‘You got chops, Sager’

“After my first job, six years at a newspaper, I quit to become a real writer. I was twenty-seven. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, or how I was going to do it, but it was my calling and I followed.

“I got myself some work at local magazines and started my assault on the nationals. I spent hours every night in self-imposed lockdown, studying the collections of all the great magazine writers who’d come before me, reading all the great magazines. I lived in the inner city of Washington, D.C. The mail carrier worked on foot. I know she hated me, my tons of subscriptions.”

That’s Mike Sager writing a remembrance of Richard Ben Cramer, who died less than a month after I got my writing gig at Scene. I had only just begun perusing his work — studying the collections of a great writer — and then we lost him. His profile of Ted Williams is one of the greatest things I’ve read, and I modeled my own profile of Michael Bay on that story later that year.

Brief interlude, as I’ve got to quote the intro to that Williams piece.

“Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those. There’s a story about him I think of now. This is not about baseball but fishing. He meant to be the best there, too. One day he says to a Boston writer: ‘Ain’t no one in heaven or earth ever knew more about fishing.’

“‘Sure there is,’ says the scribe.

“‘Oh, yeah? Who?’

“‘Well, God made the fish.’

“‘Yeah, awright,’ Ted says. ‘But you have to go pretty far back.'”

Goddam! What a parable!

But I’m writing this little thing about Cramer because his 1984 feature on the murder of one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ wives cropped up on the ol’ Facebook machine tonight. It’s a howling masterpiece of reportage and poetry. It’s good.

And then I revisited Mike Sager’s remembrance, and realized that he began his magazine career at 27 — my own age at this moment. He writes of gaining access to Norman Mailer’s fundraiser for the PEN American Center in 1985. He meets Cramer one night — the guy “already a god…sitting in his comfortable chair, holding court with a stogie in his hand.”

Conversation rolls onward that night. Then: “‘You got chops, Sager,’ Cramer said in his edgy voice. I was over the moon,” Sager writes.

He concludes: “All of us know how hard it is to do what we do and how lonely it feels sometimes. Cramer’s work transcended because of who he was. It is one thing to be great; it is much harder to be kind.”

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