ILLUMINATING THE MOOD

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

Some of the older homes I walked into as a youngster had one- or two-bulb ceiling fixtures in the middle of the room, operated by a long pull chain that hit any tall fellow in the head. These lights, the fashion of the time when electricity first came to old houses in old villages, were literally illuminating after gas fixtures, but they were awfully harsh, directing shadows on people and furniture, as in the film noir treatment of a Raymond Chandler mystery.

So it is that I have erased any trace of ceiling fixtures in every home I’ve owned, save the kitchen. And even there task lighting not only makes for better veggie cutting but sets the mood. Kitchens, like living rooms, and certainly bedrooms, are all about mood.

My Spring Valley, N.Y., grandfather had a wonderful “standard lamp,” which others call floor lamps, but the British moniker sounds more accurate since movable lighting became common fare almost as quickly as did ceiling fixtures. It was the “standard” or normal lamp in, say, a living room. 

     Grandfather had his placed next to a large and comfy chair, and the 100-watt bulb seemed to provide the sun’s touch for many a youngster’s reading of the Saturday Evening Post or a New York City tabloid.

His lamp, like the original ceiling fixtures, had a pull chain, not a twist knob, not a push-pull contraption, both of which you fumble for in the dark, almost knocking over the fixture. Worse, still, would be the foot-operated button, which always seems to be under the couch.

The standard lamp in Spring Valley had a longish pull chain with a glass bauble at its end, which swung and hit the lamp’s upright pole three or four times. The light was easy to locate because of the glass and the chain itself. Its action was smooth, and during the 15 or so years I sat next to that standard lamp, the chain never failed. I can still hear the sound.

There was certainty in its action, yes, and also sureness that I would soon be comfortable in a chair where while others in the family talked, I could get lost in a tabloid or magazine.

Contrast that pull chain, which turned on a world of delight, to the dangling ones from ceiling fixtures that cast harsh light, the mysterious mood of which was dreary.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. Reach him at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay is adapted from an earlier version.

THEY ‘SUNG’ FOR US

April 13, 2009

     There is no workplace rhythm – this necessary, life-sustaining tempo, this melody, this song – without the interplay of people. Bosses, the ordinary grunts, specialists, the guys and gals who do the job, or who do the job better than others, the slackers, the prima donnas, the ego-feeders and the ego-needers, the rear kissers, the independents, the saints, the sinners, the long-termers and the in-and-outs – all are essential to what makes a particular shop or store or business sing its anthem. Success, the name and reputation, the lasting memory ride on this music.

     In the old-style newspaper business, my craft, when editors “dummied” or sketched pages of stories, photos and graphics on style sheets that printers would try to follow in the upstairs composing room or the “backshop,” usually making corrections that resulted in a much better newspaper, we editorial types soon learned to “make a friend of a printer,” for you were sunk if you did not. No matter how accurate you thought your story lengths were, or how tight the pictures were cropped, and especially if you believed your headlines would fit the column space, once you stood next to the printer, that compositor making up your page in cast hot metal, you soon realized you weren’t worth a pot of ink.

     That’s when printers like Tom D’Auria and “Big John” DeSevo saved your ass, particularly on deadline. Tom, who was close in age when we worked together in the 1970s, and Big John, who was a bit older as we toiled in the 1970s-’90s, were originally linotypists or typesetters at a country then suburban newspaper named the  Rockland Journal-News in the 1950s and ’60s. They also did page makeup, placing type cast from molten metal in “chases” or forms, with photographic and advertising “cuts,” locking that heavy mass  with a special wrench and then sending the form to a “mat” maker. The mats were filled with cast lead in half-cylindrical shape to be placed on rotary presses for printing.

     That precision work gave way to photo-offset printing in the 1970s, and Tom and Big John became “paste-up artists” who laid down columns of type, photos, graphics and ads on full-size heavy-paper sheets, which were then photographed to produce offset printing plates made of tin. It was a less precise process than hot type and eventually was replaced by computer design direct to printing plate, the standard in newspapers today.

    In their time, printers like Tom and Big John, the former always making a joke and the latter puffing away on a cigar and working quickly, were your friends in composing, deftly trimming stories, rearranging the layout to make it jump, helping fill out headlines, etc. They assisted you in making deadline and getting the work done in what is the daily birth of a newspaper.

     Both Tom and Big John were affable people, two of the songbirds in the wonderful rhythm of the old and then changing newspaper composing room. Their banter, their yells for trims, for more type, set against the clank-clank of the Linotypes and then the whirring of the offset cameras, gave cadence to a craft.

     Few who read the old Journal-News out of 53 Hudson Ave. in Nyack, N.Y. knew Tom D’Auria or Big John DeSevo, for as in most jobs, the staff was unsung. Yet like the mason who sets the first block best, the foundation for any one day’s newspaper was assured by their presence. Gone now, both of them, as surely as is their style of newspaper composing, but I can still hear their music.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay is adapted from an earlier column.