Getting started in alternative journalism

Sam Smith – After graduating from college, I found work in a basement office of a row house on New Jersey Avenue SE, a few blocks from the Capitol. Out of this long, sunken, slovenly one-room den qua office was published Roll Call, a weekly paper for those thousands who worked on Capitol Hill. In the center of the room, with its low lights, brick wall, overstuffed bookcases and casual furniture, were three desks. The first would be mine. The second was assigned to an ad representative who might or might not be employed at any given moment and if employed might or more probably might not be in the office depending upon the current status of her not inconsiderable array of personal problems which, according to the frequent testimony of the man behind the third and rearmost desk, were due to alcohol, insanity, sexual dysfunction and various other character flaws which in aggregate left him to sell the frigging ads as well as having to edit the whole damn paper himself.

This aggrieved man was Sid Yudain, the editor. He was tall, of medium build with wavy swept back hair and heavy black horned rimmed glasses He smoked a pipe and talked out of the tiny space remaining between his pipe stem and the right corner of his mouth and generally affected the manner of a Catskills comedian engaged in contract negotiations.

Roll Call was a free paper supported by advertising. Some of the advertising was paid for, some was run and not paid for, and some was published and eaten. Sid was a bachelor whose sole interest in cooking consisted of making coffee when no one else was around to do it for him. Among the purposes of the paper, therefore, was to feed the editor. Sid traded restaurant ads for free meals. It was a shrewd business move. While plenty of advertisers failed to pay for their ads, none refused to serve him.

Sid regarded my arrival as a possible break in his ill-deserved fortune and set me to writing what would sometimes be as many as a half dozen stories a week on such topics as a new 300-car parking lot for the Senate, hiring prospects in the next House of Representatives, and how the great iron dome of the Capitol gyrated several feet a day in response to the thermodynamics of the sun. One of my scoops was the discovery that 1,200 people could go to the bathroom at the same time in the brand new Rayburn House Office Building.

I enjoyed the work. Some of my siblings weren’t sure. My older brother wrote supportively that “most of the paper is junk” and my older sister noted that “you’ve joined the local rag sheet.” In a letter back to my family I defended myself:

“While objectively, both of you are correct in a way, I look at the matter in a different manner. Journalism has never been the art of the ideal. Its basic problem is that it attempts to perpetrate the truth, relying for financial support on readers, listeners, and advertisers – who have relatively little interest in the pursuit of this goal. It’s a bit like a priest being supported by the proceeds of a whorehouse. . . This paper is an unpretentious, happy addition to the lives of those it serves. I think you will find that it does not seek to delude, exaggerate, or magnify.”

Sid also let me try my hand at writing humor and a column of whimsical shorts about life on the Hill, including this transcript of a conversation overheard in a House office building:

Matron (whispering) Could you tell me where the reading room is?
Guard (also whispering): We don’t have a reading room
Matron (still sotto voce): Isn’t this the Library of Congress?
Guard (still likewise): No ma’am
Matron (out loud and with force): Then what are we whispering for?
Guard: (louder still): I don’t know, you started it.

On another occasion, I reported that “we’ve heard about parties that are so hip, everyone dances to Mort Sahl records.”

Even more pleasing was Sid’s acceptance of my contributions of light verse. One went:

I like to go down to the zoo
And there I sit and watch the gnu.
I’ve also noticed recently
The gnu has started watching me.
For hours we just share a stare
A happy unproductive pair
Economists we might impress
With our total uselessness.
Still it’s the G-N-U for me.
Let others boost the GNP

Red hunters were the target of Waiter, I Think There’s a Subversive in My Soup:

Little men of little faith,
Claim they’ve seen the nation’s wraith
Fearing not atomic war,
But a coup by those next door
Everywhere lies hidden danger
Doubt the friend, doubt the stranger’
One fine day their cause they’ll smother
When they start to doubt each other.

And I filed this report on a national conference:

With whereas and with wherewithal
The graying ladies sternly call
Upon the past to come alive.
We listen not and still survive
Without a bruise, without a scar,
Conventions of the DAR

Literary weaknesses aside, the fact that such verse was published at all was somewhat surprising. While Senator McCarthy was gone by this time, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was still in operation and not generally considered something to laugh about.

Although Sid was a Republican, and a former aide to a GOP congressmember from Connecticut, he considered politics first and foremost a fraternity and entertainment; its ideological content was of tertiary concern at best. He seemed to know just about everyone on the Hill and treated them as neighbors and friends whose gossip he relayed in his paper. This did not mean he was unmindful of the business of politics — in fact he knew the specifics of elections as well as anyone I’ve ever met. In 1960 he correctly predicted the outcome of 426 of the 437 house races. He was 96.5% accurate and even correctly declared five too close too call. They were, in fact, still in doubt several days after the election. Sid also found politics funny and had no objections if one of his writers wanted to suggest that the funny had, on a particular occasion, slipped into the absurd.

Meanwhile, I finally fully achieved a poetic challenge near Christmas time with an lyric work that, so far as I know, has yet to be surpassed. Called A Representative Christmas List, it was an ode containing the name of every member of the House of Representatives. The poem took a full page in Roll Call, with the print superimposed on a screened clip-art picture of Santa Claus. It committed such unpardonable offenses as rhyming bacchanal with Chesapeake & Ohio Park Canal as well as asking “Herlong, oh Herlong America, must we suffer this?”

About 390 names into the poem, I ran short of ideas and copped out with “we might write a line that ran ” and then listed most of the remaining names followed by “”You see it’s going to rhyme but will it scan?” I closed out with:

Forget about that, let’s dance the flamenco
We made it from Abbott all the way to Zelenco
Only Christmas Day will tell
Whether Santa did as well.

With the draft breathing down my neck I left Roll Call for the Coast Guard. Three and a half years later, I returned to DC and started the Idler, one of the earliest journals of what would become known as the “underground press,” some 400 publications celebrating, analyzing, and defining the 1960s.