Here’s another from Cold War Vienna. This is a reprise from a guest gig I did at the blog of writer Jim Thompson, Jimland. In case you missed it there:
Well, one cent a word, to be exact. Or sometimes twenty-five cents for a column-inch of them.
And we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But with my newspapers that was literally true: ten dollars per each 5×7 black and white shot.
Hemingway developed his terse, adjective-free style writing cable dispatches from the front lines of the early twentieth century. I developed a flatulent, baroque style on the front lines of padded per-word journalism. I was a budding feuilletonist even before I knew what that word meant.
My life in crime began with travel articles for my local newspaper, the Seaside Signal. What did the folks back home make of my stories about the bird lady of Stadt Park, or the vintner down the street from my Viennese lodgings who was stuck with a 20,000 liter vat full of 1942 Muller Thurgau which had turned to pickle juice, or the ennui of thirty-two hours on the Orient Express?
My mom loved them. I earned twenty-five bucks a pop with a photo. That money went a long way in Vienna at the time. And I could actually, in all honesty, write Freiwilliger Journalist on my Austrian registry card instead of Student. A freelance journalist was almost a writer.
Soon I came up with a journalistic pyramid scheme: If my hometown paper was willing to fork over that kind of money for a local-boy-abroad story, why couldn’t I take advantage of that same public-minded spirit with every small-town newspaper in the States?
These were the days before 24-7 cable news, before the Internet offered snippets of news lifted from every reputable newspaper, thereby destroying said newspapers’ reader base. These were the days of flourishing independent dailies and weeklies all over America. Mom and pop journalism in a country otherwise run by Safeway.
The plan: Europe was full of American tourists. Even my tiny corner of it in Austria was bristling with Kodak-toting couples and families from every state in the union. You always knew the Americans. An Austrian friend once told me he knew at once I was an Ami simply because of my loose gait. Europeans never saunter–well, at least back then they did not. Europeans back then were also rarely over six foot. And there was that nagging issue of volume and volubility.
Back to the plan: I determined to interview Americans I encountered, write up a little story of their travels, get a picture or two, and then send said unsolicited article to their local paper. At twenty-five bucks a pop, I would be living fat in no time.
I was only twenty-two. Sweet innocence.
In fact, a number of newspapers did respond with checks, which, once taken to my local Laenderbank, would be cleared in a matter of days and exchanged for hard schillings. But there were never enough checks to really live on. The emphasis is on free in freelance.
Soon I found work as an in-house mailman at one of the UN offices in town. Between rounds I would work on my first novel. Occasionally checks came in from Modesto or Cherry Hills. Largely I forgot about my scheme, though, caught up in work and new friends. One of the latter hailed from a small town in Ohio. He wore a blue uniform; I wore a white lab coat. That meant I was one grade higher.
George and his singer wife had just arrived in Vienna. She was a coloratura, he played bass. It was a good friendship–still is, in fact.
I mentioned that small town in Ohio. That is called foreshadowing. Calling your attention to it is called postmodernism. I footnote it, I get more critical kudos.
Turns out George’s mother is an avid reader of the local newspaper and one day she spots a story about the local librarian who was traveling in Vienna. Written by a fellow called Jones who lives in Vienna. Next time she writes to her son, George’s mom asks, “Ever heard of this Jones?”
I never took greater pleasure in writing a letter than I did that one to the small town Ohio newspaper. Turns out they never paid me for that story they ran. It was grand fun describing to them the duties of the fourth estate, how they are the beacon of truth and objectivity, how they are the very glue of a democracy.
Two weeks later a check for fifty dollars appeared in my letterbox in the foyer.
The WORD had just gone up in value.