It’s Monday morning, and today I’m Patty Andrews. I am the last living member of the Andrews Sisters, who were The Beatles of the 1940s (or the BTS of the 1940s for those who hate everything boomer). When we dominated American popular music during World War II, my sisters and I did shows for thousands of soldiers everywhere we could safely go, and we also visited them in hospitals. It’s those heart-rending hospital visits I’m talking about on this Monday morning, because it’s Memorial Day and I’m asking you to honor these remaining heroes while there’s still time.
I’m proud to be Patty Andrews for a few minutes, but there are other Mondays when I can’t stand being certain people. It doesn’t matter; I proceed anyway. I’ve been movie stars, doctors, plumbers, and senators, and maybe I’ve even been you. Was it you who complained about a neglected playground in Cheviot? Did you thank the stranger who helped change a tire in Oakley? Maybe you were the beyond-stupid idiot who made no sense in your rambling screed supporting—or condemning—guns. I’ve passionately expressed garbled nonsense on all sides of every issue, sounding like I meant every word.
I’m a volunteer at the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CABVI), and every Monday morning I call a special phone number, punch a few buttons, and recite that day’s Cincinnati Enquirer Opinion Page out loud. Every tight-assed staff editorial, syndicated columnist, and impassioned letter to the editor. I speak as the writers would, ignoring how I personally feel about the opinions they/you express. This can be difficult, but sometimes, like when I get to be Patty Andrews, it’s an honor.
Every day an army of us recite newspapers, magazines, and more, helping vision-impaired Cincinnatians stay informed and entertained. We read into a vast voicemail system that includes ads, TV/movie schedules, comics, etc. Cincinnati was one of the first cities to launch Personalized Talking Print (PTP) in 1995. Today, the internet lets CABVI offer many additional reading services on several convenient platforms.
My volunteering started before PTP, or even the world wide web, in the Stone Age of 1989. The process then was like doing laundry with a washboard. On my reading days I’d drive downtown to CABVI’s radio studio in the basement of the Masonic Temple, where helpers had already scissored up copies of the morning paper into dozens of individual clips. Pairs of readers then agreed who would read what. “OK, I’ll do this one, then you do that one. No, wait, you got to read Garfield last week, it’s my turn.”
The radio station, now at CABVI’s headquarters on Gilbert Avenue, airs readings day and night (and much more efficiently), along with PTP on the phone and an array of website podcasts. And then there’s the traditional way of doing this service that never gets old: Regular visits to people’s homes to read them their bills, medical and insurance correspondence, whatever. Those in-person volunteers deserve medals.
Sadly, things have changed for me and my job. I’m embarrassed to report that my story is entirely in the past tense, because I’ve been laid off. That’s right, I am an unpaid volunteer who was fired. The Gannett Company—owner of The Enquirer, USA Today, and hundreds of other papers—decreed in June that all local Opinion pages would henceforth appear just a few days each week, and Mondays got the ax. I now have no page to turn to, nothing to read, nobody to be.
All things change, but nothing in media has changed more sadly than newspapers. The Cincinnati Post died in 2007, and The Enquirer seems to be inching toward hospice. Back on Memorial Day 1999 when I was Patty Andrews, that day’s Enquirer had 64 large pages, two of them filled with editorials, columnists, and letters. This year’s Memorial Day Enquirer had 24 pages, all of them physically smaller with larger margins and text. No editorials, letters, or columnists. Opinion pages now consist of mostly unpaid local contributors and letters, except on Sundays, when a few syndicated writers also appear.
I once wrote to a national columnist I often voiced: Leonard Pitts, who still syndicates from The Miami Herald. I told him of my Cincinnati PTP work and that my Mondays often included his columns. I wanted Pitts to know that out of all the material I read week in and week out, his writing was invariably the easiest to speak. He simply put words together in ways that made saying them out loud feel natural and comfortable, which I appreciated because I’m a guy whose main career is in radio. He wrote back with thanks and noted that his early career included writing for radio—specifically, Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I guess my inner ear had sensed something.
When you do this reading job for more than 1,600 Mondays, you repeat certain rituals. Holidays, for instance. A 1968 law moved a few federal holidays to the Monday nearest their actual date, so I’ve had to slog through countless Enquirer blatherings about Presidents Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King Day, etc. Hard-date holidays like Christmas sometimes land on Mondays, so I’ve done them all. The Patty Andrews Memorial Day article sticks in my memory because it was truly moving and not just the usual holiday treacle. You can read it here.
Letters to the Editor pretty much stayed the same during the years I read them. Opinions jumped all over the place. Unfortunately, so did the ability to express a coherent thought. Some letters were well-written and persuasive, even shaking a few of my own certainties. Other times, I silently looked through a letter twice, sighed (What the hell is this person saying? Are these sentences even sentences?) and then did what I could. My sympathies to every editor who’s had to sift through that mountain of crap.
I should confess, by the way, that I occasionally wrote my own letters to the paper and tried to time my submissions so I might get published on a Monday. It would have made me sound so very cool: Here’s the next letter, and it’s from, well, how about that, it’s from me. Never worked.
There was one small, sad way Letters to the Editor did change. Going back to at least the 1940s, each published letter in The Enquirer used to include the writer’s home address—not a huge community signifier, but not an insignificant one either. Since June 8, 1992, however, Enquirer letters have shown only a writer’s neighborhood. The change was before the advent of Twitter mobs, but we can still guess why it happened. The final day they published full addresses was on a Monday, so I at least got to read aloud the very last Enquirer letter revealing a writer’s address, and it turned out to be from a person I knew.
I liked the reading gig. When I started and was asked if I preferred a part of the paper to read, I chose the Op-Ed page because it had more expressive writing than other sections. It lined up well with what I already did professionally, and I never got tired of doing it. Nobody at PTP is sure how many volunteers from the 1995 launch are still reading their original assignment, so I’ll claim that I’m the last one, with no evidence. I’ll soon have a new assignment, with no reduction in pay (guaranteed!). I’m glad to do whatever they need next. In time I’ll grow to love it, I’m sure, but as they say you never forget your first.
In case you’re wondering, CABVI’s phone and podcast recordings regularly include articles from Cincinnati Magazine. That reading job is normally done by other volunteers, but I’ve indulgently gotten permission to voice this one article when it’s published. Of course, you don’t have to go listen to it, because you’ve already read these words. Because you can. But if you want to help those who can’t, please call the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired at (513) 221-8558. They’ll be happy to hear your voice.