This blog is neither late nor early. It is sort of just where it needs to because it is about the demolition of The Greenville News’ building. Old-time staffers, myself included, got to tour the offices at 305 South Main a few weeks back, just before they locked the doors for good. I could have written this post then. I didn’t. I could have waited a few more weeks until May, when the building is going to be demolished. Not demolished in a massive implosion or wrecking-ball-taking-it-down-in-a-day way. No, instead it will be sort of stripped away, piece by piece, over the next few months. It is appropriate that it is being demolished in that fashion. But I won’t write this post then. I am writing it now because I feel like it, which is appropriate for me. It has been 12 years this week since I was employed by The Greenville News. I worked there for five years, from late 2000 to early 2005. So not quite five years, but apparently I had so many unused sick and vacation days that Gannett rounded up and said I spent five years, which made me eligible to keep my 401K going if I wanted to. I didn’t.
It was working there that brought me to Greenville in the first place, which is a good or bad thing depending on who you talk to in the community. Now, there are people who spent more years there than I. There are people who did more illustrious things for The Greenville News than I. There are people who have more to share than I. But these are a few of my remembrances of The Greenville News. Five very random things to let the outside world know what was really happening behind the blank, white facade of what many considered one of the ugliest buildings downtown.
No. 5. The Bunny Incident: This one started innocently enough. There was some kind of financial drive for something around Easter. Maybe it was March of Dimes. Maybe it was the United Way. Whatever it was, there was a “competition” between departments to raise the most money and the winner would get to see their manager wear a pink bunny suit out in the street. To help gin up support, someone in promotions decorated the hallways with black-and-white, 8.5-by-11 inch copies of the basic rules, adorned with pictures of the management team, all sporting Photoshopped bunny ears. As usual, the newsroom yawned at such teambuilding gimmicks. Not our style. The newsroom, by writ, was just too damn cool to get caught up in stuff like that. Until Ben Szobody got a hold of it. For those who don’t remember him, Ben was a gifted writer who toiled on the business beat for several years. He once got the word proboscis into a story on taxes. I had to look up that one when I read it. He was talented, but like most talented people who get bored with what they do, he could be quirky as the day is long. The Bunny Incident would prove this one. Ben took an almost-perverse pleasure in the tiny picture of our executive editor John Pittman dressed as bunny. A couple of sentences on John Pittman, who joined The Greenville News in 1976 as city editor, was quickly promoted to executive editor and stayed there until 2013. It was always odd to know your boss had been in in charge of the newsroom in some capacity since before you born. He was almost universally known as Pittman in the office. His first named was so rarely uttered that I imagined his own family just called Pittman as well. Pittman had a reputation as being mean as heck in his day, but had mellowed considerably by the time I got there. Still, Ben was tempting his future with the paper when he enlarged copies of the tiny picture of Pittman in bunny ears to full size, wrote captions like “Are You Laughing?” and “Pittman needs to wear this,” and hung them everywhere in the newsroom. I mean everywhere. If there were 10 of the original flyers in the entire building, Ben put about 30 in the newsroom. Ben wanted to see Pittman in the street in a bunny suit. Then Ben unveiled his other great talent: He would have been a great collection guy for loan sharks. Ben was everywhere extorting money out of people. You came off the elevator in the morning, Ben was in your face asking for money, reminding you how worthy a cause this was for the newsroom. Ben would follow you to the vending machine and ask what was better for you, that KitKat bar or Pittman in the street in the bunny suit. Pittman, as best as I can remember, laughed it off. He liked Ben, and felt Ben was just blowing off steam. However, he started to sweat when it was announced that the newsroom had pulled far out into the lead in the competition. It wouldn’t surprise me if Pittman had been tempted to write a check in honor of another department just to stay out of the suit. Well, Ben pulled off his coup, we raised the money and Pittman had to wear the suit. There was one unforeseen development. The suit they picked out for Pittman had a full face mask. You couldn’t tell if it was him or not. It sort of took the wind out of the sails of Ben’s plan. The dream of a Sunday edition with Pittman clearly on the front in a pink bunny suit ended up for naught because it could have been anyone else behind the mask. The entire escapade reminded me of a Jim Bouton story about Mickey Mantle. Bouton and the rest of the New York Yankees had bought tickets from Mantle for a raffle for a turkey. Bouton won and went to collect his turkey only to find there was no turkey. Mantle waxed poetically, “these things happen when you play a game of chance.”
No 4. Food, (In)glorious Food: At some point in my first year at The News, I became the go-to person for breaking crime stuff. I will get to why that happened later, but anyway, I got very good at writing about death and destruction. I say that not with pride or pleasure. Iit’s just a fact. Well, one week, we had some very gruesome stuff happen in Greer, and my writing and reporting had outshone the rest of the Upstate media. So Pittman decided to order a giant cake for the newsroom, and me in particular, on a Friday. There was one problem. I had run out of hours Thursday and The News was under a strict no-overtime policy back then. So, while I stayed home that day watching Jerry Springer, my colleagues ate my damn sheet cake. Pittman had even called me out to say some nice words, and when he was told I wasn’t there, he just shrugged. My friends told me the entire story that night over beers at Connolly’s (side note: Suzanne Coe, Connolly’s long-time owner, lost out on a potential goldmine by not having Greenville News reporters do direct deposit there because we spent so much money at Connolly’s in the early 2000s). The winning line that night was “the cake tasted liked a Twinkie.” Anyway, Monday comes and I am back at work early and bright to find a large part of cake still in the newsroom. Remembering, the line about its taste, I helped myself to a very large piece. Didn’t care that it had been left out for three days. This was my cake and I was going to eat it. And it did taste like Twinkie. And I spent most of the evening with severe stomach pains. Good times. Now, you may be wondering if I learned my lesson. The answer was and is no. That’s because the eating habits at The Greenville News would terrify the most hardened gutter rat. It was our culture. We were cynics, but damn it, if there was free food, it would be consumed happily. A perfect example was that a woman in prepress, which was on the same floor as the newsroom, also worked in a movie theatre. Every Monday, she would bring in a green plastic trash bag filled with unsold popcorn from the weekend. It was customary to see reporters, editors and the prepress folks walking around eating popcorn out of Styrofoam cups or out of clenched fists. Every time you walked by the bag, you took a scoop. It was like some Pavlovian reaction. I am sure the HR folks were glad they were on a different floor or there would have had some legal messes to clean up. Seriously, employees reaching into a trash bag to eat days-old popcorn. I am surprised half of the staff didn’t have dysentery.
No. 3. A TV Moment: The newsroom television was located over the main newsroom printer. Because of that, this area sort of served as a water cooler around which we would gather and commiserate. The TV was always on, and usually tuned to local news. If there was a breaking new story, the TV served as a great way for editors to fact check what our reporters were writing. It also was a great for them to yell at us if a TV reporter had something we didn’t have. “Brad Willis on WYFF is saying the victim was assaulted with a Phillips-head screwdriver; why do you just say screwdriver! WHY?!? WHY? ANSWER ME!” Anyway, if you covered cops as I and most of the young writers did, you ended up watching TV and hoping Brad or Gordon Dill or Myra Ruiz didn’t make you look bad. One Friday night, two or three of us were huddled around the TV when Daniel Goldberg wandered over. Dan worked over on the features desk and was a movie critic. He was one of the snarkiest people in the newsroom, and famously one of the laziest. I was once sent to check on Dan at his apartment because he was so late for work, the editors had assumed he was dead. Well, Dan comes over to get something off the printer because he sure has hell wasn’t watching the crime news. Dan never covered crime and usually made fun of our bitching when we drank at Connolly’s. This time, however, he sidled up to us and silently watched as we mumbled our critique of the TV report. The editors felt confident we had beaten TV and said we could finally leave to get drunk. They knew us well. Dan, though, had to twist the knife a little. Very loudly he announced the TV reporter had a much nicer coat than any of us. It was true. It was black leather. Very chic. Very cool. I should note I write all of this in awe of Daniel – not in anger. He was and is a funny guy.
No. 2. The Walls are Closing In: Every Halloween, local school kids would come trick-or-treating in the building. Apparently, the jail was closed to visitors so they found the next-least-cheery place to bring school-aged children in Greenville. Of course, promotions would remind everyone to decorate their cubicles to make it more festive for the children. That would lead to a lot of grousing on the newsroom’s part. Remember, we were cynical. I should note the newsroom space was uniformly ugly. Gray walls. Gray cubicles. Gray carpet. Gray and black desks. Yes, the only color to break the monotony was black. I jest just a little. We had maroon columns. Actually, there was a very bizarre body-sized stain on the carpet. No one knew how it got there, but it looked like something from a crime scene. The general consensus was that was our combined Halloween decoration. Look, kids, a blood stain. That changed when Andy Paras, in a fit of pre-Halloween, late-night mischief, put up a homemade decoration. He stuffed one of his dress shirts with newspaper; stretched a ghoul mask over a basketball; attached that above the shirt, where the head should be; placed a purple plastic knife at the end of a shirt sleeve; and somehow hooked the whole affair on the communal wall between his desk and mine. He also wrote a little caption about the legend of The Greenville News Demon, who was the ghost of a particularly mean editor who died at his desk reviewing a 60-inch story on water-usage fees. His ghost now roamed the newsroom on deadline slashing up extraneous copy with its knife. We all laughed. The kids didn’t. But they got their candy so they were happy. Anyway, a few weeks went by, and the Demon was still hanging. I asked Andy if he was going to take it down. He said he probably should, but I talked him out of it. I suggested we see how long we could keep it up before management said anything. I think we started to add stuff to him. Like a Santa hat at Christmas and a green hat at St. Patrick’s Day, but I think we ONLY talked about that and silently just kept him up as a minor act of rebellion. A good year went by with the Demon just chilling, before it was announced that the big bosses from Gannett were coming in, which meant we all had to be on our best behavior that day. Pick up the messes. Wash the windows. Do something about the stain. John and Andy, take down your puppet. Well, the Demon died, but his flame of rebellion against the gray walls lived on. John Stevenson, who now edits everything for Complete PR and hopefully is not ready to kill for me this one, and Mike Foley, who has becoming a race-management impresario, started decorating the wall over their desk. While Andy and I had had only the one item, those two created their anarchic Sistine Chapel of odd pictures, plastic footballs, post cards, press clippings, calendars, bric-a-brac and what have you. It was six feet high and 10 feet long of just mass media. At one point, it became a thing that every reporter who was laid off or quit would bequeath something from their own desk to the wall. I think my addition was a picture of nuns shooting shotguns . Their wall lasted for years.
No. 1. The True Story of Why I got Famous There: In the 12 years since I left The Greenville News, I worked at its rival, The Journal. I started a successful PR company. I have written four books so far. Chaired numerous boards. But I still get, “Aren’t you the guy who worked at The Greenville News?” It’s my version of the Scarlett Letter, but hopefully Demi Moore will never play my part in a movie. So how did a long-winded, talk-too-fast, hyphen-loving Yankee with a weird last name become a consistently front-page reporter that everyone remembers? The answer was not talent. It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t ambition. It was Dale Perry’s coat. Two quick scene setters: Chris Weston, who was Pittman’s right-hand man, had few rules when running the zoo that was the newsroom. The biggest, though, might have been that every male reporter had to have a coat and tie handy just in case the governor showed up. He knew we were slobs, but he at least wanted us to look professional when the cards were on the table. Setting up that, meet Dale Perry. When I got to The News, Dale had been with the paper for more than 40 years. He had covered everything thrice and had really become Weston’s go-to person when a story needed to be done with some amount of tact and care. Basically, something that required a coat and tie. Basically, something that Dale probably didn’t want to do. Basically, Dale devised a rebellion plan better than anything Ben or Andy or Mike or John or Dan could have come up with it. He bought the ugliest sports jacket available. It was all patches and green and orange and tweed. It was the coat from the Island of Doctor Moreau. And he kept it on the back of his desk chair. So, when Chris came out of his office with a tip or a story or then-governor Jim Hodges randomly coming up the elevator, he headed straight for Dale. And the jacket. And he would see the jacket. He would blanche a little. Dale would start getting up and patting the moths out of the jacket. You could see the dilemma written on Chris’s face: He could send Dale and get the story right, but that meant Dale’s jacket would see sunlight. Chris would then look across the aisle where the weird floor stain was and see me sitting there with my blue blazer with shiny brass buttons. The Yankee with the weird name could screw up the story, but at least he would look good trying. Chris would take the risk with me. It mostly ended up being a good choice. The News soon let Dale retire in a layoff, but Chris still would send me out on the blazer-and-tie stories as needed.
And there were the weird things that would happen, regardless of whether I was dressed for the governor or wearing running shorts. One time a woman came in with a scoop. I don’t remember what it was about now, but she was wearing a T-shirt for the band, Alabama. She pointed to the image of one of the band members and said proudly, “he slept with me.” Another time, Dave Barry, columnist and the subject of the famed Dave’s World TV show, picked up a story I wrote about two guys fighting with leaf blowers. My name was in more than 250 papers in the country; maybe more. The original leaf-blower story, oddly enough, never was printed in The Greenville News – only online. Another time, then-governor Mark Sanford poked me in the chest during a press conference to denounce one of my stories.
And one time, they bought me a cake for all of this.