We Didn’t Think It Was The Past At The Time

My workspace at MPG, strategically located in the middle of a hallway and fitted with the latest in computer terminals. At far right is one of my fellow copy editors, a woman named April Applegate. Wonder where she is now.

Back in the late ’80s, when Dukakis was in flower, I took a job as a copy editor for MPG (Memorial Press Group), a Plymouth-based company that owned a chain of small weekly newspapers in the southeastern corner of Massachusetts, mainly the part just north of Cape Cod, as well as the jewel in their crown, the Old Colony Memorial, the venerable daily paper of Plymouth (home of a certain allegedly historical rock which tended to visibly underwhelm tourists when they first set eyes on it). The OCM actually held claim to the title of New England’s oldest newspaper, dating to 1822. To come to MPG I had taken a significant pay cut from my previous job as a medical transcriptionist at one of Boston’s downtown hospitals (excuse me, medical centers) but this was, after all, Journalism, my higher calling. I commuted to the job four days a week from Allston, just west of Boston proper, a round trip of 88 miles. Again, it was for Journalism, so it was OK.

At MPG, it was my responsibility to lay out the newspapers — using a ruler, a pencil, and paper to dummy out the pages — and write headlines and cutlines (photo captions) for three of these a week, publications like the Bourne Courier, Fairhaven Advocate and Mashpee Messenger, plus occasional advertising supplements.  Each of these hyper-local rags was served by a single reporter and a single editor, both of whom often served double duty on another town’s weekly. In those medieval times we edited copy on computers which were hopelessly antiquated even then, perhaps dating to 1822 (do I even have to mention that the publisher was exceedingly cheap?), one step above ASCII with large green letters blinking on a dark screen, the edits executing as slow as drip coffee. The actual makeup of the papers was done not on a screen but by a crack paste-up crew of women with X-Acto knives and huge reservoirs of patience, who painstakingly pressed and smoothed text set on photographic paper  onto large white boards resting on green easels inlaid with perfect little squares. (Although early versions of desktop publishing had already been around for a few years, none of them had yet penetrated MPG’s linoleum corridors.) If space was short, the paste-up auteurs would separate individual lines of type and air to fill, that is, space out the lines as evenly as possible down to the bottom of the page. Recurring “garbage fill” stories (recycle your old eyeglasses at the Lions Club!) were always included in the feed to help the cause on slow news weeks, which occurred more often than not in these sleepy burgs where Page One was usually given over to the doings at the latest meeting of the zoning board or water authority or, if one was lucky, the annual Scallop Fest. (One week in 1989, when the actress Geena Davis, a Wareham native, had received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, I remember having to blow up a head shot of her to nearly fill an entire page of the Wareham Courier because the accompanying article was so brief.)

  The editorial staff was divided between younger up-and-comers, biding their time before their inevitable call-up to the Quincy Patriot Ledger, New Bedford Standard-Times or Boston Globe, and older lifers who were quite content living out their days in a comparatively nice part of the world (the winters aside). I suppose because I lived in Boston, could talk about music and occasionally exhibited a sense of humor in print, the young, bright editor of the OCM, Mark Pothier, assigned me the pleasant task of writing a monthly column about Boston-area events, usually of an artistic bent. (Before working at MPG, Pothier had been a rock musician who played in the bands Adventure Set and, later, Ministry; he’s written about this  time for the Globe far better than I could, for understandable reasons such as, uh, having lived it.)

Although working at MPG was sometimes consumed with the drudgery of most office jobs, at least, I kept telling myself, I was getting paid to think, even if it was thinking about zoning and scallop festivals, and I got to work with talented editors and cartoonists, most of whom approached their jobs with good humor and earnest attitudes. I didn’t hit it off at all with one legendarily cranky editor in particular, someone out of “The Front Page” but transposed to small-town New England, who would send back the editions to me after publication with his comments on my headlines and layouts marked in red crayon, sometimes complimentary but more often than not savage criticisms about how I could have done a better job on the layout or written a more accurate headline. I soon began to hate the guy with a passion (I’m sure he felt I was a stupid, lazy sod, and he didn’t appreciate my jokes). To be fair, Mr. Editor did know his stuff backwards and forwards, had a ton of experience and could have gotten a better job at a larger paper any time he cared to, but apparently stayed on the small-time beats out of sheer New England bullheadedness, or maybe because his greatest joy in life was tormenting poorly paid copy editors. I was relieved when the editorial musical chairs were realigned and I didn’t have to work with him anymore.

My immediate supervisor was a tall, terse, cynical (of course) guy in his 30s who wore no other footwear but red Converse high-tops and engaged in long-distance bicycling and skydiving in his off-hours, and thought, like the editor dude above, that I was a lazy, careless sod until I proved otherwise to his satisfaction. My fellow copy editors were a mixed lot: guys just out of school, academics lost between M.A. and Ph.D., and competent twentysomething women soon on their way to better things of one sort or other. The middle and upper management hit the entire range from brilliance to absolute incompetence, with most, as in most other workplaces, somewhere in between. Once I actually quit in a fit of pique after I’d spent an entire day laying out a supplement, only to have the assignment canceled due to some management screw-up; the relentlessly chipper executive editor, Sharon, immediately convinced me to stay on, giving me me a significant raise into the bargain.

For fun, I worked on my off-hours zine, plotted my next freelance adventure and occasionally scribbled stuff never intended to see print, such as this scrap I actually printed on photographic paper (and no, it didn’t get published, not until now, anyway):

mokita — — — (wme) — L4: dddddd at 3-29-88; 3:39p

What copy editors do for fun

The major recreational activities of copy editors ARE:

1) Chortling over typos

2) Raising a family

3) Skydiving

4) Freelancing for the competition

5) Pasting up “The Far Side” cartoons

6) Sending out resumes

7) Ordering out for pizza

8) Crying

9) Logging off

10) Thinking up obscene cutlines

One lunch with my fellow copy editors and Sharon around the summer of ’88 stands out, where we went to a local restaurant and started discussing the upcoming election and I said that if Dukakis was elected it would be safe to ignore politics for awhile (cool, boring hand on the tiller and all that) and came out with a suggested slogan for the campaign, “Elect Dukakis so we can all get on with our lives.” Everyone laughed.

My time at the OCM and MPG came to an abrupt end in 1989 when the company eliminated Plymouth’s copy desk and planned to move the staffers to (if memory serves) their office in Orleans on the Cape itself, which was a bridge too far even for me.

Several months before my departure, Sharon fell in love with an Italian guy, left the company and moved from Marstons Mills to Rome; she’s worked for a United Nations agency there for many years, and I exchanged emails with her while I was in Slovenia. Mark Pothier, who’s had and continues to have a distinguished career at the Globe, last year revived Adventure Set (good for him).

During my time as a columnist and occasional music writer for the OCM, I was simultaneously writing for papers like the Boston Herald and the Patriot-Ledger, not to mention Boston Rock, and I greatly appreciated the chance to pretty much write about whatever I cared to for the Plymouth paper. Among other things, I interviewed Chris Butler, formerly of the Waitresses, one of my all-time songwriting heroes; John Goldrosen, author of the definitive biography of Buddy Holly, Remembering Buddy (Goldrosen was working in a Hyannis bookstore at the time and stopped by the newsroom for an engaging chat about his obsession); bands like Brave Combo and the Incredible Casuals; and covered, among other things, MTV, independent movie houses around Boston, the secret treasures of Harvard Square, and Soap-A-Rama, a combination laundromat/dry cleaner/tanning salon/exercise spa/snack bar/TV lounge in Brighton.

I also wrote this column (click on the pages to enlarge), 


published on July 23, 1987. It incorporates an interview with Julie Farman, veteran PR pro and rock ‘n’ roll survivor, who currently writes this amusing blog recounting her past adventures. At that time she had just resigned her job booking bands at the Rat, Boston’s legendary punk Ground Zero, and was, as I wrote, “job hunting, in any city that isn’t Boston.” I still remember taking, with my crappy point-and-shoot camera of the day, that out-of-focus photo of Julie, standing just outside the Rat’s front door, in front of the display case that used to announce the nightly bill.  (Visiting Boston from Slovenia, I last gazed on the Rat’s facade on the first day of October, 2000; it was boarded up then, and would be torn down later that very month.)

For my fellow veterans of the since well-mythologized mid-’80s Boston garage-punk scene, I think it’s instructive to read this primary-source document from a distance of nearly a quarter-century, and see that this bruised but still enterprising and idealistic, bright young force of nature — as I remember her to be — had all but closed the coffin lid on the vitality of said scene as far back as the summer of ’87. It was already over, or was it? Eventually, one way or the other, one moves on.

Michael Dukakis failed to get elected president.

And me, I’m Durward Kirby.


5 responses to “We Didn’t Think It Was The Past At The Time

  1. I’ll never forget your coming to work one morning at MPG – a symphony of pattern! You’d put a plaid shirt on with a striped tie and a completely different plaid pair of pants, and, if memory serves correctly, even your socks were patterned that day. It lives on in my memory. Thanks for that. I toss a wadded up piece of paper in your vague direction…..

  2. Was it Halloween, Diane, or just the ’80s? I do remember owning two-toned shoes, at least.

  3. Great post! I’m mortified, though – can’t believe I was such a know-it-all at 23…Thanks Wes!!!! (I remember your camera too…!)

  4. Pingback: Gunned down | Pogoer 2.0: Memoirs of an experienced optimist

  5. Pingback: The Odd Interview 4: Chris Butler | The Odd Interview

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