I am a grown man. Still, I spend every day playing. Playing with words. Begging them to come alive. Coaxing them to dance across the stage in just the right order.
I learned the nuts-and-bolts of the writing trade as a 21-year-old copy editor for my hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press. At deadline time I had to go back into the composing room to look for typos by reading the reversed images of each word in molten lead: getting to know the language backwards and forwards.
Those were the rollicking old days of newspapering, the 1960s. We put the final edition to bed at 11 at night, then went across the street to a bar to get tribal until closing time. I was hardly old enough to be served. But the bar had a pool table, and my mojo with the cue earned me a place in the fraternity.
In 1966 I kicked up my game by going to the Washington Post, which was less collegial and more competitive. As an assistant foreign editor, I had “good news judgment,” they said. I was a whiz-kid with a copy pencil. But I was shy. I felt my Detroitness, my middle-class nobodyness. I was intimidated by the Ivy Leaguers who ran the newsroom, and especially by the boss, Ben Bradlee. He was so brash, so sure of himself, he brought back my childhood stutter. My biggest fear was having to stand next to him in the men’s room, pulled up to the pisser with nothing clever to say.
At 28, I realized that I’d never make it to the top as an editor here. I didn’t have Bradlee’s élan. I didn’t have the style, the breeding, the ambition, the drive. I needed a new calling, a new direction. I told the Post I was quitting. Instead, Bradlee offered a six-month leave.
My plan was to escape to some tropical island far, far away (the Canaries?, the Azores?) and figure out what to do next. In the end, I shanghaied my wife and two preschool children to the West Indies to live in a ragamuffin fishing village at the most distant point of the very last island, Tobago. In my liberal imagination, the blacker-than-black villagers were ennobled by having endured the sufferings of slavery and colonialism. They were unsullied, I believed, by the commercialism and crassness of my own civilization.
Surely, these islanders with their voodoo roots and their end-of-the-line innocence possessed some powerful, soulful wisdom which could help me discover my new path. I pictured sitting on the beach under a palm tree with some Rasta fishermen and smoking what they smoked and conjuring a whole new approach to life.
This fantasy lasted for one week. Then my wife got an ear infection. We didn’t have a car. That was the idea, to live simply. So she hitched a ride to the only doctor on our end of the island, and at 3 in the afternoon he was drunk. That night she pleaded: “What are we doing bringing those precious little children down here?”
I had no answer for that. So she and the kids flew home, and I followed soon after, in time for Thanksgiving.
My leave of absence ended four months early. Still, it was a success. I returned to the Post with a new goal: to be a writer instead of an editor. After devoting my twenties to fussing around with other people’s stories, maybe I had something to say myself.
The metro editor, Harry Rosenfeld, leveled with me: “We know you can edit, Tommy, but we don’t know if you can write. We’ll give you a six-month tryout.”
That was in January of 1971.
I’ve been trying out for the job ever since.
Here is the scorecard, so far:
1971-1973 Human-interest feature writer, the Washington Post.
1974-1977 Living as a hippie in the mountains of Colorado and dicking around at a series of stoner jobs like polishing silver in a jewelry store and driving an ice-cream truck (ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling). Gathering story material, let’s say, for my free-lance career.
1979 First novel published by Delacorte: Unnatural Axe, a comedy-of-manners about the Colorado counterculture.
1981 Second novel published by Delacorte: Driveaway Man, a satire of new-age spirituality about a man who drives his stroke-addled father around the country in hopes of snapping him out of his lifelong trance.
1982-1984 Columnist (Private Lives), the Boulder Daily Camera.
1984-2012 Magazine feature writer for Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Outside, GQ, Esquire, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Fortune, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, California, Historic Preservation, American Way.
2012 Co-author of the e-book True Tales of an Outback Guide: Why Kangaroos Go Boing-Boing-Boing.