Elmer Smith: Writing's been a job, but hardly work

Posted: September 23, 2011

"How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."

- From the musical "Annie"

I WAS 12 when my mother trapped a local merchant in a fiendishly clever extortion plot.

"How much do you think I spend here each week?" my mother asked Sam Zepper, proprietor of the Girard beef market.

"I don't know exactly, Mrs. Mitchell. Why do you ask?"

"Because my son needs a job."

I started work that day and was never out of work for more than a week or two until January 1973 when the Philadelphia Bulletin hired me as a nightside rewrite man for $5 an hour.

I haven't worked a day since.

I've been steadily employed, first by the Bulletin and then by the Philadelphia Daily News, where I have had a job for nearly 30 years.

But if I called it work, I'd be starting my employment history in an extortion plot and ending it with a lie.

For nearly 39 years, people have been paying me to find out what was going on and to write about what I've learned. You could call that work. But a year before I joined the Bulletin, I was doing the same thing at Temple University and paying them for the privilege.

My employers paid me to spend seven years writing the twisted tales of the City Hall beat. Back then, George X. Schwartz, the Silver Fox, ran City Council with an iron fist until he got Abscammed for peddling Council votes to the highest bidder.

Frank Rizzo became the first mayor to accessorize his formal wear with a blackjack or to excuse himself from a fancy dinner to oversee the strip search of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party.

John Street made history as the first man ever arrested for disrupting City Council to have later been elected to City Council. He is the only man to ever serve as Council president after engaging in a fistfight with another councilman.

Stories like that write themselves. They'd have to. You couldn't make this stuff up.

I would have bought a ticket to City Council back then. Instead, I was a paid witness.

I drew a paycheck (I'm not making this up) to sit at ringside during the golden era of boxing. I spent 20-25 weeks a year in Las Vegas with Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, Evander Holyfield and a malevolent mauler named Mike Tyson who never wore socks but packed plenty.

Who gets paid for that or to see the world on somebody else's dime? They sent me to boxing matches in Tokyo and Seoul, to Russia at the fall of the Communist Party, to Somalia at the height of the famine of 1991, to Haiti for the forced repatriation of refugees who had taken to the sea in tubs trying to get to a promised land that a lot of us take for granted.

I idolized Nelson Mandela during his prison years and then got to meet him in his back yard on a trip financed by the Daily News.

But the part that is hardest to believe is these last 22 years. In 1989, they started paying me to say what I think and feel. They said I didn't have to be right, as long as I was honest.

And they said that as long as I told the truth to the best of my knowledge, they would stand by me whenever powerful people tried to block my voice. In 22 years as a columnist, no editor or news executive has ever told me what to write or stopped one of my columns because they disagreed with my opinion.

This is the last of those columns. In keeping with the local custom, I will accept a cash payment for writing it.

But I won't forget what a blessing it has been to do this or to have access to all of you for all these years and to be raised by a woman who would have done anything for me, including hatching an extortion scheme to get me started.

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