Sydney Schanberg, 1934-2016

Disclosure: This post appears in slightly different form on a private social media page.

The New York Times obituary was posted a few days ago, but I didn’t know about Sydney Schanberg’s passing until yesterday.

It’s a tad embarrassing that I discovered Mr. Schanberg’s writing late, too, so when I was in my teens I missed his documentation of war crimes in Cambodia.

Some of the NYC news reporting and commentary I was reading during the 1990s was in New York Newsday.  It was a short-lived Manhattan zoned edition of the Long Island paper. They had a Manhattan office, and Sydney Schanberg wrote a column for the paper (I understand he also had a private office with a door, which was good because he smoked cigars at his desk).

Fun Fact: Sydney Schanberg and Abbie Hoffman were first cousins. Sydney was regarded as more stable than Abbie, but I recall something which probably is not a coincidence. After Newsday’s publisher decided to close the Manhattan edition of the paper, the announcement was made while Mr. Schanberg was on vacation. Maybe the publisher didn’t want any trouble. Someone who smokes cigars can make life miserable for others if he wants to. Cigars are legal stinkbombs. And he was Abbie’s cousin.

Mr. Schanberg wasn’t the only talented person to lose his job after the suburban paper couldn’t make a go of it in the city. Lars-Erik Nelson was also writing a column for that edition, and he ended up at the N.Y. Daily News. It was a step down for a classy writer, but after looking up Mr. Nelson’s Wikipedia listing I learned he had worked at the Daily News before. He was recognized as one of the most astute people on the staff.

People used to tease me about my preoccupation with New York. I don’t think they understood how much a reader can learn from having that interest, though. I was making special trips to Harold’s Newsstand on Geary (San Francisco) and buying various day-old papers which had been flown in from JFK, and also discovering talented fiction writers such as Lawrence Block and Kinky Friedman.

Aside from columns by Sydney Schanberg and Lars-Erik Nelson, New York Newsday didn’t have a lot to offer. Even the city edition had a quiet suburban appeal, and I remember buying it on the newsstand while visiting Manhattan in 1994 because I had too much agoraphobic panic to read much of anything else.  Most of the local news features actually came in handy as comfort reading, and the paper had entertainment pieces which weren’t in The Times.

On the second trip to New York (1995), my mother went with me. We were reading N.Y. Newsday, and on one day when I didn’t get around to picking up the paper she went to a kiosk on East 57th to buy it herself. At first she couldn’t find what she wanted, so she had to ask. The paper was practically hidden because it wasn’t in demand.  New Yorkers wanted something with more teeth in it.

My mother noted that the man who sold her the paper got a surprised expression on his face at the end of the transaction, when she said, “Thank you.”  Even in Midtown, some people are shocked by proper etiquette.

Newsday’s publisher did make an investment in promoting the city edition, if not at that one kiosk. At Grand Central, an indoor newsstand had an enormous banner advertising LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE COMICS.

After my mother and I returned home, I resumed buying day-old papers at Harold’s on Geary. She asked me to send her the Sydney Schanberg and Lars-Erik Nelson columns. Seriously. Those guys had a new fan.

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