Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Seed and I a Murfin Memoir —On the Staff Day by Day

The Seed didn't let up on its antiwar and antiauthoritarian politics.

After that first Seed staff meeting, I plunged right in.  For the first of my Labor Pains columns, I decided to head down to the U.S. Steel South Works on Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Little Calumet River.  Even then the once robust industry was under pressure from steel imported from more modern plants built after World War II in Japan and elsewhere.  The massive aging mill was already becoming a symbol of what would be called the Rust Belt.  Dissident United Steel Workers (USW) were organizing to challenge both the company and the union leadership which was making concessions on wages, benefits, and even safety to “save jobs.”

I had to reserve tickets for a tour. It was a long ride south on the CTA to downtown and then on South Shore Electric Line.  I made the tour with a large group that included some high school teachers and not a few Japanese tourists as well as grandparents showing their grandchildren where they had worked.  I tried to record what I saw on a simple Kodak Instamatic pocket camera and took cramped notes in a shirt pocket notebook. In my cowboy hat, long hair, and hippie beads I attracted some attention—and suspicion.  Naturally the great blast furnaces and rolling mills were awesomely impressive—and more than a little frightening.  The resulting feature was different than anything else than the Seed had ever run.  Some staffers predicted no one would read it. 

I began my tour of the U.S. Steel South Works crossing that bridge just as thousands of workers did for decades,

The second piece, a trip to the Fritzy Englestein Free Clinic in Lake View required a much briefer expedition.  Inspired by the Black Panther clinics on the South and West Sides, it was founded by folks from Rising Up Angry the Uptown group for poor white youth as part of Fred Hampton’s original Rainbow coalition.  They were treating both the local hardscrabble poor and street people who had no money or health care.  They operated with a handful of dedicated volunteer doctors and nurses on a shoe-string budget.   Our readers needed service, especially for sexually transmitted diseases, drug overdoses and side effects as well as not infrequent injuries from street assaults

Those set the pattern for my contributions—a Labor Pains column and a major feature each issue plus occasional shorts and reviews.  That made Wobbly Murf one of the leading contributors, at least in column inches.

Also I learned the real terms of my status as a member of the staff collective.  For every issue we were paid I believe $50 dolled straight out of the office cash box from sales revenue. There was no tax or Social Security withholding and no benefits of any kind.  It was certainly not based on hours or really a salary, it was more of stipend.  We also were given 100 copies to sell on the street, which if we sold completely would earn us a cool $35 and could buy more for the standard vendor price. 

You could live cheap in those days, especially if you doubled or tripled up in a rundown apartment, lived in a commune, or couch surfed and hit the crash pads.  But no matter how you sliced it, it was not enough to live on.  Staffers supplemented in various ways—some did advertising work, others did some freelance writing.  Some sold dope.  Others had a variety of what we now call side hustles.  Some got benefits like food stamps, General Assistance, or Unemployment.  A few may even have still gotten an allowance or rent paid by parents. 

I was never clear on what the business arrangements for the Seed were or even who the official owners were.  Clearly somebody did, but I was clueless.  As far as the IWW was concerned it was a worker-owned co-op but that may not have been legally the case at all.

Besides working on the Seed I was still extremely busy, if unpaid, at the IWW Hall up Lincoln where I was still Chicago Branch Secretary and a leading member with Carlos Cortez and Fred Thompson of the Industrial Worker collective.  And I continued to help around the General Administration as needed.  I spent three to four hours a day there—up to twelve during IW lay-out and paste-up and for mailings.

Tribune Tower, right, where I sold the Seed and the  Wrigley Building across Michigan Ave.

I generally only got out selling my copies one time, the first day the Seed hit the streets.  My chosen spot was right in front of Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue.  Believe it or not, big city dailies then had big newsrooms filed with reporters, editors, photographers and such.  If I timed it right I would be right there when they came rolling out the big revolving doors at shift end.  The younger reporters who often sported safari jackets in the warm weather and trench coats like Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent and who had modishly long hair over their ears and trim moustaches snapped up copies as did young women in neat, appropriate business wear and heels, and the rumpled old time reporters in cheap off-the-rack suits, stained ties, and balding heads.  On a good day I could sell thirty copies, sometimes even 50 with a great cover in a couple of hours.

Then I would take my earnings and go down to the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Wacker under the Wriggly Building for a cheeseburger, beer on tap and maybe  a shot or two of bourbon. In the late afternoon/early evening most of those crowding the bar were ink stained pressmen.  But sometime Mike Royko took his favored stool at the end of the bar and held court before moving on to other saloons.  I tried to soak up the old-time newspaper aura of the place.

Of course I was broke most of the time, but eked by.  Down at Johnny Weise’s tavern friends would often stand me to drinks all evening.  I hit the Other Cheek Commune’s free feed once a week and IWW Fellow Workers invited me for dinner.  I could get five hamburgers in a bag from the Salt and Pepper Grill to wash down with those four Blatz quarts for a dollar of from Consumer’s tap.  Jeff and Betty who ran a small café at the corner of Wrightwood and Sheffield took a shine for some reason to scruffy Seedlings and sometimes served up a plate of free ravioli.  I didn’t own a car and got most places on foot or on the CTA.  Somehow I eked an existence, although it was the only time in my life when I was truly skinny.

The staff shared several other duties.  One of them was staffing the front desk.  That could be hectic when a new issue was coming out and you had to handle sales to street vendors.  You counted out copies and collected cash, most of it in singles and change to put in the cash box.  Toward the end of issue’s time, there was a lighter rush buying returns.  In between those at the desk reviewed Liberation News Service packets and underground press exchanges for possible items and worked on their own stories or copy edited others.

We also handled phone calls.  We were warned that the phone was surely tapped by the Chicago Red Squad, FBI, or both and to be careful what we said.  We would field random calls, many from suburban kids looking for Chicago action. There were always calls about dope and where to get it which had to be handled gingerly.  There were advertising inquiries—very important to get those to the right people.  But there were also prank calls and fairly frequently harassment and threats.  Of course there were always calls for staff members, many of who had no home phones to be transferred if they were in the office or carefully noted.

Mike Royko holding court at the Billy Goat with owner Sam Sianis behind the bar.

My most memorable call was from Mike Royko from his desk at the Chicago Daily News.  He identified himself right away and I was thrilled, I thought maybe I could remind him that we had met however briefly at the Billy Goat and at the writers’ hang-out O’Rourke’s Pub on North Avenue.  But before I could get a word in edgewise he was screaming at me.  The object of his wrath was a short piece we ran about George Washington growing hemp at Mt. Vernon.  He was sure that it was a slur.  When I tried to explain that we had picked up the story form LNS, much like his paper would run something from the Associated Press he just yelled louder. Nor would he hear that there were plenty of historical records to affirm that he grew the crop mostly for his own rope production.  The rant went on for a good ten minutes before he slammed the phone down.

We all pitched in for lay-out and paste up.  If we had featured article, we generally did our own pages.  We would have to be aware what colors were being used.  My skills were more limited than others and my pages tended to be laid out in blocks with fancy stuff at a minimum.  I used clip-art, photos, and once in a while some original art from the staff alternating with blocks of texts.  Sometime light screens were used behind the text but I made sure that the type face was dark enough and easily readable.  Sometime on other pages the text was almost unreadable.  As a word guy, I was determined it would not happen to me.  Headlines were created with Press Type like they were for the Industrial Worker.  But my hands were not steady and sometimes they letters were not perfectly aligned or the whole head was pasted at an off angle.

We pasted our text with rubber spray cement.  Most pages had two unjustified columns, but nothing was ever standard on the Seed and there were all sorts of other arrangements.   Evening things out often required snipping a line or two and relocating them.  I often got those crooked too.  Needless to say, I was not used on our signature high graphic pages.  But did help out with some of the more mundane inner pages.  Lay out often lasted all night, the space around the light table shrouded in cigarette and other smoke, beverage cans and bottles or coffee cups perched here and there with some inevitable spills.  Type would have to be reset and sometimes irreplaceable graphics were lost.  Every lay-out session had its high drama and turn-on-a-dime improvisation.  Once in a while we even had some sort of breaking news which required us to reset a whole page.

After the paper was finally put to bed, the flats and color separations had to be taken to the printer. The Seed lost one or more early printers due to pressure from the authorities.  Now we were taking it across the border to Wisconsin to Newsweb, a small press operated by young Fred Eychaner who was printing small town weeklies, and school papers on an antiquated web press.  But he had taken on both the Seed and the Industrial Worker and other left publications including Rising Up Angry.

On each issue one or two of us would accompany our graphic designer Peter Solt on the trip to the shop.  We usually found Eychaner, long-haired and bearded smeared with ink and crawling over and around his noisy press moistening plates and attending ink fountains.  He and Peter would go over the requirements for the new issue in detail.  They were not simple.   The 36 page paper was divided into four sections printed on both sides.  The eight resulting pages had to share the same colors.  Peter often preferred split colors and fades.  Fred became a master at managing the ink fountains.  The press had to be completely cleaned before the next sections with their own color mixes could be run.  It was a laborious process and the press run, folding, slitting, and bailing took all day.  Peter would help out where he could and sometime those of us less skilled helped muscle web rolls into place.  When it was all done we loaded the old van we came in and paid Fred with a check signed by somebody.

The reclusive Fred Eychaner, hippie printer turned media mogul, LBGTQ icon and Democratic Party deep pocket.

For Eychaner it was the unlikely beginning of what would become a billion dollar media empire.  He was one of the first to realize that computers would revolutionize both newspapers and the printing business.  Soon desk-top publishing linked to smart presses would completely replace the laborious hands-on methods we used at the Seed while greatly reducing costs.  His printing business rapidly expanded as he bought up small companies.  With his printing empire well established in the early ‘80s he branched out founding Chicago TV station WPWR-TV Channel 50 and an early sports channel with Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.  He eventually sold both for millions of dollars.  He also bought and sold radio stations and founded WCPT AM in 2005 as a liberal talk radio alternative.

But now the reclusive Eychaner is best known for his charity especially to support the LGBTQ community and to fight HIV/AIDES and for the preservation of historic buildings.  He is also a Democratic Party mega-donor mover and shaker in Chicago, Illinois, and nationally.  He was a major donor and fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Tomorrow—Incidents in the life of a Seedling.


No comments:

Post a Comment