Friday, April 23, 2010, was one of the saddest, most spirit-withering days of my life. I had driven to the place in downtown Atlanta where I had worked faithfully, loyally, proudly for 35 years before retiring in 2005 — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The old tan-colored 72 Marietta Street building, my safe haven for so many years, sat lonely, forlorn, abandoned, like a moth-balled old ship that had bore us safely through the howling storms but now had no purpose. Somehow, if I had been able, I would have wrapped my arms around the old place and said, “You did good. I loved you. This is not your fault. You did not cause this.”
Actually, I was expecting a tinge of sadness when I went there. Two weeks earlier, the AJC had vacated the 38-year-old building and moved to Dunwoody. A month before that, the paper had invited us retirees to an open house to see for one last time the place where so many of the South’s greatest journalists had practiced their craft and heeded their calling. While at the open house, I paid $20 for an old newspaper street vending rack, like those that still dot Atlanta’s street corners. I would have to come back within a month to pick it up, I was told. The old street racks were being sold as memorabilia to raise money for the Empty Stocking Fund. I bought mine on a whim. Bo Emerson, who was standing there, asked what I was going to do with it. I told him I might turn it into a liquor cabinet: It would be keeping with tradition, since a newspaper rack was where an old editor I knew hid his liquor on Saturday nights when he helped put out the Sunday paper.
So, I knew I would be a tad sad when I drove to 72 Marietta Street to pick up the rack. I was told that I had to pick it up from the loading docks. What I did not expect was the utter despair — and eeriness — that engulfed me when I turned from Fairlie Street into the loading dock area, just behind the newspaper building. It was about 4 p.m. Thirty years ago at that time of day, the docks would have been the busiest, most hopping place in Georgia. The whirring presses would have been running full-tilt, spitting out hundreds of thousands of copies of the afternoon Atlanta Journal. Conveyor belts, moving at awesome speeds, would have been clanking and grinding and workers yelling and cussing as they scurried to load a bevy of trucks with the evening paper. The fully loaded trucks, aiming to beat rush hour traffic, would race up the ramps to haul the paper all over Georgia.
But when I went there on April 23, there were no trucks. No people. No bustle. Dead silence. Eerie silence, the kind that gives me the willies. The docks were starkly bare, no hint that a great newspaper once was dispatched every single day from this place to households all over Georgia. I drove several times from one end to the other along the docks, looking for any stir of life. Just when I was about to give up, I saw a man in brown shorts and white T-shirt emerge from a doorway. He was rolling an empty handcart. Yes, he said, he knew about the racks, and I followed him into a cavernous warehouse. We found the one with my name on it and he helped me load it in my pickup. He said he was 42 years old and his job would end next week. He said I was lucky that I saw him, because all the other people in shipping and receiving had been let go that morning.
Back in my pickup, I sat there. The memories of how it once was flooded up again. The wry thought came to me that thirty years ago, I would not dared have parked here. If I had, someone from off the loading docks would have come charging at me, yelling at me to get the hell out of there because I blocked the trucks from getting out. You did not get in the way of those trucks. Thirty years ago at 4 p.m., though, I most likely would have been sitting in the sixth floor Atlanta Journal newsroom. While the bellowing trucks would be departing from the docks, we reporters and editors on the Journal staff would be winding down, relaxing a little for the first time after meeting tight deadlines and writing amazingly solid stories. Some of the staff would be heading home. Others of us would be heading down Fairlie Street to Emile’s for afternoon libations and perhaps a little joshing with the federal prosecutors and clerks and judges coming over from the Court House to sip their after-work cocktails. Back in the newspaper building, in the eighth floor Constitution newsroom, reporters and editors would be deciding what to run in the next morning’s paper and maybe figuring out how to follow up on the stories that the Journal beat them on. The Journal and Constitution hated each other then — a deep, healthy hatred that was a beautiful thing. (The first time in history when the Constitution out-circulated the Journal was on Aug. 17, 1977, when the morning rag reported Elvis Presley’s death. I never forgave Elvis for dying on Constitution time.)
With the old AJC street vending rack securely tied down in my pickup, and me wondering what I would tell my wife when I brought it home, I headed up the same ramp on which countless trucks bearing countless newspapers had departed daily over the decades for towns and cities all over Georgia. As I turned onto Spring Street, looming in front of me was the old Omni parking lot, now the parking place for CNN and Phillips Arena. That old parking lot also brought back a ton of memories. Many of us AJC employees parked there in the 1970s. At that time, I often worked on Saturday nights in the newsroom. During the long, late Saturday shifts, I often wandered over to the Sports Department and hung out there with the sportswriters, who were some of the best writers on the paper. Frank Hyland. Darrell Simmons. David Davidson and on and on. One of the sports editors was Lewis Grizzard, who loved to shoot the breeze. Grizzard and the others accorded me one of my greatest honors — they invited me out to the parking lot with them in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after the Sunday paper had been put to bed. In the parking lot, we pulled folding lawn chairs and beer-filled coolers out of our car trunks. We formed a circle and sat there and talked and sipped and ribbed each other until the sun came up. Grizzard usually set the tone.
Several years ago, a writer from a New York publication called me and said she was doing a story on Grizzard. She said she had heard about those early Sunday morning sessions in the parking lot and wanted to know what we talked about. “Did you discuss the day’s events?” she asked. “Did you talk about how stories were edited? Did you talk about the great players?”
I replied: “Look, ma’am. These were a bunch of sports writers. They weren’t trying to solve the world’s great mathematical puzzles or find the meaning of life. About the only serious discussion they ever had, I remember, was whether Pabst Blue Ribbon made you fart worse than Miller High Life. It got very heated. Two guys nearly got in a fight over it.”