It was mid-August of 2008. Charlie Competello had just taken his morning run in the toxic mass that passes for air in Beijing.
Now he was clean and dressed for business at the Olympic media center where The New York Times had rented an office for 20 people.
The first thing he spotted was a forlorn-looking writer.
“My laptop died,” the sad sack began.
That was me.
Charlie’s job was to provide technical services at big events like the Olympics and visit the bureaus all over the world, or wander around the newsroom, available to the people who write and edit the stories. He was one of us. The paper did not get done if Charlie couldn’t fix the machines and the software.
This how it was when I was working. Charlie had colleagues like Walt Baranger and Pedro Rosado and Craig Hunter, who knew our jobs better than we did.
(One night in Salt Lake City, after getting bad advice from on high, I was told to write something, at midnight, after the Russians fixed a figure-skating final, if you can imagine such a thing. After I stopped throwing furniture and Queens language around the room, I saw Craig standing next to me. He handed me printouts of wire stories, with all the information that would let me play catch-up ball with a midnight column. “I think this will help,” he said.)
The Times had our back, with technicians who were journalists. They would find bugs in our software or frayed connections in our laptops – even schmutz clogging the keyboards. Full service.
I worked with Charlie a lot -- a lean, alert guy from my home borough of Queens, who reffed basketball games in the winter, for the fun of it. We learned to rely on him the way the old Yankees would rely on Yogi Berra’s untouchable presence on a storm-tossed charter flight.
Charlie was never more indispensable than in Beijing in 2008, the first Summer Games to be fully covered 24x7 on the great emerging NYT web site. We were exactly halfway around the world, which meant Michael Phelps was swimming for medals in mid-morning in Beijing but evening in New York. Any given hour, somebody needed Charlie.
On that morning in Beijing, Charlie went to the basement where Lenovo had a store, and he purchased a new ThinkPad and then downloaded stuff from my busted laptop, a few hours of work while meeting all the other needs. After his run, I bet Charlie could have used a more quiet morning, but the way that job worked, there was no such thing.
The Times had gone into the computer age in the mid-70’s with Howard Angione, who introduced us to the massive Harris terminals in the office. Sometimes the damn things would eat up an entire story, even if you had saved it, and we (I) would pitch a massive fit. Howard’s motto was, “If I can teach Vecsey, I can teach anybody.” And he could.
For nearly four decades, I learned to rely on the Times’ techies, whatever their title was. Then I retired after 2011, and now Charlie is retiring, wisely, much younger than I was, which gives him time to relax and then find some other pursuit, or not. He’s a ref. He always makes the right call.
I’m out of it now. I just hope the paper still has the backs of the people who go to wars and conventions and Olympics, fixing machines that break down at the worst possible time.
* * *
Speaking of valued colleagues, did you see the beautiful photo of Aretha Franklin on the front page of Friday’s paper? Her dignity and soulfulness and even her sound came through. That photo was taken by Tyrone Dukes, back in the day.
Tyrone was a friend, a young brother who had served in Vietnam and was now a photographer. He could snap Aretha up close at the Apollo in 1971 and he could follow a looting rampage during the blackout of 1977. He died in 1983, at the age of 37.
When I saw the credit on the photo, my eyes misted over– not for Aretha but for Tyrone. My thanks to Charlie and Tyrone and all the others, who were part of us.
8/17/2018 06:32:43 pm
Nice piece, George. I could have used your man Charlie when I was a hapless young business reporter filing reports in Latin America for Business International (where a young Barack Obama was cutting his professional teeth at the same time). More than one long piece I was working on disappeared in hotel Telex machines in Mexico, Trinidad or the Dominican Republic. Esos fueron los dias. Then came the fax, the web, and now the cloud. What a world. The young kids will never get it! Cheers.
8/18/2018 08:12:07 am
Peter: I don't know how Howard, the first tech support guy, handled all the crazies, like me. Example: 1982, my first World Cup, in Barcelona, with a huge Teleram, its case feeling like a bowling-ball holder.
Altenir J. Silva
8/17/2018 10:31:34 pm
8/18/2018 08:21:50 am
8/18/2018 08:17:16 am
8/19/2018 10:36:16 am
8/19/2018 11:35:54 am
Bruce: absolutely, you were in this business, you know the drill. Copy editors saved me -- on deadline -- so many times. The NYT in its wisdom created roles that Charlie and his colleagues filled. With all the changes, I hope they remember that this is not some universal job that can be done from the home office. The key is being there and knowing the drill. GV
8/19/2018 07:10:34 pm
8/20/2018 01:39:04 pm
Bruce, I will say I am happy and proud when the Pulitzers come out each year and smaller papers win awards for "local" reporting. There are lots of good journalists out there, and sometimes they get papers that support them -- if the publishers don't get beaten down by their rich pals. Boston Globe a major player. But the toll at Newsday, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun,LA Times, has been horrendous.
8/20/2018 02:12:28 pm
8/20/2018 09:51:42 am
George, I love behind-the-scenes articles. Nicely done. In one of your comments, above, this is a sweet thought: "Imagine, a photograph of his making front page nearly half a century later." If you're in touch with Tyrone's family, they'd surely love to read/hear that comment.
8/20/2018 01:40:13 pm
Hillel: thanks for suggestion. I never did have contacts for family. Now, what, 35 years ago. I hope somebody notices....GV
8/20/2018 11:21:09 am
George-love the way you always give credit to the so many important people who work unnoticed behind the scenes.
8/20/2018 01:43:46 pm
Alan, those guys were part of the team, I haven't been working for seven years now, so I am not qualified to speak about today. But I remember a small cadre of tech. support people who knew sports events ended at midnight, or whatever, and knew time zones, and press box conditions, and I'm sure more vital things like war-zone conditions. You didn't have to explain what you did, and what you needed. The NYT made sure they existed.
8/20/2018 09:11:04 pm
8/21/2018 09:19:01 am
Randy, nice to hear from you in my "other" place. You know, from your own business, that it takes a team. I'm always surprised by allegedly worldly people who have no clue about the layers of cadre at the NYT that put out "the paper" day by day -- the layers of editors who supervise and check on reporters, the research people who come up with a fact or a contact, the copy editors who find your mistakes - and the people in the office who take care of the people in the field. Fern, Gloria, Leslie, Terri-Ann, just off the top of my head from Sports. Then -- the folks in the plant in College Point, another "home"in recent years, who physically print the paper and get it on the trucks. Friends like Nick and Deirdre and Mike and Ernie...It's not just the name on the byline. Be well, may you stay, forever young. GV
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.