Sunday, November 19, 2006


Back in the day I used to get my feelings hurt when I'd tell someone I worked for the Chronicle, and they would say that they had never read one of my stories, not one.

This was after I had written hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stories, most of them features but some of them quite long and some of them pretty good. But I was always comforted by the truism that people don't read bylines. They read headlines and they read stories, but more often than you think they skip right over the credit, the founder of the feast.

Today in Sunday's Chronicle the headline of an obit lured me in: Thomas Merigan -- S.F. pharmacist, soda fountain jerk.

I'm not certain if this hed is purposely clumsy. The phrase is "soda jerk," isn't it? But this is beside the point. Copy editors write headlines, not reporters. It got me into the story, in which were several interesting paragraphs.

In 1965, Mr. Merigan became a neighborhood icon after a man put a pistol to his head and demanded drugs. As the suspect fled with a box of narcotics, Mr. Merigan grabbed his own pistol from beneath the counter and shot the robber three times.

"I decided a long time ago I wasn't going to let my place be held up by some punk," Mr. Merigan told a Chronicle reporter at the time. "So I shot him.''

The robber survived his wounds and continued to commit robberies after being released from custody, but he never returned to Mr. Merigan's store.

What is it with style? And I mean writing, not the handling of firearms. That last sentence has it. And then I read.

He was married for 70 years to his wife, Helen, with whom he eloped to Reno one night in 1930 after he put a ladder to the window of her bedroom in San Francisco and escorted her to the ground.

"Escorted her to the ground?" And also just the sweet sweet line of that whole sentence.

At this point and this point only do I read the byline.

Steve Rubenstein. another old Chronicle lion, a buyout survivor, approaching his winter but still with plenty of spring in his legs.

Attention must be paid.

(Forgive the Arthur Miller reference. Rube's life and times are a lot more redolent of S.J. Perlman than Arthur Miller.)

Postscript: Already I'm being misunderstood because of my love for indirection. What I mean here is that Steve Rubenstein is such a good writer that he made me think, "Who the heck is this wonderful stylist?" And I was less than heartbroken to discover it wasn't some young pup.

For for that other thing, I'm the guy who tends to identify with Willy Loman.

And with Valentino. And with Einstein, and Emmit Smith on Dancing with the Stars. It's a long list.

So: mad props to Rube. Capisce?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Chronicle's death spiral has more than a little to do with forgetting good writing is what makes readers come back for more.