THE LOST FILLER-UP MAN

(Something we wrote for the San Diego Reader in December 1992.)


 

Sinor was the last of the shaggy-dog columnists, a throwback to the gentle days of hot lead and warm Pegler, when one opened a newspaper not for titillation or a recitation of disasters but to check in with a familiar personality… Sinor’s appeal, like that of Dagwood Bumstead and Dwight D. Eisenhower, lay in his banality…

— Imaginary eulogy for John Sinor

The Best of Scribes, the Worst of Scribes

Sinor: his specialty was telling you how he’d spent the previous 48 hours.

The London funny mag Private Eye has an occasional feature called “Peter McLie, The World’s Worst Columnist.” Mr. McLie (a takeoff on some English hack) specializes in a fatuous babbling that’s more easily illustrated than described: “Have you seen the latest idea from America in the shops? They are called gloves, and they provide warmth and comfort to your hands during a cold spell. If you see a pair of these so-called gloves, I advise you strongly to snap them up, as they seem to be very thin on the ground just now.”

So much for London. Here in Sandy Eggo, some local journalists and word-watchers long maintained that we had a columnist every bit as bad as Peter McLie. His name was John Sinor, and he was a 30-year veteran of the San Diego Tribune when it folded into the Union last February.

Sinor’s specialty was to spend 500 words, every other day, telling you how he’d spent the previous 48 hours. One column he’d give you a blow-by-blow description of how he got up at two a.m. to raid the icebox; in the next he’d rattle on about how friendly school bus drivers used to be.

Then there was coffee. My collection of Sinor columns is far from complete, but it would appear that he wrote about Nature’s laxative at least once a week. Sometimes it was instant, sometimes it was spilled, sometimes it was keeping him up all night. Last January, in one of his last pieces, Sinor spent an entire column giving a recipe for making a righteous brew out of just four coffee beans.

Sinor was a poet of the commonplace but never seemed to pay much attention to headline news. Try to guess when he pecked out the following paragraph. “Whatever happened to all the gasoline anyway? Last year at this time they had so MUCH gas, stations were begging us to buy. Offering eight times the usual amount of trading stamps if we would fill up.”

That was February 1974. The height of the OPEC oil embargo. This obliviousness was honest and homespun, not an act, and it tickled Sinor’s legions of fans — and he had them, surely, else why would he have survived so long? But of course it irritated some young up-and-coming journalists who believed a hack’s first duty is to produce something called News You Can Use.

These up-and-comers entered journalism in the 1970s and 1980s and represented the first generation of journalists to regard themselves as high-class professionals (newspapermen having traditionally been a colorful but uncouth lot, drawn mostly from the same hairy-armpit castes that provide us with public-school teachers and private investigators). Knowing little about journalism’s gnarly past, these youngsters fancied that most people who wrote for a living were keen-minded, worldly wise folk who swallowed international affairs and public policy issues with their morning java. “Columnist,” to these youngsters, meant Mary McGrory and Anthony Lewis and other professional thumbsuckers who worried long and often about detente, racial inequality, abortion, and the bomb.

But Sinor’s worries seemed to come straight out of The Life of Riley: a flat tire, a son in Marine boot camp, a rec room that needed repair. Good material for a humor columnist. Perhaps if Sinor had packaged himself as a sort of male Erma Bombeck, the up-and-comers wouldn’t have hated him so much. But he wasn’t a joke-smith any more than he was a political commentator or a movie reviewer. He was an old-fashioned as-I-please monologist, in the tradition of Aleck Woollcott, Robert Ruark, the young Westbrook Pegler, and George Orwell before he got TB.

Back when we had about 17,000 dailies in this country, newspapers had more Sinor-type columns than Carter’s had pills. And the people loved ’em. But tastes change. In recent years, whenever two or more young reporters gathered in a San Diego watering hole, was a dead certainty that 20 minutes wouldn’t pass before someone started cussing out old John Sinor.

“We’ll, there’s one good thing about the Tribune folding,” seethed a 30-something reporter at a Tribune “wake” in September 1991. “Finally we’ll get rid of old Sinor and his mindless meanderings.”

There’s no room today in daily newspaper columning for the John Sinor type. His approximate successor at the merged U-T is Peter Rowe, a deadly earnest young man who cannot compose a two-sentence paragraph without reminding us that he knows everything that’s happening in the world and moreover also knows the politically correct stance to take anent each problem. One really feels for poor young Rowe: here he is, writing the “passing scene” column and striving so hard to be whimsical in the manner of the great Sinor — but producing, instead, tortured jokes that have all the gossamer gaiety of the “humor” page in The Masses, ca. 1930. One gathers that Pete is too proud to write the way old John did. People might think he was…stupid.

Sinor and Morgan:The Dueling Columnists

The young turkeys sneered at old Sinor, but the joke was on them. He was the class act of the Tribune, a newspaperman completely lacking in earnestness, intellectual pretension, and public ambition. Best of all, he refused to allow himself to become engaged in ideas. Paul Fussell, in his satirical monograph “Class,” describes this kind of intellectual apathy as an unmistakable badge of the American aristocracy. It’s only the middle classes, with their subscriptions to The New Yorker and the New Republic and National Review and their eagerness to stay up-to-date with political fashions (saying “gay” for homosexual and “African-American” for Negro), and their ludicrous belief in Getting Ahead Through Education, who yearn to be intellectually trendy. Imagining Sinor as a warrior-barbarian whose only present concern is an early-morning raid upon Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator, one immediately thinks of Henry VIII (or at any rate, Charles Laughton). Where’s the other drumstick, m’love?

Morgan (1953). always got the finest pickings from the mailbag, while Sinor had to make do with the crumbs.

“A mind so fine that no idea could penetrate it.” That’s what T.S. Eliot said about the grey matter of Mr. Henry James. And people are still reading stuff that James wrote over 100 years ago. We shouldn’t be surprised if, 100 years hence, folks are still perusing the morocco-bound essays of our own John Sinor.

As luck would have it, lack of ideas was a signal trait of the Tribune’s other veteran columnist, Mr. Cornelius (“Neil”) Morgan. No coincidence there. Like Sinor, Morgan was a self-made aristocrat from humble beginnings (Sinor had been a shoe salesman, Morgan a Navy lieutenant, before each entered the hurly-burly of the fourth estate). They ought to have been friends, and at times they were. But there is something poignant and heart rending about these two solons being stationed at the same journal. It meant that Sinor had to spend most of his working career laboring in the shadow of the other.

As the senior columnist, Morgan always got the finest pickings from the mailbag, while Sinor had to make do with the crumbs. An unfortunately high percentage of these epistolary leavings were semiliterate scrawls, in Crayola and carpenter’s pencil, on the backs of four-color postcards from Quality Court motels in Truckee, California, or Sparks, Nevada.

Thus Morgan’s “Crosstown” would shine with social notes from the local glitterati — Jim Copley’s baptism, Lizabeth Scott’s coming-out party — but Sinor’s columns would go for weeks with no mail. Finally, just when John was beginning to look like the loneliest man in the world, he’d publish some random correspondence under the heading of “Dear John Letters.” Sometimes these notes would give us glimpses of secret glamor in the life of Sinor. From the early 1970s: “Dear John: On a recent visit to relatives in Phoenix, I saw a documentary film on television on the building of the railroads in the east. One of the main characters looked remarkably like you, except he had a beard. Could it be? Do you moonlight as a film star? — Mrs. C.B., La Jolla.”

“Dear Mrs. C.B.: Well, I did make the film some years ago for Encyclopaedia Brittanica Films….”

We can well imagine what sort of gentlemanly rivalry must have existed at the Tribune during those rip-roaring days of the 1960s and 1970s, between Messrs. Morgan and Sinor. Sinor the film star, Morgan the nationally known writer. It was inevitable that sooner or later one would burn with envy for the other’s laurels. Since most of the laurels went to Mr. Morgan, the green mantle usually fell to John Sinor.

If you are of a mature age, you may recall that in those far-off days, Neil Morgan had acquired for himself some repute as a social historian. He wrote many books about California and the modern American West — Westward Ho!, Decline of the West, and California Here I Come! are just a few of them, if memory serves.

Sinor used to smart when one of these new titles appeared, which they did, regular as clockwork, on the average of once every six months. And who can blame him? John Sinor was a true Westerner, raised in the shadow of Sutter’s Fort (pronounced Sooter’s Fo’t). Whereas Neil Morgan was a slicker from the East (Mt. Pilot, NC) who happened into California only because that’s where his Navy boat chanced to dock one day in 1945.

Yet it was Morgan who now was setting himself up as a latter-day H.H. Bancroft, authority on all things Californian. Can you imagine the outrage in Morgan’s little piney-woods piedmont home town if John Sinor had presumed to go to North Carolina and start telling Tarheels about then own history?

Well, sir! It’s a good thing Mr. Sinor was an even-tempered sort. He chose to bide his time and then take his own journey to Northern California and Oregon. When he filed his dispatches it became dear that Sinor was the true son of Californee, and Morgan just a lucky interloper.

Neil Morgan would never have been able to furnish us with the understated, Hemingwayesque detail that John Sinor gave us at the end of 1964:

“Farther to the north and east, in the Tahoe country, the Truckee River is brown and roily and rumbles throng the ponderosas.

“On a summer day, a boy can wade in the Truckee and catch a fine big German brown trout. A few days ago, a boy waded in the river to save his dog and the torrent drowned him.”

A man who can write like that need never fear for immortality.

 

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