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Unit Three, We Hardly Knew Ye

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I was a reporter on tryout at the New York Post, greener than grass, being sent out on a breaking news story -- a shooting? A subway fire? Hard to remember exactly what it was, but the photographer they sent me with was unforgettable.

A heavyset guy with hangdog cheeks and a small moustache, his hair thin on top and swept back on the sides. We had an address, a deadline and a threat from the bosses to get back with the goods in time for the afternoon edition.

I got into the passenger side of his car and we were off, roaring uptown. I introduced myself to him in typical New York Post fashion -- a handshake without eye contact, as he was busy watching the road to avoid killing pushcart peddlers on the streets of Chinatown.

"You're the new guy," he growled.

"Uh-huh." I was nervous, and he knew it.

"I've been with the Post over 30 years," he offered.

"Wow."

"Yeah." He gave me a sly look. "They tell me I have a bright future," he deadpanned.

He smiled. I laughed. I wasn't nervous anymore, and I had a new friend named Arty Pomerantz.

This was in the early '80s, a time when the paparazzi were elbowing their way into any media event that featured a buffet table. In the midst of many lensmen who took their dress and behavior codes from Sid Vicious, Arty stood out -- always immaculately groomed, always with a jacket and tie.

And always, ALWAYS a gentleman. If you think that's a disadvantage in the newspaper game, you'd better go back to school. Charm counts, ladies and gentlemen. It's life's lubricant, and an absolute necessity for anyone who hopes to deliver for a place like the New York Post.

Arty delivered. He was aggressive without being pushy, sensitive without being weak. He never forgot that the stories we covered were about real people, and that getting their names and faces into the paper was probably going to be the biggest thing that ever happened to them.

He flourished in a golden time, cruising the Broadway nights in a radio car with Pete Hamill in those days before the rich and famous hid themselves behind bodyguards, publicists and bottled water.

Frank Sinatra once threw a punch at Arty (and missed.) President Kennedy borrowed a dime from him to make a phone call (and apparently never paid him back.)

And one night Arty rang the Greenwich Village doorbell of a young actress named Anne Bancroft to deliver some pretty big news.

Mel Brooks answered the door. "May I help you?" he asked.

"I'm from the New York Post," Arty informed Brooks, "and I just found out your girlfriend won the Academy Award."

That's right -- Arty knew about Anne Bancroft's 1962 Oscar for The Miracle Worker before she did, and captured her ecstatic reaction on film.

Can you imagine such a thing happening today?

He was an old-timer with a young heart, a guy who walked the tightrope between the worlds of Walter Winchell and Rupert Murdoch without losing his balance. Arty could set his sails with a shift in the tabloid wind.

That was important, because the liberal New York Post he'd worked for under Dorothy Schiff became a real dagger-in-the teeth publication when she sold it to Murdoch. Headlines morphed from POLICE BRUTALITY! into HERO COP! before Murdoch even took his coat off.

Well, there were advantages to working for a boss who shot from the hip, day after day. Nutty stories had a better chance of getting into the paper, and Arty's sense of humor was priceless.

"Hey," he said to me one day, "the circus is in town. Want to be a clown with me?"

He wasn't kidding. He arranged it with Ringling Brothers, and the next thing I knew, Arty and I were grease-painted and dressed up like clowns, running around entertaining kids at Madison Square Garden.

It made for a great story, and we were so eager to get back to the paper with our words and pictures we didn't bother scrubbing off our clown faces as we headed downtown.

Suddenly, Arty's car radio came alive with the urgent voice of the Post photo editor.

"Unit Three, please come in!"

That was Arty's "handle" -- Unit Three. He lifted the mike and hesitated before speaking into it. He turned to me, his face painted white, his nose cherry red, his eyebrows two giant blue arches. My own face looked just as ridiculous.

"Be funny if we got sent to a murder scene," he said.

I'm laughing over memories like that and fighting back tears over the loss of Arty Pomerantz, who died the other day at age 82. Luckily, Arty's photos and memories are very much alive in his wonderful book entitled Before the Paparazzi.

Flip through that book, and you'll see that Arty Pomerantz seemed to be anywhere and everywhere.

Nobody believed that more strongly than Arty's mother. One day many years ago he dropped into her Bronx home unannounced and she nearly collapsed in shock.

"Arty, my God, how'd you get here so fast?" she gasped. "You were just in Hong Kong!"

He wondered what the hell she was talking about, and then it became clear.

"Every time she looked in the paper and saw a photo with an Associated Press credit -- A.P. -- she thought it stood for 'Arty Pomerantz,'" he explained with a chuckle. "Maybe I should have let her keep believing it."

Charlie Carillo is a novelist and a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition." Watch the trailer for his new Christmas novel here.