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Better on the Music Page

Movie critic had an assistant.

Two earlier endings.…

The drawback to asking Steve Esmedina to write a movie review in my stead, ostensibly to give me a break, was that it would then fall to me to edit it. A drawback, first, because of his habit of testing the limits of a deadline, and second, because the further he pushed the limits, the more he needed editing. For me, as for others in my position, it was always a question of weighing what Steve had to offer (a lot — personality, pugnacity, taste, humor) against what he would exact in toll. I can’t be sure what ultimately tipped the balance, but memory tells me it might have been the review of Slap Shot. Memory again must tell me, because the printed version will not, that the opening line ran something like, “Slap Shot should have been called Slap Shit.” This dipped well below my journalistic standards for opening lines. Anyway, I stopped asking him. And I had no reason to repent, on other grounds, when he later committed the gaffe in print of mistaking the British pop star Samantha Fox and the American porn star Samantha Fox for one and the same person. (The Foxes looked nothing alike, even from the neck down.) Better on the music page, I would have said, than on the movie page.

Somewhere in that span of time, my working conditions at the paper improved greatly (while my need for substitute reviewers diminished) when I no longer, all by my lonesome, had to gather the weekly info of which movies were playing at which theaters. I now was afforded an assistant. Esmo became the first to hold that post, despite his patent unsuitedness to it. An agreeable phone manner, for talking to total strangers, sometimes uncooperative or rude ones, was the primary requirement. Esmo’s phone manner, to the contrary, was so hugger-mugger that I could be sitting four feet away when he was talking and could not make out a single word. For all I could tell, he might have been laying fifty on a pony. This was the time I knew him best, when we would have the chance to talk during work, occasionally have dinner or drinks afterwards. (I couldn’t share his enthusiasm for Terrence Malick; I could for Linda Haynes.) Deadlines still mattered, however, and he again dipped below journalistic standards the night that some ill-advised combination of ingested substances caused him to have a seizure on the job, and be rushed to the hospital. That turned into a late, late night. Shortly thereafter, or maybe shortly before, he had had to be fished out of a swimming pool, floating face-down. Esmo had problems. Someone more dependable took his place.

If specific memories of him gravitate to rough spots, my general feelings gravitate illogically toward warmth. For all his barrio slang, his attachment to the seedy and seamy, and (in later years) his surrounding cloud of eau-de-rotgut, there was a sweetness about Steve, and a shyness, and a sensitivity. He would not thank me for saying so, but he might chuckle. He chuckled often. He had a gift — along with his other gifts — for making his colleagues want to encourage him, help him, save him. (I saw close at hand how hard his one-time editor, Jim Mullin, tried.) He had a greater gift for self-destruction.

The final ending did not come as a shock. Some months before, I had heard he was at death’s door, in need of a new liver. I mobilized myself to visit. But when I spoke to him first on the phone, the crisis seemed already to have passed. He just needed to take better care of himself. He would bounce back. I postponed my visit. I lost track.

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Two earlier endings.…

The drawback to asking Steve Esmedina to write a movie review in my stead, ostensibly to give me a break, was that it would then fall to me to edit it. A drawback, first, because of his habit of testing the limits of a deadline, and second, because the further he pushed the limits, the more he needed editing. For me, as for others in my position, it was always a question of weighing what Steve had to offer (a lot — personality, pugnacity, taste, humor) against what he would exact in toll. I can’t be sure what ultimately tipped the balance, but memory tells me it might have been the review of Slap Shot. Memory again must tell me, because the printed version will not, that the opening line ran something like, “Slap Shot should have been called Slap Shit.” This dipped well below my journalistic standards for opening lines. Anyway, I stopped asking him. And I had no reason to repent, on other grounds, when he later committed the gaffe in print of mistaking the British pop star Samantha Fox and the American porn star Samantha Fox for one and the same person. (The Foxes looked nothing alike, even from the neck down.) Better on the music page, I would have said, than on the movie page.

Somewhere in that span of time, my working conditions at the paper improved greatly (while my need for substitute reviewers diminished) when I no longer, all by my lonesome, had to gather the weekly info of which movies were playing at which theaters. I now was afforded an assistant. Esmo became the first to hold that post, despite his patent unsuitedness to it. An agreeable phone manner, for talking to total strangers, sometimes uncooperative or rude ones, was the primary requirement. Esmo’s phone manner, to the contrary, was so hugger-mugger that I could be sitting four feet away when he was talking and could not make out a single word. For all I could tell, he might have been laying fifty on a pony. This was the time I knew him best, when we would have the chance to talk during work, occasionally have dinner or drinks afterwards. (I couldn’t share his enthusiasm for Terrence Malick; I could for Linda Haynes.) Deadlines still mattered, however, and he again dipped below journalistic standards the night that some ill-advised combination of ingested substances caused him to have a seizure on the job, and be rushed to the hospital. That turned into a late, late night. Shortly thereafter, or maybe shortly before, he had had to be fished out of a swimming pool, floating face-down. Esmo had problems. Someone more dependable took his place.

If specific memories of him gravitate to rough spots, my general feelings gravitate illogically toward warmth. For all his barrio slang, his attachment to the seedy and seamy, and (in later years) his surrounding cloud of eau-de-rotgut, there was a sweetness about Steve, and a shyness, and a sensitivity. He would not thank me for saying so, but he might chuckle. He chuckled often. He had a gift — along with his other gifts — for making his colleagues want to encourage him, help him, save him. (I saw close at hand how hard his one-time editor, Jim Mullin, tried.) He had a greater gift for self-destruction.

The final ending did not come as a shock. Some months before, I had heard he was at death’s door, in need of a new liver. I mobilized myself to visit. But when I spoke to him first on the phone, the crisis seemed already to have passed. He just needed to take better care of himself. He would bounce back. I postponed my visit. I lost track.

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