June 28th, 2016


During my year off from college, I got a job in the art department of National Telephone Directory Company, a firm that published directories for the phone system in the National system–mostly small towns and rural areas.

My job consisted of collecting the artwork necessary for the artists–there were about twenty of them–who would take the salesman’s suggested ads and convert them into real artwork that someone might want to look at.  There were books of clip art, cabinets full of photos, and previous work, all sorts of sources which I would search and assemble into a packet which then went to the artist.

This was in the day when type was still being set in lead; linotype operators would compose pages of type, from which an impression was made in a kind of slurry of paper fibers; this when dried produced a reverse-image “mat,” which would then be bent to the right shape and used as a form from which to cast a lead plate that would be attached to one cylinder of the rotary printing press, inked, and pressed onto  the web of paper.  My love of the printing process from junior high school stood me in good stead here, as I actually understood what was going on; most of the other pre-press  employees there had no idea.

I also got interested in the photostat machine, and became the back-up operator.  In those days, a photostat was made in a giant, walk-in camera, a big, black steel box with a lens on one end.  The process involved first making a negative paper image (white on black), then taking another picture of that negative image, so you’d end up with somthing black-on-white which an artist could then use to make a paste-up which would then be used in the final printing process.

There were two kinds of  artists in the art department: one type was the paste-up artist, as mentioned above; the other was the ‘spec’ artist.  The spec artist was the more creative artist; it was his (or her–about half the artists were women) job to design ads on ‘spec’ — speculation — that the salesman would try to sell to his customers.

Federico was of the latter kind.  He was the best artist of the lot; his designs were more modern, more sensual, more compelling.  Freddy, as he was called there, was much in demand, as much for his happy, outgoing personality as for his professional talents.  Fair-skinned, with dark brown eyes and curly dark hair, Freddy was just my height,slim, and a couple of years older than I was.  My job called for me to assemble materials for all the artists, so I got to know Freddy.

I had written a short story about a family caught in an underground bomb shelter; this was in 1961, when President Kennedy’s plans were for a ‘civilian defense’ that involved backyard bomb shelters supposedly to keep people safe from nuclear explosions.  I showed the story to Freddy, who liked it, and drew up a picture inspired by my story; we duplicated the story, with the picture as a sort of cover illustration, and circulated copies of it throughout the office as a kind of samizdat.

That started a close friendship.  Federico (which I always called him, not ‘Freddy’) and I had similar political oiutlooks.  He was a native of the Dominican Republic; he had come to the U.S. a few years earlier, to get away from the dictator Trujillo, and it wasn’t safe for him to return.  I, for my part,  He was a rebel, and I felt myself to be a rebel, too.

We ate lunch together, took walks together, had long talks.  Federico invited me to his home, an apartment in a house not far from the river, where I had kept my kayak years earlier.  He liked classical music, as did I, and we spent many long evenings talking, drinking some, listening to the music and, eventually, resting in each other’s arms.  No more than that, but Federico was my first real love.

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