Thomas Swick | Longreads | July 2018 | 19 minutes (4,829 words)
In the fall of 1976 I returned home to New Jersey after a year in France. I had been pursuing my dream of becoming a travel writer by studying French in Aix-en-Provence and working on a farm in Kutzenhausen, Alsace. Now I needed a byline, preferably a steady one. Making the rounds of newspaper offices, I stopped one day at the two-story brick building of the Trenton Times. I wasn’t allowed to see anyone. This was the state capital’s leading newspaper, after all, and I was simply handed a job application. There seemed little reason to play it straight.
What was your last employment?
“Working on a farm.”
What were your duties?
“Picking cherries, baling hay, milking cows.”
Why did you leave your last employment?
“I got tired of stepping in cow shit.”
May we contact your last employer?
“Sure, if you speak Alsatian.”
A few days later I got a call from the features editor asking me to come in for an interview — my reward for being original, and knowing my audience, or at least guessing at it correctly.
I drove the river road south from Phillipsburg, where I was then living with my parents, back to Trenton. The features editor looked like a young Virginia Woolf in tortoiseshell glasses. She told me the paper was owned by the Washington Post and that one of her writers, a young man by the name of Blaine Harden, was exceptionally talented. The gist of the interview was that the editor — who, I later learned, had posted my job application on a wall in the newsroom — could not hire someone with no experience, as everyone else had come to the Times from other newspapers. But they would give me a three-month trial writing feature stories.
This suited me fine for, without a place in the newsroom, I was able to conceal the fact that I still wrote in longhand. I was possibly the last American journalist to do so. I knew how to type, but the typewriter was not a friend to the undecided. It was good for deletions — a quick, brash row of superimposed x’s — but for additions, I had to scribble with my pencil between immovable lines and on virgin margins.
In the evening, back home in Phillipsburg, I would write my stories. Then in the morning I’d get in my mother’s car and drive the river road through Milford and Frenchtown (whose bridges I’d worked on during summers in college), Stockton and Lambertville, the docile Delaware often visible through the leafless trees. The scenery was not as dramatic as in Provence, and the towns were not as picturesque as in Alsace, but there was a quiet, unassuming beauty to the place that suited my temperament, no doubt because it had helped shape it.
Once in the newsroom, I’d borrow a desk and type from my half-hidden handwritten pages.
After I was hired full-time, I bought my first car, a sea-green Datsun, and rented a studio apartment in Trenton. Most of the people at the paper lived in the more attractive surrounding towns like Yardley, Lawrenceville, and Princeton. Daisy Fitch, a fellow feature writer, had grown up next door to Albert Einstein. She was one of a dwindling minority of locals at the paper, as it was increasingly being written by out-of-staters who swooped in for a spell, then left to careers at the Post or someplace equally grand. Many were Ivy Leaguers — this was a few years after Woodward and Bernstein made journalism as sexy as it was ever going to get — and some, like Daisy, had interesting backstories. Celestine Bohlen, a young reporter, was the daughter of Charles “Chip” Bohlen, who had served as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union in the ’50s. Mark Jaffe, a former fencer at Columbia, was living with the daughter of Lyle Stuart, the publisher made rich and famous for putting out the 1969 handbook for women’s sexual pleasure The Sensuous Woman. David Maraniss, who exuded a kind of drowsy gravitas, and for whom everyone predicted glory, was the product of a marriage of editors: mother, books; father, newspaper. I was told that I had just missed the Mercer County careers of John Katzenbach, soon-to-be crime novelist and son of the former U.S. Attorney General, and his wife, Madeleine Blais, both of whose auras still flickered in the brick building on Perry Street.
It was astonishing to find this assembly of near and future luminaries in Trenton, a city I had associated mainly with Champale, whose brewery we used to pass on family drives to the shore. Add the fact that everyone had previous newspaper experience and you can understand if I say I felt a bit out of place. All I brought to the party was an irreverent job application.