Whatever Happened to American Standard?

Author’s Cover Letter:

I am an ex-newspaper reporter who lost the ability to read and write after suffering a stroke. Damn that sucked. Especially since the reason I’d become a reporter in the first place was that it seemed like the best way to make a living before I started publishing short stories and novels. But I never got around to it. I started several, but I wasn’t much of a closer. I got out of the news game hoping it would stoke my creative fire.

Nope.

I went on living a pretty good life doing communications and sales work. Until the stroke struck. It was awful. My future was unclear. My daughters and wife weren’t sure if the real me would ever return. And on top of all the hell of wondering if I could ever do anything meaningful again, I had this nagging anger over having never made the best use of my writing.

Well, with the help of my wife and daughters, inspired rehab pros and some cool tech tools, I’m reading and writing again. And my style has changed, paying attention to the sound of the words that I put on to paper. Listening as I edit, not just reading.

*****

It had been a long night. A good one, not a great one, but a worthy one.

A few pints stoking some entertaining conversations. I’d been at the Rose and Crown for more than five hours, holding up the bar with a couple of buddies and holding court with a stream of others who’d come and gone.

It had been a good week. Not a great one. But by the standard set in today’s newsroom, one worth putting to bed with a few pints. The news hole kept shrinking at the Mirror, along with the readership. But I’d managed to eke out some good stories that had moderately informed and slightly entertained those still on our dwindling distribution list.

Now it was time to head to the head.

“Gentlemen, ladies, you’ll need to carry on without me for a few minutes,” I said.

From where we were sitting, it was a journey to get to the men’s.

The building had been a funeral home before it became a bar, so its layout wasn’t built with customer mobility in mind.

The urinals were a two-stall set up. I was alone at first, but within ten seconds another guest was beside me. He said nothing and I answered that nothing with nothing.

But the silence soon overwhelmed the newcomer.

“Whatever happened to American Standard?”

What? I looked at him – he was about my height – and then I caught his meaning in his blurry eyes.

I looked at the urinal. The logo said Crane.

I looked back at the guy.

“Used to be, you’d see a lot of American Standard pissers at pubs,” he said. “Now you don’t. Or I don’t. You?”

“Now that you mention it, I…I’m actually not sure. I’ll have to pay attention, stay on the lookout.”

“Ya, I just never see them.”

That was it. No mention of sports scores, political intrigue or beautiful women.

Back at the bar, Jack and Peter hadn’t moved from their positions. A waitress friend of ours who’d come off shift had joined but her time was being taken up by a couple of 30 somethings I’d not seen before. They were trying to strike up a conversation she was interested in only out of sport.

I cut in on Jill’s suitors.

“Are those new urinals in the men’s room?”

“Huh, what?” she said as she shifted her gaze and turned her back to the boys who shot me hard stares before pretending that they’d dismissed her and started scanning for simpler quarry.

“The toilets, were they always Crane?”

“I didn’t know that they were Crane, Lee. It might surprise, but I never go in the men’s.”

“What about the ladies?”

“No idea, Lee, but tell you what, I’ll make it a point to check the very next time I visit. All right?” she looked at the drink she was holding. “I’m guessing that’ll be sometime in the next 30 minutes.”

“Cool,” I said as we clinked glasses.

Jill was an engineer by training and had been married and divorced young. But she hadn’t said more about that.

Not yet.

***

That’s what I love about pubs. The character ones where you can talk and sort of hear. Where music is part of the vibe, not the star. There were stories there.

Some were even true.

The fun was figuring out how much and what bits.

Two hours later, it was closing time. Jack, Peter and I went our separate ways. Jill stayed behind with the rest of the staff. The weekend happened. Then it was Monday again.

***

I didn’t work weekends much anymore. I had when I was new to the Mirror. And ten day stretches with one day off. Nights, too.

Then I’d covered City Hall. Political beats with the underdog paper meant being afraid to leave. I couldn’t miss anything. So, I was first in, last out working the hallways, the cafeteria and parking lot looking for somebody who’d give me an edge.

When I finally did leave the building, it was often to the nearby political bars to see what I could pick up. And to endear myself to the people who had the key to the lock of the best stories. I tried a combination of charm and sincerity. Back then, the sincerity came naturally.

I was able to stay on top of table stakes stories – the ones that came out of council meetings and news conferences. And I got my share of scoops. More than my share. At least that’s how I remembered it. Who knows, reality has a tendency to bend in your favour over time.

I drank a bit too much, mostly hung out with reporters and politicos and slowly but steadily lost touch with almost everybody else in my life. All those who weren’t willing to meet me in this world, at least.

Work and life were all garbled together, and I loved it.

I knew the politicos weren’t really my friends, but that was ok. It was fascinating to be a character in the game. And to have it play out in print, TV and radio every day. Reporter friends weren’t always trustworthy, but we understood each other.

When I really needed friends that I could trust, there were the shooters and the sports scribes. And Peter and Jack always put up with me.

I’d gotten married while covering City Hall. My lifestyle didn’t adapt. Then I was divorced. Soon after that I became the night city editor. Natural progression, mate, I was told.

Three years of that nearly drove me mad. It had all the pressure of being a reporter while always being stuck in the newsroom, without contact with my sources and never getting bylines. Cajoling reporters to talk to the people they should have already talked to to get the quotes they should already have had.

A new breed of scribe seemed attracted to the trade – the kind interested in going home at the end of their shift and with little mind for scoops. And with all of the corporate cuts, there were fewer of them.

Another relationship flamed and then burned out in that time. We didn’t see each other much on account of my night-time work hours and when we did, I brought the funk of the newsroom with me.

That had been a year ago and I asked to go back to general assignment reporting. Eventually they let me and there I was in my 40s doing what I’d first done in my 20s, filling a shrinking news hole from a shrunken newsroom for a paper with a dwindling readership competing against bloggers.

It keeps getting worse. Nobody swears across the newsroom any more. Nobody drops cigarette ashes on their keyboards and almost nobody gives a shit about anything.

“You should take a PR job,” Jack told me Friday night.

“You should have done that when you were 35,” Peter chipped in. “Those hacks in my company make great money and they don’t do anything. They put out press releases every once in a while. And they come to our sales meetings as long as they’re held someplace hot. Sweet gig.”

“Flacks.”

“What?”

“Your PR guys. They’re flacks, not hacks. Reporters are hacks. Spin-doctors are flacks.”

“Oh, whatever dude. I’m just saying, that’s what you should be doing if you ever want to make some real money and travel on the company dime.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“No question I’m right. But I also know that you’re not going to do it. You’re happiest when you’re unhappy.”

“It’s not that, I’ve just been at this too long to change.”

“That’s just a different way of saying the same thing.”

***

Monday wasn’t going to be an easy day. I could tell before I was halfway through my first office coffee – third of the morning.

It was early September and slow. The world hadn’t woken up from summer yet. My minor scoops of the week before had run dry. It was 10:30 before I accepted that manna wasn’t going to fall from heaven. 11 before I started making some phone calls. It was noon when I gave up.

Maybe I just wouldn’t file anything today?

I could tell that pipsqueak city editor I was doing research on a feature. He might buy it.

I felt like an aging rock star now stuck with playing old hits from the 80s at casinos in the Midwest.

I still had the skills. I was sure of that. But going hard to write for a dying news sheet was like being in a band that used to sell out stadiums and now couldn’t fill 60 seat bars.

I just struggled jazzing myself for this.

Used to be, I’d go to a coffee shop in the morning and would see my byline on newspapers on every table. Folks paid for them and were eating up every word on every page. Now there were a few free copies given away that some seniors thumbed through.

Maybe some people were reading the stuff on line. But that wasn’t fun. It was sort of pathetic to imagine that what was on their screen was my latest scoop. More likely they were watching Netflix or reading a blog.

Bloggers.

Nobody seemed to care anymore where their news came from. They believed everything they read, whether it was from a lunatic spewing out unattributed garble or somebody getting paid to tell you he just loved the new amazing product he was writing about.

Maybe Peter was right. Maybe I needed a change.

But not today.

***

I looked around the newsroom and was glad I wasn’t one of the 25 to 35-year-old set that really did have nowhere to go in this game. And had had no glory years to look back on. I decided that I wanted to deny all of them the top story.

And I decided that my best bet was to go old school.

I was going to run down an old-fashioned tip that had come my way at the Rose on Friday night, about half way through the evening. I figured then that I would sit on it for a while – it seemed fanciful.

It was about the local football team’s owner, Donny Key. He was equal parts eccentric and arrogant. He started his business career by dropping out of high school to sell cars. He ended up owning a dealership or two. That was out east. He left there for here with some money, a lot of rumours about why he left and what seemed an unreasonable level of confidence.

Or maybe it was just old-fashioned balls.

He made me sick, fascinated me and, I hated to admit it, I couldn’t help but admire him in some twisted way.

I’d gotten his private phone numbers a few years back from a sports columnist who needed my help on one of those stories when sports meets politics. The team had been looking for money for a new stadium. If they didn’t get it, Key warned that they may have to move to another burb with what they wanted or a town that was willing to build one.

He craved a palace with lots of luxury boxes to be sold to corporations for zillions, seats squeezed in for added numbers and plenty of room for more bars and eateries inside.

Key was keen to have these digs, just not to pay for ‘em.

He made trips to cities that wanted his team and that seemed willing to build the sports and entertainment palace he craved, until, after a year of applying just the right amount of pressure, enough taxpayer money back home was dedicated to the project. The team stayed, Key made more money and fans got to dish out even more coin for tickets.

What I could never figure is, I’d meet a guy wearing a team jersey without a hope of buying even a cheep seat in the new palace and he’d be singing the praises of the deal.

“Great for the city,” he’d tell me even as his taxes went up and he paid 12 bucks for a pint at a bar where he’d watch the games on TV. The bar owner would say the up charge on the beer was due to the higher taxes she was paying on account of the city money that went to fund the new sports cathedral.

I had a number of great scoops that year fed by talking to Key on his private numbers.

On Friday, a guy who knew I was a reporter introduced me to a pal of his.

“So, you know Key?”

“We’re not pals or anything, we don’t exchange Christmas cards. But I got to know him a bit, dealt with him a lot on a few stories.”

“So, you never heard of his trouble with the kid?”

“What kid?”

“Well, a young man now.”

“No bells are ringing.”

My new friend told me that about 25 years ago Key made a baby with a woman he met in Florida. He had a place there he’d escape to. In Florida Key was just another rich guy, he could blend in, go unnoticed. Even guys like Key like a bit of anonymity from time to time.

I’d always understood that Key made these escapes with his long-time wife, Elizabeth. But my new friend said that sometimes he’d go without her. Often, even. And on one of these trips, he met a realtor called Beth. They carried on a “thing” for a couple of years. A no strings thing.

Until she got pregnant.

How did my new friend know this? He was sketchy there. He figured that it was up to big time reporters to verify stories after they got tips. But he suggested he’d been involved with the football team in some business capacity and had learned the tale through that. He was also fond of Key’s wife and had always assumed the story would get out there one day.

He figured reporters in this town must suck since it hadn’t. I let that one go. I figured I’d check out his yarn one day. But I also was pretty sure it was kabuki. How would something like this sit for so long?

There was more.

According to my new pal, the kid was a real moron. And momma figured a billionaire’s boy should have a zillionaire’s lifestyle. Especially if he was staying under the radar so as not to mess up the man’s life and reputation.

The demands got bigger and bigger over the years and like most spoiled rich boys, the kid got stupider and stupider. This had Key worried that his boy was going to want to step forward at some point and make claim for a place beside his daddy as the heir apparent.

As time went on, the kid developed a liking for all things elicit and he wasn’t happy just to indulge. He figured he was a natural dealmaker – from his daddy’s genes – so he tried to become a player in the illegal import-export business out of central and south America.

But the kid was no big time narco.

And now he was in jail. Facing really hard time.

He was lucky he wasn’t in a box underground rotting, according to my new friend.

The kid and his mom kept quiet about his birthright now because they needed papa’s money for great lawyers.

That was pretty much all my new friend knew. It just seemed too wild. It was a Netflix series pitch, not a believable lead. So, I tucked it away in my noodle. But now, faced with no stories and a nagging will to rekindle my glory days, I decided to chase it down.

***

I had Elizabeth’s mobile number from when I was working on the stadium stories. A scribe was only as good as their contact list.

Worth a damn ones never purged their number and email address collection. Really good ones expanded the hell out of them. And great ones had all of the super secret numbers that really in demand folks actually answered.

My collection was a beauty. The result of twenty years of nurturing.

I had the main current list on my mobile. I had a mega list with notes on my personal laptop, backed up in three places with a printed copy in my safe deposit box.

I also had five old school rolodexes and a shoe box full of scrawled digits. They were on match covers, on my own business cards and pieces of paper ripped out of newspapers.

But it had been a long time since I’d dialed Mrs. Key. Would she have tossed the old number for a new one? Would she hang up on me?

There was only one way to find out.

The newsroom was at full buzz, I thought about stepping out to make the call from my cell phone but decided the background noise may play into my favour. The sound of a rollicking newsroom could equal parts intimidate and add legitimacy.

I tapped the numbers into my desk phone. On ring number five she picked up. She had a husky voice, there was no mistaking her.

“What do you want?”

Not warm, but she picked up.

“It’s been a while, Mrs. Key, how have you been keeping?”

“Fine. Why are you calling? Reporters only call when they want something, right? So, what is it?”

“Fair enough. That’s true, I guess. It’s true in this case, too, you’re right. I’m soft-peddling because I need to ask you something that’s a bit delicate.”

“You, delicate? That would be a first. Shoot, let’s get this over with.”

Before I could get the words out, I subconsciously distanced myself from the phone, pulling back from the main set, nudging the hand set looser against my ear, ready for her to punch me through the virtual lines.

“Me, delicate, not so much,” I said. “It’s the subject. It’s about Mr. Key, about Florida, well, it’s, I understand that his, ah, son is in a spot of bother. Facing some serious charges there.”

“My husband’s son?” she bellowed as I winced recalling for some reason how tall she was. “My husband and I don’t have a son.”

She was pissed. But she hadn’t hung up. And the way she said ‘my husband and I’ made me a bit bolder.

“I know that Mrs. Key. I’m talking about Beth’s boy. Well, man now, I guess. He’d be about 25?”

One one-hundred, two one-hundred, three…

“That bitch. It wasn’t a shock that her little bastard ended up in trouble. He got the worst parts of Danny, his cow mom’s vulgarity and all that comes from not having to work for anything. His mom figured he’d be made for life. That they’d be made for life. But being kept in the shadows rots the soul. Even if you’re being well kept. How did you find out?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“I’m shocked it took this long, actually. Reporters in this town must not be that good.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Well, what do you want, besides me verifying your little scoop?”

“Honestly, that was the main thing, Mrs. Key. I should talk to your husband, but that isn’t going to get me far. I’m guessing that you’re not feeling too badly for him just now. With the kid in the crowbar hotel, you’re not financially threatened by my story.”

I was thinking on the fly, not always the best idea.

“Maybe if you helped me track down Beth, I could put her on the spot, maybe tomorrow as a follow. And for today, some background I could attribute to sources that readers would likely suspect are in Florida.”

“Cute,” she said. “Why the hell not.”

***

Fifteen-minutes later I had more than enough to put a bow on today’s scoop and a head start on tomorrow’s follow. Maybe the day after, too.

Not bad for the time it took to play a quarter of football.

I spent some time on the phone with the authorities in Florida to confirm charges, next court appearances and other details.

Then I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked over to the city editor to tell him what I had. He’d already gotten a sniff from one young reporter who’d been listening in to my call. If that kid spent as much time trying to wrestle stories out of contacts as he did trying to steal them from his colleagues, he’d go far.

But he’d done what I’d hoped and greased the wheels so it was quicker for me to fill in the boss.

“Will she stand by what she told you?”

“I’ve got her on tape. And this is a little piece of off the record revenge for her.”

“Everything stands up with the authorities in Florida?”

“One hundred per cent.”

“You should get a quote from Key. Or the kid’s mother.”

“I could if you’d like to read it in the Gazette, as well as our rag. And see it on TV at 6. Key would leak it to somebody else to get his spin on it. That’s part of tomorrow’s story.”

No web posts until the paper hits the streets tomorrow, we agreed, we’d keep it old school tight. We’d get some picks of the jailhouse the kid was a guest of from our chain’s paper in Florida.

***

When I was sure things were in hand, I sent a text to Peter and Jack. I told them I’d buy them a drink if they wanted to meet at the Rose.

We weren’t usually Monday night regulars, but after spinning Friday’s tip into gold, I couldn’t resist. I didn’t even care that our readership numbers were sinking and that most people would hear my scoop on the radio, read rip off versions online or see it on TV.