One of the benefits of my summer job (working at Danny’s Main Street Market in Cooperstown, New York) are the random fascinating people who come buy sandwiches. There are conductors who work with the Glimmerglass Opera, construction workers and delivery men, Baseball Hall of Fame employees and interns, and today, Art Spander, an award-winning sports writer who’s covered everything from Wimbledon and the Masters to the Rose and Super Bowls.
He came at a quiet time in the late afternoon, somewhere between 4:30 and 5, and ordered a sandwich on gluten-free bread from my co-worker, Mikey, an 18-year-old high school graduate with a knack for getting people talking. (I need to study this kid’s technique. He learns interesting things about literally every customer he waits on.)
I overheard Spander telling Mikey about his recent travels for his sports-writing career (he’s 75 years old and currently a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and RealClearSports.com), so I nudged myself into the conversation and asked him where he’s written for. He shared the basic information that makes up the second paragraph on his web site’s About page:
Spander began his career as a news writer for United Press International in Los Angeles in 1960, and started writing sports full time in 1963 for the Santa Monica Outlook where he was the beat writer for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1965 he moved to the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered golf, football, baseball and basketball. Spander became the lead sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner in 1979.
Then he joked a bit:
You’re making my sandwich while you’re standing here talking to me, aren’t you?
I laughed a little, went to the back where I pulled the gluten-free bread out of the oven, whipped up his sandwich, brought it to the front, poured his iced tea, and rang him out. Then, Mikey and I left him alone with his sandwich, tea, and smartphone (I’m guessing he was checking Twitter).
He got a dry cappuccino before he left — all foam, no milk — and I rang him out again.
“I have to ask you, ’cause I’m a writing major,” I said, finally steeling up the courage to make use of my question-asking skills. “Do you have any tips for those starting out?”
Then, I listened again.
Art Spander gave me two pieces of advice.
1. Learn the English language. Dependent and independent clauses. Where the commas belong. Misplaced modifiers. Know it all — better than the back of your hand. That way, you can edit and make real corrections, not guess-it-goes-this-way changes. I ran, and I fell needs a comma. I ran and fell does not.
2. Read as much as possible about as much as possible. You may only be interested in writing about one topic, but you need to know what’s going on in the world, in order to understand the topic in its broader context. “Plus,” he said, “you never know what you’re gonna have to write.”
“This was never hard for me, because I’ve always had a lot of interests,” Spander said.
I’ve been home this summer. Making sandwiches, slicing meats, interviewing people every once in a while with a recorder that catches more fuzz than an FM radio. What am I doing? Where am I going? How am I gonna get anywhere? These two tips were the pieces of affirmation I needed.
Know the language: Commas have always eluded me, but I feel very fluent in this language some call English and I prefer to call American. I know what a misplaced modifier is. I know the difference between independent and dependent clauses.
Read as much as you can about everything: I’m interested in everything, so this is easy. In fact, I’ve been doing it this summer. I’ve learned about how astronauts exercise at the International Space Station. I’ve learned about a man who, permanently damaged by an accident as a child, found some more of himself through running. I’ve learned about sex trafficking and the ways traffickers force their victims into submission. I’ve learned about addiction and am currently learning about the process of rehabilitation. I’ve learned about a fascinating documentary project and made moves to learn more from the creators themselves.
I’ve been making sandwiches. I’ve been slicing countless pounds of Boar’s Head meats. But I’ve been doing a lot more than you might guess from the amount of time I spend behind the counter in my Danny’s hat.
Today, I made Art Spander a sandwich, and I reaped two lessons for the young writer.
“That’s free,” Spander said, as he took his cappuccino from the counter and returned to his booth.
Thanks. I appreciate it.