It’s 1981, a few months after U2 released their debut album Boy. Perhaps the editors at The News-Letter knew a good joke when they saw one, so they assigned a boy to review it. That’s how I, a freshman and not even 18 yet, got to pen a review that’s not quite as embarrassing as I feared it would be upon re-reading it 40 years later. “Since all members of this group are under 21, musical history could be rewritten if this act gets itself together,” I offered in a bet-hedging opening graph.
Of course, there’s that old line about all criticism being a form of autobiography. The News-Letter was certainly a place where one could get oneself together, and I’m pretty sure the first time I crossed the Gatehouse’s drawbridge I was terrified the crocodiles of my own lack of confidence swam beneath. Everyone inside seemed so much older, wiser and wittier, so I’d drop off my Smith-Corona-typed copy and scamper back to Gildersleeve, convinced the whiff of clove cigarettes stuck to my clothes. (I could be confusing the cigarette smoke with the air in the Hut — yes, in the early 1980s people still smoked everywhere.)
Sure, I had written journalism in high school, even putting together a painstaking “exposé” about the school laying off a handful of teachers during my senior year over Easter break — a particular irony at a Catholic school. But everything at Hopkins seemed so incredibly accelerated, as if I’d been dumped into the valedictorian end of a very deep pool.
Such a feeling only seemed stronger at The News-Letter, once the home of Russell Baker and now populated by writers who quipped bon mots in — mon Dieu! — French. Meanwhile I struggled through my Spanish class trying to wow my teacher, who I learned liked jazz, by writing a review of a scorching Johnny Griffin gig at the Left Bank Jazz Society. Because, of course, nothing translates into a foreign language like that most American of musical idioms, jazz.
But I digress — one of my writing tics for almost six decades now, and partially why I drifted into magazine writing, starting with Zeniada. If I wasn’t sure I myself fit in such rarified air, at least my stories kept fitting into column inches, and this was back when laying out the paper each Thursday night was an actual physical process, so I’m assuming that meant something. They even let me write a review of The River that ran so long you could listen to the album’s 20 songs before you finished my article. And in all those words, I somehow never let drop that I was from Jersey, too, just like Springsteen.
I did hint about wanting to escape New Jersey, though, with my close: “It’s not really fair for us to demand more from Bruce than his ‘let me out of this small town’ blues, but he has provided us more with The River... breaking out will always be the source from which the river flows, and as The River proves, the Boss can still do it. As the rock poet laureate of the blue-collar world he’ll be running until he dies. And many of us will be running with him.”
Sure enough, I kept running through as much writing education as I could get, especially when places offered to pay my way through grad school (thanks Hopkins Writing Seminars and Iowa!). And while I officially studied poetry and nonfiction prose, I just did journalism — and if there’s anything that The News-Letter instills in you, it’s that. Crank out the copy, work with your editor, there’s another issue coming, keep looking ahead. And so I landed a part-time, actually paying job at the late, lamented Baltimore City Paper — also founded by former News-Letter critters — before I graduated.
To this day journalism remains my hobby job, so I get to do things like pen a cocktail column called The Drinkable Landscape for Edible Santa Barbara and still pull in a guaranteed monthly check as Director of Communications for the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Turns out if you know how to work one side of the press fence, it’s easier to get hired by the other side. But then again, I’m also reaching deep for sustenance from other essential Hopkins experiences — I am once again on community radio after my long-ago initial run on the 10-watt WJHU. Homewood left me with hearty roots.
Not that I remember every single thing, not in the least. Running back through The News-Letter issues from 1980-81 I remembered, “Oh, yeah, they had me on the student council beat, too.” Part of that is young journalist hazing, of course — making the kids do what no one would otherwise volunteer for. But of all things, who was student president that year? Michael Steele. So it turns out I was covering the man who would become lieutenant governor of Maryland and then chairman of the Republican National Committee.
I was writing news, not editorial, at that time. Still, I hope it’s okay here to say, “Glad to see, Michael, you got around to endorsing Biden in 2020.” I mean, a Hopkins education has to be valuable for everyone, eventually.