ou sleep with a woman who in the morning steps out of the shower and comes up with a line you know you’ll never forget, “You left ink on my back.”
Nostalgia takes many forms. So do dreams. Some are stained with newsprint.
She was right. I believed her. I’d left ink on her back. We’d migrated from a newsroom to a bedroom but before then I’d been all over the headlines. Literally. I’d handled several copies of the previous day’s paper. We’d gotten things wrong — more than one thing. We often did. I’d flicked through many pages to make my nightly list. My fingers were smeared.
Print ink is indelible. It’s absorbed and transferred like feelings. Hands-on journalists, the literal kind that made newspapers, were human stains. It was kiss and tell of another kind, since you unknowingly imprinted yourself on others. In the bedroom, in the kitchen, on bathroom towels.
Wanting to see the first edition come off the presses (I did, often) meant leafing through the first few hundred copies to check photo inking. Print machinists wore gloves. The hard-boiled generation that didn’t had hands like those of coal-charged stokers. Up high — the press was 15-feet tall — they’d jerk off random copies early in the run to check for contrast, balance, saturation. They rarely said a word. A printing press is too loud. As an outsider, I was never allowed too close to the valves and rotating drums. Union rules didn’t allow it. In fact, I shouldn’t even have been there. Editors and machinists belonged to different armies, or so the caste-bound printers believed, card-carrying Communists to the last. I had no rank to pull.
In the 20 years I made and touched newspapers I can’t remember a time I left the presses unsullied. On palms, wrists, forehead (beware wiping your brow) I carried around blotches of black. Before leaving either the newsroom or the printer, I’d try to wash off the ink. The basins had a black film, like blood from a murder scene.
But when I forgot, distracted by this or that, I’d leave looking somewhat the part of the night I’d walk into. The waiters at the restaurant around the corner got to know me and greeted me as “inky” in Italian, as in ecco l’inchiostrato. Once, the owner pulled a paper from my hands and left a bar of soap beside the knife and fork. A meal of soap for one, until I washed my hands, he said. And we’d laugh.
But it’s her line I remember the best, more even than her face, though she had a pretty one: “You left ink on my back.”
I would have liked to seen those smudges before the hot shower got to them. But she left cleansed and we got back to life as it was then, or as I remember it, we of the black-handed generation of journalists and editors who for whatever reason couldn’t get enough of what we craved.