My father and me in the New York Times composing room, 1976. Hot type was coming to an end. Photo by Robert F. Rodriguez.

Newspaper Course

How my father found his way home

My father called it “the home.”

How strange that “home” could be altered with a simple word, a brick wall thrown up on a garden path. Later, I would read about other people who grew up in orphanages, and there it was again: “the” home.

My father’s parents died when he was young. That is a line from a fairytale, so much easier to say than this: his mother died giving birth to another child, and his father killed himself. A tabloid story, but in the 1930s perhaps too common to merit notice.

The facts are few, opaque and hard as a block of ice. His parents, Manuel and Anna, came to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1918. By the time my father and his siblings were born the family lived in a section of the city near the East River slaughterhouses, where the United Nations now stands.

My father and his twin sister were also Manuel and Anna. My grandparents must have been proud to have twins as their first-born children. The others were Edward and then Jenny, the youngest. I imagine their home in a narrow tenement, naked light bulbs, small rooms with high ceilings. And a father who scavenged the city for work as a waiter.

I have the small leather address book — only 3 x 4 inches — that belonged to my grandfather. He might have tucked it into a pocket of his shirt or pants. No phone numbers, only addresses, mostly in East Harlem and Brooklyn. The only entry with a phone number is Fresh Meadow County Club on Long Island. But the rest are entries like Rudolfo Zeno, 225 E.111 St., apt 16 and “segundo piso atras.” Most of the names and addresses are written in pencil. Pages are missing or ripped in half.

The small address book dates from 1932 or earlier. Because that was the year my father and his siblings were separated from their family. He was separated from his twin. Anna was taken to Puerto Rico. My father, Edward and Jenny were taken to the Foundling Hospital, then on the upper East Side. From his window at the Foundling, my father said he could see the firemen practicing on Welfare Island.

My father and his siblings spoke only Spanish. By the time my father and his brother and sister emerged from the home in the 1940s, they spoke only English.

He even had a new name: He was born Manuel, but a nun at the orphanage stuck an E in front of it, so he became Emanuel, with God, she explained to him. My father was always jovial when he told this part of his story, pleased that he had been singled out. But I know now that he must have been bereft, separated from his parents, and his twin sister. A nun saw his overwhelming grief and gave him the gift of a new name, a name that meant he was never alone.

My father was broken in ways that I didn’t fully understand, until much later, and even then, not really. I don’t think I can ever fathom his losses because nothing I’ve experienced comes close.

What my father loved to talk about was how he invented himself. It is the story I can make sense of, and celebrate. My father loved to tell the story over and over. It is how he found his way home. His story is wrapped up in his love for New York City, newspapers and his union.

Before the war, my father worked in the religious articles district near City Hall. I work nearby, and I don’t walk down Warren Street without thinking about my father stacking boxes of rosaries, vestments or missals. But that job was no longer there when he got out of the Navy.

My father loved to set the scene of the moment in 1946 that sent him to the job he held for most of his adult life: He was standing in the doorway of a tenement on the West Side, during a torrential rain, still wearing his Navy uniform. Here he pauses to note that the building is long gone, demolished for Lincoln Center. A man named Carey that my father knew only slightly, came in from the rain, too, and mentioned that there were jobs at the New York Times. Carey was a proof press operator. There were still many newspapers in New York City and not enough men back home yet.

So it was that my father walked to the Times building on W. 43rd Street. He gave his name and address to the supervisors there, not expecting to hear very soon from anybody. But the next day, a letter arrived via special delivery from the Times, asking him to begin working immediately. He started on Nov. 1, 1946, as a proof press operator on the Sunday magazine and book review, and also joined Local 3 of the Newspaper Guild.

He worked with proofreaders who examined page proofs with magnifying glasses, ferreting out misspellings, transposed words and other errors. Later, he moved up to clerk in the composing room, doing a variety of filing chores, including the storing of advertising plates. Another change came when the Times and the printers union decided they needed to get more involved in training qualified printers. In 1949, Local 6 of the International Typographers Union asked my father if he was interested in apprenticing as a printer. He was, and started at the School for Printers Apprentices of the New York School of Printing. Over a decade, he learned every aspect of the composing room, from proofreading to operating the linotype machine and Ludlow press (both of which produced slugs of type), to setting the type itself. Sometimes, he simply watched the older printers at work.

Dad, 1976. Photo by Robert F. Rodriguez.

In the beginning he worked the lobster shift, midnight to noon. The lobster shift, he said, was a term from the days long ago when newspapers were located in lower Manhattan, near the docks. The men who started after midnight would go to the nearby fish markets and purchase lobsters and store them in their lockers.

At home, my father would sit on a corner of the sofa nearest the lamp table, reading the dictionary to improve his spelling and understanding of words. It was his job to set headlines for page one and the front of the sports page. Type was set backwards, according to the layout of the page that was given him by the different page editors.

He also read a thick brown tome called Newspaper Course.

Newspaper Course was published by the International Typographical Union in the 1930s. It is a terse title for a book overflowing with history and pride in the craft, with quotes from Benjamin Franklin and John Ruskin (“When one gets to love his work, his life is a happy one.”) among others sprinkled throughout, and numerous sketches, including one of typesetting equipment used in French printing offices in 1694.

The lessons in the book are stern and precise and go beyond mere technical skill: “The proofreader, compositor or operator who cannot punctuate, divide, compound, capitalize, and spell—no matter how highly developed his mechanical skill—is not and never can be a first-class printer. Just as a good machinist knows his lathe, as a capable tailor his cloth, so must the printer know the working principles of the English language.”

And there is a pride in the work that is just barely contained, and quietly assured. One footnote reads: “Some have held that as an art printing is inferior to painting and sculpture, but these latter arts are merely the evidences of a civilization, while printing is the creator of civilization, and a supreme service to society.” Even its definitions of prosaic newspaper terms are elegantly stated: “Composing Room—That part of a printing establishment in which the type is set and the forms locked up for the press.” “Hairline—Said of a very delicate face, as of a brass rule or the fine connecting strokes of a letter.”

Dad, circa 1970.

Newspaper Course contains short biographies of Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, and numerous other printers who advanced the craft and whose names live on in descriptions of typefaces: Caslon, Bodoni. There are pictures of “state of the art” equipment that no longer exists.

Tucked into Newspaper Course is one of my father’s old paycheck stubs, from 1960: $112.20 for the week ending Oct. 3. Just around that time, I was starting school on a half-day schedule, and my father would wake up early and take me with him to pick up his paycheck at the Times. We took the bus down Broadway in the morning and I stared out the window at the sites on the street meant to be seen at dark. All the unlit lights that spelled out names of famous clubs and arcades, like the Metropole and Fascination. I stared out the bus window through five-year-old eyes, not fully comprehending.

At the Times we would pick up his check at the pay window, then stop by the composing room to see the men who worked during the day shift, some of whom he knew. There was no color in the composing room as I recall; just grays and browns, metal and steel. When I looked up at the ceiling I could see what looked like a long stretched out bicycle chain moving paper and envelopes from one part of the vast floor to another, and curving into the ceiling to go to other floors.

Inevitably when my father took me to the Times, we stopped by the linotype operator. He sat before his massive machine on a small chair or stool, pressed some keys and produced a slug of type that spelled my name. It was hot type, still warm when he finally let me touch it. “The Linotype is the oldest of the slug-casting machines, having been invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1886,” according to Newspaper Course. My father’s work station was different. It had a slightly angled table, with type cabinets underneath. Years later I saw the drawers, called California job cases, at antique stores, their tiny compartments filled with knickknacks.

Another piece of paper snuggled in the seam of Newspaper Course is a small card listing union dues and other payroll deductions. Although my father was always proud to work at the Times, he was loyal first to his union, which by then was Big 6 — Typographical Union No. 6. He knew his union contract and could recite its most arcane details and benefits by heart. In 1963, the printing unions went on strike for 114 days. My father walked the picket line, and even had the other newsmen sign the strike placard he wore around his neck. It was about automation, and saving jobs that would one day become obsolete, he would say. The strike must have been frightening to him and my mother, but I never sensed it.

My father returned to work at the Times, but the Mirror and the Journal American folded; three years later, the Herald-Tribune closed. These were papers I knew; my father brought many newspapers home, and their names and differences were familiar to me. But I did not know then that the landscape of New York City journalism was changing, that it would mean something to me later on. After “hot type” went out, my father moved over to layout.

Dad, 1986.

When my father retired in 1991, he had been at the Times for 45 years. My father’s job and his union gave him a cherished identity, placed him in a proud tradition. He was a printer and a union man. And he was home.

He had come a long way from the sad journey of his father, whose address book he kept, a talisman from the broken world he left behind.

Still, I wonder about my grandfather.

The city of New York buried him in the cemetery for the poor and abandoned called Potter’s Field. Twenty years ago, I clipped two articles that appeared within months of each other. One fact-filled story appeared in the Daily News under the headline, “Memorial to unlucky.” It says Potter’s Field is on the 101-acre Hart Island, where the Long Island Sound meets the East River.

But the best thing I ever read about Potter’s Field was, appropriately, in the Times. In a 1994 column, under the headline “The Prison, the Quick and the Dead,” Francis X. Clines described the prisoners from Rikers Island who dig the graves for the impoverished and unclaimed.

The men, he wrote, look across the river to the city, a jumble of activity that seems like “time’s last carnival.” I like that. I keep that article tucked in a notebook, and read it like a Mass card for the dead.