Back in 1995, when I was still new to New York City, I felt like my chances of getting a real job in journalism were slim and getting slimmer. I was so inexperienced and unsophisticated in the ways of schmoozing that I wasn't able to get anyone at the local newspapers and magazines to call me in for an interview. So I languished at a lousy entry-level job in the human resources department of Columbia House record company, feeling sorry for myself and lamenting the fact that nobody would recognise my undiscovered talent.
After one form-letter rejection too many, I decided to do something about it. I would take a writing class. Maybe I could make some contacts, meet some people, and become a better writer to boot. In any case, I needed to get out of the aparment more.
After attending a seminar at New York University's School of Continuing Education that provided an overview of their night-school writing classes, I enrolled in a class taught by a gruff yet friendly fellow named Bill Bell. Bill wrote for the New York Daily News, and I liked how he spoke to the attendees, explaining to us that he became a journalist because he was "too lazy to work, and too scared to steal." It was a line he probably used a hundred times, but it worked, and it explains half the journalists out there today.
So I enrolled in his class--it was called Feature Story Writing--as well as a creative writing class taught by someone else. I enjoyed his class and always listened intently when he explained what editors are really looking for in a story, how to get to the point quickly, how to take one small detail in a situation and use it to make a larger point, etc.
I liked Bill a lot, partly because he was the very archetype of the ink-stained New York tabloid reporter who'd seen it all and was still in a hurry to see more. It's because of him (as well as my politics) that I've always preferred the Daily News to its tabloid rival, the New York Post. I didn't make any huge breakthroughs in the class, as it was only a few weeks long, but I still remember things he said, like be confident when you interview somebody, no matter how much you need to fake it. He'd been with the News for decades, and was with UPI for decades before that, so he had long since tackled those issues himself, but he still seemed to know what we were going through.
Every time a certain celebrity would come through town, they'd send him to do the standard interview. Dolly Parton was a personal favorite, who would insist on having the photographer snap a photo of both of them together. "I don't like being in photos," he said. "They make me look like my hair is thinning." (See above.) One time he had to call all of us to cancel a class. "I am in Israel," he explained. The paper had sent him to report a story. But to make it up to us, he gave us a tour of the Daily News offices, and even arranged for some editors to speak to us.
After the tour, a few of us convinced him to have a beer with us at a nearby Irish bar. It didn't really take much convincing, and he politely picked up the tab after telling us all the stories we wanted to hear. After the term was over, he gave us his work number and invited us to call for ideas or advice. I called when I had finally gotten a New York newspaper job, at a small trade paper that covered the metals and mining industry. He congratulated me and jokingly asked if I could get him a job there.
I still remember the outgoing voicemail message on his phone: "You've got Bill Bell, but only in spirit, I'm afraid ..."
Unfortunately, that's all we have now. I was saddened to read this morning that Bill Bell died on Saturday at the age of 75. Here is the Daily News obituary
. I'm sure Bill Bell encouraged and inspired many young writers. I would just like to say that I am one of them.
[image via the New York Daily News