Unpublished interview with cartoonist Walt Handlesman (2014.).

So tell me how you ended up in New Orleans.

AH: I am originally from Baltimore. I got a job here with Picayune in 1989 and left in 2001. I had an opportunity to work at Newsday in New York and live near my family, particularly my parents who were getting up there in age, they lived in Baltimore, so it seemed like a good opportunity for our family. I won a Pulitzer here in New Orleans in 1997, and I won a second Pulitzer in 2007 for Newsday.

MPW: And you moved back to attend Molly’s Media Night?

(Chuckles) Yeah. I went to Molly’s early on when I first got here. I fell in love with the place, met Jim Monaghan and the political consultant Joe Walker and all the guys who used to hang out there – along with all the people from the Picayune and the various TV and radio stations that would hang out there. Used to see Nox Rabota there who I believe was here doing sports for some local TV station – ex baseball player for the Mets as you may know.

I met so many people when I went the one time recently. Was it always that much of a hot spot?

Yeah. It was always crowded. Thursday night was Media Night and it lived up to that reputations: a wide array of people from the media.

What is the purpose of Media Night? Swapping stories? Hatching story ideas? Especially if everyone’s technically in competition, what’s the point?

Well, we’re all journalists and we’re all friends. We tell stories. Nothing I know of was ever hatched there. When I got there I was just a young guy who started going to Molly’s, all my friends were going. Any place is really fun if all of your friends are there. You get to meet a bunch of people from TV. But mostly back when I went there it was to hang out with a wide variety of friends from the Picayune. No matter where we work we’re all interested in hanging out with each other.

It seemed there was a real influx of young people recently, young reporters. Maybe because the Picayune cut so many of their older veteran reporters and replaced them with recent college graduates?

Well, I am not getting any younger, so it seems to me the crowds everywhere I go are younger. When you were there the night I was bartending, I was getting out from behind the bar and hanging with people I know. But journalism in general, there are a lot of young people, and that’s how it should be. When I started going to Molly’s I was young!

But a lot of the people you knew back then are still going to Molly’s.

Absolutely. Several of my closest friends aren’t here any longer: David Meeks – who worked with me for years, worked at AP, then Los Angeles Times, now he’s at USA Today – he was one of my closest friends. He’s moved all over the country. We’re going to Molly’s Thursday night because he’s going to be in town.

That wasn’t the first time you bartended there though, right?

I think guest bartending had gone away for a while and now Tyler Bridges is bringing it back… He is an old friend of mine who works at the Lens now. We worked at the Picayune years ago. He left to work at The Washington Post, then he worked in Miami, and he worked out of the country, and then he got a Neiman and now he’s back at the Lens. He called me right when I got my job and said, “I am trying to start Media Night back up, you have to come gues bartend.” Well, my son is a real bartender, so I said, if I can bring him I will do it. 

Why did you move back to New Orleans?

I left but I really never left in my heart. I really liked working at Newsday, it’s a big important paper. I had some great experiences there, but I just could not shake New Orleans – nor did I want to. I got up there and in short order I just missed it. My children were small and they went to really good schools up there and I got to visit my parents a lot, which was great. We just always kept coming back to New Orleans on a regular basis. When Katrina hit, it just solidified my love for this city. I was really heartbroken. I came down immediately. The more I was in New York, the more I wanted to be in New Orleans. It just kept getting stronger and stronger.

And then to top it all off, my beloved Saints – who I weathered many a bad year with as a season ticket holder when they were not good – and they started playing really well… It was just a combination of stuff. So when the kids got a little older and started becoming independent, my wife and I decided together that we wanted to come back – maybe when I retired. Next thing I knew the whole newspaper thing started happen (PICAYUNE) and I was just heartbroken again, because I just could not believe that the newspaper I loved so much had seemed to be tearing itself apart. And before I knew it an opportunity arose at the Advocate, and I thought about it and thought this was an incredibly great opportunity for us as a family. We were just delighted and thrilled.

And also you can go back to Molly’s and Media Night!

Ha. Molly’s is on a long list of things. I have so many friends down here, people that I care deeply about. I wanted to be back in their lives again. I am very social, my wife is very social, my kids and my parents and my brother we’re all very social – we love having friends and doing fun things.

The main thing about coming back…New Orleans is just in a great position just now. I have always loved the place but I am so excited what’s happening right now in this city. Who would have thought that just a handful of years after the flood the city would be blossoming like this in several directions. There is a lot of work to be done, but it’s a great place.

You told some good off-the-record stories at Molly’s, and I was hoping you had another provocative one you would let me put in the paper. You started in the days when people smoked at their desks and whatnot so I assume maybe it was a crazy time.

I think the hard drinking generation was before us, as far as drinking in the newsroom and carrying on. Things were a little more settled when I was there. But this is like a classic Molly’s thing…I am at the bar SuperBowl weekend, years and years ago, chatting up this couple who were older than I was. We’re having a good time talking, just carrying on. The Saints are out of the SuperBowl and I’m telling these folks, ‘The Saints are out and I am pulling for Green Bay because Brent Favre is from Mississippi, and it’s close to New Orleans and we all like Brett Favre. And it turned out it was Brett Favre’s parents! Absolutely wild.

I used to have to do two cartoons on Friday back in the day. I did a comic strip called Picayune Toons, and I did the Sunday cartoon. Mike Pearlstein who at the time was a cops reporter, and a great friend. So he and a few other of my friends were at Molly’s, and I told them I had to go because I had two cartoons due. Then we started talking politics. We’re riffing on the news, killing each other with funny stories. And I was getting these awesome ideas, great ideas, and I’d be grabbing bar napkins and writing them down and cramming them in my pockets – I’m writing down punchlines, coming up with funny stuff — and I am high fiving my co-workers telling them, “I’m golden! I have at least two ideas!” So I go home, and get up the next day, grab my pile of napkins and go to work. And inevitably I’d end up at Pearlstein’s desk wondering, ‘What are these ideas?’ Not even one of them would make sense. Not one is suitable for the newspaper, and I can’t even understand half of them. So I’d be stuck, there I was at work, 10:30 on a Friday with nothing. That happened a lot. Pearlstein and I still tell those stories.

What do you do then?

You have to do your work, man! You have to be a cartoonist and grind it out and read the news and figure out what are your topics for the day. It’s nice to come into work with an idea…especially if you have two cartoons, it’s good to have at least one idea. I tell students I talk to: cartooning isn’t about drawing, it’s about getting ideas.

That’s what I tell people about freelance writing.

Yeah. Once you get a germ of an idea — this is the piece I want to do – then if you are lucky it will write itself, you’ll get great quotes. Same thing is true with cartooning. I can look at things from Chris Christie to the elections to Obamacare, and they are great topics, but they are not ideas. I make a list of five or six or seven things in the news, or things that are going to be hot in the next day or two. I read everything I can about them and I make that list. I brainstorm. I do all the things I got in trouble in school for doing: I doodle and I watch TV, I tool around until the lightbulb goes on.

Anything notable about serving your fellow journalists?

I find bartending difficult work.


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