Clark's Park: Truth, journalism, and dead pigeons

The "Tower of Truth," a sobriquet once applied ironically to the Inquirer Building but later meant in earnest. The paper is about to leave its longtime home. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
The "Tower of Truth," a sobriquet once applied ironically to the Inquirer Building but later meant in earnest. The paper is about to leave its longtime home. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Posted: June 18, 2012

After 87 years at 400 N. Broad, The Inquirer newsroom is moving to rented space this month in the grand old Strawbridge & Clothier store at Eighth and Market.

I don't remember when I started calling the Inquirer Building the Tower of Truth. I don't even recall if it started as a joke, as in the Tower of "Truth." When I began communications classes at Temple University in 1970, the newspaper was still living down its reputation for vendetta journalism and the blacklisting of liberal politicians, civil rights leaders, and suspect entertainers.

President Richard M. Nixon saved The Inquirer by appointing its owner and publisher, Walter H. Annenberg, as the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Annenberg divested himself of potential conflicts of interests, including ownership of The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. The new owners had a great name — Knight Newspapers. What young journalist wouldn't want to work for a company called Knight Newspapers? And so was born Philadelphia's iconic Tower of Truth, without the "blink-blink" quotation marks.

I worked inside the mother ship every day for 23 years. You have no idea of how proud a person can feel while driving to work, seeing that shimmering alabaster workplace from miles away, or glorious at night against the Center City skyline. At 18 stories, it is the tallest building in North Philadelphia — that is, any swath of land north of Vine Street to Cheltenham and all the way to Canada.

The Inquirer Building is a beacon, rivaling any actual, fictitious, or cinematic depiction of a crusading newspaper's building. With a clock tower! Perhaps only Clark Kent's Daily Planet, with its spinning globe on the roof, is more over the top than the terraced beaux arts layers of the Inquirer tower, which was opened in 1925 as the Elverson Building.

When I started at The Inquirer in 1972, we had elevator operators for each of the four elevators in the front lobby. (How to describe elevator operators to anyone under 30? They were human apps that enabled you to physically move from floor to floor. "No way! Human apps that worked?" Way.)

The concert master of the operators was the charismatic Freddie, whose last name neither I nor my contemporaries can recall. "We are ascending," he'd say slowly on the way up. "We are descending," he'd say just as slowly on the way down. And each time he said it, he had polished it differently. He'd be joking and playful, or solemn and irritated, changing reality from floor to floor. You might be bummed out by some copy desk bull about your story, and the fifth-floor lobby elevator door would open, and there Freddie would greet you. By the end of the sweet descent to the first floor, you were bummed no more. Talk to a man who works inside a polished moving box eight hours a day and you can learn a lot about life in a few floors.

No story about the Inquirer Building is complete without mention of the legendary Raymund Wall, wire room clerk ex magnifico. Ray behaved in a way not unlike what you might imagine for any human being trapped in a 10-foot room for countless hours ripping and feeding wire-service reports from a dozen ceaseless wire-service machines that sounded just like this: CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK. And that's just one machine. Now imagine a dozen.

Ray hated surprises. He would erupt in Professor Irwin Corey-like rages at the smallest deviations from routine. He'd stomp into the newsroom cursing incoherently about someone taking his best ruler. (What is a wire clerk without a ruler to rip the wires?)

Then came the day of the dead pigeons, when disgruntled readers exercised their constitutional right to disagree with the Editorial Board's position regarding pigeon removal at City Hall by sending in boxes with four dead birds. The copy boys started playing catch with one. Another was sent down the pneumatic tube to the composing room. Finally, a plot was hatched to use three dead pigeons to blow the mind of Ray Wall — a guy who would scream in response to an unexpected "Hello."

Ray was out to lunch when the copy boys replaced everything in his desk's top drawer with the three pigeons. Let the fireworks begin. Even serious reporters and editors couldn't help gathering within earshot of the wire room when Ray returned from lunch holding a half-eaten tuna hoagie. (Ray never wasted his evening meal break on what I would call an "eating" lunch.)

Ray took his seat purposefully behind the desk, everybody watching from wherever they could. It was cruel. It was hilarious. The tension mounted. As Ray started ripping the wires, a copy boy sneaked past him and stole his ruler.

Ray, irritated, looked all around and then marched to his desk. He pulled open the top drawer, grabbed another ruler, and slammed the drawer shut. Everybody is apoplectic, laughing up their noses. What the ...?

OK, he didn't notice. So again a copy boy steals his ruler, and again Ray goes to the top drawer, grabs a replacement, and slams the drawer shut. No reaction. This was even funnier than if Ray had blown a gasket.

Finally, Ray is out of rulers and replacements, and he comes roaring into the newsroom, leveling curses at the unknown thief. He knows he's been played for everyone's amusement, but he just wants his rulers back. A voice, perhaps a copy boy, quietly says, "Ray, don't you keep spare rulers in your top desk drawer?"

Ray almost spits out the answer halfway through the question. With closed eyes, he shakes his head back and forth, and bellows with triumphant certainty:

"There's nothing in there but dead pigeons!"

Clark DeLeon appears in Currents every two weeks. E-mail him at deleonc88@aol.com.

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