Norm Pressman called and told me that the meanest man in town was leaving St. Louis. “I’m meeting him for lunch tomorrow at Blueberry Hill, and you’re welcome to join us,” Pressman said.
Actually, Pressman did not call the meanest man the meanest man. He used his real name. Eliot Porter.
Porter used to work for this newspaper. We sat next to each other for many years. Although I tried never to write about colleagues, I made an exception with Porter. I wrote about him several times. I never used his real name. I always referred to him as the meanest man in town.
He was from the East Coast. He spoke with a blue-blooded Boston Brahmin accent. His dad was a famous wildlife photographer. His family owned an island just off the Maine coast. Porter had followed his father to Harvard, but had taken time off from college to serve as an enlisted man in Korea where a grenade had badly damaged his hearing. That was fine with Porter. Few people ever said anything that he thought was worth listening to.
Because we sat next to each other, I overheard many of his phone conversations. His side of the conversations, that is.
The phone would ring and he’d answer it. “Hello?” A pause. “Do I know you?” Another pause. “Then why are you calling me Eliot?”
He did not appreciate familiarity.
A couple of years after he left the paper — he stayed well past retirement age because he was convinced, correctly, that the editors looked forward to his leaving — he called and said he wanted to talk to me about a story he was working on for what was then called the St. Louis Journalism Review. I invited him over for dinner. My wife always enjoyed his company.
He did not wait for dinner to be over to get down to business. “The story I’m working on is about you, William,” he said. He explained that the quality of my columns had declined so dramatically that people wondered if it was more than just a matter of getting old. I was then 62. Perhaps the new bosses had ordered me to tone things down.
That was a nice theory. It went to my character, of course — no spine, that sort of thing — but it’s easier to regain your nerve than your youth. Still, I had to confess that nobody had given me any such instructions.
“A pity,” Porter said.
Women liked him. Attractive women. Smart women. Maybe his incorrigible nature beguiled them. He was divorced for as long as I knew him, but he was single by choice.
And he was never alone. He always had several dogs. Also, birds. Most of his birds lived in what was once a dining room. He had hung plastic strips from the ceiling to keep them confined, but it was an imperfect solution. There would always be several escapees flying around in his living room.
As a result, his clothes were often stained.
He was my go-to guy for lost animals. One time a dog was running loose in front of my house and almost got hit by a car. I lured it into my backyard and called Porter. He was prepared to add the dog to his pack, but his vet discovered the animal had a chip, and so the dog was reunited with its owner. But only after Porter spoke to the owner and made a determination that the owner deserved the dog.
Another time, a baby bird found its way onto my front porch. I called Porter. He nursed the bird to health and then released it.
He might not like people, but he loves animals, I used to say.
Truth is, he had a kind side. He decried people — liberals, mostly — who loved humanity but didn’t like people. He was the opposite. He sometimes reached out to people in need. Always quietly.
He was, is, an odd sort of fellow. My wife invited him for Thanksgiving dinner one year, and before dinner, as we gathered around the table, he asked if he could read aloud a letter from the first Thanksgiving. Of course he could. Well, the letter went on and on, and the other guests, most of whom identified more with the Indians than the Pilgrims, stirred restlessly as Porter droned on. It was hard not to laugh.
At any rate, I met Porter and Pressman for lunch. Pressman is an attorney. During the 1978 newspaper strike that shut down the Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat, Pressman was the publisher of one of the two strike papers.
Porter worked on Pressman’s paper. Their friendship has lasted through the years.
I was not yet in St. Louis, but talk turned to those days. How strange it all sounds. A newspaper strike. Two daily newspapers. And a public so eager for news that temporary papers emerged to fill the need.
“I am the only Pressman who ever signed a paycheck to a Pulitzer,” Pressman said.
It is, I suspect, an old joke, but the meanest man chuckled as if he were hearing it for the first time.