A reporter’s pipe : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

A reporter’s pipe

by Marc Munroe Dion

Jack Dupont was not a true believer in much of anything. As a reporter, he felt that strong belief led to the dusty, parched intersection of shortsightedness and bias.

But he believed a few things. A partial list follows.

 

  1. The short sentence is best.
  2. Inanimate objects have no soul.
  3. Neither do newspaper publishers.
  4. Approached properly, the saints will intercede with God.
  5. No real man drinks anything with more than two ingredients.
  6. Ice counts.

Dupont toiled for The Mill River Standard Times, a daily newspaper with a circulation of 14,000 and an audible wheeze in its editorial policy. He was a 53-year-old son of Mill River, a man given to spoken obscenity and gray fedoras, tweed jackets and side-of-the-mouth laughter. A tall man with a mustache the color of shredded Latakia, he walked with his head down but swiftly, loping between city council meetings and the newspaper office where, on a Tuesday, three weeks before Christmas, he was to receive two gifts.

“I got it at Target,” Simone LaCroix said, handing Dupont a plastic bag.

LaCroix, 41, and extremely fond of cats, was Dupont’s girlfriend and fellow reporter. She was 5 feet, 2 inches tall, with a mass of curly hair dyed an arresting blonde. On the day she presented Dupont with the plastic bag, she was wearing a lilac leather mini skirt, black pantyhose and a black sweater with a huge, floppy cowl neck that neatly framed her pale, sharp-nosed face. Her fingernails were painted purple.

Simone raised one foot off the ground as Dupont removed a 5-inch Christmas tree from the bag. Behind her, Pancho Souza, Standard Times photographer and Dupont’s best friend, stared fixedly at the shelf of Simone’s rear before turning back to a computer screen on which a picture of Mill River’s rotund, thieving mayor awaited cropping.

Simone took the little tree from Dupont’s hands.

“You plug it into your computer like this,” she said, pushing aside some of the news and fast-food-related landfill that covered Dupont’s desk.

The little tree lit up, seven lights, four red, three green. Dupont leaned back until his desk chair creaked.

“Niiiice,” he said.

Dupont, who looked like nothing so much as a second-rate, small-town bookie, loved Christmas as small boys love the holiday. On Thanksgiving, he broke out a Zippo with Santa Claus on the side. Throughout the season, he wore loud silk ties emblazoned with elves and snowmen. He sang carols in the office. In short, he was a tinseled nuisance, a trial to a roomful of reporters who called themselves “journalists,” and strove, as the Internet ate their business, to appear cynical and world weary.

“There,” Simone said. “You have your own office Christmas tree now.”

Pancho Souza snickered.

Mill River, Mass., was either one of the best or one of the worst places to celebrate Christmas. An old cotton mill town with a population of 88,000, the city was a broken watch, a huddle of crap-brown 100-year-old tenements, barracks-like housing projects and huge, abandoned mills. Four thousand people had moved out in the last decade, most of them descendents of the Portuguese and French-Canadian immigrants who had worked in manufacturing back in the days when Mill River made trash cans, baby clothing, cotton cloth, sport coats, yarn, table cloths, cardboard boxes and other hard goods.

The truly stubborn remained behind, unwilling to leave a neighborhood where they’d grown up, still in love with the Mill River of small bakeries and European immigrants that was vanishing so fast. The new Mill River consisted of just-arrived Dominicans, Haitians and Guatemalans who had mistakenly immigrated to a town where there was no work, African-Americans who could not find their way in the “hire your cousin” culture of Mill River and a sprinkling of Pakistanis who ran the city’s numerous dollar stores and discount cigarette emporiums.

The unions were dead. Unemployment was at 14 percent. The dropout rate at the high school was 47 percent and the city’s drug of choice was heroin.

Yet, at dusk in the winter, the city looked Victorian and the trash men wired Christmas wreaths to the grills of their trucks. The dying light at the end of the day erased the cracks in the sidewalks, and it was possible to walk out of a Dunkin’ Donuts with a cup of hot chocolate and see a brightness in the lowering dark, light through church stained glass, sparkling Christmas trees in tenement windows.

Dupont and Simone were natives, first among the truly stubborn, living where they wrote, a pair of love-struck mastodons bellowing sweetly at each other across a swamp of poverty and memory.

Simone sat at her desk, writing a story about an overweight Percocet addict who had robbed the same side-street convenience store three times in the same day.

“Too broke to have a car,” she muttered.

“Jack, somebody to see you,” the receptionist at the front of the newsroom said.

Dupont snorted, angry at the interruption. Dupont was the paper’s columnist, and he was writing a piece comparing Mill River’s city councilors to The Seven Dwarves. His shift on this cold, early December day was the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and, if no one in Mill River got mad enough to shoot, stab or beat anyone, he’d hoped to finish his weekly column.

“Sleazy, Dummy, Sloppy …” he muttered, rising from his desk.

The woman was small, maybe 5 feet, 1 inch, and old, maybe 85. Her green eyes were large and bright, and she wore black pants and a blouse decorated with black and white geometric shapes, mostly diamonds and squares.

“Horny,” Dupont said to himself, remembering that City Councilor Mike Beausoleil had recently been caught in a prostitution sting. Beausoleil paid a fine and had recently announced that he would run for re-election.

The old lady looked puzzled and not a little frightened. She was in the silent process of convincing herself that Dupont had muttered some variant of “Howdy” when he spoke.

“Howyadoin?” he said to the old woman, who looked visibly reassured.

Her name was Irene Greenwood and she held a small cardboard box in her hand.

“Hello, Mr. Dupont,” she said. “My father was Charles Greenwood.”

One of the things Dupont did for The Standard Times was produce a weekly “history blog,” an item that appeared only on the paper’s website and featured snippets of Mill River history collected by Dupont from the huge black-bound volumes of the paper’s archives. These volumes went back to 1861, all of them in disarray on the shelves of a locked room on the paper’s otherwise empty fourth floor, where they were succumbing to the nibbling of mice, the smaller nibbling of bugs, neglect and humidity.

“You wrote about my father,” the woman said.

Dupont remembered. Greenwood had written a column for The Standard Times back in the 1920s and Dupont had excerpted that column in his blog.

“Nobody remembers this guy,” he had told Simone. “He was good. He’s got a whole column about how poor kids used to go downtown to beg from the businessmen.”

“If they went downtown now, they’d have to beg from junkies,” Simone had said.

Dupont solicitously ushered the woman into the Standard Times’ grandly named conference room, a sterile space of beige walls and a cheap laminate table surrounded by faux-leather chairs.

After 15 minutes, Dupont came out, took a reporter’s notebook and a pen off his desk and went back into the conference room. An hour later, Dupont walked the old woman to the elevator and thanked her for the cardboard box he held in his right hand.

“Looka this,” he said to Simone, opening the box and removing a short, dark, billiard-shaped pipe.

“She brought me her father’s pipe,” Dupont said. “Because I been writing about him. She brought me a story, too.”

Simone took the dark red pipe in her pale hands, trailing one purple-painted fingernail down the stem.

“It’s nice,” she said. “What’s the story?”

“Charles Greenwood’s real name was Charlemagne Boisvert,” Dupont said. “In 1910, he comes down here from Nashua, New Hampshire. Self-educated. He’s been writing for a French-language paper up north.

“But,” Dupont said, “at The Standard, the reporters are all Irish and the management are all from the old Yankee families that own the mills. They don’t even cover the news in French neighborhoods, not unless it’s a stabbing or a guy beating his wife.”

“Which is pretty much what we do in black neighborhoods,” Simone said. “You see a picture of a black guy in this paper, you can bet he’s in handcuffs.”

“Charlemagne Boisvert’s no dope,” Dupont says. “In those days, New Hampshire was far away. He translates his name into English, Charles Greenwood, lies about where he went to school, and the next day, he’s an all-American reporter. The old lady, his daughter, doesn’t care if I quote her.”

“Good story,” Simone said.

Dupont sank into his desk chair and started to type, his notebook open on the desk. Next to the notebook, the pipe rested on its side, gleaming richly in the cruel florescent light. Dupont wrote with an unlit corn cob in his mouth. He bagged the Seven Dwarves column and began to write Charlemagne Boisvert’s story as told by his daughter, Irene.

Jack Dupont believed in the fitness of things. He didn’t smoke Boisvert’s pipe that day at work.

Instead, he stopped on the way home from the paper and bought a four-pack of Guinness Stout in a corner store at the end of his street. He arrived in the store 10 minutes before closing time and the clerk grumbled a little at having to make one more sale.

Jack Dupont lived with his 81-year-old mother, a circumstance his friends used as a platform for jokes. When he arrived home at 10 minutes after 10, his mother was asleep and the second-floor, five-room apartment they shared was quiet.

Dupont closed the door to his mother’s room, walked into his own bedroom, changed from his work clothes into a pair of badly worn, red plaid flannel pajamas, walked into the tiny kitchen and put three cans of Guinness in the refrigerator. The fourth can he opened, pouring its contents into a pint glass emblazoned with “Guinness It’s Good For You.” He had stolen the glass from an Irish pub in Boston when he and Simone had gone up to the big town for a weekend last fall.

Boston was only 50 miles from Mill River, but Mill-Riverites went to Boston only to see Red Sox games or to work as laborers on large, publicly funded construction projects.

“You and me walk down the street in Boston, you can almost hear the freakin’ banjo music,” Simone had said during their last trip to Boston. “Hey Jethro, lookit all these here tall buildings.”

Dupont set the glass of Guinness carefully on a marble-topped table next to his reading chair, a mouse-colored, 10-year-old La-Z-Boy he had journeyed far into the suburbs to purchase. The only furniture you could buy within the city limits of Mill River was made of particle board and required some assembly.

The glass in place, Dupont walked back into his bedroom and, standing on tiptoe, retrieved a large cardboard box from the top shelf of his closet. He set the box on his bed and rooted among 75 brightly labeled 2-ounce tins of pipe tobacco until he found the unopened tin of Dunhill Elizabethan, no longer made, that he’d been cellaring for six years. He’d been planning to smoke it on some special occasion, perhaps when he’d finally whored up enough freelance money to take Simone to Paris. He was sure they would hear violins in Paris and not banjo music.

He settled into the chair, popped the tin and packed Boisvert’s pipe. The Elizabethan smelled dark, if a smell can be compared to a quality of light. It smelled like stewed fruit and drowsiness and old books.

He packed and lit. He tamped lightly and lit again.

The pipe went out.

He tamped and lit.

The pipe gurgled and a blast of hot steam filled his mouth. The pipe went out.

Dupont swore. In French.

An angel, hovering above the potholed street and peering into Jack Dupont’s living room, would have seen a titanic battle between man and pipe, wills opposed.

He got the pipe going for 10 minutes and the pipe became scorchingly hot to hold. He took a long, peaceful puff and the pipe spit a bitter drop of condensed tobacco juice on his tongue.

The pipe gurgled once and went out, one tiny curl of smoke twisting up from its bowl.

Read the rest of the story in the pages of P&T magazine or in the online digital edition.

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Category: Pipe Articles, Winter 2013

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