Reeves Restaurant & Bakery was the oldest restaurant in Washington when it finally closed its doors in 2007. I will always remember it in its original 1209 F Street locale, where it was a famous haunt for journalists, bureaucrats and politicos long before the lobbyists invaded that stretch just north of the Federal Triangle for good. I don’t remember the first time I ate at Reeves, but I’ll never forget the last.
I had just started work a couple blocks away as the staff writer at the Computer & Communications Industry Association (located ominously at 666 11th Street.) I had a paycheck under my belt and, finally, some money in my pocket to afford a sit down lunch. It was March 1988. I was 22, had a real, adult girlfriend for the first time in my life, wore a suit and prepared to grab a seat at the counter for a quiet lunch alone while reading about the ’88 Presidential race in The New York Times.
And then I saw him come in the door, that rollicking bear of a man. Our eyes locked, I smiled nervously and said hi, and out of habitual cheerfulness he gave me a big grin and said hello. And then he remembered me. Within seconds, I was backed away from hostess stand towards the cigarette machine and he was leaning down over me. Richard Ben Cramer, with that unmistakable smoky rasp, proceeded to give me the harshest, longest tongue lashing of my life. I deserved every word of it.
I arrived in Washington a little more than six months earlier, driving a 1983 red Dodge Charger with a clanky carburetor and a smashed-in left fender halfway across the country from Columbia, Missouri, to start work on a no-pay job, with no place to live and no means to support myself. I had graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia’s journalism school (well, not actually, but we’ll return to that later) in May and had spent the summer hanging out in Hartford with my sister, four year old nephew and year old niece, blowing through $5000 in graduation gift donations unconsciously. I do recall getting a good tan that summer, but made little other productive use of the time.
Back in May, I had a needle stich plan to follow the New York Yankees around the country, buying scalped tickets in every American League ballpark. In my fantasy, this adventure would lead to a magazine story (which surely Sport, Inside Sports or even the USA Today Baseball Weekly would eagerly snatch up) about the art of buying cheap tickets from scalpers. This ingenious, witty piece would lead magazine editors to knock down my door for future efforts, and my life as an independent, successful freelance journalist would take off. Oddly enough, I was able to convince my mom that this was a solid idea, and she eagerly donated most of the seed money to get me started. I remember converting the cash to American Express Travelers Checks, which gave me the appearance of studious sobriety at every Dunkin Donuts and 7-Eleven I visited that summer.
My grand tour took me all the way from central Connecticut to Boston and back. There in May I watched a Yankees-Red Sox game and I’m not sure if I even bought the ticket from a scalper. If I did, I didn’t interview anyone or do what any skilled journalist would consider reporting. Even though I’d just graduated journalism school and had written a few dozen bylined stories, I had brutal social anxiety and was terrified of interviewing people either live or over the phone. It still baffles me why I ever thought journalism was a suitable profession.
I wish I could pinpoint some grand bender or mishap that led me to lose all of the money and forgo my grand dreams. But life took over instead. I remember spending maybe $100 in a Boston bar after the Yankee game, where I somehow ended up talking to a very attractive brunette in a red dress who had a boyfriend, but nonetheless did everything but state bluntly that she wanted to sleep with me that night if I’d only spring for a nice hotel. I stubbornly refused to spend in the neighborhood of $100 on a hotel that night (expensive at the time) and we parted ways. I go back and forth thinking that I was a fool to miss that opportunity or really smart to steer clear of that thief or prostitute who saw me flashing the AMEX checks around. Karl Malden would probably approve.
But I didn’t blow the money on the room (or that woman.) Mostly, I remember hanging out in Hartford and taking my nephew to a lot of movies. I vaguely recall seeing “Mannequin” twice. Then sometime after July 4, the money slowly draining away, it dawned on me that I had unfinished business in Columbia and had to head back to school. I still had an apartment filled with a lot of useless junk, plus the banged up Charger. That car was a source of embarrassment and shame for me. A huge pickup truck ran a red light in Columbia several months earlier and hit me nearly broadside. If I’d slammed on my brakes a split second later, the truck would have hit flush with the driver’s door and I probably would have been crushed. But the brush with death wasn’t what was embarrassing.
What’s embarrassing is that Farm Bureau Insurance, after receiving a couple repair estimates, cut me a check for $1550 … and instead of getting the car fixed, I slowly spent every penny. Again, there was nothing to show for it all, just more license to be careless for a long stretch. My parents planned to give me another car – some pewter-colored Renault – as a graduation gift, but I asked them to please give it to my sister instead. She, whose husband had recently abandoned her, needed it much more than me. I won points for being the good brother, but in reality, I was too ashamed to explain the whole car insurance payout problem.
But there was an even greater embarrassment waiting for me in Columbia – despite attending the graduation ceremony with all of my friends, I hadn’t actually earned a diploma. In my final semester, I was supposed to finish an independent study philosophy course on Marxism with Professor Joe Bien. And given the lack of structure or plan, I naturally blew the class off completely and was left with a fat Incomplete for the final semester.
However, I had no idea how to right an incomplete grade and Professor Bien was nowhere to be found that summer. But now that I had my car, I was free to seek my fortune in any direction and pretend this little academic snafu never happened. So I started looking for work. More accurately, I peered at a bulletin board in the J-School and took the first job that caught my eye – a non-paying job in Washington D.C. researching a book about the 1988 Presidential election by a man named Richard Ben Cramer.
I spoke to his researcher Mark Zwonitzer about the opportunity and he offered it to me immediately. My experience covering state politics in Jefferson City for the Columbia Missourian was probably a plus. But in truth, my rabid interest in Presidential politics was probably my best qualification. Today, college aged political junkies are close to a majority. But back in 1987, political apathy on campuses was at an all-time high. The fact that I could name all of the candidates in the 1988 race – even the obscure ones like Pete duPont and Bruce Babbit – made me unusual. So with my great baseball adventure gone bust, I now turned to my great political adventure. I was going to be part of a massive project to rival the work of Theodore White and Hunter S. Thompson. I was going to meet the candidates and campaign staffers would know me by my first name.
This was stupid, of course. As an unpaid intern, my job was to transcribe Cramer’s interviews, typing everything into a program called XyWrite, and to fill out entry after entry into a massive data base that Cramer and Zwonitzer were maintaining for every single piece of reportage that might end up in the book. Cramer himself was nowhere to be found. He seemed to be spending most of his time those days schmoozing the Bush family, convincing George W. in particular that he had no interest in doing a hatchet job on his dad and could be trusted to tell the family story straight. In hindsight, I can’t imagine how he stretched his $500,000 advance from Random House for more than four years, considering that he was spending roughly 300 days a year on the road.
A couple weeks into the job, I finally got my opportunity to meet the man. Mark and I met Cramer at Union Station, where my assignment was to carry his bags. Simple enough. Except that Cramer wasn’t your usual weary traveler happy to unload, he was a whirling dervish who I had trouble keeping up with, who was rapidly spinning tales of his time on the road and his skirmishes with Marvin Bush from the second he spotted Mark and who seemed to be grasping his carry on and hard-shelled Samsonite suitcase with such ferocity that I saw no reasonable opportunity to relieve him. So I just followed, empty handed, trying to keep up on foot and by ear, guilty that I had no real reason to be there with them.
Despite this awkward first meeting, Cramer didn’t let on any disdain for me. Mark was encouraging me to look for full-time work, confident that I could still help out the project on a part-time basis. To assist this effort, Cramer wrote a “To whom it may concern” recommendation that concluded “if you should choose to hire Dan, you’ll be grabbing an ace.” He was a confident, blustery, big hearted guy like that.
Over the next several weeks, Mark started giving me bigger, more substantial research assignments. First, I tracked down voting records for Biden and Dole, which wasn’t such a simple task in the pre-Internet days. Then Mark sent me on a fishing expedition about Dole – go to the Library of Congress and dig up anything you can find. Here’s where things started to fall apart.
As you can tell from my Independent Study fiasco at Mizzou, free range intellectual inquiry was not a strong suit for me at that age. Given lots of time and freedom to look for nothing in particular, I spent little time working productively. Living freely in a big city for the first time in my life, I had other things to draw my attention. And by November of that year, I was trying to balance my impoverished lifestyle with something new for me, a girlfriend.
Yes, I went all the way through college without having a serious girlfriend, which is probably cause enough for me to go on several hundred more words worth of digressions. But let’s ignore all of that and plant me squarely in the fall of 1988, finally getting lucky with a blonde, former gymnast named Julia. And let’s leave the story at that, because as romances go, this one was nothing spectacular.
It was, however, a major financial crisis for me. Girlfriends mean dates and dates mean money, not just for dinners and movies, but for clothing and shoes. This put a major crimp in my no-pay job lifestyle. Every couple of weeks I begged my mom for more money. In between, I found myself cutting corners – borrowing from friends and paying back slowly. Stretching out bills and rent payments. And then I did something that was truly awful.
Over Thanksgiving, Mark was going back home, but he left me with some assignments at the Capitol Hill headquarters (which was Cramer’s house) and these assignments would cost some money. I had to do some shopping and gather some supplies, and to pay for this, Mark left me his ATM card. For a few days, I used the card as prescribed, taking out money for what the house needed and nothing more. But over the week, I started to take out more, $20 here and there. And by the time Mark returned home, I owed him about $200.
It was around this time that I began to feel trapped. My personal obligations to my roommates were piling up. I owed my employer. And, quite honestly, I was getting laid and didn’t want that to end. I screwed a lot of people over at this point – Cramer and Zwonitzer included. I never returned the work and didn’t pay back what I owed.
Over the next couple of months, thanks in part from Julia’s pressure, I started to get my life into some order. I found a new apartment and then a job. I had daily routines and weekend dates. And then I walked into Reeves for lunch.
“Listen you, you have a lot of our research still on you and you have a responsibility to this project,” Cramer began. Then he rattled off a list of my transgressions. I took money from Mark. I left them high and dry without notice. And then, the coup de grace, I had the audacity to use Cramer’s letter of recommendation to help secure my new job. Ouch. I never expected him to find out about that. Note, however, that I still did get the job, even though he found out. Cramer didn’t use his anger or his power to spike my chances.
After he was done, I spoke timidly. “What can I say … you’re right. Every word you just said is true,” I replied. I made an effort to explain why I made such bad choices, how I didn’t have money or a job and felt desperate and things got way out of hand.
I’ll never forget the way his demeanor melted as I explained myself. His voice softened and he seemed to understand it all, even if I didn’t. He said, gently, that I really should try to pay Mark back as soon as I could because he didn’t pay him well and it really hurt him. And if there’s anything that I still had that was important to the project (I didn’t, actually), that I should bring that by the office too.
I wish I could give this a happy feel good ending, where Cramer’s anger scared me straight or his compassion touched me in a meaningful way. But the truth is that I continued to be a mess, off and on, for awhile after that confrontation. But within three years, I was the Chief Speechwriter for Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder. If my life wasn’t entirely in order, at least it had direction. Even so, it’s been 25 years and I still haven’t paid Mark back the money I owe him. He’s an accomplished writer and documentary film maker now, and probably doesn’t need the cash, and it was my loss, not his. I burned a bridge senselessly.
I also never saw Cramer again. That’s too bad, because I would spend many of the next 25 years working in and around politics and would have dozens of conversations about “What It Takes” through the years, including one that lasted at least an hour with George Stephanopolous in 1992, on the day before the Richmond Presidential debate. I had an opportunity to be in the acknowledgments of a great book – to be someone a great writer could call a friend – and I blew it.
I think back to those days 25 years ago stunned at how I could live with such glib self-assurance. For some years afterwards, I joked that the fall of the Berlin Wall made my decision to skip out on my philosophy seminar class a sensible decision. Then two years ago I finally got around to reading Marx’s Capital and felt the loss at not having Bien’s guiding hand along the way. Perhaps Bien might have convinced me to pursue a philosophy PhD or introduce me to his other philosophical passion, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who I also read long after leaving the college campus.
At the time, it was always money that seemed to be driving wedges, but the reality is that I managed relationships even worse than I managed my finances. And so, today, I mourn Richard Ben Cramer’s passing like most people do, as a reader of his works, not as a friend, not as a valuable contributor to his memorable project. Others will talk and write about the marks he left on the world far more meaningfully and eloquently than I will. And that’s my loss.
Some people we miss because of the space they leave behind in our lives. Others we miss because they haunt our memories and animate our regrets. Today, I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer and wish that I had cared enough about myself 25 years ago to treat him and Mark Zwonitzer with the respect they deserved.
The former chief speechwriter for Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Dan Conley is a Chicago-based professional speechwriter and frequent op-ed contributor to major national publications.