Most pranks are done in good fun, with nary a consequence other than some wicked laughter directed at the victim.
In this case, I was the naïve stooge. The only other person in on the prank was Gazette sports department slot-man and terrific sports writer Graeme McMurray. His goal was simple: Get me to kick the most important and feared person at the Montreal newspaper, managing editor and later general manager, Harry J. Larkin, out of the building.
This is the same Harry Larkin who became the journalistic model in two novels that became movies: Brian Moore’s The Luck Of Ginger Coffey (1960) and William Weintraub’s Why Rock The Boat? (1961). Both authors were reporters under Larkin at the Gazette so they knew just how cantankerous and demanding he could be.
This particular prank occurred in the mid-sixties. I was a 22-year-old copy boy into the fifth month of what would be a 40-year career. Although Larkin’s office was on the fifth floor, one above the editorial department, he seldom left his lair. In fact, my first sighting of him came the night of the prank.
As a copy boy, my job entailed everything from sharpening pencils and getting the deskers coffee to manning the switchboard for an hour while the regular switchboard operator went for supper. In between, the copy boys mostly handled copy — clearing the wires and bringing stories to the various desks (sports, news, city, etc.).
After the editors selected and edited the stories, they’d toss the copy (material destined for publication) into a basket and yell “copy!” We’d scurry to the basket, stuff the copy into a tube and drop it down a chute, where it landed in the composing room. That’s when the linotype operators took over.
But we also had one other job, one I was only vaguely aware of because I worked the night shift. Across the street from The Gazette was the Parker House, a popular meeting place for the city’s poor and homeless. Occasionally, during mornings, a Parker House denizen, often slightly drunk, would slip past security and straggle up to the fourth floor, often seeking out popular daily city columnist Al Palmer. Usually, intruders were intercepted before they made it to the actual offices.
If I had known about this scenario, I might have avoided the prank. Instead, here’s what happened:
It was Sunday, a little after midnight. The only one left on the sports desk was the usually easygoing, affable McMurray. The section had been put to bed and Graeme was slowly winding down, sipping coffee and going over page proofs.
I was standing about 20 yards away when I heard: “Copy!”
It was Graeme. He was looking at me and pointing to a short, pudgy man with greying, wavy hair, who was staggering along the back wall. The man was wearing what looked like an old, faded pair of jeans, a wrinkled western-style untucked shirt, and scuffed-up muddy boots.
“Another guy from the Parker House,” McMurray yelled over. “Get him out of here — now!”
I approached the man slowly, and blocked his progress by grabbing him by his shoulder. He said nothing, but looked at me like I was the hired help, which I was.
“Please leave,” I pleaded. When he didn’t budge, I grabbed him by BOTH shoulders, turned him around so he was facing me, and said, “I’m asking you politely: you’re not supposed to be here. Go now or I’m calling the cops.”
With that, he said his first words— a terse, loud “fuck off!” — and continued lumbering along the wall.
When I glanced over at McMurray for help, all I saw was his big grin.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You’ve just tried to kick Harry Larkin out of the building.”
“THAT was Harry Larkin?”
“The one and only,” said McMurray.
“What’s he doing here at this hour?”
“Every so often,” said McMurray, “on Sunday night he’ll have his driver stop off at The Gazette, just to check on things, on his way home from the cottage.”
“But he’s dressed like a bum.”
“That’s because he’s probably been out hunting today,” said McMurray. Then he smiled. “Just like you’ll be out hunting tomorrow — for a job.”
It wasn’t to be. I never spoke to Harry J. Larkin again.