The Writing Life: Telex Machines and Baksheesh Of Another Era

I've often told friends that the worst professional decision that I ever made was to leave the hallowed hallways of the New York Times, where I'd worked since my college days in the United States. That was back in 1985, when the pursuit and practice of journalism was very different from what it is these days. Those were days of romance for those like me who lived in the world of hard-earned words.

These days, anyone with a smart phone can bat out a blog; if the story is predicated on a breaking news event then, potentially, the writer might reach a global audience of millions. "Instant journalism" is what it's all about, and vehicles of social media such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube can create instant stars. Indeed, various studies have shown that the primary source of news for a growing number of people is social media.

But it was so very different during my time at the Times. There were no smart phones then, no email, no Twitter and no Facebook or YouTube. If you were a foreign correspondent - which I was in Africa and the Middle East - you had to scramble to find a post office that possessed a telex machine. Then the telex operator had to be persuaded to actually transmit your copy directly to the home office or to Reuters, the news agency that served as a conduit to the Times' newsroom.

The persuasion almost always involved baksheesh, a couple of US dollars, or more, discreetly passed on to the operator. I didn't know it when I began life as a foreign correspondent in Africa, but a cardinal rule that all foreign correspondents followed was: No baksheesh, no transmission. It was wise to always carry a wad of American currency when traveling.

And even then, things wouldn't quite pan out as intended. I found out for myself in Ghana.

I was new to the vast continent; based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, this was my first foray into West Africa. As it turned out, I had been the only foreign correspondent in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, on a day that Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, a junior member of the military, overthrew an elected president in a bloodless coup. I had earlier befriended Mr. Rawlings, who gave me an exclusive interview after his coup. All these many years later, I still recall that, before the coup, he used to drive around town bare chested in a low-slung red MG sports coupe, visiting his many female admirers. Sometimes he would ask me to accompany him. Let's just say that his driving skills induced sheer terror in me.

Now Jerry Rawlings was Ghana's boss. And this was a Page One story. Grabbing a taxi whose seats had springs that threatened to pierce my posterior any time as we navigated Accra's potholed roads, I headed for the city's main post office, a dilapidated building from Ghana's colonial times that gave the impression it would keel over and collapse any moment.

"I'm from the New York Times," I said to a telex operator, handing over a dispatch about the coup that I'd typed out in my hotel room. It was, of course, a hot story.

But hot story or not, I was hostage to the telex operator's caprice.

He did not look up from a book that he was reading.

"Hello," I said, "I'm from the New York Times. This is urgent. This telex must go at once."

The man continued reading his book.

"Hello," I said again, "I'm from the New York Times. This is urgent. This telex must go at once."

"The New York Times, eh," the operator said, finally looking at me. "And where would that be?"

Then he joined his palms and rubbed them as though he was indulging himself in a hand massage.

I didn't understand at first that it was a universal gesture suggesting that baksheesh was his priority, regardless how important the transmission of my story was for me - and for the readers of the New York Times. In my mind's eye, I could visualize my story racing across the front page of the next day's edition.

New to the game that I was, it finally dawned on me that I needed to take certain measures to ensure the transmission of my story.

I handed over a ten-dollar note, certain that it would suffice. But the telex operator continued rubbing his palms. He wanted more. He was clearly a man of experience. He was clearly a player. He surely had had many such rehearsals.

So I dug out another ten-dollar note.

This time he smiled, as if acknowledging that I had understood the rules of the game.

In hindsight, I considered myself fortunate to have had the American currency in my pocket. In certain cities such as Nigeria's Lagos and Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire, there was always the risk that urchins would surround a foreign-looking guy as he attempted to enter the local post office and lighten him of his burden of banknotes and watches and anything else of value.

I returned to my hotel, relieved that I had just learned one of the fundamental rules of the foreign correspondent game, and proud that I'd filed a surefire Page One story.

But something nagged at me. I wanted to know for sure that my telex had gone through.

So off I went to the post office again in another rickety taxi.

The post office was closed. I later learned from irate editors that my telex never went through.

Clearly, my baksheesh hadn't been adequate for the telex operator, notwithstanding what I interpreted as his smile of appreciation and the implicit promise of transmitting my telex.

Or, to put it charitably, maybe he decided that my dispatch could wait for another day. After all, what would he know about headlines and deadlines? And twenty American dollars could be very useful in a bar.

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