Vacant Stairs

Think of this as our annual swimsuit column. We can’t bring you models bobbing in the Aruban surf, but we’ll do our best.

So return with us now to a balmier time, when music played, balloons bobbed, and everyone was drinking pop and eating ice cream. Join us at last April’s dedication of the Chicago Tribune’s new half-million-dollar staircase.

The stories we have been hearing ever since about this wonder were too extravagant to be believed. Besides, Hot Type does not do staircases.

But several days ago we visited the Tribune city room. There it was, encased in glass, its mahogany-stained banister gleaming. A brass band could march up that staircase, we thought.

And one did.

“I was there myself,” said Chief Musician Charles Clark, who had never dedicated a staircase before. “It was unique. That staircase is special.”

No one lucky enough to be in the Tower that day will forget it. The Navy band marched the length of the staircase, from the second floor to the fourth, Tribune Company president Charles Brumback and Tribune publisher Stanton Cook made speeches and cut ribbons, and hardened reporters blinked back tears.

“It was a big goddamn hoot!” one grizzled newshound told us. “It was kind of like an old-fashioned Fourth of July thing. I think the guys who put it together really enjoyed it, and so did we, but for ironic reasons.”

Another reporter remembered: “When the band showed up, that’s what knocked all these blase newspaper people out of their seats. At first it was kind of Woody Allen, Johnny Winters, Franz Kafka, as reporters were asking each other how would you describe this to somebody? and everyone was straining for analogies. Even our best reporters were at a loss to come up with a decent description of the event. We finally decided to use the hackneyed phrase ‘you had to be there.'”

Building the staircase was a lot like pushing the transcontinental railroad through the Rockies. There was structural steel to rip apart, solid concrete to smash through. The goal was to connect the editorial spaces on the fourth floor with the renovated second and third floors, on which the Tribune’s various other departments were being consolidated. The staircase was created by the firm PHH Avenue and what a job they did! producing a design full of subtle Gothic touches.

And that is all there is to say. Except for one thing. We stood at the top of the staircase for about ten minutes talking to a friend, and in that time not a single person used it.

Apparently no one ever does.

“There is some concern that it’s just there,” said a reporter. “We don’t want to go down to the second or third floors because you can’t smoke down there. And they don’t want to come up here because the room’s full of smoke. I have actually never seen anybody go up or down that staircase.”

A company spokesman says that reporters are creatures of habit, which is why most of them still use the elevators.

Sun-Times Miracle Confirmed by High Official

The Sun-Times has just brought us an astonishing reporting coup: full details of a conversation on Christmas Day between Mother Teresa and God.

Nancy Merrill Page got the scoop: in Calcutta to interview Mother Teresa, she was there when the good mother knelt to pray. Ms. Page seized her opportunity. She wrote the story and turned it in to the Sun-Times, where her husband is the publisher.

We called God for further details.

“Don’t you get smart-alecky about that good lady,” He told us. “She’s one crackerjack reporter. I’m used to scribes putting words in My mouth and taking what I say out of context, but that gal’s story was dead on.”

We pointed out that Ms. Page herself wasn’t sure she had the conversation letter-perfect. In fact, she allowed that she’d had to “imagine” it.

“Well, she imagined it pretty darn well,” said God. “I said every word.”

Right down to where Mother Teresa wants to know if she should let Ms. Page bring in cameramen, and You say, “She’s come a long way and it means a lot to her. She’s sincere”?

“Isn’t she?” said God.

Well, tongues are wagging, we told the Almighty. There is talk that a similar article by any other correspondent might not have landed on page six of the Sunday paper.

God snorted in disgust. “Tongues always wag,” He said, “but I know piety when I see it. What do you think?”

What do we think?

“You saw the pictures!” God exclaimed, His voice rising. “Those colored photos of the blond lady from America expressing her devotion. Did you ever see anything like it? Not only can she do the fingers-twined-in-humble-obeisance-to-Yours-Truly stoop. That’s easy. But she’s also mastered the palms-flat-hands-together, last-one-into-the-pool’s-a-rotten-egg forward lean for chatting with devout lepers lying on pallets.

“The last position’s almost unknown in the Western world,” God told us. “I can’t imagine where she learned it.”

This wasn’t at all what we expected to hear from God. You mean to say, we sputtered, that when Mother Teresa gets down on her knees, her prayers actually begin, “Hello God”?

“Sure they do,” God said.

And then she says, “It’s me, Teresa,” and You say, “How are you this morning?” and she says, “I’m fine”? And then you lay into her for working too hard?

“We’re both creatures of habit,” God allowed.

But that’s how ordinary folk talk!

“Not exactly,” said God, who we think wanted to show off a little. “Bear in mind that we were conducting this conversation in her native tongue–Albanian.”

Yet somehow Ms. Page understood!

“It’s like Spiro Agnew used to say,” God explained. “Good reporting is always a miracle.”

We were about to hang up when God lowered His voice and offered us a deal. “I know you’re fishing around for a story,” He said, “and I want to help you out. So if you don’t say where you heard it, here’s a little something you can use. Mother Teresa, frankly, is getting old. I’m just fond as the dickens of her, but I’ve got to take the long view. I’ve been thinking very seriously of shipping Ms. Page back to Calcutta to learn the business, and then turning the Home for the Destitute Dying over to her in a couple of years.”

We sensed God was interested in our reaction to this plan. “She’d be honored,” we said carefully, “but at the moment Ms. Page divides her time between Boston and Chicago, where, quite frankly, the need for her ministrations is also great.

“And her husband is in no position to shift his base of operations to India,” we blurted. “Not when circulation is surging, and he has the Magic Grid game to oversee.”

“It’s just something I’m kicking around,” said God. “Well, you’ll know if it happens. No doubt there’ll be something in the paper.”

Just Like the Pros

We’d always thought the student-newspaper case in Hazelwood, Missouri, was simpler than the courts were making it out to be.

Back in 1983, the principal of East Hazelwood High deleted two pages from the school paper. He didn’t like an interview with students about sex, pregnancy, and birth control; and he didn’t like an article on divorce.

The student editors went to court. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to three that the principal was within his rights: the First Amendment doesn’t stretch far enough to cover high school newspapers.

The Supreme Court–as the Tribune pointed out in an editorial–had come to the right conclusion for the wrong reason. It is a dangerous precedent to set any conditions in which government censorship overrides the Bill of Rights.

Here’s the issue as we saw it: should the whims of a publisher, when he’s a public official paid with public money, cut as much ice as the whims of Robert Page or Stanton Cook?

And long ago we’d reluctantly concluded they should. The business of education is to prepare students for the real world.

Said the Tribune’s editorial page: “What the court should have said is that the 1st Amendment rights to expression without censorship do not extend to editor-publisher relationships.” They never have, said the Tribune truthfully.

Student editors whose principals stick their noses in might think of publishers and the First Amendment as being two indispensable instruments of a free press that work on different floors. In a crisis, a magnificent staircase exists to allow the amendment to rush to the publisher’s side. But a publisher only drops by to pay his respects if he feels like it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sadin Photo Groups Ltd..