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Monday, January 10, 2011

How to Read a Newspaper

I started reading the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) in the late 1970's. At that time we lived in New York City and I used to ride the trains to work. Initially we lived near Jamaica in Queens and I used to take the "F" or "E" train (I think the name has long since been changed) to work on Wall Street.

Later on we moved to Levittown, NY. From there I had to take Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) from the Hickstown station to Penn Station and then the "2" or "3" train down to Wall Street.

(Wall street is an actual street as well as a place. As a place its serviced by a variety of subway stops - only a few of which are actually on Wall Street itself.)

At any rate both train rides were quite long - probably at least 45 minutes for the "F" train, probably much longer for the LIRR when you factored in changing trains. There was little to do on the train in those days - no iPad, no cell phone, and things like Walkmen were just starting to become popular.

So most of the time you read something: books or newspapers.

This was easy to do because the subway stations will filled with "vendors". Vendors sat in what amounted to giant open wooden steamer trunks filled with racks of newspapers and magazines. At night they would be folded shut and locked for security. During the day the vendor sat on a small stool - usually right in front of the magazines and sold his wares.

All the subway stops had these vendors. All vendors carried the standard NYC newspapers - the NY Times, the Post, the WSJ, the Daily News (at least this is what they were called at the time I lived there) plus whatever other specialty items they chose: candy, magazines, paperbacks, other newspapers the the Village Voice.

So rather than have an expensive yearly subscription to a newspaper like the WSJ you simply bought one on the way to work for $.50 USD. In 1979 this was a lot of money to spend on something like a newspaper - particularly if you had a family and other such financial obligations. On the other hand, if you worked on Wall street you were supposed to have some idea of what was going on in the world and this was a good way to learn about it.

The only problem with newspapers in those days was that the ink was not very dry on the paper when you bought them. So as you road the train and flipped the pages your hands became progressively blacker with newspaper ink. This was not a problem so long as you did not touch your clothes or your face.

Being a rural boy from Wisconsin I was not used to this idea at first. I often forget and had to scratch my nose and ended up with smudges on my face or clothes - mostly this resulted in ridicule at the office from those with more experience.

But as time went on I started to learn the tricks of keeping yourself free of newspaper ink.

First you hand to learn to scratch your face with the back of your hand or your knuckle. Not something I did as a kid so this took a certain amount of concentration to master consistently.

You also had to learn to keep your hands off of your clothes or wear dark clothes. Sometimes, but not always, you had to wear suites with white shirts so this was not always a good plan.

When you got to work the first thing you had to do was wash the ink off of your hands. So you went right from the elevator to the washroom - if you went to your office you might get distracted and dirty yourself up without realizing it.

Another problem with the newspapers were their size. On the subway you were often a "strap hanger" which meant standing the entire trip. Standing entailed much more than simply "standing".  First, you had to learn the laws of physics - subway trains often jolted to a start and stop with enough force to cause you to loose your balance. You quickly learned to hold onto the strap (actually a metal loop or bar) at these moments. There were also a plethora of metal poles placed throughout the subway cars for this same purpose.

(Sitting was never an option on the subway in those days. The seats were always full of little old ladies, urine, or bums who lived there.)

In any case you could not ride the subway with your newspaper fully open.

Instead you had to learn how to fold the pages first the long way in half and then fold the paper over to make it book size. This was not an easy skill because you were jammed into the subway care often to the point of being immobilized by the crowd. So all the folding and manipulating of the paper had to be done without impinging on your close neighbors personal space.

Personal space was a big deal on the subway. It was hard to define exactly and you never wanted to push the limits because who knew what sort of person your "neighbor" might turn out to be - Donald Trump, a serial killer, a bum or other weirdo, a flasher, etc. There was no talking on the subway either for the same reason unless you already knew the person. If you did start talking randomly to your neighbor you were viewed as a potential threat.

On the other hand the LIRR was much more "civilized".  Since the rides where longer and the cost higher there was a much better chance of getting a real seat. Most of the same rules as you had on the subway applied but there was more tolerance - you could introduce yourself and chat with your neighbors because many people rode in the same seats - perhaps for years, breaching the physical "space" was less of an issue, and so on.

Here riders read more exotic financial journals besides the lowly WSJ - Barrons, various orange and green financial papers - often from foreign countries. I guess this was because you had to have a decent job (which usually meant in the financial industry) to live that far away to begin with - and these jobs often involved knowledge of the world outside the USA.

Today, thirty years later, I can sit at my dinning room table or office couch and read that same WSJ using a iPad or laptop. No inky hands to worry about. No worrying about finding a place to stand.

The final death knell for ink and dirty, inky hands in my house will probably come soon when I don't renew the print part of my subscription.   On the other hand, doing that would eliminate my supply of paper for lighting the fire place, painting and staining woodwork, etc. 

I wonder if I can get just the paper without the print on it?

A lot has changed in thirty years...

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