tom briggs

I had a summer job in New York City in 1965. It was to help pay my tuition for art school. My cousin Carol’s husband Bob, who set type by hand at Royal Typographers on 44th street, helped get me an entry level position as press boy. I would run a block of text, set in metal type, through a small press. It would produce a proof for the client. Usually for an advertising agency like Doyle Dane Bernbach, BBD&O or Grey Advertising. 

Royal was brightly lit by rows and rows of overhead fluorescent lamps. The air was filled with an admixture of aromas from cigar smoke, press ink, ink solvents and coffee. Royal occupied three floors of a fifteen story building at 44th right off Seventh Avenue. A long row of lino type machines, (an image not unlike those in old photos of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory with its sewing machines, one after the other), maybe ten in number, ran along the right wall on the floor where I worked.

Five proof presses, hand setting stations and several Ludlow letterpress machines that cast individual letters into single headline size  slugs similar to what the Linotype machines did for text sizes, occupied the center area. A  few  Heidelberg windmill presses which printed multiple copies, also were in this area. Endless rows of stacked California Job Cases, containing all the different type faces for hand setting and Ludlow, ran along the left wall.

About twenty five employees, mostly of the wisecracking variety, and usually smoking a cigar, cigarette or pipe while wearing  ink soiled printers leather aprons, were kept busy setting type or printing it. A small office in the middle of the shop rose  about two yards above the floor. From there, the shop foreman would  observe the general flow of things, and  could quickly give orders and reprimands via microphone.  The guy had a thousand eyes and two thousands shades of attitude.

The  pre 1900 oily black skeletal Linotype machines churned out hundreds of miles of galley proofs, though not in one day! The typographers union in those days was very strong, the typesetters and pressman well paid. Royal was a “hot type” house. Hot type being any type cast out of lead. Or perhaps type that was stolen?   “California Job Cases”, (I knew several California cases without a job) the well crafted wooden cases that held all the characters of a font, often including aliens from another distant font, were everywhere. I went back a few years later, a gazillion years later, and Royal had only one floor. Later, as seismic industry shifts occurred with computerization, it had no floors.

Eppy was the shop foreman during the night shift. Eppy for Epstien. Eyeglasses, rolled up white sleeves. Omnipresent cigar. Big forearms. His sarcasm went so well with him, that you didn’t seem to mind. “Thomas, you’re a press boy, remember?” “Thomas, you’re hustling like a pro- a prophelactic”.  Henry, another “press boy” of the senior type. 50ish with straight combed back grey-black  hair adorned with silver temples and  reddish purple gills. One suspected that he once had a better job. He’d often send me to the Blarney Stone, on the sly, about three blocks away for a tall beer. Little did I realize then that that liquid, encased in a thick cardboard container, would be my eventual ruin.

The Blarney Stone, with its black and white tile floor, long mahogany beer taps, and a bar with wood thicker than some of the Irish constitutions that imbibed there, was a place of pre Titanic aura. Not the ersatz retro type that define such establishments nowadays. No doubt, “Heart of my heart, brings back those memories, too bad we had to part..” and a hundred other tin pan alley favorites once emanated from its smoky beery debate-laced environs.

At lunch break, on any of the three shifts that they eventually would assign me, I would go to the open 24/7 Belmore Cafeteria, right up the street, where you could select your lunch from a little compartment with a door that opened when you inserted  the right amount of coins. The place had not changed that much since the days of Hopper and Dos Passos USA trilogy. A great place to eat while reading ( a very young) Larry Merchant in the New York Post, and the pugnacious Pulitzer Prize winning Jimmy Breslin in the  Daily News. Breslin’s  piece on the gravedigger who dug JFK’s grave won several awards.

A  giant red neon sign, in a fifties script  lettering style, spelled out Belmore Cafeteria. (What a coincidence). The forty foot long sign was  especially glorious at night,  and would no doubt require an act of congress to erect and install today. The Belmore had not changed that much since the days of Hopper and Dos Passos USA trilogy.

The mid-day humid air of New York City summer, where a hopeful though naive breeze was invariably assassinated by heat off of the sidewalk, seemed a solid form enshrouding me as I went on occasional errands delivering proofs. It all went so well with the Lov’n Spoonfull’s hit of that summer. The Lovin Spoonful’s “Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck getting’ dirt-n’-gritty Been down, isn’t it a pity Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city” appropriately played in my head.

On the subway, on the way to make a delivery, maybe to Brooklyn, but mostly in Manhattan, the cacophonous and turbulent symphony of grinding metal, in the sweaty case of strap hangers of various stripes, in a car as yet tattooed with the visual anarchy of today, (save for intitials scraped into metal surfaces) I would look at the ads.

Horn & Hardart Restaurants ran one depicting a chandelier which suggested that at their restaurant, they didn’t have one so you paid less; One for Schwepps Tonic bellowed “Curiously refreshing” in an ad with it’s ‘Commander’, and a slick ad for ‘Gablingers Beer’, that apparently didn’t work. I remember that Franklin Gothic Bold and Times Roman were in vogue and that olive green with black were the hip colors…

I sometimes wish I was a kid again
Down in the old neighborhood
Just to be with Charlie, with little Joe and Pete
Boy, we had a quartet that was mighty hard to beat
I’d love to stand down by that cellar door
Just to hear that Quartet sing once more….

“Heart of my heart”, I love that melody
“Heart of my heart” brings back a memory
When we were kids on the corner of the street
We were rough and ready guys
But oh, how we could harmonise

“Heart of my heart” meant friends were dearer then
Too bad we had to part
I know a tear would glisten..

If once more I could listen…

To the gang that sang “Heart of my heart”

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