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My family lived in Buffalo, sooty and robust in the days of my serene childhood in the late forties and early fifties. My father was a successful insurance man and my mother was rarely happy, except while tending to her garden, which surrounded our comfortable little house on Cleveland Avenue.
My father held strong, favorable opinions about the Democratic Party, and his plump face would redden when I questioned his judgments about such men as Averell Harriman and Herbert Lehman, as well as figures like Joseph Crangle, who helped to run Buffalo; and sometimes our arguments at dinner became so fevered that he would leave the table. Still, I respected my father as the sort of white-collar personage who forms the spine of America. (He lived, as Max Weber once said, in the belief that "a man does not 'by nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live.") My parents were people from whom a kind of wisdom may be distilled -- that is, if one listens carefully. I cannot say that I agreed with most of what I heard from my father; nor, in any case, do I remember very much. But growing up as his son undoubtedly helped me to become the person I am.
I graduated from Darleigh in the spring of 1961 (my senior year clouded in a haze of sensuality; often, Carol Ann Margolies and I sat side by side, and found ourselves caught in nature's urgent grip, shedding garments even as final sentences were composed), and as soon as I got my diploma, a magna, my father asked what I intended to do with myself. We'd held similar conversations over the years, and I had always tried, while being tactful, to make clear that I had no intention of following his example. When I mentioned a career in journalism, I saw despair distort his features, so I quickly went on to explain. "I don't intend to be the sort who rushes all about and writes about fires and crime," I said. "I intend to write about the fabric of our time."
My father shook his head. "Someday you'll want to marry, to have a family," he said. "I know one newspaperman, Fred something-or-other, who bought a whole-life policy from me. I believe that Fred earns ninety dollars a week."
I suppressed a chuckle. "I believe that Mr. Walter Lippmann earns many times that amount," I replied, and went on to mention several others who did, too.
My father had no good answer at the ready, and said, "You've got big ideas, Brandon."
My father, as I've tried to suggest, had a good heart, but he was not quite able to comprehend what mattered to someone like me and frequently repeated his small-minded belief that I had "big ideas." That was certainly true, but I also understood, as Napoleon said, that ability is of little account without opportunity. In any case, I'd heard about an opening at a Buffalo newspaper from a high school acquaintance (someone who had not gone to college, and worked in the sports department). It was not a prestigious venue, but I believed that I would have a chance to learn the "ropes," in a way that might not have been possible elsewhere.
The Buffalo Vindicator was on Main Street. Carved above the doorway in Gothic type was the newspaper's name and in the lobby was a mural forty feet long and fifteen feet high. It contained, among its many elements, a rendering of Thomas Jefferson reading a newspaper, alongside Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, doing likewise. In the background was the great dome of City Hall, and Lake Erie, and if one looked closely, it was possible to see countless skillfully painted windows and through them more people reading more newspapers. It was a sight listed in guidebooks of the time, and the image has undoubtedly influenced my thinking about the profession.
My city editor, Julius Portino, was, like myself, a native Buffalonian. He had sleepy brown eyes and soft, drooping bags beneath them; and he told me that starting reporters got paid seventy-two dollars a week and were expected to write about fires and crime. Portino clearly was content to spend a lifetime with the Vindicator, and to respond to news without trying to understand its deeper import. I was struck by his utter lack of curiosity.
I had been on the job for two or three months when it occurred to me that an inordinate number of fires were breaking out and that a larger story might be lurking behind the many smaller ones. Portino, however, merely shrugged when I went into his office and told him this with the fervor of a young reporter. "There are a lot of frame houses in Buffalo, Brandon," he said, and lighted another of his many cigarettes. "Some of them burn."
Julius Portino had been drafted after high school and had gone to Korea, an experience that certainly shaped his view that the unexamined life is greatly to be preferred. We were, beyond a doubt, from two different worlds, and I believe that if we had not disagreed about the fires that kept breaking out around the Queen City, something else would have led to a clash.
What precipitated the break between us was my decision to speak directly to his superior. Even now, I can visualize Wriston (Chet) Budge, who had been the newspaper's editor in chief since 1935: with his shredding unlit cigar, the ashes that made their powdery way down his unbuttoned vest, and his reddened, gray cheeks, it was as if he had shaped himself into his idea of a small-town newspaperman. Mr. Budge had won a Pulitzer Prize for deadline reporting in 1928, when he was, like myself, a recent Darleigh graduate. I think that this shared background helped us to forge a bond, although Mr. Budge by the time we met was in his middle fifties. I had also heard that he was disappointed at his lot in life, and he often complained that writing editorials for his Buffalo readers had become an unwelcome chore.
I proposed to Mr. Budge that I pen a series of commentaries on the outbreak of possible arson. There would be no reckless claims (I stressed the word "possible"), but we would ask for increased vigilance from the fire department, the police, and the mayor's office. As I went on, Mr. Budge seemed barely to pay attention, yet he also seemed overjoyed at the prospect that I would be willing to jot down my thoughts; and before I'd finished laying out my thesis, he clapped his hands with enthusiasm. Moments later, he summoned the city editor to join us.
I was horrified at Julius's display of uncontrolled anger, particularly when he turned to me, in front of Mr. Budge, and said, "You went over my head, you fuckface sneak." I could not meet his eyes, nor could I watch the spittle at the corner of his mouth, and my gaze drifted over to Mr. Budge's Pulitzer citation, which hung alongside his Darleigh diploma.
"I told our young friend," Portino said to Mr. Budge, his teeth quivering, "that he ought to do a few months of reporting before jumping to ridiculous conclusions." I noticed that his face had become darker. "But our young friend appears to prefer going behind my back."
I understood how he could have reached that conclusion, but I was nevertheless stunned. My ambition, after all, was modest: to examine a puzzling situation, and to put authorities on notice -- trying, in short, to do my job. I did not know what Julius Portino's private agenda was, or even if he had one (as far as I knew, his Italian family, although it imported olive oil, was upright), but his words made me suspect his motives.
"That's a curious statement," I said, looking directly at Mr. Budge, who looked at his watch.
"Look," Mr. Budge said, "I haven't the time for this, but what is there to lose, Julius? Why don't you calm down?"
Portino seemed unable to speak. Nor did he say much more to me during the time that I remained at the Vindicator, although now and then I thought I heard him mumble curses, and it was clear that he would always regard me with irrational anger.
There was another reason that I chose to begin my career in Buffalo: the chance to lodge in my childhood home, which allowed me to become better acquainted with my parents while setting aside money that would otherwise have gone for rent. But after six months, it came to a stop; my mother wept, and it's probably true that, in my zeal, I might have taken too little heed of others. (In some ways, my own son has mirrored my conduct of that time; I've not been able to avoid thinking that a certain portion of just deserts has been served up.) In my case, there were the usual small things that widen a family's gulf: Often I was required to use the car, and it was not always convenient to let my father know in advance. The telephone sometimes rang at hours that neither my father nor mother, who kept to a regular schedule, could become accustomed to.
I most regret making use of my father's confidential insurance records, which contained invaluable data that supported my thesis on the arson epidemic. To this day, I believe that we had an implicit understanding, but I can also see that I might have misread him and might have misjudged the reaction of his former clients. Those who have wished me ill have ferreted out this episode and made much of it, as if it revealed something fundamentally bad about my character. Those who know the facts will see that it was a terrible misunderstanding, although for my father, who was dismissed from his job for cause, the consequences were severe.
I did not make many new friends during this time in Buffalo. I had nothing in common with my former classmate -- the one who worked in the sports department. His first love was hockey, which bored me, while mine was baseball: an expanse of greensward excited my senses, for it promised not only a game, but a representation of life. At night, I often thought about Carol Ann Margolies, with whom I'd promised to stay in touch. I remember sending her a Hanukkah card, and thinking how grateful I was to have learned about her ancient faith. But life, I have found, is a series of partings, and regrets; and when one is young, one quickly meets new people who seem to replace the old ones.
Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Frank