Wax On, Wax Off

Fri, 24 Jun 2016 16:00:46 +0000

We were severely late, and the production room was a madhouse. The editorial staff was hugging the walls, having learned—for their own safety—to stay out of the way of the creative team. Like a scene out of a Bruce Lee movie, the production team was racing and lunging in and out between the numerous large five-by-fifteen-foot layout tables. With freshly minted and waxed copy in one hand and razor-sharp paste-up knives in the other, the last bits of this week’s publication were coming together rapidly—with only mild violence. I pulled the last section of copy from the bubbling-hot industrial waxer, and together my assistant and I cut and pasted it into its preordered spot. Grabbing up the remaining layout boards and shoving them into the case, three of us ran down the stairs, spun through the revolving glass door, and emerged into the steamy August night. It was 2:51 a.m., and I had been in New York City all of six hours that summer of 1978.

The three of us piled into the back of an enormous Checker cab, and the lead designer handed the driver a twenty, saying, “Corner of Elizabeth and Mott. Ignore the traffic laws; we have three minutes.” Actually, we had about nine minutes to make our press appointment at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of Chinatown. The cab ride lasted a scant three minutes, thankfully.

Getting out of the cab, I was unprepared for how quiet Manhattan was at that time in the morning, and the only sound I heard was the sound of the rubber soles of my adidas Original Tobaccos squeaking on the wet cobblestones, courtesy of the recent late-summer rain shower. Still in shock from our Saturn V–rocket cab ride, I was certain that we were no longer in New York City.

It was dark. The lack of streetlights made the streets of Chinatown feel like they would swallow us up. Only in the shadows of the Chinese writing could you tell that this was some kind of business district. In my mind this was no longer New York City but mainland China. We walked toward a row of narrow shops. I looked up and down the street, an alley really, for some indication of the large thirty-unit web-fed offset press, which was our destination. Impressive contraptions these presses, and of a size that would dwarf half a dozen full-grown T. rexes. An herb shop, a beauty salon, and a greengrocer were all just too tiny to be our print shop. We walked quickly toward a wall with a telephone number on it, and I was instructed to “knock, loudly!” Banging loudly on the crinkly yellow letters that read “212,” we didn’t have to wait long.

That’s when I heard that ominous sound. The sound of half a dozen washing machines that are all off-balance and set to some disheartening, maniacal, evil spin cycle. Out of nowhere, in between the herb shop and the grocery store, a heavy, insulated door popped open. A fistful of noise assaulted our ears, and the familiar but acrid smell of ink, solvent, and oil slashed at our noses while we climbed the wrought-iron staircase to the third floor. The entire building shook and vibrated violently. Protective orange earmuffs were placed over our ears as a man screamed at us, “You late!” I looked at my watch—it was 2:59 a.m.

Thankfully the days of blistering-hot waxers, razor-sharp paste-up knives, adrenaline-pumping cab rides, and 3:00 a.m. press appointments are over. However, tight production deadlines are still alive and well and remain a vital part of the business of publishing. I think I reminisce because clicking Send lacks a certain sense of adventure. Well, off to see Batman vs. Superman.

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