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Paper Chase

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In a vast and vigorous metropolis that just renewed its world-class status by hosting an international sporting event and countless international visitors, locating an out-of-town daily newspaper seemed like the simplest of tasks. Quite honestly, it seemed like no task at all.

This is Chicago, Illinois, not Elko, Nevada. From the Cubs to Kup to Capone to Cartier, this cosmopolitan burg has just about anything anyone could ever ask for. So just how hard could it be to find something as pedestrian as another major-market periodical?

My search began at the cozy kiosk on the corner of State and Jackson, the one with the sign that boasts Out-of-Town Newspapers in big black letters.

"If it isn't at the State and Jackson stand," said a certain in-the-know denizen, "it doesn't exist."

Riding a wave of confidence, I went to the Stand one bright, sweltering Tuesday morning to make my purchase. The clerk was sitting in full view of passersby, making his way through an ultra-high-gloss publication titled Orgy. It took a good 30 seconds for his trance to break.

"Yeah?" he said, flinging his required reading behind a milk crate.

"Do you have today's Los Angeles Times?" I asked, training my eyes on the meager stash of nonpornographic publications.

"Mmmm, no. I have the Houston Chronicle," he said. He motioned toward a disorganized batch of week-old papers, most of which were Sunday editions. "You want the Houston Chronicle?" he inquired absently, displaying a jaundiced edition proclaiming the Rockets world champions.

I told him, no, I needed today's Times. If I'd had the patience I might have told him that my first Times story was supposed to be in the issue. The editing process had been long and painful, and rounds and rounds of phone calls and voice-mail tag had inflated my long-distance bill well beyond my monthly budget (this was before I knew about the paper's editorial 800 line)--and probably annoyed the hell out of my editor. So when her assistant called to promise the story would run, I couldn't ask her to send me a copy.

"Try the library," said the clerk. "They get them daily. Maybe they'll have one to spare. If they don't have it, try Los Angeles."

I thanked him for the first half of his advice and skedaddled over to the Harold Washington Library. The crew at the general periodical desk was embroiled in a mini-crisis when I arrived. Apparently an overzealous patron had ripped several pages of a periodical index out of their binder and scattered them about. Three assistants were replacing them neatly in numerical order.

"When will you receive today's Los Angeles Times?" I asked.

The young assistant looked at the mini-calendar on her watch and counted to herself. "Probably not for another five days, and even that's not guaranteed."

Five days? In a city where fresh mahimahi is flown in daily from the South Pacific the main library waits five days for a Los Angeles Times?

"We've got today's Trib if you want it," she offered.

I made no answer.

"You might want to try the stand at State and Jackson," she said. "They have everything."

As I pushed through the library's prodigious doors it dawned on me: when you need anything in this town, ask either a hawker at the corner of Halsted and Maxwell or the concierge at the nearest fancy hotel. Too far from the historic intersection, I lighted out for the Palmer House.

The employee behind the concierge's desk was lacquered and smartly dressed. At the moment he was wasting his talents drawing a map to the Chicago Theatre for a German family decked out in lederhosen and Reeboks. He only needed to direct them three blocks north to the oversize poster of Donny Osmond, but the map was a nice touch.

When my turn finally came I posed the question: Can you find today's LA Times?

He served up an incredulous laugh and began flipping through his Rolodex. He would stop, pluck a card, and ruminate, repeating the process with staccato precision. When he found something promising he followed up with a call. From every dead-end he walked away with a fresh name and number.

After a while I thoughtlessly mused that I might try the concierge at the Four Seasons. He scoffed at my gall and redoubled his efforts. Call begot call, name referred name. This guy was seriously connected. The sweat droplets forming on his brow, however, were the sign that he was losing it.

"You know, maybe I'll just try Kroch's & Brentano's," I said, hoping to give him an out. But he was dialing and redialing with a frightful determination. He never even noticed my exit.

I spent my lunch hour hunting through the financial district, scouring every lobby shop and poking behind every kiosk. Sears Tower. Union Station. The Board of Trade. The Merc. Where there were suits, smocks, and money there had to be a news store for the connoisseur. My search eventually yielded papers from just about every city in the western hemisphere--some from towns I never knew existed--but no LA Times. And every time I'd ask for one I'd get a "Nope," "Sorry," or "Try the stand at State and Jackson."

In Los Angeles one can find daily Chicago papers at more than a few shops, I thought. What the hell kind of town was this then? Was I asking for the Sioux City Times? Was I really in Sioux City?

One newspaper vendor camped at Van Buren and Wells handed me a New York Times, saying "it really is the better paper," then told me to try the stand at Rush and Oak.

Of course, I thought. I hopped the Howard el north and pressed my luck.

The guy at the stand said, "I don't know if they have the Los Angeles Times here. You need to ask the guy who runs the place."

I asked if the guy was around.

"He's in the bathroom. I'm watching the stand." He said he worked at the Sound Warehouse across the street. We watched the stand together in taut silence.

"He wasn't feeling too good when he left," he explained.

I offered my sympathy.

As the minutes passed he began to grow restless. "Would you mind taking over?" he said wistfully. "I've got to get back to my work."

Before I had a chance to formally accept, I was handing out papers and making change. When the regular attendant finally arrived he shot me an indignant look. "Who the hell are you?"

I told him.

"Oh," he said. "Did you sell any papers?"

I said that I had and handed over $1.50. Then I dropped my question.

"Yeah, we got the LA Times," he said. "You see that sign on the side? It says we got the LA Times. That means we got 'em."

At long last my search was over. Feeling simultaneous gusts of relief and fatigue, I asked if I could buy one.

"Oh no. We got 'em, but not here. We got to order 'em. It takes about a week, and it'll cost you $10 an edition."

The only thing that saved him was that he didn't refer me to State and Jackson.

I'd had enough. I went home and hit the yellow pages. One of the first places I rang promised out-of-town papers and more than 6,000 magazines. How could I miss?

"City News. This is Mike. Can I help you?"

"Do you carry out-of-town papers?"

"Yes."

"Do you have the Los Angeles Times?"

"No, but there's a newsstand at State and Jackson..."

Next I called Extra Extras on North Clark. "Do you have the Los Angeles Times?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Do you have any papers at all?"

"I don't know, sir."

"What the hell do you have?"

"I...I don't know, sir."

After roughly an hour of similar conversations I knew I was licked. Then, as I stared vacantly at the phone book, my eyes were magically drawn to a local listing: Los Angeles Times, Midwestern Bureau.

What an idiot. Why the hell hadn't I summoned them for starters? I dialed and began counting the rings to victory. Finally someone picked up. I explained the situation.

"Well, of course you didn't find a Times," said the female voice. "We have the only copies in this town."

The pause allowed me to pencil in the rest of her sentence in my mind: "in this town, rockhead."

Unfortunately she didn't have any copies for the public.

After I pleaded, she invited me to her office to pick up a spare copy of the day's edition, insisting that I keep the entire transaction a secret. I told her I couldn't swear but I'd be as discreet as possible.

At five minutes to five I was holdng a copy of the July 12 edition of the Los Angeles Times in my mitts, staring at a picture of Yasser Arafat sans his trademark kaffiyeh. It was nearly eight hours from the moment I caught the attendant at State and Jackson perusing his stock of pornography.

But the end was bitter. My story had been bumped. I cursed, and then laughed. At least I now knew where to pick up the Houston Chronicle and Orgy.

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