It’s said that when James Thurber, as a young newspaper reporter, was told by an editor that his story’s first paragraph, what newspaper people might refer to as his lede, suffered from wordiness, he handed in a rewrite whose opening paragraph was, in its entirety, “Dead.”
There followed a second paragraph: “That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4 p.m. in front of Riley’s saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.”
Like that editor, I admire those short, punchy ledes often employed by crime reporters. But I also admire the ambition of those long ledes which you often see in the obituaries that appear in The New York Times
—ledes whose first sentence manages to stuff the highlights of an entire lifetime in a clause between the decedent’s name and the fact that he has expired.
You might say that I’m a collector of ledes. I assume that’s why my friend James Edmunds, who lives in New Iberia, Louisiana, sent me an article that appeared in The Advocate
of Baton Rouge on September 23, 2019. If the function of a lede is to engage the reader, this article’s lede seemed to me remarkably effective. Here it is:
A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600-pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.
Notice how the reader is drawn in with a single unpunctuated sentence that starts slowly and gradually becomes an express train that whistles right by the local stops without providing an opportunity to get off. A veterinarian is summoned to administer antibiotics to a camel—routine stuff so far. Yes, the camel lives behind a truck stop, which is an unusual domicile for a camel but probably not unprecedented. It wasn’t that long ago that gas stations along highways like Route 66 lured travelers with roadside zoos that were advertised by signs like “See Albino Raccoon” or “Live Two-Headed Goat.” And this takes place in Louisiana, where animal stories that might be considered unusual elsewhere are commonplace. In 2007, when Louisiana finally banned cockfighting, the last state to do so, a state senator from Opelousas fought to exempt a less lethal version of the sport he called chicken boxing. Louisiana once tried to eat its way out of an environmental crisis caused by the nutria, an invasive rodent that devours marshland, by encouraging some of the state’s celebrated chefs to invent tempting nutria dishes with names like Ragondin a l’Orange.
And then we come to the woman who bit the camel’s genitalia and is talking to law officers, perhaps claiming self-defense as a way to wiggle out of a cruelty-to-animals charge. Identifying her as a “Florida woman,” as I interpret it, suggests that we’re dealing here with what Newfoundlanders would call a come-from-away and New Yorkers would call an out-of-towner. The tantalizing implication is that a local woman would have known that you could give a truck-stop camel an infection requiring antibiotics by biting its genitalia.
While the veterinarian was caring for the camel, was anyone attending to that Florida woman? She had, after all, been sat on by a six-hundred-pound camel, an experience that must be at least uncomfortable and probably injurious. A reader has to wonder if she had some broken bones or some cracked ribs or at least a nasty taste in her mouth.
And we still have the deaf dog to deal with. The Florida woman and her husband (presumably a Florida man) may have tried to call him back (“Here, Fido! Here, Fido! Come out of the camel’s enclosure, Fido”) even though they knew that, because of his deafness, they might as well have been singing the FSU fight song, or whatever Florida people do when things don’t seem to be going their way.
As I see it, the Florida woman and the Florida man have no choice but to enter the enclosure. The Florida woman is still shouting at the deaf dog to follow her out. Her husband has tried to calm her down by saying things like “Hush, Florida woman, or that camel is going to lose his temper and take it in his mind to sit on someone.” The camel has, in fact, been getting a bit riled. He has decided to sit on the Florida woman, but, in his excitement, he fails to do so in a way that evolution has taught him to sit on an enemy without exposing his genitalia to retaliation.
At that point, as if a shutter had clicked, it becomes a tableau vivant—one that I have carried in my mind ever since. The Florida man looks alarmed. The dog looks puzzled. The camel looks pained—even more pained than camels normally look. All we see of the Florida woman is her legs extending from underneath the camel. Talk about engaging the reader! I was so engaged that I felt no need to read the rest of the story. The lede is sufficient. It’s now in my collection. Class Acting
One day, a friend of mine who was working for a newspaper in Washington spent a couple of hours trying to get people on the telephone so they could lie to him about a particularly boring hearing he had covered. Pausing between calls, he glanced around at all the other reporters in the newsroom who were similarly occupied, and suddenly wondered, “Is this a job for a college graduate?” That was thirty-five years ago, and I still don’t know the answer to his question. I’ve been making do with “not necessarily.”
Although a reporter is no longer thought of as a coarse man who wears a shiny suit and probably keeps a bottle of cheap bourbon in the bottom drawer of his desk, it still isn’t clear where he fits into polite society. Network anchors, for example, are now national celebrities who make millions of dollars a year. But when an anchorman interviews an obscure member of the House of Representatives on camera, the anchorman addresses the representative as “Congressman” and the representative calls the anchorman by his first name. The only guests a network anchor feels free to call by their first names on camera are his fellow newsmen, many of them millionaire celebrities themselves.
English journalists, who are candid enough to call an anchor a “news reader,” seem to have a clearer idea of where they stand. In the early seventies, an English reporter I knew who had been assigned to New York was about to bring his family from London by ocean liner, and I asked him which deck they’d be strolling around. “Cabin class,” he said, naming the undramatic middle option that existed on transatlantic ocean liners between first class and Leonardo DiCaprio’s mob in steerage. And then he added, in the matter-of-fact voice he always employed to instruct me on some elementary rule of cricket, “Journalists travel cabin class.”
I suppose class is what I’m talking about here—which is to say that in this country, I’m talking partly about money. When I was a boy, it was sometimes said that what reporters got out of the game was a decent obituary. Reading the pinched little C.V. his paper ran to mark the passing of a biologist or a banker, a reporter having some trouble with the mortgage payments could at least take satisfaction in knowing that he himself might be piped off to the next vale with a ripe eulogy that ran a full column and might include a sentence that began, “Known to his colleagues as a warm and witty man. . . .”
When I started out, reporting was seen as a poorly paid and faintly déclassé calling that might offer someone—usually someone from a modest background—an occasional spurt of the high life on someone else’s money. Even then, journalism had a sprinkling of people from families that had always taken first-class crossings for granted, but I tended to associate them with a special corner of the field in Washington—a view that resulted in my experiencing my own telephone epiphany in Newark.
On a very cold day in 1972, while covering some trouble between black and Italian residents in the North Ward of the city, I was trying to make a call from a grimy pay phone tacked to a building in the disputed territory. Finding myself put on hold by an obdurate secretary, I tried blowing on my hands for warmth, glanced around to make certain nobody was throwing any bricks in my direction, and heard myself say out loud, “I wonder what Joseph Alsop is doing right now.” I pictured the elegant and well-born Mr. Alsop in the richly paneled dining room of a Washington club, selecting the wine with great care, while his luncheon guests, an ambassador and the director of central intelligence, waited patiently. It occurred to me that I was in the wrong end of the business.
One year, on behalf of all reporters everywhere, I suggested that Roy Reed be given the Pulitzer Prize for managing to convince the poohbahs at The New York Times
that New Orleans, a backwater in just about every human endeavor except the enjoyment of life, rather than Atlanta, the Babbitt-ridden commercial center and air hub of the South, was the logical place for the Times’s
Southern correspondent to make his headquarters. The true high life on someone else’s money, though, has traditionally been available in foreign postings. In the fat days of Time Inc., I never passed an impressive mansion in a foreign capital without thinking, “It’s either an Arab embassy or the home of the Time bureau chief.”