The power and the clutter, or: Once upon a time at the comp shop

Welcomat memories: The old composition shop

7 minute read
Anyone here seen my X-Acto knife? It was just here a minute ago...
Anyone here seen my X-Acto knife? It was just here a minute ago...
When my mind wanders back to the Welcomat, the wonderfully wacky Philadelphia weekly newspaper I served for a dozen years in the '80s and '90s, my thoughts usually settle not on writing and editing and dealing with free-lancers, but on the weekly Tuesday sojourn to Comp Art in South Philly.

Part of my fixation is because nothing quite like it could exist today. A "composition shop" was a place, separate from the editorial office, where (in the last days before desktop computers) the paper was put into physical form.

The other part of it is that Comp Art was one friggin' bizarre place by any standards.

Through the front door on Juniper Street, you walked into a rank, grubby nowhere-of-the-mind, past a couple of sad windowless offices and into a room where three or four people with X-Acto knives were hunched over desks covered with cutting boards.

To the right lay the photo room, where the week's pictures were processed. Down at the far end, another small group hovered before first-generation computer monitors and entered the text that we'd sent down to them typed on yellow paper. Along the wall sat the cutter and the waxer (explanation later).

The cutter and the waxer

A sharp left took you into the layout room, where three lines of inclined Masonite, two of them back-to-back, ran perhaps 30 feet to the far end of the building, so, maybe 100 feet of 75-degree raised surface in all.

Here's how it worked (in the earlier days): We editorial types came in around 8 a.m. and read the inputted copy, which was printed out in lengthy single-column sheets. We proofed our corrections and sent the copy back for line edits, or for retyping if it was too stinko to salvage. Then we fed the corrected proofs through the cutter, which trimmed off the side excess, leaving a narrow column. This we fed through the waxer, so it would stick to lined make-up boards, one for each page, that rested on the Masonite.

Meanwhile, the advertising staff, under the direction of general manager Larry Singer (one of my favorite people of all times and places), laid out the pages, using a non-repro pen (that is, one whose pale blue lines would not photograph). We editorial folk then applied our waxed copy to whatever odd spaces the advertising staff deigned to leave us. Later, page-straighteners re-aligned both editorial and ads to a supposedly more right-angled format.

Lastly, Dan Rottenberg, the editor, or I, the arts editor, OK'd each page, and off they'd go to the printer, by 6 p.m. if all went well.

Beautiful when angry

But it was the Comp Art inhabitants who made the place what it was (or wasn't). Ensuing names have been changed to protect my kneecaps.

Cedric, the titular foreman, was a Vietnam vet who'd had his fill of combat. He was so terrified of Susan Seiderman, the publisher, that he sat permanently immobile, incapable of making the most minor decision. Helen, his blonde assistant, had one of the most beautiful faces I've ever seen, especially when angry, which was most of the time.

Jack, 30s and balding, was always helpful in an uninterested way. He had been unhappy since the time his baby carriage tipped him into the street. Fey Artie, who trimmed the photos to proper size at his desk, invariably sliced off the subject's ears.

The ragtag typist-inputters in back included a couple druggies, a gay member of a stage tech crew who championed penis-piercing, and a bright, intense but ruined young man who set his monitor with green type on a magenta background.

Unreformed alcoholic

The page-straighteners, however, formed the crew of crews, drifting in and out, week on week, as they needed money to pay their rent.

Pete was a damned good drummer in a not-very-successful rock band. Cardan, a slow, massive, cynical Hawaiian, was not so much lazy as disinclined to make the commute to reality if it didn't serve his immediate purpose. Damon, black and often snarling, was a reformed alcoholic, but alas, not really so reformed; he and I got along fine.

On the days when I was top editorial dog at the shop, the constant input of competing needs"“ three-paragraph rewrites, each from a separate story; finding a specific piece of artwork somewhere in seven volumes of old graphics; grabbing pictures from Artie while the ears were still intact; locating a three-line squib of type that had inadvertently floated off a board and attached itself to the bottom of someone's shoe; asking the incessantly belligerent photo lady when, if ever, she would have the line art copied"“ put my mind into an unlikely altered reality. Items stacked themselves visually in my head; there they could be shuffled, restacked or shunted to the side as needed. Oddly efficient and, in some way, exhilarating.

Homeless haven

Lunchtime was a gas. We would exit the back door into an alley so infused with seasoned trash that it had acquired a permanent secondary roadbed of compressed cardboard. From there we'd wander to Broad and Snyder to sit at the local Popeye's. (I wonder "“ does it still serve the best fast-food chicken in the universe? And red beans and rice that would make a Cajun phone his mama?)

Popeye's was home to a half-dozen local homeless, each of whom would sit alone at his or her designated table. There they'd holler across to each other— a sort of crude telegraph service.

Later, we moved our gustatory operations to a small bar on Passyunk Avenue, the Broadway II. We'd sit at one of the three small tables in back and each consume a pork sandwich seasoned with the long, thin, stingingly hot peppers that I've seen only in South Philly. Nothing you've ever eaten, guaranteed, can match a South Philly sliced pork sandwich on an Amoroso's roll. Pat's Steaks? Ha!

Playing the ponies

The Broadway ran a continuing, illicit horse-betting service. The owners were on rotation with local law enforcement, who would shut them down for a stated period of time, then let them reopen to take up where they'd left off.

There was usually a race on while we ate lunch. One day a regular asked dear, delightful Jennifer, who at 18 was in charge of our editorial layout duties, to pick a winner for him. Jennifer knew nothing about horses or racing and chose a steed at random. The horse won. From that day, Jennifer was considered "good luck" and something of a tout, continually pestered for advice.

In later days at the Welcomat, Susan the publisher introduced Macs, so we started inputting our stories directly and doing much of our own layout. I learned the publishing program Quark Xpress and could slap together the back section of the paper, usually about 20 pages, in two or three hours"“ then advertising would accept a last-minute ad and I'd have to reconfigure an entire page to insert ten column inches of product lies.

Around 1993, as desktop publishing galloped over the past, Comp Art died with nary a whimper. From then on, all publications would be designed and assembled on computers, right in the editorial office.

I have no idea what the equivalent of a page-straightener is today, when it comes time to pay the rent.♦

To read a related column by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read a related memoir by Joy Tomme, click here.
To read a sequel by Derek Davis, click here.

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