By Robert Basler,
On June 4,1989, the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I was in the Reuters office in Beijing, taking notes from our reporters in the Square, who were using clunky, barely portable mobile phones. I used those notes to cobble together stories that were going out to a horrified world. One of our reporters dictated a quote from a protester in the Square. “I have just smoked my last cigarette. Tonight, we are all going to die.” What a quote! Boom! Jump right to the second paragraph, there is a spot waiting for you there.
As a lifelong journalist, I always relished an animated quote. I used to get goosebumps when an interview subject let loose with something pithy and colorful. In my mind, I instantly saw the words in print, in a second paragraph just under the lead. Lead, also spelled lede, is newspaper jargon for the first paragraph of a story. Some reporters will even put a good quote in the lead, but they don’t know what they’re doing. A great editor once told me, “The only quote that will ever be worth using in the first paragraph is, ‘I have returned,’ Jesus Christ said today.”
Here’s a secret reporter trick. When you’re interviewing someone, you ask pretty much the same question several times, just slightly differently, to give the person an opportunity to refine their thoughts and frame their responses more articulately. It often works, and the resulting story is better for it. How important are lively, interesting quotes in a story? Very. A few years ago, after I retired, I was being interviewed by a reporter who was looking to sling some mud at a charity I was associated with. He interviewed six of us around a table. All my answers were honest, but I kept them very brief and painfully bland. Guess who was the only person at the table who was not quoted in the story?
When Barbara and I first met at the Indianapolis News, where we both worked, she had a well-worn brown leather book where she had been recording her favorite quotes for years. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, the best of the best of the best. From novels, short stories, poems, a few from exceptionally well-written newspaper articles. One quote from a former boyfriend, too, which I thought showed a lot of damned gall. I tried to get myself quoted in her book, but never succeeded, although in fairness she stopped updating it decades ago, so the competition was over. Of course, I did get to say “I do” while standing next to her in a church, and as quotes go, that’s the neatest one I can think of.
I loved that Barbara kept a record of her personal favorites, and I loved that words meant so much to both of us. The first Christmas after we were married, she gave me a sleek leather journal of my own, and I must say, looking back today on its brittle pages, the quotes I chose to keep have more than withstood the test of time, like this one from Fitzgerald in “The Freshest Boy.” “It isn’t given to us to know those rare moments when people are wide open, and the slightest touch can wither or heal. A moment too late and we can never touch them any more in this world.”
Or this, from E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” “She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” So is Barbara, which is probably why I loved that quote.
Or Flannery O’Connor, in “Wise Blood.” “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing…”
I proposed marriage to Barbara in the summer of 1971. Surprisingly, she accepted, and we were to wed in October. When she said it was time to go shopping for wedding rings, I knew that was an important part of the process, and we went. But then she asked something that took me by surprise.
“What quote do we want to have engraved in the rings?”
“Quote? In the rings? Is that a thing?”
“Of course, it is! You pick something with special meaning to both of you, and you get to wear it close to you for life. You can divide one quote in half and put part of it in each ring, so you need to see both rings together to understand it. It’s very romantic.”
She told me the quote should be short, which I hope I could have figured out on my own. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for some poor engraver going blind trying to reproduce a run-on sentence from William Faulkner.
“What about a quote from Dorothy Parker?” I asked, helpfully.
“Dorothy Parker is good. You have a particular one in mind?”
“I was thinking, ‘What fresh hell is this?’”
“In our wedding rings?”
“I guess maybe not.”
“You’re being a real smart-ass.”
It’s possible my Dorothy Parker quote was just me being sort of defensive. Earlier that summer, Carole King had a big hit song called “It’s Too Late,” about a romance that had run its course and was over. Barbara loved it, and declared it to be “our song,” which I thought implied a certain lack of confidence in our long-term marital prospects.
Our quotation deliberations went on for several days. We pulled out “Bartlett’s,” and all our favorite books. We needed something soon. Those rings weren’t just going to engrave themselves, and we were burning daylight.
If truth be told, I did have a very romantic quote in my back pocket, by William Butler Yeats, from “When You Are Old.” It was the sweetest, most romantic quote I knew. In my mind, it distilled the very essence of love.
“How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
But we were 23-year-old children then, and a poem about turning old and getting wrinkled and jowly wouldn’t have been perceived as a great idea at the time. Wisely, I decided to leave the search to Barbara, who, after all, read classier stuff than I did.
Back in those days, on Saturdays, instead of reporting for work at the newsroom, I went to the “cop shop,” the small press room at the Indianapolis Police Department. I would show up at 6 a.m., look over dozens of crime reports from overnight, and pull out the most promising ones. I had until my 10 a.m. deadline to file my stories. On this particular Saturday the miscreants and rapscallions and hooligans had been busy overnight, and while making the 10 a.m. deadline was going to be tough, it wasn’t as if I had a choice in the matter. That’s what deadline means. Get the stories in, or you’re dead.
A word about that cop shop press room: squalor. It was a creepy place. I was the only person who worked out of it on the weekends. I was kept company only by a cadre of cockroaches and mice. If anyone cleaned the place regularly, I never saw any evidence of it. When I walked across the room, my soles made tacky squeaky sounds. Flyffe! Flyffe! Flyffe! I did not want to know what that sticky stuff was on the floor.
I was at my desk, drumming away on an old Remington typewriter, drinking tepid dime coffee from a foul vending machine and moving my cheese danish around like a three-card monte game, trying to keep the cockroaches from finding it. The mice wouldn’t come out with me there, but the roaches were not so shy. At 10:02 a.m., the phone rang. I figured it would be Barbara; the nice thing about us being in the same business, she knew my deadlines. No way would she have called before deadline, but she had big news of her own today, and couldn’t resist calling when she knew I would be free to talk.
“Hey, it’s me. I love you.”
“I love you, too. What’s going on?”
“I’ve been busy. I found us a quote for our wedding rings!”
“That’s great. Tell me!”
“Are you familiar with the poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvel?
“I don’t think so. But do we really want the word mistress associated with our marriage?”
She ignored my misgivings and pushed ahead. “It was published in 1681, after Marvel died. It’s about this guy trying to seduce a girl, and he’s basically saying he would like to spend more time wooing her, but they’re kind of in a hurry, so maybe they should get right to the sex part.”
“I’m wondering when this starts to get romantic, Barbara.”
“Listen. Here are the first lines of the poem:
‘Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.’”
“That’s it? Maybe if I saw it written down.”
“Don’t you get it? That’s US! That’s where we are. We have our whole lives ahead of us. We’re going to see the world and write about it! It’s all out there! No limits! We HAVE world enough and time! We can put “world enough” in one ring, and “and time” in the other!
Her obvious excitement made me a little anxious. Yes, we were young, but cripes. I had never been out of the country. Scarcely been out of Indiana, for that matter. World enough? I didn’t even have a passport. I was sitting alone at a sticky desk under a flickering fluorescent light, trying to finish my cheese Danish before some cockroach got it. If anybody on earth had “seen too many God-damned dawns creeping grayly over too many dirty windows,” to borrow a quote from Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten,” I had.
Still, you had to appreciate her optimism, her confidence, her attitude. The Marvel quote was recognition that together, we could make good stuff happen. We decided to go for it.
To us, our wedding rings were enormously symbolic, but also spectacularly functional. On the one hand, we cared enough about them to struggle to find the perfect meaningful quote. On the other hand, we were not above using them prematurely. During the two-day road trip on the way to get married we had to spend one night in a Holiday Inn. Back then, young unmarried couples couldn’t safely check into a motel room together, so without much discussion we slid the rings onto our fingers and checked in as Mr. and Mrs. Basler, fairly certain that abusing wedding rings was a mortal sin. The next morning, the rings came off again until we were, in fact, Mr. and Mrs. Basler.
It turned out Barbara was prescient. She had seen our lives in the distance and had carved our dreams in 18 carat gold. We got to see the world, me with Reuters and Barbara with the New York Times, back when the going was good for journalists. The Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the Acropolis. We got to live in Manhattan, Hong Kong, Georgetown and Santa Fe. We raised a son who grew up to be a wordsmith, a story-teller and a screenwriter. We skated past the 50-year mark together. We wrote the stories. We harvested the good quotes in long, tan reporter’s notebooks, we savored the snappy phrases that came our way and never lost our passion for words well-used. Today, when I twist my wedding ring in a certain light I can see “World enough.” I don’t need to look inside Barbara’s ring. I know exactly what it says.
Robert Basler was a life-long journalist, spending most of his career with Reuters, in New York City, Hong Kong and Washington, DC. He reported from Beijing, Beirut, and Ulan Bator, among other places. He went through the Khyber Pass twice and was annoyed to find there were no souvenir t-shirts for sale. He now lives in Indianapolis, about a mile and a half from where Vonnegut grew up, and thinks the Kurt Vonnegut Museum is easily the coolest place in town.