WILLIAMSTOWN — My memories of the sights and sounds of the first newsroom I worked in have remained green after 46 years.
Phones rang. Teletype machines clicked, clacked and — rarely — sounded bells like jackpot-paying slot machines when hot news came over the wires. It seemed as though everyone smoked; the air hung heavy with the mixed aromas of cigarettes, cigars and pipes.
The paper, then named the Troy Times-Record, also boasted its share of “characters.” There was the irascible “copy boy,” an elderly man who, particularly during baseball season, displayed his hatred of the New York Yankees by kicking the nearest wastebasket across the room when good news about the team was broadcast over the transistor radio he held to his ear. Once, he flung a glue pot; no one was hurt, but the mess was epic.
That was just on the day shift.
Having been assigned to the paper’s bureau in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., I worked (mostly) days and didn’t become acquainted with nightlife in the newsroom until some weeks after I got hired.
I can’t recall what brought me to Troy that night. My guess is I’d come to pick up and cash my paycheck for a night on the town. I encountered some of my new colleagues and we visited several establishments in downtown Troy.
Sitting at the bar in one of them was a man dressed in a battered and not-overclean raincoat. He was in deep conversation with the bartender, and I noticed that he had a unique way of finishing his glass of draft beer. He’d grasp it at the base with his thumb and forefinger, elevate his pinkie finger, and toss it down with a flourish before setting it gently down for a refill.
Introductions were made by one of my new friends, and so I met John J. Scanlon, copy editor and columnist at the Times-Record.
Scanlon, known to many as “JJ,” was the proprietor of a popular column in the paper. Titled simply “Scanlon’s People,” it chronicled the lives of the scores of people its author met on his nocturnal ramblings from tavern to tavern.
Born the son of Irish immigrants in Rutland, Vt., he worked at two newspapers before arriving in Troy in 1953. He stayed in the city, he liked to joke, because he lacked the funds for a return ticket to Rutland.
He signed on at what was then The Troy Record and remained until his retirement in 1999. He died in 2002 at age 82.
His resemblance to a hard-boiled newshound straight out of central casting was only raincoat deep. He was friendly, funny, generous and sincerely interested in other people.
As an editor, he strove for simplicity and clarity; Scanlon never pulled his punches and he didn’t mince words.
He loved children, his family, his “people,” beer and St Patrick’s Day.
Scanlon observed Lent every year, giving up beer for the season. He told me once that he had considered consulting a priest about one-day “passes” on Lenten sacrifices, but decided against it on the chance that he wouldn’t get the answer he wanted.
So it was that St. Patrick’s Day found Scanlon in the thick of celebrations, which he tried mightily to withdraw from by midnight every March 17, with limited success.
He also loved practical jokes and was quick to sense last-minute opportunities to pull good ones.
He “got” me one early morning after we left the paper in separate cars to meet at a nearby tavern for after-work refreshments.
Scanlon had pulled into the parking lot ahead of me and was walking toward the door when I drove in.
No sooner had I removed my key from the ignition when my car was surrounded by Troy Police cruisers that had materialized out of nowhere. I later learned that a car matching a description of mine had been seen driving recklessly on a street nearby. I was ordered out of the car. Hands held high, I complied. After a brief exchange, during which I tried to explain that I’d just come from work at the paper, I decided to invoke the name of my well-known colleague. I called out to Scanlon, who had stopped to watch the goings-on.
“You know this guy, John?” one of the cops said.
Scanlon waited a beat and replied, shaking his head slowly, “Never saw him before in my life,” he said.
Every St. Patrick’s Day, I give thanks that wasn’t true.