:: Article

A Star of the New York Times

By Jim Windolf.

He had a beautiful name for a byline. Francis Bell Baines. He also had a look that was unusual for a New York Times reporter. He stood six-foot-three, for one thing, and unlike so many of us who had gone to fat because of the hours spent hunched over grimy keyboards, our labors fueled by whatever food was easy to grab, he was trim and muscular. He wore crisp clothes and carried a shoulder bag that was never overstuffed or lumpy. His wavy hair flowed aristocratically past his ears and pooled at his collar, its color a mix of brown and honey blond. A few silver strands gave him some gravitas.

He was friendly to me from the day he came aboard in 2009. That meant something, because, as I later found out, he could be rudely indifferent, even borderline cruel, to people who didn’t interest him or had, in his view, somehow crossed him. But unlike the many coworkers I’ve had over the years who tended to avoid me or affected a solicitous manner in my presence, Francis never tiptoed around the wheelchair issue. One drunken evening, in fact, he pushed me at breakneck speed through the Times Square pedestrian zone, aiming me like a projectile at the tourists and mascots. I hadn’t laughed like that since before the injuries.

On the day we met, in the part of the newsroom where we Business section reporters and editors did our daily work, he threw me a compliment as he went in for a handshake: “So you’re the guy who wrote that piece.”

“I guess I am.”

“Proud to know you.”

I knew the piece he meant, although it had run five or six years earlier. It was the only one anybody ever mentioned. Front-page stories, so important on the day they come out, are quickly digested and forgotten. It’s the out-of-the-way pieces that have a chance at leaving an impression, and the story Francis was referring to was a wisp of a thing, not even seven hundred words, that I had written in a single burst and submitted to the Week in Review editor before the usual doubts and insecurities had crept in. It was a lightly satirical essay that described the momentary joy you feel when the other person cancels a lunch date. Not much of a conceit, but I was able to hold the note through the paragraphs, and readers responded.

I had served The Times as a foot soldier since 1993, moving from metro to obits and back again in my first couple years, after having put in an apprenticeship at The Jersey Journal and The Star-Ledger. I also did a stint on an early digital team — I was the one who, believe it or not, pushed the button that made the Times website go live in 1996 — and there was a six-month period when I was the second-string theater critic.

I settled in as a transportation reporter, and little by little my beat became the energy industry. That meant a trip to Iraq in the waning days of the war, before the rise of ISIS, so that I could get an up-close look at the entry, or re-entry, in some cases, of Halliburton, ExxonMobil and other companies into the oil fields. It was supposed to be a one-week assignment. I was there three days and have been in the chair ever since.

The stupid thing is, I can’t say my injuries were the result of a landmine or roadside blast. I just happened to be in a cement hotel on the edge of Mosul when an earthquake hit. The building broke apart about an hour after I had filed the first story of a planned three-part series. At least it ended up making A-1.

Francis was having a career far more glamorous than mine. After making a small reputation at the New York Post, which was known in the late ’90s for its sharp business coverage, he pulled off a rare maneuver that was no doubt helped along by his Princeton pedigree: jumping from a tabloid to The New Yorker. He distinguished himself there with a deeply reported and stylishly written story, more than twenty thousand words in length, of the dot-com bubble’s bursting. Then came the book version, a yearlong bestseller, and a film adaptation starring George Clooney.

He hit the lecture circuit, charging fifteen thousand to give his forty-five-minute talk to any company or college willing to meet his fee. The New Yorker eventually got annoyed with his victory lap, and he signed with a new business magazine called Portfolio that was derided and envied among us workaday journalists for overpaying its staff. The financial crash took Portfolio down; and The Times, looking to undo its staid reputation, courted Francis.

So even aside from his crisp attire and long, wavy hair, he was a strange creature in our newsroom, an alien being from the planet of glossy pages, bottomless expense accounts, and Hollywood options. His duties were also unusual. In addition to working on news articles like the rest of us, he had a blog, with a picture of his face at the top. The Times also gave him a prominent role in an “events” series that had him interviewing “thought leaders” on the Times Center stage. He was also not in the union.

With all that baggage, not to mention his habit of making walk-and-talk cellphone calls a few years before that kind of thing was common, he was not especially well liked, and more than once I found myself saying to this or that colleague, “He’s actually a good guy, once you get to know him.”

Our wives seemed to hit it off, and I ended up serving as a kind of theater sherpa, leading our two-couple contingent to dozens of shows that Francis and Becky would have missed otherwise; Francis assumed the role of restaurant guide, taking us to places (some snooty, others hole-in-the-wall joints with cult chefs) that Mina and I never would have known about before we had made his acquaintance.

For Mina and me, the limit on a Saturday night dinner for two had been eighty dollars, and suddenly our credit card statements were filled with lines that made me break out in a sweat — two hundred dollars for a meal I could no longer remember. There were other differences, too. Mina was a social worker, while Francis’s wife was a fashion buyer. And Mina and I were childless, even after many attempts at adoption that had ended in heartbreak, while Francis and Becky had two girls enrolled in an Upper East Side private school. Some of the things they considered problems, like their dealings with a contractor who was refurbishing their country house, left us shaking our heads.

In the years we worked together, Francis and I shared a byline only once. It was a piece about a high-level ExxonMobil executive in New Jersey who had been kidnapped by a pair of bumbling eco-terrorists. I was the one who got the tip, and my training had me wanting to bang it out as soon as I was able to verify the basics. But in my excitement over coffee one morning, I mentioned what I was working on to Francis, and he said, “Hold on.” Against my first-thought judgment, he persuaded me to wait until we could flesh it out before mentioning anything to an editor.

So instead of writing a staccato news article that surely would have made the front page, I found myself joining him on a three-week pursuit of something grander. We shuttled back and forth to western New Jersey, where the crime had taken place. One time, we got ourselves thrown out of the Baltusrol Golf Club, where we had tried to doorstop the ExxonMobil executive, who had survived his misadventure.

The Business section editor got wind of our secret reporting, and we were scolded for “sitting on a story” and “keeping news out of the paper” at a meeting attended by one of the higher-up editors. Francis laughed it off, but I was pretty shaken up.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told me. “You have to knock these fuckers in the head, or they won’t respect you.”

The next uneasy moment came toward the end of the editing process, when a veteran copy editor, hewing to Times style and standards, took issue with Francis’s poetic flourishes and pressed us to attribute the juicier facts to named sources. Copy editors had saved my ass on so many occasions — catching errors and untangling my prose — that my policy was to say yes to them, even when I didn’t fully agree. Francis belonged to a different school. He fought every change insisted on by one of our surest hands, a Times lifer named Dan Rispoli, and he was not polite about it.

I pulled Francis aside at one point, saying, “The guy has our best interests at heart, and it’s not cool to be fighting over what is basically punctuation at this point.”

“You think this is about punctuation? That’s the difference between you and me.”

That stung, because it seemed like what he was really saying was: “That’s why I’m a success and you’re not.”

On the day the story was finally posted online, Francis gave a hundred-dollar bottle of brandy to the copy editor, who was not mollified. In fact, he was insulted by the gesture. “They pay me a salary,” Rispoli said. “I don’t need your gift.”

The brandy ended up on a dusty table, hidden among dead houseplants and discarded promotional swag.

 

The winter of ’16-’17 was a low moment at The Times. Management quietly offered buyouts to anyone who wanted one. Then came a daylong walkout staged by the copy editors, many of whose jobs were being phased out by a new workflow system meant to match the supposedly increased velocity of news in the fully online era.

I was feeling pretty burned out by then. I talked things over with Mina. In the end, the paper offered me a lot more than I has been expecting to let me walk out the door after twenty-three years — my on-the-job spinal injury must have played into their calculations — and I took a job teaching journalism at Fordham, my alma mater.

“You’re making a huge mistake,” Francis told me after the brief going-away toast, which took place in the January dimness of the late-afternoon newsroom. Then he handed me a present. When I tore through the newspaper pages he had used as gift-wrapping, I found the bottle of brandy he had given Rispoli, and we had a good laugh.

Our two-couple excursions to restaurants and shows continued into the summer, although not so frequently as before. Near Labor Day, Mina and I said yes to a weekend visit to the Baines’s house in Litchfield County, but we felt out of place, and the presence of their two daughters, ages eleven and fourteen, couldn’t help but remind us of our lost hopes. Francis and I were not in touch after that, aside from the occasional joking text, until a dreary November morning when he called to ask me to lunch.

“Sure, when were you thinking?”

“Today. It has to be today.”

 

I wheeled myself into Barbetta, a cloth-napkin Italian restaurant on West 46th Street that was more than a hundred years old. Francis said he had picked it because it still had dishes from the 1890s on the menu. The headwaiter took away a chair and kept an eye on me as I got situated at the table, where Francis was already seated.

“Sorry I’m late. Train was a mess.”

“No problem.” He caught the waiter’s eyes and lifted an empty glass. “Another one.” And to me: “I’m having scotch. You feel like one?”

In his strong presence I nearly said yes. “Iced tea for me, thanks.” And to him: “I have to teach a class in three hours.”

Once the waiter was gone, Francis said, “Did you hear? She kicked me out. Becky. She kicked me out. It’s over.” His eyes were bloodshot but twinkling. He looked like he had just told me the punch line of a joke.

“I’m sorry to hear it. I like Becky. A lot.”

“Well, I like her, too, but you can’t have everything.”

He steered us into talk of the latest dramas and scrapes he had gotten himself into at The Times before he asked after Mina and my new life at Fordham. Once the main course was served — pasta and broccoli rabe for me, veal cutlets in brown sauce for him — he got down to it, between assaults on his food.

“I haven’t had an ally at the paper since you abandoned me. It’s funny — I wasn’t always like this, I wasn’t always difficult.”

“You just care about your work.”

“Don’t give me that. I know what I am. But I used to be a nice little bastard. In high school I was friends with everyone. Can’t do that anymore.” He laughed. “Jocks, stoners, old-money kids, geeks. It was a little private school in Wilmington, Delaware. We lived just down the street from the school, and some of my fondest memories are of doing that walk early in the morning, especially when it was spring and there were all these flower-bushes. I had no fear. Now, some mornings, I’ll see the New York Times sign over the door, and it just scares the ever-loving shit out of me.” He flashed a smile. “Back then I took life easy. I made people laugh. I had charm. I’m aware that high school probably wasn’t like that for most people.”

“I can assure you it wasn’t.”

I saw myself being shoved against a locker at Boonton High, and then kicked.

“I sometimes think it was because I was a virgin,” Francis said. “I didn’t even beat off. Can you imagine? So I had tons of energy.”

His voice was too much for the room. A couple glanced at us from five tables away. The bow-tied waiter reappeared.

“Another scotch.”

“And for you, sir? A refill on the iced tea?”

“I’m fine.”

Francis attacked the veal anew as the man left us.

“I’m just going into all this to tell you about her. A girl I used to know. Liz Wilcox. We’d been in school together since fourth grade, and she — if there’s a female version of a nerd, she was it. She had big glasses, greasy hair. She always had a cold. She didn’t know how to talk to people. She either blurted things out or else got so quiet you couldn’t hear her. She got in fights with boys, actual fights. A terrible athlete, though. If we played dodge ball, she’d end up getting hit in the head and crying on the side. My girls, I’ve taught them how to handle themselves in sports, but Liz was hopeless. Her parents must have done nothing for her — and they worked in the school. Her dad was a big fat history teacher. Her mom was the school nurse. Imagine having that for parents, with everything else she had to deal with!

“They called her ‘dog-face girl.'” He put on a sensitive expression. “That’s what the boys called her, and sometimes they said it to her face. I didn’t, though. Liz was at the other end from me, in terms of social standing, I guess you could say, but I didn’t call her names. There was this one night, though, when I was thirteen. Some of the guys and I egged her house. Her father came out, screaming. We ran like hell. I felt bad afterward, I really did. But here’s the thing I haven’t told you. Maybe because I was this big-man-on-campus type, to use a stupid phrase…”

I sensed the waiter at my back.

“Will you gentlemen be needing — ”

“Espresso,” Francis said. “And those crunchy cookies. The big plate.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Decaf for me, thanks,” I said.

Francis went on, not bothering to give the busboy any silence to work in as he refilled our water glasses and took away our plates.

“I know you won’t take it wrong when I say I was a big guy at school, and Liz was the opposite. Maybe because of that — I don’t know, I’m not a psychiatrist — I felt an attraction to her. Maybe I had some guilt over having it so good. But at night she was all I thought about. I had some nice, pretty girlfriends, too. When we’d be trimming the Christmas tree, I would always have one of these girls in the house with me. They wore these certain sweaters, Fair Isle sweaters, with a design at the neck. You know the kind?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“I took these girls to dinner, even at that age. I got them roses. Now, yeah, I was a virgin, but at some point that becomes a technicality. Still, Liz Wilcox was the one I was thinking about. Something about her drove me sexually crazy. I had to cover myself with my backpack if we happened to have a conversation in the hall.

“We were at school one night after a fencing tournament — I was co-captain —and Liz and I were on this sort of balcony thing ten feet off the ground. She came close, so that our noses were almost touching, and I had the wood going, and I saw these guys coming toward us, guys I hung out with, and I did a bad thing: I jumped off the balcony. Rather than being seen talking to her, despite how I felt, I jumped. I told the guys she had me cornered and I had to get away. They laughed, we all laughed. Awful!

“Then came a Saturday at school, almost summer, when I was doing things for the yearbook. Liz and I were in a locker aisle, alone, and I had the bottom of one foot against the wall. You know the way you stand when you’re hanging out, trying to look cool?” Francis stopped himself. I could tell the wheelchair was going through his mind. “I’m sorry, Mike. I just mean, you know how guys will stand at that age. Adolescents.”

“It’s fine, no apology necessary. I might have stood that way, too, although I couldn’t really pull off looking cool when I was in high school.”

“Oh, that’s right, it happened, uh… you were — it was Iraq? A bomb?”

“There’s no need to go into it.”

“Earthquake! Sorry, yeah, it slipped my mind.”

“Doesn’t matter. Just go on with what you were saying.”

“So I was standing the way I described, with one foot behind me, so that my knee was jutting out, and Liz — she — I’m sorry, I just realized — I can’t go into this. Let’s just say something sexual happened and leave it at that.”

I looked up. The waiter. “Your cookies, gentlemen,” he said, dusting his words with a light sarcasm. He must have been an actor. He set down the platter.

Francis grabbed one of the dozen cookies and started crunching, saying, “These things kick ass. The upshot is, all that summer I was going crazy. The next year, our senior year, I said fuck it and asked her out. And then she was the one trimming the tree in my house. I swear, though, people are bad news. Because of the way she was, almost six feet, and very skinny, fingernails all chewed up, and the greasy hair, and the odd face, my parents were very cold to her. They didn’t like the idea of their son, the big shot, being with someone who was, even to them, a female loser, or whatever you want to call it. But my love was so strong that I had to throw up some mornings. Another time, she and I were standing in front of the school, having some kind of serious conversation, and Liz was crying, which wasn’t unusual. She cried a lot. She said she didn’t know why she did it. She was just sad or something. So I hear a loud honking, and I look to the street and it’s my mother, in her BMW, leaning on the horn. Later, at home, she said, ‘If you two had been necking, I would have understood, but you were just standing there with your heads hanging down. I never saw such miserable people in my life!’

“Mom was right, in a way. I had probably been one of the happiest people in the world until then. I don’t want to say Liz dragged me down, but the other girls I dated didn’t cry. Probably all those years of being mocked, of being an outcast, had gotten to her. I’m there, loving life — and she hated coming to school every single day. And when you’re a kid, what else do you know? You think school is life.” The waiter was back, with the coffees. Francis grabbed a packet of sugar and flapped it back and forth. “Liz and I ended up losing our virginity together, in her bedroom, with her parents downstairs. Is this all right? For me to tell you this?”

“Sure. Are you planning on going back to the newsroom?”

“Fuck that. Half the time we didn’t use protection. And I know you shouldn’t want to go back to the past, but I’d go back to that bedroom in a second, no questions asked.”

“Maybe you’re just saying this because things between you and Becky — ”

“I took a ton of shit for going out with Liz, most of it good-natured, since I was already six foot one and could do whatever the hell I wanted. But I would get a lot of, ‘Yo, dog-face man,’ things like that, in the halls.

“One day after school I was in a stairwell by the yearbook room with a couple of guys, and they were asking me about Liz. This was early March. I was interesting to them for two reasons: one, I was someone who was getting laid on a regular basis; and two, I was doing it with a girl who, everybody had decided, was not up to par. As I was going into it, the sexual boasting, I guess you could call it, I was calling her ‘dog-face girl.’ I think I had some adult-sounding theory, like, ‘Yeah, the great thing about ugly chicks is they have to make up for it in other ways.’ I felt a presence behind me. I knew it was Liz before I turned around. She ran away. I didn’t move.

“That night I went to her house. She managed to be nice. Her parents were the same, almost deferential. I thought I had dodged a bullet. I thought Liz was going to think of what I had said as guy talk and file it away and forget it. But when I tried to kiss her, she put up a wall. So even though we were eighteen, we were like a politely estranged couple. After I left her house, I cried in the street. I had never cried in the street before. I didn’t cry at all in those days. At school, I spent a lot of time in the nurse’s office, talking with her mom. Liz obviously hadn’t told her the details, so she’d be saying things like, ‘Don’t worry, Francis, I’m sure she’ll come around.’

“In the spring everybody was in that wild graduation fever, the senior slump. We smoked weed before school — we called it ‘wake and bake’ — and went to pizzerias for lunch. Liz had been absent for three or four days, and I missed her. This was late May. The flower-bushes were out. I went to her mother to see what was up. She says, ‘I know you two aren’t as close as you used to be, but I’m surprised she hasn’t told you. Liz and I were in the mall, and a woman gave us her business card. Turns out she was scouting for a modeling agency in New York. Her father didn’t like the idea, but he came around. And to think of the grief some of the boys used to give her!’

“Liz was already in Manhattan. They let her go. Just like that. Can you believe that? These people were teachers — and they caved.

“When Liz and I were going out, I could see it, I could see how beautiful she was. I loved her face. Not that it stopped me from saying the things I said. Pretty soon, I was at Princeton, and she was in the fashion magazines. I bought them and kept them. Even up until a few years ago, you would still see her. And the minute I knew my marriage was over was when Becky found a stack of those magazines in my closet. She was all, ‘What the hell is this?’ I didn’t bother to explain.”

Francis grabbed another cookie and looked me in the eye.

“You think I’m a bastard.”

“Not at all. We’ve all — ”

“But do you think she’ll take me back, after all that’s happened?”

“I sincerely hope you’d be able to find a way to work things out. I’ve always liked Becky. And you’ve got the girls.”

“I’m not talking about Becky. Haven’t you been listening? I’m talking about Liz. It’s been thirty years since she heard me say that stuff, and I figured out where she lives. What if you were her? How would you react? You think she’s forgiven me by now?”

 

Over the next few months Francis and I weren’t in touch, and his byline appeared infrequently in the paper. Then, one night, late, while Mina and I were watching TV in our four-room apartment on West 108th Street, my phone buzzed on the coffee table.

“Sorry to be calling so late,” Becky said when I put it to my ear.

“That’s O.K., I was up.”

“Have you heard anything? About Francis?”

“We haven’t really spoken in a while.”

“He can’t just drop off the face of the earth like this. He still has the girls, no matter what he thinks of me.”

“Wait — what happened?”

“All I have is the credit card bill. He’s in Florida. His number is dead so I called the motel but he won’t pick up. I thought he might have told you something.”

“I can try to get in touch with him, if you like.”

“Do you think he’ll talk to you?”

“The last time I saw him he was not in the best shape.”

“He always liked you, Mike. He said you were his only true friend.”

“Give me the number for the motel. I’ll give it a shot and call you back.”

I tried his cell, in case he had blocked Becky, but it was a nonworking number. Then I called the motel in Florida. The person at the desk put me through. No answer after ten rings. I called Becky back and said I’d try again in the morning — and then, perhaps stupidly, I volunteered to go find him, if it came to that.

“That would mean a lot, Mike — to me and the girls. The girls are confused. I don’t know what to tell the girls.”

Becky lost it. I felt bad when I got off the phone. The next day I pinged a few Times people. Whatever Francis was up to, he hadn’t said anything to his colleagues, and the masthead was losing patience.

Mina wasn’t thrilled when I let her know I had booked myself on a JetBlue flight to Fort Lauderdale. She said Francis was a big boy and it wasn’t my business. I said I was doing Becky a favor. She said Becky deserved what she got for picking a man who was so full of himself.

“He’s actually a sensitive guy,” I said. “He just comes across wrong.”

In the evening I saw dirty snow piled up along the roadsides during the cab ride to J.F.K.’s Terminal 5. Soon enough I was wheeling myself into an all but empty Airbus A321, the first passenger, as usual. I hoisted myself into the seat. A flight attendant, with my help, folded my portable rig and tagged it for the gate-check.

“Make sure you don’t misplace that thing.”

She laughed a little.

A Fort Lauderdale taxi took me through a warm, heavy night to the two-story motel in Hollywood. I called Mina from the room, although I knew she wouldn’t be thrilled to hear from me. Between my window and the beach were the parking lot and a two-lane road. I flipped through cable and fell asleep around two.

In the morning I arranged for a late checkout with the man at the desk and got him to tell me Francis’s room number. After the “complimentary continental breakfast” in the lounge — three jelly donuts, weak coffee — I took the elevator to the second floor and rolled down the green turf of a long veranda. I parked close to the door and pounded on it with the soft part of my fist.

“Francis?”

The door opened. Francis was looking out into the world at the level of his own eyes before his glance found me. He was wearing white boxers, no shirt. I looked past him and saw bare feet on the bed, and that was all I saw of her. He stepped out, closing the door behind him almost all the way. He was scowling in the light.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“Becky sent me. She was worried.”

Francis said nothing. Like a good reporter, I waited him out.

“I’m sorry you felt the need to make the trip, but this isn’t your business, believe it or not.”

“They’re wondering about you at the paper. Becky says she’s worried about the girls.”

“‘The girls’? That’s code for money. She’ll get her money and she knows it.”

“She’s just worried, Francis. It wasn’t the money. That wasn’t my impression.”

“When I have something to say to Becky, or those bastards at The Times, I’ll be in touch. All right? I’m sorry you came all this way.”

“Did you find her?”

“Of course I found her. We’re together now. She forgave me, she really did. I’d introduce you, but it’s a little early. Maybe we can get together later, have a drink.”

“I’m just downstairs, room 104. I’m headed back tonight.”

“I have to say, though” — he forced a grin — “it is a bit of a fucking nuisance, having you on my ass all the time.”

“I’ll be going. Forget I stopped by.”

“You can’t go sticking your nose in other people’s business and pretend you’re the offended party.”

“No one’s offended, Francis. I did a favor for your wife. Maybe I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

“Nice. Acting all decent. Always judging me — from that — that — ”

He stopped himself. I was grateful for that bit of restraint.

In the afternoon I watched some college basketball on TV. Through the crack in the curtains, I saw him in the bright parking lot. He was loading the trunk of a small car with suitcase after suitcase. His long, wavy hair, now gray, was wet and slicked back.

A few minutes later, I saw him again. He was checking back over his shoulder, with occasional jerks of the head, and there she was, on his arm. She was tall and thin, brittle, even, like a space alien in a movie, and she took tiny steps. She was dressed simply, in jeans and a striped jersey that fit her snugly. Her hair was short and jet-black. He was escorting her, seemingly supporting her weight as he led her, step by step, to the car. He helped her into the passenger seat. Then he got in the car himself. He backed out and drove off, heading south along the beach road. I admit I felt some satisfaction at seeing him down here with the rest of us who are struggling to get through the days.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Windolf
has published short stories in Ontario Review, Five Dials, X-R-A-Y, Sonora Review, and other magazines. His humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, and his poems in Opium and Poetry Motel. He works as a journalist in New York.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 1st, 2021.