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THE 42ND FLOOR

For a short while, I worked as the only white reporter for a black urban newspaper. This was in Cleveland, Ohio, in the mid-70s. I was in my mid-twenties. That was when I met Tin-Can Charlie.

I had recently returned to Cleveland -- my hometown -- for reasons I can no longer remember, besides the fact that I was broke and had nowhere else to turn.

Just a few years earlier I had embarked upon a journalistic career as a magazine writer in Washington, DC. But covering the bureaucratic crowd inside the Beltway, I soon astutely deduced, was passe, no longer the scene for a hot young reporter. The day I quit, Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story.

I then took a stab at political activism, joining a congressional campaign in New York City. I worked day and night. My candidate lost the primary. He then ran as an independent. I worked twice as hard. He lost twice as big. Somewhere in there, a long-time girl-friend left me: "I found someone more serious," she explained. The guy turned out to be a circus clown.

It was time to show a bit of backbone, to grit my teeth and make my own way in this nasty, brutish world; I scampered back to my parents' home in suburban Cleveland. "Just till I get my feet back on the ground," I promised. "In the meantime, I'll freelance stuff from here and make a ton of money."

Freelancing proved a lark, and if I ever could have sold a story, I would have maintained that lifestyle forever. Instead it began to dawn on me, over the course of months, that perhaps it was time to find a job.

I interviewed at the Cleveland Call and Post, the black community newspaper. Editor William O. Walker and I met face to face, unsure of what either of us was getting into.

Walker, I would later learn, was a legendary Cleveland journalist, perspicacious of mind, if tempestuous of spirit. I made a joke he found amusing; he hired me on the spot.

I was out to prove neither my liberal credentials nor moral virtuousness. My motivation was simple: to work for a good newspaper while making some money. Plus, my parents were getting understandably itchy about having me underfoot 24 hours a day.

I covered every beat from medicine to City Hall to entertainment. I interviewed Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole. It was a blast, for the most part, but there were moments of anxiety.

One evening I was assigned to cover a furious protest against public housing conditions. My arrival -- as a young white man avidly filling up a notebook -- was not taken kindly. Later that evening I discovered my car was stolen.

My anger turned toward myself. What in the world was I doing on the Call and Post? What did I, driving in from the suburbs every day, know of life in the black community? And so it was, the following morning, in a mood of sour misgivings, that I was assigned to interview someone named Tin-Can Charlie.

Charlie lived in a rough East Side neighborhood in a decrepit-looking warehouse, where he greeted me warily. He was at least 80 years old, and his eyesight was poor. But he could see I was white, and backed away. I showed him my camera and ID, and eventually convinced him I was indeed the reporter from the newspaper.

Charlie led me into a rickety freight elevator, and we slowly ascended to the fifth floor, emerging into a vast space of semi-darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a sort of lean-to composed of corrugated metal. And then, all around me, I saw the castles.

Charlie, you see, was a welding artist, and his medium was old tin cans. He would collect the cans by rummaging the streets with a big burlap sack. Up on the fifth floor he would somehow weld his tin containers, along with old bicycle chains, found glass, and other pieces of scrap, into medieval-looking castles with towers and parapets and drawbridges -- all in realistic, museum-quality detail.

As a boy, Charlie told me, he had once seen a picture-book of castles, and it seized his imagination. Between then and now he was a little vague about his history. Apparently he had worked as a commercial welder for years, before, as he put it, "something went wrong" with his lungs.

I shot a roll of photographs, then departed. My feature on Charlie ran in a front page box with lots of play inside. The following week I learned he had died.

I had had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview a wonderful self-taught American artist. As far as I know, I was the only reporter to ever write his story, celebrate his magnificent work. I say this not to boast, but rather to recognize the strange paths our lives take and the uncanny discoveries we sometimes make along the way, in a place such as an abandoned inner-city warehouse.

William O. Walker was eager to bring young black reporters into his newsroom. He told me this not long after Charlie died. He said it was nothing personal as he gently fired me on the spot. I understood his reasons, and I also understood it was time for me once again to leave home, ready for the long siege ahead, fortified by the lasting memory of an artist who transformed earth-bound tin cans into castles in the sky.-Tommy Ehrbar


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