Monday, December 21, 2009

Chapter 3 • 1973-1978 • The Making of a Real Writer

Job-hunting is not for the weak or the meek, and I was both. Pneumonia had taken its toll, and my self-image had was foundering. But I really didn’t have any choice; I had to find a job. So, I wrote a rather creative resume, added copies of The St Louisan to my portfolio, bought a suit, and started making calls and knocking on doors. At least now, people knew my name, which did help.

Who knows what causes the planets to align and produce a miracle at precisely the right moment? I was not expecting any such thing when I walked into the office of the editor of St. Louis Commerce magazine. Bob was an old-school newspaper guy—distantly polite but no nonsense. “Why would the editor of the other city magazine want to work for this one?” he asked. Good question. “Do you know the publisher of the other magazine?” I replied. (St. Louis is a big small town, and everyone in the journalism community knows everyone else) “Yes,” he said. “I do.” “OK, that’s the first reason. The second is I want you to make a real writer out of me.

He raised one eyebrow. “Really?” was all he said. “This has all happened pretty fast,” I admitted. “I was kind of thrust into that job, and while I’m an OK writer, I’m not great. I want to be great.” (This was unplanned, believe me. I had no idea I was going to say that.) Bob explained that he had a staff of three; he and Mary did all the writing; someone else sold advertising. I assumed Mary wasn’t going anywhere. As I left, Mary stuck her head in Bob’s office and asked, “What was Bobbi Linkemer doing here?” “Looking for a job,” he told her. “That’s interesting,” she said.

That was on a Friday. Monday morning Mary resigned, saying she had been wanting to retire for years, and now that there as a replacement in the wings, she wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving. Monday, Bob invited me to lunch and offered me the job on the spot at slightly more than starvation wages. I was too excited to care. (That came back to haunt me.) Later that week I was interviewed by “the boss,” a man whom I would have called a “male chauvinist pig,” had I known there was such an expression. These days, he would be sued for the questions he asked; but, then, it was the way of the world. He covered everything from boyfriends and birth control to what I would do if my children called me in an emergency. That one got me. “I would be available,” I replied. “As a parent, wouldn’t you be?” In the meantime, Bob looked like he was going to melt into the woodwork. Despite my failure to convey respect where respect was supposedly due, I was hired.

The following week when I started, Bob was out for the day, and no one seemed overwhelmed with joy at my arrival or suggested that I join them for lunch. Somehow, I got through the day with nothing to do but wash the desk. I was getting good at that.

Commerce magazine was the publication of the Chamber of Commerce, which morphed into the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association (RCGA). The magazine had one mission: to promote the economic viability of the nine-county St. Louis region. While it was not an obvious PR rag, it sure never published anything negative. Bob ran it like a newspaper, which it wasn’t, and treated me like a secretary, which I wasn’t. I was floating in a no-man’s land between the secretarial staff and the managers who were all men. The secretaries barely spoke to me, and the managers didn’t know how to regard me, so they tiptoed around me.

In the outside world, my lack of status was not an issue. There was some cache attached to being the assistant editor of Commerce magazine. I could interview just about anyone, including the most exalted CEOs of the biggest corporations. This was not due to my competence, clout, or charm. It was because the most powerful people in town sat on the RCGA board. Once again, I had no illusions about my personal influence. It was zilch. And should I doubt it, there were always little reminders, the most dreaded being a note that would appear on my desk if I was five minutes late returning from lunch. The note said, “See me. REH.” To the people I was meeting or interviewing, I was a Brenda Star, girl reporter. It was really hard to tell them I only had an hour for lunch, and if I was late, there would be hell to pay. They just wouldn’t get it. I didn’t get it, but that was my reality for years.

Another part of that reality was my pitiful salary. I was communing from 25 miles west of the city to downtown St. Louis, buying lunch every day, and paying some crazy amount of money for parking. I had to upgrade my wardrobe. Living on what I made became increasingly difficult, especially when my daughters started college. When I asked for a raise the answer was either “no,” or the amount was too negligible to make any difference. Bob suggested that I do “what other divorcees did and brown bag it, get rid of my fancy car (a decrepit Honda), and pull my kids out of that expensive (public) school.” I was livid and stormed out of his office, but it didn’t do me any good.


“When the city’s day sounds begin to fade—the throb of jack hammers, the rhythm of typewriters, the ring of cash registers—the night sounds pick up the beat. St. Louis’s night sounds are made up, in large part, of its music. In the evenings, from Powell Hall and Kiel Auditorium to the Downspout and Duffs, musicians remove their instrument from cases, tune up, and provide St. Louisans and visitors with an almost staggering variety of music to suit every taste.”

1975 • St. Louis Commerce

When Bob told me he had a two-person writing staff, he meant it. But, in truth, it was more like one and a half. He was the half. He wrote less and less and managed more and more; and I researched and wrote, researched and wrote, one article after another. At the end of my tenure I had hundreds of articles, many of which had been reprinted. I wrote about everything: the arts, education, business, medicine, research and development, transportation, architecture, construction, world trade, the environment, people, every imaginable industry, and newsworthy topics on both side of two rivers, in an effort to get people to think of St. Louis as a region, rather than a city.

I also wrote about things that mattered to me when there was room in the magazine. This included some strange subjects for a very staid publication: an ode to railroads, the perils of physical fitness over forty, the myth of business travel, transcendental meditation of harried executives, and the first articles ever published in St. Louis on the tragedy and high cost of alcoholism. In some ways, I had freedom to explore just about anything I wanted to; in others, I was on a tight leash. We didn’t promote people or businesses. We didn’t write about causes the RCGA didn‘t endorse. All articles had to go through our narrow editorial sieve, but I became creative at squeezing story ideas through that sieve. If I could justify it, I could write it.


“The image of the harassed executive downing two martinis at lunch, bringing unfinished work home night after night, or being admonished by his family doctor to ‘slow down’ has become an American cliché. The caricature may be exaggerated but the pressures that created it are not. If anything, they are understated … Stress is one of the most serious problems facing the corporate world today and one that obviously demands a solution. That’s a tall order but apparently not an impossible one, for a tremendous number of businessmen have found a solution. They are among the 500,000 people in this country who practice transcendental meditation or ‘TM,’ a simple mental technique that allows the body to rest deeply so that stress can be released.”

1974 • St. Louis Commerce

The best part of the job was being able to write at home instead of in the office. I have no idea how I convinced Bob to let me do that. But I was fast. No matter how long or complicated the article was, I finished it in a day. The day could be anywhere from six to twelve hours, but by God, I didn’t get up until it was done. I still had my little Smith Corona electric portable and a huge roll of continuous-form paper that poured out of the typewriter. If I had to rearrange paragraphs, I cut up the paper and spread the story out all over the floor, then scotch-taped the paragraphs back together. My typing remained atrocious, which caused Bob to shake his head in dismay, but my writing improved. I guess that was all he cared about.

The worst part was writing something called “the back of the book,” which was filled with b-o-r-i-n-g news items about new construction projects, mergers and acquisitions, promotions, and appointments. They were tiny news stories, and I immediately proved that I was not up to the job. “You buried the lead,” Bob would say, and I would look blank. I was a feature writer, not a reporter. Feature articles don’t have “leads.” After a few years, he gave up and just wrote the back of the book himself.

I had a love-hate relationship with that job. I loved what I was doing; I hated everything about the conditions in which I did it. No money, no respect, hours on the road, especially when it snowed, a pendulum swing between pressure and boredom (I knew exactly how long it took the parking garage across the street to dry after it rained), and the feeling that I had gone as far as I could go. Bob would always be the editor; I would always be the assistant editor. I once asked him what the difference was between assistant editor and associate editor, which was how I wanted to be listed on the masthead. He said, “An assistant works for; an associate work with. You work for.” There I was, with no raise, no change in title, and no future. It was time to do something.

I hadn’t gotten too far beyond that thought when I received a call from someone I had once interviewed for a story. She said she was looking for “the best writer and editor in St. Louis” and had heard I was that person. I almost passed out. I had one interview and an offer of a salary I could actually live on. When I told Bob I was leaving, I cried through the whole conversation. After all my moaning and groaning, I didn’t want to go. “Give me a raise, and I’ll stay,” I said. “I can’t,” he replied. I really believe that, despite his completely patriarchal attitude toward women, there really was nothing he could do. And I could not live on $13,200 a year. No kidding. That’s what I was making after six years in what people considered to be the best job in St. Louis journalism.

My days of being “media” were over. I was going to wear suits, carry a briefcase, and work for a corporation.