow would moan, slowly trickling away.

On occasion they would make more snow, but as well as I can recall, skiing down this mountain was like skiing on frozen gravel. There wasn’t the swoosh like you see on TV where jets of snow fan up. Instead there was a rooster tail of sparks that followed you, and because the whole slope was like a hockey rink tilted at an angle, the method they had taught us to stop — the snow plow — didn’t exactly work.

A quarter-mile of screaming later, and after zipping through the gift shop, I would finally come to rest in the parking lot, my skis smoking and pine tree needles puncturing my thighs like some horrible organic acupuncture.

I always wanted on those trips, but never got, a lot of snow. I wanted to be buried in it. To get the full experience out of it. To live it like an Eskimo.

Well, part of me did, and still does. The other part (shivering uncontrollably) is trying to talk me into a trip to Key West.

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The Secret to Effective Warning Labels

I think it’s time we do something about warning labels on products, and especially tools. Oh, and if you think I’m going to advocate removing them all, you’ve got another thing coming. I want them to be more effective — even interesting — and I think I’ve found a way.

First, let’s remember that the real purpose of labels stuck on power saws, ladders, toasters and toothbrushes is not safety, but preventing lawsuits. When a guy named Drunk Bob accidentally plugs his un-electric toothbrush into a wall socket, that tends to, uh, spark legal filings. But not if Drunk Bob’s toothbrush had a 13-page manual that clearly warned of this, right after it told him, “Don’t stick in ear while lit with kerosene” and “Do not use as a weapon during a bar fight.”

Only they’re so ridiculous, no one pays attention to them. Warnings should be heeded, not something you try on a boring weekend — “I wonder what WOULD happen if I dropped a running hair dryer into a bath tub full of water.”

So I’ve struck upon something, and hear me out: Instead of warning labels, lets use the X-rays of people who have misused these products and wounded themselves. I’m serious. A recent and perfect example: A man was using a nail gun. It misfired and a nail several inches long shot into the roof of his mouth and poked about four inches into his brain.

Miraculously, he survived. Even more miraculously, he didn’t realize he had a nail tickling the ‘ole brain until some mild pain and discomfort sent him to a dentist where his wife works. An X-ray showed a nail pointing straight to heaven, a reminder it’s where he’s going next time if he’s not more careful.

Now, let’s not get sidetracked by how he didn’t realize he had a nail stuck through the roof of his mouth. I get a popcorn kernel up there and I’m calling rescue personnel to bring the jaws of life. “Please, get it out. I think it’s burrowing into my brain!”

Put that aside and let’s stay focused — see that a positive can come out of this. It’s a terrifying X-ray, and would make anyone think twice about shooting themselves in the mouth with a nail gun. I know I won’t do it anytime soon.

Most men have no regard for the power of power tools. I have a lot of tools, but rarely read the warnings. I feel they don’t relate to me. They don’t speak my language. So don’t show me a stick figure falling off a ladder to explain the importance of putting it on solid footing.

Shoot, when I put a ladder up it’s hanging on by a leaf, on ground that is slowly sinking, often a hair away from power lines, and all the while at such an angle that it bows and sways like it was made of licorice.

But put a picture of a guy broken in half being loaded into an ambulance and I’m going to pay attention.

The other day I was using a rotary saw in the front yard in such a way that a guy walking down the street stopped because he thought I was doing a magic trick. But put a picture of a guy trying to dial “911” with a missing finger and I’ll be more careful.

Some group recently came out with a list of the year’s worst warning labels. The winner was a toilet brush with a warning that read, “Do not use for personal hygiene.” The point they were trying to make was that our society has become ridiculously litigious that something must be done about it.

I agree, and I think I have the answer. That’s why I’m taping the X-ray of the guy with the nail in his head up in my shed. If nothing else, at least I can say I was properly warned.

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An Alligator Addiction

I got my wife a lot of nice things for Christmas. I always do. I’m a nice guy. I buy nice things.

I got her a spa package, and a calendar with very bizarre chickens in it, and a book the size of a garbage dumpster with every cartoon that has ever been published in The New Yorker.

They were nice gifts. I spent a lot of time thinking about them. But I don’t think anything she got this year came close to something her mother got her — a year’s pass to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Her eyes lit up like a little kid and she blurted out, “YES! Just what I wanted.”

“Eh?” was my reaction.

I had never been to the alligator farm in all the years I’ve lived in St. Augustine. And neither had my wife. She has been talking about it since about the day we met, but I had never taken her. A strike against me, but it didn’t seem like the kind of place you take a girl on a date — “And over here is another reptile who can rip off your limbs before drowning you. Feel like making out during the animal show?”

So when her sister came to town, she went without me, and now she’s a regular Crocodile Hunter. She wants the newsletter. She wants to work there. She wants to raise alligators and teach them how to be civilized and knit. She wants to give them all names and start a fund to get all the snaggle-toothed ones braces.

And now she has a year-round pass so she can go all the time and study them and talk to them and give them love.

Eh?

Although, not to sound like an advertisement for the Alligator Farm, but I went there this past weekend and … well … I’m a little bit hooked myself.

What is it about big, ugly reptiles who spend most of their life sleeping that is so darn exciting? Nothing, really. I don’t get it. But I was mesmerized.

Pools of young alligators, their eyes like a bowl full of black marbles, gazed up at me, just hoping I would lean over the railing too far. They have these little pellet-food dispensers where you put a quarter in and get a handful of foul-smelling niblets that the fellas’ absolutely love. I thought it was great, but I would pay extra to be able to throw a corn dog in there.

I got to know the Cuban crocodile, who likes to rhumba and smoke the occasional cigar. I stared at the needle-nosed crocs who look like someone took their snouts and squeezed them as if it was Play-Doh.

And then there was the alligator feeding show when a park employee throws big chunks of nutria at the gators. One’s name was Lock Jaw and another stood halfway out of the water right below the platform. He reminded me of my dog on Thanksgiving while I’m carving the turkey. He was ramrod straight, not a bone in his body moving with his eyes locked-on. I’m sure his brain was screaming, “Gimme’ one, come on. Right here. I’m right here! Pleasssse!”

Here he is the size of a school bus and he’s behavin’ like my little dog. I almost ran up and screamed, “Stop beggin’, get away from the table and stay out of the garbage can.”

Are dogs and alligators that different?

I’ll tell you one way: A dog would never stand for a turtle riding around on his back like the captain of a ship sunning himself.

Swat him off? You’re an alligator! Have some dignity. You’re a big, ferocious beast. I’ll have to take this up with them next time. I have a feeling we’re gonna’ be spending a lot of time there, especially if we’re gonna’ get the snaggle-toothed one braces.

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Here Come the Big Keys Rats

So here it is Jan. 7 and we already have a contender for the most bizarre story of the year. Maybe you saw it the other morning. It was headlined “Large African Gambian rats have Keys officials worried.”

This should be one heck of a new year if we’re starting it like this.

It was really the subhead that caught my attention: “Rats that can grow as big as a raccoon could threaten other species …”

What? Big as raccoons? Now that’s what I call a rat.

The African Gambian pouch rat. And officials down there are worried the needle-nose critters could decimate local wildlife and run off tourists. Tourists will swim with barracuda, but mention a rat and they’re off to the other coast.

What a great story. When I was a reporter it was the kind of piece I literally begged for. Something that is filled with color and total absurdity — that draws all kinds of great imagery in a reader’s head.

Like how it mentioned pouch rats are so big they don’t have any natural predators. Cats won’t go near them. It cites a woman who went outside one night to investigate a loud shrieking noise only two find two pouch rats fighting, maybe over a girl named Judy or some pizza crust. Then, and here’s the kicker, what’s watching the whole thing but two cats.

In my mind I hear one cat lean over to the other and whisper, “Jeez, the neighborhood’s really going downhill in a hurry.”

The story also said experts fear that the pouch rats could spread to the mainland and the Everglades (where they might start wrestling alligators). These experts weren’t too worried they could walk the distance, maybe because these are generally lazy animals and don’t wear the kind of comfortable shoes needed for such a long trek.

“But they could get in the back of a truck and make it that way,” one person actually said. This just had me in stitches and again my mind was all a flutter.

See, I always picture animals as stars of action movies or in Broadway musicals. Two pouch rats fighting? I see “Westside Story.”

“When you’re a pouch rat, as big as a coon, you revel your fat, and the ladies all swoon.”

Pouch rats in a truck? I picture them with tattoos, wearing vests and leather jackets hiding out in a gas station parking lot until the perfect truck with a tarp over the bed pulls up. There it is! After a quick fight over a peanut, the leader, Eddie, prince of the pouch rats, yells out, “Load ‘em up, boys. We’re headed for the big city.” The pouch rats clamber in and I see them with their little pouch rat arms hanging over the side while passing around a pack of cigarettes. Every couple of miles a fight breaks out.

“When you’re a pouch rat …”

This is the kind of stuff I think about when I’m up early in the morning.

I did some research on pouch rats, and I found out they’re called “pouch” because they stuff things in their cheeks. I don’t know if that’s food or lug nuts, but they look ridiculous.

And they’re actually considered an exotic pet, which simply means there are people out there who like the idea of a rat curling up with them at night.

An MSNBC story I found on pouch rats quoted an owner who called them wonderful companions, despite the fact that they eat furniture and tear up the carpets if left alone for more than a second. Oh yes, and the story said they’re also believed to be responsible for bringing monkeypox into the U.S.

Not to mention they would fight an entire biker bar … if they could only find a truck with a tarp to get them out of the Keys.

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