Gordon Dillow was packing it in. Squinting against cigarette smoke and a hangover from the previous night’s wake, he hauled stuff off his desk in armloads and put it as carefully as conditions allowed into cardboard boxes.
Once or twice he stopped to study a clipping or a letter. “I don’t think I ever answered these,” he said, holding up a stack of mail. “I guess now I never will.”
Into a box they went, along with pictures, cartoons torn from magazines, a calendar, small gifts from readers and God knows what else. There were two balloons on the wall, one black and one orange, and I wondered if he would take them, too.
For a moment he held up his telephone, considered putting it in a box, and then said, “Naw,” and put it down again.
“I feel as though I’m intruding on a family funeral,” I said.
Dillow shrugged. He’s 38, tall, Texas-born and looks a little like Ron Howard, the child star turned movie director.
He started in newspapering 12 years ago at something called the Missoula, Mont., Missoulian. The Missoulian? I thought about making a joke, but I didn’t.
You don’t make fun the day after a dying.
“We all knew it was going to happen,” he said, “but not so suddenly. When I drove to work yesterday and saw all the television trucks parked outside, it flashed into my head, but I said to myself, ‘Please, God, let it be a murder in the city room. . . .’ ”
We laughed, and then he said, “In a way, I guess it was.”
It was Thursday, the last day of the Herald-Examiner. The euphoria that accompanies big events and boozy wakes had vanished from the city room like smoke in the wind.
Robert Danzig’s announcement was history, the party was over and it was the day after. Reality was a dull headache and a terrible realization.
The lady was really dead.
Her soul might be rollicking in a whimsical hell for failed newspapers, but sobering incredulity was the spirit she left behind.
There simply was no more Herald-Examiner.
I was there on that day-after not so much to contribute to the tons of verbiage being written on a newspaper’s demise, but to say goodby to a colleague. I wasn’t looking for vast insights. I paint the small pictures.
Gordon Dillow wrote a metro column, too, three days a week. He wrote about the city, about his barber in Glendale, about Corky’s across the street and sometimes about his wife.
He said I could have Corky’s to write about, but he kept his wife and his barber.
“You want this?” he asked, handing me a piece of paper.
It was an announcement of a basketball game between two teams of dwarfs.
“I don’t think they’ll let me make fun of dwarfs,” I said.
Dillow nodded understandingly. “I had a column killed once when I wrote about The Times,” he said. “I got the paper delivered to the house, but a dog used to urinate on it before I could go out and pick it up.
“I called your circulation department, and you know what the lady said? She said, ‘Yeah, that happens a lot.’ ” He shook his head. “You can’t make fun of dwarfs, I can’t . . . couldn’t . . . make fun of The Times.”
He paused, thinking. “I guess I’m going to have to get used to the past tense.”
I looked out from Dillow’s office into the city room as he took phone calls offering sympathy. The cursors of a couple dozen word processors blinked in funereal cadence. The screens were otherwise blank. It was a discomforting sight.
I wondered where the people sat who had brought so much fun and information to L.A. Schwada, Radcliffe, Furillo, Bleiberg, the Krikorians, Fleming, Cusolito, Blake, Sadowski, Durslag, Booe, Koffler, Schwed, Everett.
Where would they go? What would they do?
“You know the most mail I ever got?” Dillow said after his phone conversation had ended. “It was on a column that began, ‘I hate France. I really hate France.’ It was when they wouldn’t let our planes fly over or something.
“The column was reprinted in a French magazine, and I got maybe 200 letters. One of them said, ‘The paper you work for is a towel!’ He must have looked the word up in an English dictionary. He meant rag.”
Later, we went across the street to Corky’s and had a hair of the dog. We didn’t do any toasting, but I’ll do it now.
Here’s to you, Gordie, and to the lady at the party in hell. What a grand and glorious towel she was.