The “CBS News” producer Paul LaRosa, a former colleague, has written a captivating and vivid memoir, which takes readers on a bumpy but exuberant ride from his first visit to Santa in The Daily News Building lobby in Midtown, through his childhood in the James Monroe Houses in the Bronx, his return to The Daily News — this time as a copy boy, and later a reporter — to his career in television and his 50-year reunion with friends from the Bronx.
In “Leaving Story Avenue: My Journey From the Projects to the Front Page” (Park Slope Publishing, $13.99), Mr. LaRosa recreates a bygone neighborhood (“we had no play dates, no video games, no cellphones, very little money and, of course, we all agree that we are better off for it”) and a wacky city room (“working nights at The Daily News is like sitting at a bar where every once in a while someone asks you to write a news story”) as he delivers a charming tale of an ambitious kid whose street smarts served him well during the heyday of big-city tabloid journalism.
The Smell of New York, the Smell of Printers Ink: Emmy Award-Winning Producer Talks Journalism and New York
True to journalistic ethics, here, a disclaimer. I started out in journalism. Printer’s ink has colored my thumbs (and given me asthma) since I first wrote kitschy columns for my high school newspaper, and I loved New York even in its grittier days when I lived there while I put my husband through Columbia all the while being secretly envious it was not I riding the subway uptown to study journalism.Perhaps this disclaimer explains why I was hooked from the first chapter of Leaving Story Avenue by Paul LaRosa. The chapter is a very nearly a poem about newsrooms in the days before computers. Linotype machines/molten lead/brittle old men/pneumatic tubes/composing room floor/sweat-soaked air. I mean, do people even know what pneumatic tubes are these days? That I have a few memories to add to his (I was a writer for a daily paper the decade before LaRosa), I’ll settle for this…excitement. This description of humanity. This love of free press.This first chapter only leads the reader to wondering what brought this kid (the book is LaRosa’s own story) into a newsroom, why he deserved that first promotion from copyboy to cub reporter. From then on in, it’s a project in the Bronx (years before they became tough-and some years during). It’s Catholic schools (which happen to be mirrored by others, as it happens) in the days of knuckle-rapping. It’s the days when parents left kids to their own devices, their own choices-so when they succeeded they could stick their thumbs in their armpits and let out a loud cock-a-doodle-doo. It’s youth in its exuberance and stupidity (Holden Caulfield anyone?). And, yep, it’s New York. Then. The roots of what we love now. Diversity.Here is a book from an indie publisher. It’s a slim book to make them proud. Nothing fancy, mind you. But honest. And one that points to an even more important future for small publishers and authors with ideas of their own. It’s a memoir most anyone will love.
As traditional newspapers struggle to survive in the brave new digital world, Luddites and old-school print proponents will tell you about everything that we’ll lose as a society if the good old-fashioned daily newspaper disappears from stoops and sidewalks across the country. This list ranges from the reassuringly low-maintenance nature of the product (read it, fold it, leave it on the bus – and if you lose it you’re only out four bits) to the tactile satisfaction of fresh newsprint between your fingers.
As for me, I’m most worried about the loss of stories.
No, not the news and feature stories that fill the newspaper — we should still have plenty of those online. The stories I lament losing are the ones that come from the newsroom itself, a seedy-yet-civically-salubrious sub-culture that sprang up in the early part of the 20th century and, for about 100 years, has fueled innumerable journalistic tales of middling heroism and borderline debauchery. Throughout their existence, newsrooms have been host to some of the most colorful, iconoclastic, and just plain weird members of the professional working class. Most newsrooms teeter precariously between high-minded democratic idealism and low-brow alcohol-fueled cynicism. As any veteran of these literary asylums can attest, there’s no other place like ‘em.
Fortunately, many of those scarred souls who forged their fortune in this Byzantine world have survived mostly unscathed – but with a load of stories to tell. Such is definitely the case with Paul LaRosa, whose breezy memoir of the 1970s New York City newspaper culture, Leaving Story Avenue, captures the sense of adventure behind kitschy tabloid headlines and clichéd phrases such as “Get Me Re-Write!”
LaRosa’s memoir covers more than just his years at the New York Daily News, which he got to know first as a copy boy and then later as an
award-winning reporter. Leaving Story Avenue offers ample anecdotes about LaRosa’s upbringing in a Bronx housing project and his quest to survive a Catholic education, all retold in the conversationally alluring style expected from an accomplished feature writer. No mater what the subject, his stories are mostly engaging and finely-spun (brief digressions outside of New York, such as a trip to Yosemite National Park, are amusing but lack the knowing bite of the Gotham-bounded narratives.) It’s his glimpse inside the beating heart of the Daily News that will, I imagine, strike most readers as the high point of the book.
The newspaper world has always made a great subject for the movies and LaRosa’s book makes clear why that’s so. From the copy boys “on the bench” reading Thomas Pynchon novels to impress their higher-ups to the police reporter who wanders into crime scenes pretending to be a detective “from the downtown branch,” LaRosa’s Daily News is filled with enough characters to populate any Preston Sturges screwball comedy. LaRosa is a good reporter: he paints each scene with just enough detail to bring home its humor and its pathos.
Alas, as his book also makes clear, that era of dysfunctional dynamism has all but disappeared. The “modern” newsroom, with its no-smoking policies, sexual-harassment workshops, and computer terminals probably has its stories to tell as well. But it’s just not the same. And while I love reading the news online, and I welcome the convenience of a perpetually updated edition right at my fingertips, I miss the days when those fingertips carried the proof of my encounter, a smudged souvenir of a profession as sullied as the world it covered.