Mary Norris on becoming a comma queen

An "OK'er" at The New Yorker recalls how she got her start (From the introduction of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen) I started reading The New Yorker in graduate school in Vermont. I sometimes visited my brother in New York. He had gone to the Art Students League, where he made friends with a woman in his portrait class named Jeanne Fleischmann. She was married to Peter Fleischmann, the chairman of the board of The New Yorker. His father, Raoul Fleischmann, had been the co-founder of the magazine, with Harold Ross. On one visit, I picked up a copy of the magazine. It was dated February 24, 1975. Eustace Tilley was on the cover, and the contents included a piece by E. B. White: Letter from the East. It was the anniversary issue—The New Yorker’s fiftieth anniversary. Eventually, I met the Fleischmanns. I was doing research for my master’s thesis, on James Thurber, and while Peter was away on business he let me sit in his office and look through bound volumes of the magazine. At the Morgan Library, in an exhibit of books that had belonged to writers, I found a grammar mistake on the wall label accompanying Thurber’s copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, in which he had made pencil drawings of Papa and Memsahib on safari. I was given permission to examine the book. (I made freehand copies of the illustrations and appended them to my thesis. My examiners were not amused.) In Vermont, I kept two stacks of magazines on my lobster-crate coffee table, one of Hoard’s Dairyman and one of The New Yorker. It was the summer of 1977, and there were some wonderful things in The New Yorker: Woody Allen’s story “The Kugelmass Episode” (it was also the year of Annie Hall), charming pieces by Calvin Trillin with illustrations by Edward Koren, John McPhee’s series about Alaska, “Coming into the Country.” I had never read McPhee before, and I was dumbstruck, as much by the sweep of his subject matter—Alaska—as by his precise, loving placement of words. He describes the view from the window of Jim Scott, his neighbor and landlord, in Eagle, Alaska:

In the view’s right-middle ground is Eagle Creek, where he and I once fished for grayling. It is in the United States, and if it is not God’s country, God should try to get it, a place so beautiful it beggars description—a clear, fast stream, which on that day was still covered on both sides and almost to the center with two or three feet of white and blue ice. The steep knobby hills above were pale green with new aspen leaves; there were occasional white birch, dark interspersed cones of isolate spruce, here and again patches of tundra. Overhead was a flotilla of gray-hulled, white-sailed clouds. Fresh snow was on the mountains in the distance. The Scotts have all that framed in their Thermopane—a window that could have been lifted from a wall in Paramus and driven here, to the end of the end of the road. The window is synecdoche, is Eagle itself—a lens, a monocular, framing the wild, holding the vision that draws people up the long trail to the edge of things to have a look and see.

Synecdoche: what was that? The context defined it for me—a small thing writ large—but I looked it up anyway. It’s from the Greek syn (with) + ekdoche (sense, interpretation), from ekdechesthai, to receive, understand; “to receive jointly”: “a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage).” It has four syllables, with the accent on the second syllable: “sin-NECK-duh-kee.” A near rhyme with Schenectady. I cannot explain the effect this word had on me, except to say that it made me ecstatic. I was like that cartoon dog who, when given a biscuit, hugs himself and levitates. In addition to what the word was describing—the wilds of Alaska—it was a window onto the writing itself. When McPhee uses an unfamiliar word, you can be sure that it’s the only word for what he’s trying to say, and he savors it, he rolls the syllables in his mouth as if words were food and he were licking his chops. I made up my mind to move to New York in the fall of 1977. I drove there in my 1965 Plymouth Fury II, with my cat, my books pared down to the bare essentials, and two hundred dollars. The Fleischmanns, whose grown children had moved out, were still in parental mode, and they befriended me readily. I spent many a cocktail hour in their den, drinking their Heineken and listening to Peter’s stories. Peter drank Scotch-and-water, chain-smoked, and swallowed Maalox by the handful. He told war stories (he was in the Battle of the Bulge) and stories about Yale and about his father, Raoul (the family came from Vienna), and croquet games with Harpo Marx banking a shot off a spare tire that he had sawed apart and wrapped around a tree trunk. That fall, I had a reverse commute from the financial district to Paterson, New Jersey, where I was washing dishes in a friend’s restaurant. The friend paid my bus fare and gave me all the beer I could drink. In return, I tried not to throw away the silverware when I scraped the dishes. Often I got off the bus and walked over the George Washington Bridge on the way home. I worked on my thesis, and sometimes despaired. Peter pointed out that even if I never finished the thesis or got the master’s degree, it was no reason to despair. Peter had no influence in the editorial department—like his father, he kept business and editorial strictly separate. But he offered to call Bob Bingham, the executive editor, and ask him to talk with me. We met on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Bingham was very nice, but there were no openings. I quit the dishwashing job and worked as a cashier at Korvettes during the Christmas rush. I could not figure out whether to be sad or relieved when the management did not recognize my talent and keep me on. I did temp work, first at an insurance company in the financial district. It was about a block from the loft I lived in on John Street, and my commute consisted of going down one elevator and up another. A handsome man with coppery hair posed at the Xerox machine. I moved on to a temp job as a statistical typist at a bank in Midtown, filling in interest amounts on tax forms. I was on the verge of trying to get a hack license so that I could drive a cab when Peter, possibly sensing an ambulance in my future, suggested that I give Bingham a follow-up call. There was an opening! Two, in fact, one in the typing pool and one in the editorial library. I flunked the test for the typing pool. It was on an electric typewriter, and I was used to a manual—at least, that was my excuse. If my hands trembled over the keyboard, the typewriter took off without me. The interview in the editorial library was like the one at the dairy in that I didn’t have to lie to get the job. I wanted to work at The New Yorker, and once I got a whiff of the library—that bookish, dusty, paste-and-paper smell so peculiar to libraries—I felt that I was in my element. Helen Stark, who was only the second person ever to be in charge of the library, had a noble head—you could see her profile on a coin—and strong features. She and three girls sat at desks that faced each other in a cloverleaf arrangement. Helen gave me a typing test—on a manual typewriter, cramming words onto an index card (I aced it)—and borrowed an empty office for the interview. I remember her arranging her skirt, which was black and wide at the hem, when she crossed her legs. (My own skirt was a forest-green Danskin wraparound that a friend had picked up at a thrift shop in New Jersey, and I didn’t realize until the next time I wore it that one end of the hem hung some eight inches longer than the other.) I was all aglow, and Helen warned me that it was not a glamorous job. But she knew from experience that nothing she said could dim my enthusiasm, or overturn my conviction that I would soon be one of the “young friends” whose “letters” were published in Talk of the Town. After the interview, Jeanne Fleischmann took me to lunch at the Algonquin and then to the Russian Tea Room, where I ordered a cup of Russian tea. I was too superstitious to celebrate prematurely. The call came the next day, a Friday, and I started on Monday. It was snowing, and Helen Stark took me upstairs to the makeup department, on the nineteenth floor. The magazine went to press on Monday afternoon, and the men in makeup, who lived in the Bronx, had come in on the train the night before and stayed in a hotel across the street so that the blizzard wouldn’t prevent them from getting to work. Their job was to do the page layout, fitting columns and cartoons and counting picas. A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not “essential” could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential. Joe Carroll was the head of makeup. He pulled out a chair for Helen and made us coffee. Johnny Murphy, second-in-command, was the joker of the crew. He carried a briefcase with his lunch in it. Bernie McAteer was small and wiry, a bachelor, mostly bald. Bill Fitzgerald looked like Walter Matthau. There were two apprentices, both Irish, John and Pat, and a messenger named Carmine. It was cozy in the makeup room during the blizzard. They reminisced about the blackout of ’77, just the summer before, when an editor named Gardner Botsford had marshaled everyone into the makeup department and organized the evacuation. It was February 6, 1978. I remember because the next day was my birthday. It was still snowing, and the office was closed again. At lunchtime, I tromped up Fifth Avenue to Scribner’s and bought myself a book I wanted: Caught in the Web of Words, a biography of James Murray, the first editor of the OED. As Helen and I were leaving that night, an editor named Pat Crow got on the elevator at the eighteenth floor with us. I noticed his boots—big mud-green rubber boots—and said, “Those are the kind of boots we wore in the cheese factory.” He looked at Helen and said, “So this is the next stop after the cheese factory?” When I came up out of the subway at the City Hall station, intending to stop at the store and buy myself a cake and some ice cream (I was going to skip the candles), fireworks were drifting over the snow at One Police Plaza, muffled but dazzling. It was Chinese New Year, the Year of the Horse. It felt like a good omen: soft fireworks for an entry-level position at The New Yorker. {Excerpted from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Copyright © 2015. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.}


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