Of Lafayette Square, partial scores and tears

Story By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Photo Courtesy Times-Picayune

This is a story of two buildings.

Every Mardi Gras, when we were little, the six Finney kids would pile into my parents’ blue-and-white Volkswagen bus, drive downtown and park as close as possible to Lafayette Square.

It seemed as though my dad always found a great parking spot 50 blocks away, but it probably was more like seven or eight.

We had to run to keep up with him because he walked fast. Or maybe it was because one of his steps equaled three of ours.

Lafayette Square wasn’t the best place to actually view Rex, even though it had pride of position opposite Gallier Hall. The viewing stands on St. Charles Avenue seemed to be as tall as the south end zone at Tulane Stadium, so, as rug rats, we really couldn’t see what was going on – just the tippy top of Rex’s gold-glittered float.

Rex never threw much anyway.

The real reason we went to Lafayette Square for Mardi Gras was utilitarian. With six kids, there had to be bathrooms, and The Times-Picayune building, where my dad worked, had plenty of those.

Walking into that towering brick building, where the news was printed and then delivered to your doorstep every morning, must have been what it smelled like walking into a Havana cigar shop. The glass doors opened, and the invisible scent of tobacco was as powerful as the incense on Holy Saturday at St. Leo the Great Church.

We would take the elevator up to the cavernous newsroom, which was strangely quiet – “Yes, Virginia, there is a Mardi Gras” – but distinctive for its leaning mountains of newspapers claiming every inch of the gray desks except for the black typewriters, where the magic happened.

On other days, I got to see the magic in action.

After reporters finished their stories, they got up from their typewriters, walked over to the copy desk and dropped their deathless prose into a wire basket, where a copy editor would then wield a red pencil, often like a machete.

Get to the verb!

After that, the editor would spike a carbon copy for safe-keeping on his desk, fold the marked-up original as if he were mailing a letter and slip it between two straps of a black conveyor belt.

It was a warehouse of words.

The story floated up to the ceiling and across the newsroom before it disappeared into a large hole, on its way to be set in newspaper type by someone called a linotype operator.

Magic.

In 1968, The Times-Picayune, which back then was in the business of printing newspapers and money, used some of its spare coins to build a massive new office plant and printing facility on Howard Avenue just to the right of Interstate 10, where anyone driving into town could not miss the gleaming white tower, a symbol of strength as well as a subliminal message not to mess with people who buy ink by the barrel.

You couldn’t get to the T-P office if you weren’t from New Orleans and didn’t know the back streets, but you never missed seeing that tower.

The tower originally was crowned with a rotating black rim bearing the white-lettered monograms of the city’s morning and afternoon newspapers – The Times-Picayune and The States-Item. There were two clocks on either side.

At some point, decades later, the rotating crown ground to a halt. A few years after that, the clocks stopped working, but at least they were right twice a day.

There were some amazing things and people inside that building. There were the narrow escalators in the grand entrance foyer that whisked you up to the newsroom as you sailed past the chiseled, alphabet sculptures of Enrique Alferez. There was a freight elevator big enough to accommodate a Saturn rocket from Michoud.

I was a copyboy one summer in the early ’70s, and one of my daily 10 a.m. assignments was to get 10 cents from an editor, walk down the hall to the machine that dispensed a cup that then was filled with a spray of Coke and return the soda to the editor, who reached down into his bottom drawer for a small pour of liquid fortifier.

There was Loys (Aloysius) “Bugs” Bergeron, who often took an early-morning cat nap on a table inside the wire room, where eight to 10 teletype machines from the AP and UPI clattered home copy from around the world. If the police radio went off, Bugs could interpret every snap, crackle and pop.

“That fire in the Quarter is up to four alarms, Coach,” Bugs would inform the city editor, who then dispatched a reporter to the scene.

In the days before ESPN, Anthony Richidella, who could handicap a six-furlong crawfish race, hired a bunch of high school and college students on Saturdays to answer the phones of the T-P newsroom. It was an ingenious idea. Instead of college football bettors jamming the phones of the sports department in a desperate search for scores, they were directed to a separate phone bank, where Richie’s crew dispensed partial scores. Richie updated the scores every 10 minutes using 20 pieces of carbon paper.

“You can give out only three scores at a time,” Richie told us. “If they want more, hang up.”

The phones never stopped ringing. One of my favorite calls came from a bettor who obviously never had sojourned in life much past the Industrial Canal.

“You got a paw-shul score on Caw-nell versus Yale?”

You could almost see him sipping an aperitif in his Yale blue sweater and silk slippers.

The building that once produced magic became flooded and later abandoned and graffiti-bruised, about as bad as it gets in an “Ain’t Dere No More” New Orleans because it lingered in plain sight for far too long. The brickwork’s indecipherable, spray-painted typography reopened so many wounds.

The white tower was the last stronghold on an 8.5-acre site that has been razed and will be transformed into a Drive Shack golf entertainment complex.

When I hit my first duck hook at 3800 Howard Ave., I will remember Lafayette Square, Anthony Richidella and the creative Newhouse boys, whose “fire-ready-aim” decisions on how to navigate a new media landscape with sensitivity and a sense of history ultimately led to conquest – by a swarm of yellow bulldozers.

Hail Rex! Hail Caw-nell! Hail Drive Shack!

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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