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.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.