Saturday, August 12, 2006

Once a Runner

Our first few interactions did not go so well. Bill was a dashing young Wired recruit quickly working his way up to copy chief. He was confident and already knew his way around the office. He'd arrive each morning with a little fanfare, shaking hands and imparting jokes to editors along the row. He often wore a vintage bowling shirt and carried a razor-thin briefcase for effect. I was a lowly intern in charge of fact-checking the more fungible quadrants of the magazine. It didn't enhance our early relationship that I insisted that a place in Ireland called County Clare was really spelled "Claire" -- "You know, like the girl's name." A few days later, thinking that he was out of the office for a moment, I pulled out some dictionaries from Bill's desk to look up a word. There were reference books and galley pages all over his usually immaculate space. Then, behind me, came a stern voice: "Hey, Junior? That's not your playpen."

Years later our rapport improved and I looked forward to visiting the spotless desk with the giant, industrial-sized bolt on it. (I think he liked to call it "a big screw.") Bill had become my mentor in the office and running partner out of it. A few days a week, at around 5 p.m., he invented a terrifying and invigorating ritual. Bill found a break in the fence on the Caltrain track where you could enter the tunnel between 16th Street and run in darkness all the way to 22nd street. It was utterly black except for a tiny point of light at the mouth of the tunnel. It wasn't dangerous; you could easily hug the cement wall if the San Jose was approaching. But the feeling was giddy and disorienting with only the sounds of crushed rock under our shoes. I couldn't help imagining deadly snakes or mutant hobos laying in wait. I made Bill run in front for the reassurance of his silhouette.

The other day, I searched my old email boxes for vintage correspondence from my friend. I wanted to share a few:

Subject: Re: "Rituals of choice:"

outrunning the 6:20 pm Caltrain through the 16th-22nd Street tunnel;
a double shot of Odwalla with an Odwalla chaser

I'd look forward to our runs, but I'd even feel a little thrill during the workday to get an email from Bill, who by now had made it to deputy editor. He crafted even routine electronic notices into small literary events. More examples:

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 2000 13:57:37 -0700
To: From:
Subject: BG, where

Unable to breach my primary care physician's heavily fortified
voicemail system, I am attempting to get my hands on some antibiotics
by way of full frontal assault. Questions? Call California Pacific
Medical Center, Sinus Rebar Removal Unit: +1 (415) ### ####.

Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1999 14:39:30 -0700
Subject: Out of sight

Due to the convergence of circumstances beyond his control, a certain
editor will be squirted out of the office like a watermelon seed this
afternoon and not heard from again until Monday.

In the event that unnaturally large ants overrun your picnic, call #####, where a mechanically reproduced voice will greet you.

Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 14:44:32 -0700
To: From:
Subject: Out of the office Friday 18 August

Doing field research for a Best item on protective headgear.

Using my noggin,

Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 16:22:58 -0700
Subject: Grist: Cyburban outfitters

Today's rhetorical question: Is anyone Netting the hipoisie, or is the much-ballyhooed bridge to the 21st century simply a direct link between Melrose shops and Michael Musto?

Even the signoffs in each email sparkled:

Down with the SelectScan Plus,

Taking off the VR gloves,

Trying to convert the Wired Phrase Generator to diesel,

Tightening the laces on my scuffed CKs,

Information gladly given, but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation,

Feeling your pain,

Staying thirsty,

It's strange: for someone so prolix in everyday speech, Bill had an imperative for absolute economy in writing. He switched between modes at will. It's like a guy who experiments with dangerous pyrotechnics on the weekend then goes to work as fire chief during the week. Bill wanted to make sure the opening paragraph of every short article explained exactly what was going on without messing around. He would constantly ask me to rewrite stories to answer his two pet questions: What is it? What's the sell?

What is it? If it's a story about a new supercomputer, the reader has to be on solid footing from the start. No fancy rhetoric. And the article needs to communicate what Bill called "the sell" right away. What's the writer's take on why the story is interesting or important here and now? Why do we care? As far as Bill was concerned, if you've delivered on those two questions in straightforward prose, you've done 90 percent of the job. Wordplay, jokes, or puns don't belong unless they're tightly connected to the subject of the article and further the reader's understanding. Over and over, I heard those questions whenever I visited the desk with the giant rusty screw. When I left Wired to become a freelance writer, I began to type them on the top of each fresh wordprocessor page as a virtual Goggins standing over me. I still do this. Before starting a story, I type: "What is it?" and "What's the sell?"

Not that I took to Bill's advice right away. If Bill wanted to cut a joke in a story I was editing, I might say something churlish like, "Oh, so you want to take all the fun out of it, huh?" He never took the bait. Instead, I love the way he'd go through an elaborate silent not-me pantomime with his hands held out in front of him. "Oh, no, no my brother." He'd say that, in general, he liked what I was trying to do but there were good reasons why the joke didn't fit this time around. Besides it wasn't what he liked or didn't like, it was what the story wanted. One of the tools he used to explain editorial decisions was to personify the words themselves. I loved how he would explain a story's silent needs and desires. "The lead wants to be about XYZ" or "The headline wants to achieve XYZ" It was a great way to make decisions appear impersonal and to defuse the heat of a disagreement. Bill never conceded an argument, but he was always willing to go through every step of his logic every time. And I was just one among many people imposing on his time. It was probably why he stayed at work later than everyone else.

Bill marked up galleys and proofs with an razor-thin black rollerball. His edits were precise, but had such flair at the same time. He'd usually put brackets around a passage or phrase that "wanted reexamining." Then with a huge arced line to an empty spot on the page, he'd rewrite the section in neat, geometric script.

He intuitively understood the visual component of magazine editing. The headline or caption must work with the photo, illustration, or art on the page. This is often lost on word people. Some of Bill's most salient, funny, perfect headlines came from reacting to the photo or layout. He was able to think backwards from what the reader would see when they had a fresh look at a new magazine page.

And he was a wonderful runner. When I moved away from San Francisco, he would update me on his races. We ran the Bay to Breakers together, and in one email he wanted to fill me in on his latest essay up Hayes street:

Date: Mon, 20 May 2002 11:19:21 -0700
Subject: When it runs, it pours

Caught a few wayward drops before leaving the pre-start line tortilla pit, soldiered up the Hill before charging head down into what became a downpour by race's end; stumbled upon a house key in the grass at a sodden, soon to be washed out "Footstock," and after tracking down the lost and found, packed my shivering ass onto the N Judah. (Started alongside a swell intern and her fiance, bumped into Basque buddy Vincent post-run, but slogged the great middleground by my lonesome.) Guess the whole damp affair was a karmic counterweight to the previous day's dry Muslim wedding (though come to think of it, I was mixing some pretty wet Manhattans for the newlyweds at their hotel around 2:30 in the morning).

Trust you're well (or, hell, even top shelf).

Staying thirsty,


I was lucky to have a few more chances to run with Bill last April when I made a visit to the city. Whether consciously or not, the routes he chose always had a blazing fast component and an exploratory, peripatetic one. One day, we traced an 8-mile route over to Pier 39. Following a course toward the Bay Bridge, he picked up the pace to maybe 6:30 for a mile then slowed down and jogged us through the inside of the Embarcadero Plaza food court, pausing at a few delis to explain what foods each counter was best known for. The next day he chose a route through Fort Mason to Crissy Field. I'll always remember a shining moment running over the dirt paths across the field, winding through tourists and cyclists. Bill had notched up the pace so gradually that it wasn't obvious that we were galloping at top speed. It felt transcendent, effortless, and only the fact that he ran beside me stride-for-stride staved off my panic and made it feel like we'd continue on like this for miles.

Bob Parks
Brattleboro, Vermont

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