Chicago, a hot summer 1950's night. We are walking on old wood floors, old for office buildings even then. Shaded lamps hang down from high ceilings aimed at empty desks. Most of the room is in darkness, the day shift gone home. In a far corner of the room, a handful of people are working.
A large old desk sits in the middle of the activity and behind the desk sits a short, squat man with a huge nose. He’s wearing a sagging undershirt sweated through in the evening summer heat. By his side is a worn black desk phone, one with a rotary dialer, his instrument of power. He is my uncle Harry Romanoff. Not really my uncle, more like a second uncle but he is a figure in my family and he tries hard to help my grieving widowed mother who loves him for it. I don’t like him much.
That night he has taken the time to show two small boys, my brother and me, his work at a newspaper and in his way, he tries to befriend us. A few years later when I was regularly getting in trouble he used his influence where he could to fix things. It wasn’t enough to change my feelings, I just didn’t like him. Some men know how to be with boys, how to influence them without ordering them, but Harry was not one of them. I was a kid but I already knew that no one could make me do anything. It was one of the few things I knew but I knew it to my core. My mother had lost her grip on me in the aftermath of my father’s death. She turned to authority figures; teachers, uncles, men she married, all in the hopes she would find a father figure for my brother and me. No use. My father figure had left the building, gone, gone, gone and there wasn’t going to be an encore.
I remember scenes from that evening visit clearly, a montage in black and white looking like a first-run print in a downtown theatre. Harry yelled “BOY” and one materialized at his desk. The “boy” took us on a tour of the newspaper. He showed us the spinning drum of the telefax machine, pictures sent from far away by wire services slowly appearing on the drum as it whirled around. He took us to the giant machinery of the Linotype where a man sat surrounded by its cathedral bulk, fingers on the keyboard making the slugs that printed the words, playing the beast like it was an organ. Downstairs we went to where the presses roared, endless paper sailing along the steel bed, words flying by grey and unreadable and finally, we went to the docks where the bundles of paper were thrown into the backs of trucks for delivery to the newsstands of the city. There was the smell of ink and hot metal and places where work had gone on for a long time, things that appeal to me still.
When I got busted at sixteen for driving without a license Harry arranged for the ticket to disappear and for me to take my driving test with a guy who got in the car and said “drive.” I drove for a block or two until he said “go back” and when I brought him back to the office we went in and he gave me a driver’s license, Chicago was like that.
At eighteen, after a string of run-ins with the law, when I got busted in California he came to visit me at LA County jail, cursed me out for making my mother unhappy and told me I was a bum. You can see why I didn’t like him can’t you?
Harry was the Night City Editor of the Chicago American, the guy who put together the next day’s newspaper. He had been an ace reporter and earned the nickname “the Heifetz of the Telephone” for calling cops, victims, politicians, anyone who had a piece of the story and claiming to be “the police commissioner” or “the coroner” or “your uncle Dick”, whatever he thought would work and barking at them “tell me what’s going on there”. When Richard Speck murdered all those young nurses Harry dialed up a cop working on the case, identified himself as a deputy coroner and demanded specifics on the wounds — he got them and next day’s headline. Later he called Speck’s mother, told her he was Speck’s attorney and got the story of Speck’s problem childhood, it was investigative journalism of another time.
I think I could have done that. Maybe not that exactly that but I think I could have found my way to get to a story and made a life out of doing it.
I disliked this bulb-nosed gnome of a guy for most of my life — mainly for telling me the truth about who I was. In telling myself only about my feelings though I missed the guy who deeply understood human nature and ferreted out the truth he could find for a living. A guy tons of people respected and looked up to.
Now, sixty-odd years later I find myself doing the family thing, telling stories with words and pictures for a French daily called L’oeil de la Photographie and telling you my stories here. And now that stories are my interest I am filled by a new too late now desire to know Harry. I’d like to sit with him and look with new eyes at his beautiful exaggerated features and listen to his war stories. I’m sorry that I missed the chance because it turns out Harry was a guy I’d really like to have known.
Thanks for reading!