Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wax It Up, Lay It Out

The other day I saw the first 20 minutes or so of Absence of Malice, a 1981 Paul Newman-Sally Field vehicle directed by Sydney Pollack, and while it seemed like it might be worth watching all the way through, I didn't have time for it and wasn't in the mood anyway. But I did watch the opening credits with some amazement. It depicted a newspaper story being produced from reporter to printing press, all very state-of-the-art.

State-of-the-art in 1981, that is, which is to say completely obsolete. Luminous green word-processing was in use at the time, so the clack of typewriters wasn't part of the montage. But waxing blocks of type and laying them out on a board was; and so was running the layout boards through a camera to produce a negative, which then went to a printing plate. The process might seem ridiculously pre-Quark, pre-PageMaker to a generation who's never known the feel of layout wax on their fingers, but it made me nostalgic for the first-floor press room of the publishing company I worked for as an editor in Chicago in the late 1980s.

Desktop publishing hadn't arrived even then, and sometimes during the rush of deadline, the editors would have to do layout too. Print the text out, cut it into pieces with an X-Acto, run it through the waxing machine, paste it on the board just so, and then -- usually -- remove it from the board and do it again because we were editors, not layout men.

Paul was our full-time layout man, a fellow getting on in years and a well-practiced curmudgeon. Paul often had pithy things to say about Chicago pols and the men in Springfield and Washington running the country into the ground (politicians, businessmen, union bosses). Wish I could remember exactly what he said, but it's been 20+ years, and maybe it's enough to remember Paul the layout man eying the pages, waxing the text down and pasting it up, and airing his complains all at more-or-less the same time.

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