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Steve and Fred: A Reporter's Escape/Today's Journalist: Older, Dumber, Less Satisfied/Stop This Word

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Happy holidays. To all of you, a Christmas poem:

Fred hung his stocking and left out a snack

of candy and cake and some sweet applejack

for Santa, then smiling he turned out the light

and alone in his bed snuggled down for the night.

Then came Christmas morn. Fred awoke with the sun

shining bright through iced windows, and he knew that no one

was as happy nor nearly as merry as he;

"Bless the world," Freddy said. "Oh, and yes, God bless me."

Then quick as a flash Freddy flew down the stairs,

huffing and gasping with wide-flaring nares

to the living room mantle and his knee-length silk hose,

which hung empty. Quite vacant. A sock in repose.

There is no doubt about it, not a gift had been left,

and Fred with a movement so rapid and deft

brushed a tear from his cheek; and then pouring a drink,

he sat down on the sofa and started to think.

Well, first he was angry, and then he was sad.

At last he decided, "Well, I must have been bad;

for I know otherwise Santa Claus never would

forget me. Next year I'll be twice as good.

As it turned out, it wasn't Fred's fault. Santa blew it.

The old man forgot, that's all there was to it;

in fact, months later, while fishing, Nick flashed,

"My God, I forgot Freddy! I'll be damned! I'll be dashed!

"I must write him a note. Why, nobody's been kinder."

He tied string on his pinky, an old-fashioned reminder.

That done, a big tuna discovered Nick's bait,

and the rest of his afternoon's trolling was great!

He caught marlin and sand dabs, some carp, many more

bluegills and smelt 'til his muscles were sore;

and while gutting and cleaning them, Santa look down

and that string on his finger made the gentleman frown.

"Now, what was that for?" Santa asked of himself.

"A birthday, I guess, for my wife or an elf?"

To play safe, Nick bought gifts for the whole North Pole crew.

And Fred would have liked that. If only he knew.

Early last Sunday morning, in a north-side living room whose corona of tobacco smoke and cologne of serious liquor asserted its inhabitants' contempt for PC conviviality, Steve Crews was summoned up beside the piano to perform a hallowed rite. Facing an easy audience of old newspaper friends, now strangely middle-aged, their children now strangely grown, and several ruddy male and female cops and fire fighters, Crews recited several of his beloved Frederick J. Auerbach poems.

Frederick went to school one day,

and found the school had moved away.

When he got home, it too was gone,

as were the flower beds and lawn.

Then looking down he saw the street

slipping out beneath his feet;

and trees and bushes, one by one,

vanished followed by the sun.

So Fred cried in the black unknown,

"Wh-Why have you left me all alone?"

A voice replied in timbre weird.

"Fred, you're the one who's disappeared."

Most of Steve Crews's 50-some Fred poems came to him years ago when he was a freewheeling single guy and life, as he puts it, "was a million laughs." He told us, "Now they tend to come out only when I'm invited to parties. I'm no good at parties, so I have to carve out a role for myself. So I bring a Fred poem as an entree, to earn my keep, so to speak."

Over the years Crews's diffident early readings have matured into dramatic events keenly awaited and hugely applauded each yuletide. After his latest triumph Crews and his family made their way into the night, whereupon the maudlin revelers he left behind freely confessed that a bit of Fred lies in each of them as well.

"Most of the poems to this day exist on Budweiser and Miller coasters and napkins," Crews told us. "Actually, the whole idea of Fred Auerbach was born in the late 60s and early 70s, when being a reporter was the thing to be. It was a very hot profession, and if you were in a bar and a lonely guy came up and said 'Hey, what do you do?' and you said 'reporter,' you had company. Shit, you couldn't get rid of him. So I became Fred Auerbach, computer programmer. I didn't want company, and saying I was a computer programmer was a sure way of not getting it. I thought of them as guys with pencils and pens and little pocket cases. I became as uninteresting as I could devise. Which may be totally unnecessary, since I'm pretty uninteresting as it is."

"Why didn't you want company?" we asked Crews.

"I think the relationship between a man and his bottle is personal," he said.

Fred's mother spent the day in bed

the day that Fred was born.

It was a boring pastime

she would ordinarily scorn.

But rest she did 'til Fred emerged

and gave his newborn cry.

Then Mom arose and donned her hat

and kissed the child good-bye.

"What is Fred to me?" Crews wondered. "Fred is the part of you that hurts. And Fred is also the part of you that wishes to see oneself as a victim, that likes to be free of responsibility for your own fate." On our account, Crews rifled through some old boxes and came across a forgotten scrap of paper. It said: "Frederick J. Auerbach was born in a puddle of beer at the Boul Mich Tavern in Chicago. I was sitting at the bar, looking at the tepid pool and toying at the edges with my finger when I spotted him gazing back. I haven't done anything dumb or pitiful since, but Fred has become a laughingstock."

Crews not only writes poems about Fred but draws sketches of him in nothing flat. He is the master of his creation. "It does help to be able not only to harbor resentments but to nurture them," he reflected. This nurturing helped Crews move on. Years ago he ditched the Tribune for PR, and he's now a vice president with a big home in the suburbs. He's happily married, and he hasn't had a drink in 16 years. In only one spiritual respect does he yet feel very much a newspaperman.

"You had bosses, but you didn't," he remembered. "Everybody felt like an independent contractor in their own way. I left journalism, but I still find that--I still think we're in this by ourselves, don't you?"

He was speaking in the most cosmic terms. Absolutely, we agreed.

"I left journalism because I was always wanting to raise my hand," Crews mused. "When I was covering things, I kept thinking, 'These assholes don't know how to do things. Let me take over.' I'd be at a block club on the south side, and they'd be talking about fixing the curbs, which is why the club existed. And then all of a sudden their debate would be over what should be their position on the war in Vietnam, and they'd all start shouting and their group would break up. I saw that happen 80 times. Nobody asks the reporter's opinion. You offer it, but nobody asks for it."

Fred's uncle, Heinrich Karl von Blunting,

was skilled in absolutely nothing.

Today's Journalist: Older, Dumber, Less Satisfied

The mind of the modern journalist is one of our favorite tangled underbrushes. Among known ways of piercing this thicket, we wouldn't rank the opinion poll first. But a recent national survey by the Freedom Forum (formerly the Gannett Foundation) yielded some data worth passing on.

In what might be a sensational case of mass denial, the forum observed in its preliminary report that "our findings on the perceptions of the importance of entertainment are interesting. Fewer journalists now [14 percent] than a decade ago [20 percent] are willing to admit that entertainment is important to news organizations." Interpretation of the raw numbers will have to await the full report due in 1993.

The Freedom Foundation survey paralleled studies done in 1971 and 1982. Journalists have gotten considerably older in the last decade: the median age is now 36, a rise of almost four years, and the percentage of the work force under 24 has plummeted from 11.8 to 4.1. Morale, which denizens of almost every newsroom enjoy calling low, apparently is. Roughly 27 percent of the journalists polled said they were "very satisfied" with their jobs, compared to nearly half the journalists in 1971 and 40 percent of them in 1982. Twenty-one percent of the journalists polled plan to get out of the business in the next five years. That's almost double the number in 1982, when "disgruntlement tended to be most visible among the more experienced and altruistic."

Is that true of disgruntlement now? We must await the full report. If the numbers portend anything good we'll be surprised.

Stop This Word

Wonk--(1) Someone captivated by process, by detail, i.e., a grind. (2) A Clinton Democrat. (3) A term that was fresh when the New Republic began using it months ago to describe Clinton Democrats and has now leached into the mass media and become a cliche.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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