Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Nov. 26 — name of dog, brand of beer

On Monday, we finished up critiquing the Nov. 7 scene stories. For my general diagnoses of these stories as a whole, please see the Nov. 19 recap. Meanwhile, here are excerpts from the three stories that I liked best, and why. (I haven’t fixed anything — the copy you’ll read here is exactly as it was filed to me.)

First up is Allison Bye’s report on the ol’ drag show at the Broadway Inn motel’s cocktail lounge. For those of you reading these blog posts far from Montana, there is little in the way of gay social/cultural life here, even in enlightened Missoula, which doesn’t even have a gay bar — at all. (Some other things I think Missoula needs, if anyone’s feeling entrepreneurial: a full-service car wash, a Sonic drive-in, and a Red Lobster — but I digress.)

Allison visited with the folks who oversee the royal court of Montana’s drag scene and did a great job of weaving their personal stories in with the live action on the stage. She balanced detail with character (and found a balance between drag personas and the men under the makeup) and kept the momentum and mood going in a tight structure. Here’s some:

“What kind of originally drew me to (drag) was the political aspect of it and the historical aspect,” Crismore said. “All of the things that it accomplished for the queer community in our history. The first people to really raise money for HIV research and to buy food for HIV-positive people, most of them were drag queens.” The International Court System was started in the ‘60s by Mama Jose, a drag queen in San Francisco, Crismore continued. During a time when sodomy laws were still enforced and it was illegal to be gay, she started doing shows and using the tips to bail out people who had been arrested that night under sodomy laws.

Dynamite Shagwell, dressed in a green halter-top dress and earrings, now takes the stage. Dynamite is in a wheelchair, but she still moves around the dance floor gracefully, and unlike her lip-synching counterparts, belts out Fun.’s “Some Nights” into a microphone. Dollar bills begin piling up on her lap.

“Thank you!” she yells into the microphone to the loudest cheers yet from the bar.

“I love that bitch!” Kiara Drake says as she walks her metallic platform boots out onto the floor again. Spritzer lounges in a suit behind the emcee table, a PBR in hand. At this time, Drake informs the audience it is time for an attitude check.

“Can I get an attitude check?” she yells, then points her microphone at the rest of the bar.

“Fuck you, bitch!” the bar roars back, which is, in fact, the correct response.

* * *

Tom Holm drove 90 miles west to spend a day in the life of the iconic 50,000 Silver Dollar, a tourist-tempting pit stop near the Idaho state line on I-90: it’s got gas, booze, and what we devoted Western road-trippers politely refer to as curios. What this story may lack in technical and structural finesse, it makes up for in vibe and a real sense of being there. If I was the editor on this piece, I’d be delighted to whup it into shape — all the good stuff is here, thanks to Tom. The tone of the piece matches the feel of the place — or, at least, I feel like it took me there. (I will know for sure in about 3-1/2 weeks, when I pack up the car and head west for the holidays and the looong way home via California, and stop to see the 50,000 Silver Dollar for myself.) Take it away, Tom:

Rex Lincoln the owner of the bar, motel, gas station combo that is the 50,000 Silver Dollar complex, hates it when you ask about the swords.

“You heard it from the old fuck,” he said.

He chain-smokes cigarettes, alternating between Marlboro reds and Marlboro lights on the West corner of the bar from about eight to nine-thirty.  Lincoln is a tall, lurching old man with Larry King suspenders and matching pointy shoulders.

“I own the place so I can smoke where I want,” he said.

And has done so for over 50 years.  Lincoln inherited the bar when the original proprietor and Rex’s father, Gerry Lincoln’s health began to fail.  Rex had recently graduated from Montana State University—the original name for the Missoula College—with a business degree and decided to take over.  He married his wife the same year and has seen both the successes and failures of owning the bar.

“We do not really get regular customers,” he said between spitting up a little blood into his hanky. “Regular is a yearly customer from Seattle or Missoula.”

* * *

Now, let me address one thing. You might notice that my three favorite stories have language in them (and scenes) that would give most editors carpal-tunnel from hitting the delete key so much, and certainly wouldn’t see print in a so-called “family” newspaper. I want to say that I didn’t favor these stories only because of their shock value and f-bombs. I liked them because they are the most effectively immersive. The writers took me there with their words and reporting. They didn’t blanch at the exotic or gross. Their details didn’t confuse me. They stepped back and gave the scene context. I’d be just as happy to read this kind of piece on a church service or a grade-school Thanksgiving play.

But it didn’t work out that way this time. We went for the naughty.

Eben Keller made one of my dreams for this class come true: He covered a raucous, blow-out party at someone’s house — some dude’s 24th birthday, but really just an excuse for everyone involved (except Eben!) to get shitfaced. I’ve been begging the class — someone, anyone, everyone — to do this story from day one: After all, what is more quintessentially college than the house party on the edge of a nervous breakdown? Although Eben is his own harshest critic, you can tell that he took down every detail — yes, even the name of the dog and the brand of the beer, as writing coaches everywhere have encouraged reporters to do. Behold, the piss mattress:

The ceiling tiles were stained and sagging, the furniture was nothing worth protecting, shoes were mandatory, and the bathroom was a mattress in the backyard. A “piss mattress,” which still got slept on from time to time.

Five stringed instruments— a banjo, a fiddle, two acoustic guitars and a mandolin— and a single snare drum, were tucked into the corner of the main room, and sat for no more than 15 minutes at a time before being played.

Each time an announcement would be made to the guests that it was time to gather around and enjoy the show.

“If you love music then get in here and shut the fuck up!” shouted a dyed-red haired, freshly tattooed patron from the top of a coffee table.

The band, a country folk punk rock group called “Bird’s Mile Home” played on more than three occasions during the night, separated by the lead singer, 25-year-old Phillip Lear, playing solo or with anybody in the house willing to pick up a guitar and sing along.

A dildo was thrown around and shoved in the face of unsuspecting party-goers. A girl put it in her pants and pulled it out through the zipper, and Neumayer promptly got on his knees and sucked it.

Fast-forwarding to the story’s end. Note how Eben chose to a morning-after epilogue and house lore as the final image…

You can drink until sunrise, drink until your sober, or drink until dialysis, but nothing will ever keep that party from coming to an end.

Those who survived the night woke up to the house in disarray. One of the house-mates woke up and continued drinking before heading to work at the supermarket two blocks away. The stale smell of cigarettes and spilled wine has soaked into every fiber of the already stained, clumpy carpet.

The home is starting to show it’s age after all these years. The water-soaked swollen ceiling in the living room collapsed two weeks after Neumayer’s birthday.

Living next door to the run-down remnant of 5 decades of wild parties, is a supposedly schizophrenic/bi-polar/manic neighbor, who has called the police to complain more times than anyone can count.

After one particularly long night of drinking and playing guitar on the porch, the cops were called again, which forced all porch related conversations indoors.

Once the cops left, however, the neighbor came out of her house and pinned a note on the front door, which still floats around the house to this day, and is responsible for how the house got its name.

“The things I hear coming from your porch are ugly and vulgar and make me sad,” read the note.

* * *

This story and another one from the class (about a karaoke night) got a discussion going:

When should a reporter on assignment — especially about nightlife — join in and have a drink? When should reporters imbibe with sources? Should they ever?

The typical j-school answer is: It depends. I’ve reported stories before where most everyone was drinking heavily and I’m glad that I was NOT. Partly because I want to do my best work. Partly because I don’t want the fact that “the reporter was drinking, too!” to become part of the criticism or complaints (if there are any) after the story runs. With booze (and anything stronger), I think it’s best to avoid it, even when the assignment is a party. Sometimes your subject will insist. Maybe you don’t drink. Maybe you’re in recovery. Maybe you just want to maintain that journalistic line that separates them from you. There are noble reasons not to — the best of which is that you want all your senses about you, sober and sharp. (I realize that j-schools and creative nonfiction departments have always been filled with young men who think they’re the next Hunter S. Thompson. Let me assure you that the world is not asking for it to be you.)

There are also good — sometimes great — reasons to take a (ONE!) drink. It’s almost always about mood and tone. Accepting the offer of a drink sends a subliminal signal of sharing. Most good journalism is on some level and act of sharing — information, details, opinions, secrets. Booze is a social lubricant.

Our friend Gene Weingarten set of a dither at a nonfiction writers’ conference a while back when he described one such situation, only it involved pot. You can read the ethical kerfuffle here.

I spent the first decade of my reporting career convinced that I should never, ever drink while reporting on the scene. (Or while reporting from the newsroom, but company policy made that clear.) There is a whole lot of misplaced nostalgia about journalists and drinking. It’s mostly bullshit.

What about food? Here I suddenly do a 180. I think reporters should always eat what’s offered to them, even if it might be poisoned. You are tasting for ingredient. You are breaking bread with people you don’t know. You are being polite. Food engenders conversation — and takes you into kitchens, where people are themselves. I realize the same argument can be made about bars, but you can get into a bar and do the job on strictly club sodas and cranberry juice. But if you refuse someone’s homemade lasagna, Christmas bizcochitos or backyard barbecue then you have TOTALLY BLOWN IT.

So, after basically saying “Don’t drink while reporting, kids,” I remembered the one Style assignment every year where I drank as much as I liked and came to depend on the hangover as inspiration for the story that I co-wrote the morning after: When Bill Booth (and later Amy Argetsinger) and I teamed up to cover Vanity Fair’s after-party on Oscar nights. To every rule, a glaring exception:

And this of course sends our class off on a celebrity tangent, wherein Gran’pa Hank talks about all the mooooovie stars he “met” back in the day. (The photo above is from VF’s 2009 party. It is the creepiest picture of me ever.)

Enough about me!

No, wait — MORE about me!

For Wednesday, Nov. 28: Your reading assignment is to read three stories, all by meeeeeeee. Like your final, they are mainly scene stories, but they have deeper characterizations and step-backs. One of them might be a profile. One of them might be about a place. They are basically hybrid feature stories with essay-like qualities.

I didn’t pick them because I want to go out on an ego trip. I picked them because they are (possibly) flawed or were filed in situations where I had to zig when I thought I might zag; or the deadline was too tight, or (in one case) not tight enough. Also, they are each within the target word-count zone of your final assignment (2,000 words). I’m using my own stuff this time so that we can hear from the author directly — what worked, what didn’t, why is this story written the way it is? etc. What I want you to do is mark them up and bring questions. Please read:

“The 24-Karat Party,” a report from a “gold party” in the suburbs, just as the economy was falling apart. (The Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2008)

“Pilgrims’ Pit Stop,” a story about Maryland House, a popular I-95 rest stop, written and filed on Thanksgiving eve. (The Washington Post, Nov. 28, 2002) This ancient story is behind an archive paywall. Students have printouts.

“Host with the Most: The Cult of Bob Barker,” a scene piece/mini-profile of the legendary “Price is Right” host as he neared his retirement at 83. (The Washington Post, May 9, 2007)

We’ll spend half the class discussing technique. We’ll spend the other half talking about YOUR STORIES. Bring what you have — ideas, worries, plans, early drafts. You have eight days until it’s due.

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