This month’s story opens the door on a newspaper wake, from former New York tabloid denizen Scott Chiusano. The beers and White Russians are flowing in this poignant but angry story that these days feels barely like fiction.
Cheers and subscribe to your local paper,
The phone at the Dead Horse Tavern was ringing off the hook. People didn’t usually call the bar, the only real need for a phone being to ring up cabs for the most indisposed customers after closing time. But on this afternoon it rang and rang, so much that the manager had to come down from his comfortable apartment above the bar just to field the calls.
After hanging up each time, the manager wrote down a number on a napkin and passed it to the bartender, who waved it like a white flag and hollered, “100 bucks from the Journal,” and a cheer erupted from the seated customers.
“Long live the Journal,” they chanted back.
Then the manager had just enough time to log the amount of money and who it had come from before the phone rang again. This would go on for hours, well into the night, and the men and women at the bar would get drunker, their libations paid for by other newspapers, the calls from the bartender and the response from the crowd growing in volume the more the alcohol flowed.
“Long live the Post!”
“Long live the Times!”
“Long live Newsweek!”
“Long live Snoozeday!”
So it went. Dead Horse Tavern became a funeral home that late summer day, and the good-hearted writers laid the paper to rest.
Henriquez was the first to stand on a table and clink his glass with his car keys. Normally the manager of the Dead Horse Tavern would not allow standing on tables, but these people needed to have their day, and far be it from him to get in the way.
Though he’d worked only in sports for 20 years, Henriquez managed to get to know everyone at the paper, right on down to Juliana, who cleaned the bathrooms and the kitchen during the night and had invited Henriquez to her daughter’s quince, where he had introduced the teenagers to a little song called Blinded by the Light with a rousing karaoke rendition. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when he was the one to speak first. In fact, talking was what Henriquez did best, better even than writing, because the words just came easier. It helped when he was three or four White Russians deep. Henriquez didn’t drink beer.
He was also the office gossip, always with an ear to the ground for rumors which, in an office full of journalists making careers out of digging for dirt, was not a title taken lightly. In fact, it was Henriquez who first heard of the impending shutdown, from an old friend at the printing press out in Jersey City. He’d tried to keep it close to the collar then, didn’t want to alarm anyone until he got the facts straight. But as the sheer magnitude of what was going to happen began to take shape, Henriquez couldn’t help but tell a few people. And then, well, it was out of his hands.
“I’ll start off by saying this.” The writers in the Dead Horse Tavern had quieted down and looked up at Henriquez. “No cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down.”
Henriquez ducked to avoid an olive thrown at him.
“Wait, wait, just hear me out.”
“No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground.”
“But just as sure as the hand of God.”
Then Henriquez put his right hand to his ear and signaled like a maestro with the other.
“They brought death to my hometown!” the writers chanted in unison.
“They brought death to my hometown, boys!” Henriquez repeated.
A low rumbling of “Bruuuuuuce” followed and Henriquez stomped on the table with the heel of his light brown Timberlands, which he wore even through the summer. This made the manager of the Dead Horse Tavern somewhat nervous, imagining the table crumpling beneath the inebriated man on top of it, but still he decided to let it go on.
Henriquez’s love for conversation was second only to his love for Springsteen, though the two were inextricably tied considering he rarely had a conversation that didn’t, in some tangential way, relate to Bruce. He was known to speak in Springsteen lyrics, and if you hadn’t heard him tell the story of shaking the man’s hand at the Stone Pony in 1992, well then you didn’t really know Henriquez, did you?
“All right now, all right,” Henriquez said, and like Springsteen quieting a standing ovation, the din in the Dead Horse Tavern was brought down again.
“It’s easy for me to steal from a legend, and those words apply today more than ever, because that’s what they’ve done. By killing the paper that’s what they’ve done. Brought death to our hometown. But damn it if I haven’t written some words myself, and I’m proud of those words, even the ones that weren’t quite right, that Cranky had to make sound the way I wanted them to sound, Cranky you bastard. How did you always know what I was trying to say?”
People turned to look at Cranky, who was standing near the back of the bar leaning against a coat rack, as if expecting him to give an answer. But if you thought he was going to give an answer, well then you didn’t know Cranky, did you? He only put a hand to the tip of his fedora, not quite doffing it, and it wasn’t clear if he was acknowledging the newfound attention at all, or just adjusting, trying to hide the few hairs he had left underneath.
Why there was such an epidemic of baldness in the newspaper industry was not exactly inexplicable. Put enough middle-aged white men in a room together and it looked like a convention of thumbs with drawn-on goatees. But it was also a fear for newspaper men, going bald, or any man really. But another fear was taking hold in the Dead Horse Tavern, a fear of endings, which a writer feared more, even, than death. Especially when the ending was not in their control, as was the case now, when they were simply stripped of their most powerful weapon.
“But all of you have words to be proud of,” continued Henriquez, who was also bald, though of his own volition, he liked to remind people. “Even those of you, even those of you…”
He took a sip from his White Russian, hoping it would help him find his train of thought. He looked out at the bar, trying to find Cranky, who always knew what he wanted to say.
“Even those of you who have never written a single word for this paper, who have only taken the photos, or designed the pages, or edited copy or answered the phones or driven the trucks or started the presses. That’s the thing about words, is we share them. They are ours. Every single word that has been printed in this paper, we own it. Nobody can take that away from us.”
There was a round of applause befitting of Bruce Springsteen for Henriquez, who would not remember this resounding speech in the morning. He would wake up tomorrow with a splitting headache and without a job, his only son off at college and his wife dead three years now, lung cancer though she’d never smoked once in her life. And Henriquez, who had smoked everything but cigarettes up until the day his son was born, would pack a suitcase and a duffel bag and toss them both into his Honda Accord, which he leased, and drive across the country, and he would pop one tire but he would make it there all right, and in a Motel 6 on the Pacific Coast Highway he would lay awake with a cigar in his mouth listening to the ocean breathe, thinking about what came next. Henriquez would do all this because, hell, he deserved to do something for himself for a change. But who was he kidding, really? Who else do we write for if not ourselves?
After Henriquez stumbled safely down from the table, the manager of the Dead Horse Tavern felt relieved. The phones were still ringing. On the TVs above the bar, CBS was reporting on the paper’s shutdown. He could see the camera crews outside the office just across the street. He changed the channel to ESPN. It hadn’t occurred to him, really, that journalists held a certain kind of import. He thought his own perception of New York tabloid writers – a level of disgust somewhere between a subway rat and eating pizza with a knife and fork – was a common one. Of course, he hadn’t picked up the paper in some time, not since they started with the anti-cop nonsense, and all the insensitive headlines about the President, who should be respected. The American way. Maybe its downfall was deserved. But the paper had been very helpful after the fire in his bar, there was no denying that, so he still held a soft spot for these people. After all, he’d have a job tomorrow. What about them? He could use a little help in the kitchen. While the manager of the Dead Horse Tavern weighed all this, a heavyset woman had hoisted herself up onto the table.
Grace Calabrese had 25 years of crime reporting in New York City weighing her down, and the table seemed to bend underneath the wide hips that she was never quite able to get rid of after giving birth to her daughter, who was a teenager now. What’s your excuse, she often rifled at the many obese men who worked for the paper and who, when she was first hired over two decades ago, were more inclined to comment on her ass than on her copy, which was usually flawless by the way.
Grace Calabrese had fire inside her, fueled by her Southern Italian blood, and over the years she came to be the paper’s most respected reporter. She knew, of course, that it was unfair how she had to work twice as hard to join the boys’ club, had to put up with the comments about her weight and had to keep her mouth shut in the early days when she was passed over for stories that should have been hers. That was life, and she’d lived it.
But things were changing, and though it was too late for the paper she loved (which had always been just a few years late to every party, including the internet, which very well may have been why they were here right now), probably too late even for her to be a part of that movement, there was hope in some of the young faces she looked out on now, the faces of female reporters, of Black and Hispanic and Asian reporters. They were the future, whatever that future held for newspapers other than this one. Grace Calabrese took a deep breath.
“That’s a hard act to follow, Henriquez,” she began. “Maybe I should start with some lyrics, too. Bon Jovi anyone?”
There were playful jeers from the writers, who collectively hated Bon Jovi more than they hated word counts.
“Ok, ok, I won’t subject you to that. Wouldn’t ever. Doesn’t matter if this paper is dead or alive.”
She smiled at the groans.
“But here’s the thing. It is dead. They killed it. So we move on, like we always do, like New Yorkers do. Remember after 9/11? After Sandy? Nobody expected there to be a paper the next day. Nobody would have blamed us if there wasn’t. But we had a responsibility to inform and we fulfilled it. Sure, tomorrow there won’t be a paper, but we still have the same responsibility, you know what I mean?”
Grace Calabrese realized she was asking herself that question. She did not actually know what she meant. She had given her entire life to this paper, thrown herself into work to forget about her divorce, missed spending time with her daughter because she was out chasing stories. All in the name of responsibility. To whom? New Yorkers? They didn’t give a shit about her. Two weeks, a month from now, they’d forget the paper ever existed. And she’d be left with a whole new set of responsibilities, the ones she’d neglected for so long.
“You know what? Fuck this,” Grace Calabrese said. The manager of the Dead Horse Tavern looked up. He hoped there wasn’t about to be a riot in his bar. “Why should we pretend any of this is fair? I’m done tiptoeing around to make people happy. I’ve had to do it my whole career just to get ahead, because half of you balding, fat fucks in here only saw me as a piece of ass. I have a right to be mad.”
Grace Calabrese fully expected to be booed off this makeshift stage, the Bon Jovi treatment. She could take it. She’d endured much worse.
Then Henriquez spoke up.
“Damn right you do, Gracie,” he shouted.
“Tell ’em, Grace,” someone else said.
“A Calabrese always speaks the truth.”
“We love you, Grace.”
“And not just for that ass.”
There was laughter and a continued chorus of support throughout the bar for Grace Calabrese. She stood atop the table, let those cheers settle into her mind until they were almost familiar, like the din of the newsroom just before deadline. There were many things she had done in her career that she was proud of, and yet none of them trumped this. She knew then that she would never work for a newspaper again. And that was OK. Grace Calabrese just wished her daughter could hear all this. That’s the only thing she wanted.
It would have been rude for the boss not to speak. Brinkley understood that, even though he was desperately trying to avoid it. What was he supposed to say? He’d spent the last five years putting on a brave face, pretending everything was fine, even though he knew the road they were headed down. Nobody wanted to be remembered as captaining the Titanic, and yet here he was. It’d be on his gravestone. Here lies Brinkley, who steered the paper to its demise. At least he’d be remembered for something. Not what he’d dreamed of in high school, when he’d been voted most likely to become President, although half those votes had been out of malice. Nobody actually believed a half-Black, half-Irish kid would ever become President. How wrong they were. Not about Brinkley, exactly, but they were still wrong. Brinkley wondered what had happened to those high school bullies, the ones who’d called him Mocha or Halfie or the worst one, Leprecoon. Probably they voted for Trump and were damn proud of it. Brinkley knew that was reductive but he didn’t care. Anyway, he was the one who was unemployed, drinking away the afternoon in a dive bar. Still the butt of the joke.
A few hands were urging Brinkley towards the table that Grace had just left unoccupied. He tried to arch his back against their pushing, mumbled wait, wait, let me finish this drink, but Fred Nickels snatched the half full Stella from his hand, chugged it and turned it upside down. A few last drops trickled out and onto the floor, which Brinkley bent down to wipe up with his handkerchief. He wished he could hide here forever, on one knee at belt level with his colleagues, which was exactly how low he felt, maybe even sink slowly into nothing, another puddle on the barroom floor.
The manager of the Dead Horse Tavern noticed the man bending down to clean the spill. He could appreciate a guy who cleaned up his own mess, although the amount of beer soaked into these wood floors was enough to get an actual horse tipsy. The manager watched the man be ushered up to the front of the bar, and it was easy to tell he was the boss. He was dressed better than everyone else, jacket and tie, whereas most of these folks didn’t even have their shirts tucked in. The manager remembered the only time he’d ever had to deliver bad news to his workers, after the fire, when he told them they’d be out of work for at least a few months. But then the paper got the word out, that mousey reporter had come snooping around here and the donations came pouring in. They’d opened back up after just two weeks. In the end, he looked like a kind of hero. So the manager did not envy what this boss of the paper had to do. Maybe he could learn a thing or two about public speaking. He sat back in his chair.
Brinkley got up on the table and scanned the bar full of colleagues who were looking back at him as though he knew something. They expected some words of wisdom, probably. Or at the very least they expect words, you idiot, he thought to himself.
“Well,” Brinkley started. He pressed his hand against his chest, smoothing out his tie, which wasn’t wrinkled. It was never wrinkled. He remembered back when he was just a lowly runner what the old editor-in-chief MacGill had told him. Dress every day like you might have to interview a mother whose kid was just murdered. Those were words of wisdom. Brinkley lived by them. After MacGill drank himself to death, there was a massive funeral service at Holy Trinity, lines that snaked around the block with people waiting to get in, readers, co-workers, former and current lovers. When Brinkley finally made it to the open casket, he knelt and bowed his head, said a prayer for his boss and for the paper. MacGill, of course, was dressed in his finest suit. He’d go to the grave in it.
“My grandmother used to send me to the corner store to pick up the papers,” Brinkley finally began. “She’d make me get all three, and you know in those days they were thick, like goddamn textbooks, and I’d be lugging them home in my toothpick arms and I’d just drop them on the floor in front of the armchair that she never left, except to get her hair done.”
There were some laughs, which calmed Brinkley’s nerves. Maybe he could do this.
“By the end of the day she’d ask me to take two of the three out to the recycling. There was only one paper she ever kept. And she would read it aloud to me before bed. No Hansel and Gretel or B.S. fairytales. I fell asleep listening to debriefings on the mayor’s press conference, or the grisly details of a double homicide in Harlem. I dunno, I think some of them were even written by Nickels.”
Freddy Nickels got some claps on the back for that one, because he was the paper’s longest-tenured employee, a dinosaur if there ever was one, probably as old as some of the coins jangling in his pockets.
“Could be boss, could be,” Freddy Nickels yelled back.
“But anyway, it was this paper that taught me how to read. Then much later, it taught me how to write. So I gave my life to the paper, and I think I owe my life to it, too.”
“Cheers to that,” Grace Calabrese said. There were glasses and bottles raised. Brinkley had no drink to join in with, so he raised his fist.
“The paper isn’t the only thing that’s dead. A little bit of democracy is dead. And a part of this city died today. May it rest in peace.”
The speeches went on well into the night. As long as the phones kept ringing with donations which, to the manager’s surprise, they did, these writers were content to drink and speak, drink and speak. The manager of the Dead Horse Tavern had thought the stereotype about writers was they preferred pen and paper to talking, felt it was safer, but that certainly did not appear true for these people.
At one point a low rumbling chant started in the bar, like at a World Series game.
“Li-ttle! Li-ttle! Li-ttle!”
A stick figure of a man with a long gray ponytail trailing down his Randazzo’s Clam Bar T-shirt made his way to the front. The manager squinted to read the words in an arch on his back: “Can you say Gallamah!”
The man they called Little spoke in rambling sentences, like he wasn’t sure where the next word would take him. The manager of the Dead Horse Tavern could only guess that Little was not a writer, contributed some other talent -- or lack thereof -- to this newspaper. Or if he was a writer, then the manager was not surprised the paper was shutting its doors. But the people in the bar hung on his every word. They laughed and they cheered for him. When he mentioned a man named Mr. MacGill, a heavy silence fell. Some people crossed themselves. At the end of his speech, Little swung his ponytail over his shoulder like the strap of a backpack.
“See you on the other side, pallies,” he said.
After that a young man got up, didn’t look to the manager like he was even drinking age. He hoped somebody had checked the kid’s ID. Ah, screw it. He was sure they’d let people younger than him in before.
The kid didn’t sound like he belonged in this crowd. He seemed more sure of himself than the others, like he knew he would be fine, that this was only a minor setback. Reminded the manager a little of himself when he was that age, a whole life ahead and so many things to be done. That stage had passed him by quickly, as it does, like an out of service train well past midnight. He was stuck on the platform now.
It was getting late. The phones had finally ceased. The bartender rang a bell for last call, and there were groans in response. The manager figured he could stay open a little longer. He understood. These people would rather this night never end.
But he had his own business to run, after all. Needed to log the day’s numbers, balance the books which he still did by hand. The floor could use a good mopping after this, the tables needed to be wiped down so as not to leave stains on the wood.
People finally started stumbling towards the front door. The bartender called for some cabs, which began to line up out front on Water Street, where the sidewalk lamps were low. There were hands firmly shaken and hugs, some kisses on the cheek, people who had sat beside one another for 25, 30 years and now might never be in the same room again. Soon the boss was the only one left, sitting in a stool at the bar nursing a beer. The manager of the Dead Horse Tavern sat down next to him.
“You all do good work,” the manager said.
“Thank you,” said Brinkley. “Sorry if we overstayed our welcome.”
“Not at all. I’m used to the late nights.”
“I hear that.”
“What’s next for you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Not sure. You need any busboys?”
The manager laughed. “I’m sure you’ll land on your feet,” he said.
“Yeah. You pour your whole life into one thing, you know. And for what?”
“I hear that,” the manager said.
Brinkley finished his drink.
“Can I top you off?”
“No, no, thank you. You folks have done enough. I’ve got to get moving, anyway.”
The manager shook Brinkley’s hand. “Good luck to you,” he said. “Come in for a drink anytime.”
“Appreciate that,” Brinkley said. “I’m sure I’ll need it.”
After the door shut behind Brinkley, the Dead Horse Tavern was finally quiet. The manager thought he might welcome the silence, but it was eerie now. He thought about the lives that had been upended. Those good, solid, working people of the paper didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. He, on the other hand, did. In the morning he’d head down to the bodega on the corner of Water and Broad for a coffee and a bacon, egg and cheese. He’d mention to Iqbal, who ran the bodega, that still nothing was being done about the rats at night on Water Street. It’s the garbage pickup, Iqbal would say. They never come. So much corruption in the sanitation department, you wouldn’t believe, Iqbal would say. He’d check the headlines of the papers. One of the racks would be empty, which would feel strange. Then he’d go back around the corner and open the Dead Horse Tavern for the day.
Maybe, the manager thought, he could use some upending.
Scott Chiusano is a writer/editor, currently at MLB.com and formerly at the New York Daily News, with fiction published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, The Twin Bill and The Under Review. He is a fan of slow rollers and Jacob deGrom sliders.