We were up before dawn on Thursday to meet one last time for a group critique of the final stories. The professor worked hard not to get verklempt, but that got exponentially more difficult when he was presented with this amazing poster (above), a gift from the class, designed by Carli Krueger.
It’s a graphic of our big round classroom table in room 301. I’m the gray dot at the center. The dots around the table are the 17 students in Jour494, represented by a color that might or might not have meaning or relate to something that student wrote about for this class — I’ve deciphered quite a few: Pretty in Pink, The O.C., Avatar, orange earplugs, black metal, etc. I will treasure this poster, and the semester we had together, forever. Thank you Carli (the pink dot) and everyone else (counter-clockwise): Allison Bye, Caitlyn Walsh, Dustin Askim, Heather Jurva, Patrick Record, Erik Anderson, Candace Rojo, Billie Loewen, Brooks Johnson, Eben Wragge-Keller, H. Neil Sauer, Cody Blum, Ashley Oppel, Tom Holm, Levi Hunt and Donelle Weston. I’ll miss you terribly.
This was a class about writing deeply and interestingly about the ways we live and absorb popular culture. Originally, the final paper was meant to be a deep narrative or profile, about 3,000-words long, of someone creating and/or consuming a kind of popular culture.
But, as time closed in, I had to reduce my expectations, and amend the assignment somewhat, which became an encore of the scene story assignment that would hopefully go a little farther and deeper. But not too far, too deep, and stay within 2,000-2,100 words. I guess if I had the Pollner professorship to do over, I would have pushed the final assignment harder, demanding pitches back in September and progress reports along the way — in addition to the other assignments. The present-day 44-year-old in me would in late August hear “major assignment is due first week of December” and start working on it then and there; but the 21-year-old me would never have planned that far ahead. I should have remembered that.
Nevertheless, I am not disappointed in this crop of stories. Mostly because this was not a longform narrative magazine-writing class. This was a class about thinking fast and smart; reporting the facts and writing with analysis; and, most of all, filing clean and often. Although we admired and discussed many articles by writers who had months and thousands of words to reach for perfection, I know for certain that the surest path to that kind of work comes from a mastery of the deadline grind. These stories all had the distinct flavor of the rush-job. None achieved greatness, but we do have some that were certainly headed there.
Here are excerpts from five of the best — and the reasons why I thought so. (These excerpts are reprinted as they were filed to me, with none of my editing marks.)
Brooks Johnson wanted to do a profile of a popular country-western cover band. Initially he wanted to explore the idea of popular mediocrity through the measured success of the Copper Mountain Band, and he also used the opportunity to write about Missoula’s only (!) country bar, the Sunrise Saloon. And, like a good reporter, he came away with a different set of impressions than the ones he had going in — especially when it came to the true artistry involved in giving the people what they want while managing your own dreams of stardom:
The band takes the stage on yet another Saturday at 9:30 p.m. and thanks the crowd at the Sunrise Saloon for at least the hundredth time. Izzi and Nate pick up their stringed moneymakers and play with their pedals while Jacque gives some hand-fluffed volume to her blonde hair. The cousins wear black cowboy hats and Nate’s plaid-covered arm occasionally covers his bass while he tunes it.
The Copper Mountain Band opens with the energy of a Budweiser cracked after an hour in a paint-shaker. All over the stage, the young family band never gets bored and neither does their spritely audience. They go through the modern hits and a few originals before the surprising “Take it Easy” cover comes on.
Izzi says country fans, while loyal, don’t just want to hear country. They especially don’t want to see some stranger up on stage. They want to see the hats, the boots and feel respected in how they live their own lives. They want to see their cowboy neighbors, but a lot of the time they want to hear rock.
“If you only like country music, you’re probably an idiot,” Izzi says. “Nobody, myself included, wants to go to a club and hear the same singer and the same type of songs for four hours. Nobody has that kind of patience unless they’re your mother or something.”
Nobody on the dance floor bats an eye between all the country songs, old rock hits and originals like “Beers and Beers Ago.” Heel-toe-heel-toe they go, the motion of old and young never slowing no matter the number of beers flowing.
“People in New York and Nashville aren’t really going to relate, but we really don’t care,” Jacque says. “They should like this because this is the real cowboy shit here in Montana. This is really what we do.”
• • •
Heather Jurva wrote about the weekly open-session Irish music night at Sean Kelly’s pub. What I wanted students to notice here was Heather’s sense of control. She knows her story is no great shakes, but she went deep into the very American allure of being and seeming and aping Irishness. The writing is everything here. One of the great lessons all journalists — especially feature writers — need to learn is how to weave gold from straw (boring stories, boring scenes) without contorting the facts. It’s all about tone and writing.
It’s an old-style Irish pub, and the lights are low. A dozen older musicians – mainly men – sit just below the stage in a half moon of metal patio-esque chairs, plucking fiddles and banjos and mandolins. They are wearing sweaters, mostly, and polo tees and floppy-topped golf hats in greys and greens.
One man tootles a tiny black flute, testing the notes, then launches into an undulating line of trills. Another man, across the circle from the first, pulls a hand drum from what looks like a hat box. He thumps it, then listens, thumps, listens, thumps again and turns a key which tightens the head of the drum. The tone changes slightly, bringing the drum into line with the rest of the group.
Two young men in basketball shorts walk in the door opposite the stage.
They instantly walk back out.
It’s Open Session night at Sean Kelly’s in Missoula, Montana, and it draws a very specific kind of crowd: pressed and tweedy professionals who cut loose with a pint and a lilting tune. Nothing here seems to draw the typical Missoula scenesters, trendy collegiates who drink only PBR and drop the bass. Even the bartenders look bored, clearly waiting for the real party to start.
“Kevin is probably the most Irish among us. He’s even got an Irish name,” Steve says. “He’s got dual citizenship.”
One or two of the others claim Irish heritage. None of the others can trace their line back to the Old Country, and very few have set foot on Irish soil. But they all love the music, and for tonight that’s enough. Missoula loves the Irish. All of western Montana loves the Irish. The nation loves the Irish, despite the masses who have no direct bloodline or history of travel.
But it doesn’t even matter. For those who are in love with an idea, it has nothing to do with the genetic code or stamps in a passport book.
“A lot of us, we think in terms of DNA, ya know… The thing about culture though, it doesn’t come down to DNA. It comes down to soul. It functions, in a sense, like glue that holds people together.”
• • •
Levi Hunt went off to the Found Footage Festival at the Wilma Theater, a touring show that collects old VHS training tapes, educational programs and other VHS-only oddities, and repurposes them into an awkwardly hilarious compilation. Not only did Levi capture the flavor of the show and interview the two guys behind it, he went deep on the brief lifespan of VHS technology, how it affected those who are old enough to remember videotapes, and how it comes across to those who aren’t.
Levi also managed to do something that looks easy, but is rather difficult: explaining something on the screen and making it as funny as seeing it in person. Like this:
One of the first videos of the night shows a group of maybe six adults who sit in a circle of patio chairs, surrounding a woman writing on a large poster-sized sheet of paper for the room to see.
“What’s another name for a penis?” the woman on the grainy video asks.
“Prick”, one of the men on patio chairs responds.
She writes that word right under “penis” on the board. “Good, what else?”
Now it’s not just the group on the video responding to her question but seemingly the entirety of the viewers who are assembled in the main theater at the Wilma. It doesn’t matter that the Wilma’s theater goers are about thirty years too late to respond to the lady on the video’s questions, they decide to helpfully throw out more suggestions for her anyway.
(This goes on for awhile)
“Okay, that’s good thank you.”
The Wilma-goers raise their drinks and cheer. Good job by them.
“All together now,” the teacher on the video says as she points back to the first word written down on the paper.
In unison those in the Wilma in 2012 and those people on the video, pre-recorded some thirty years ago, do as commanded.
“Pe-nis.” “Prick.” “Pe-ter”
(This too, goes on for awhile) …
• • •
Cody Blum rode along late into the night with one of the drivers who started UCallus, a Missoula cab service that only accepts donations instead of fares, thereby circumventing taxi regulations, but opening a world of possibilities (good, bad and weird) in terms of passengers, who pay whatever they feel like paying. (A few pennies? A $100 bill?) This story showed how important it is to invest time, sit still, and just observe:
The first guy we picked up was huddled under a street lamp on a dark street I’d never been on. He wore torn blue jeans, a black leather jacket, a black beanie, and a backpack that sagged from his pale, skinny frame. He had the kind of headphones that wrap around the back of your head and up over the ears, the popular design in the nineties. The man looked a little sketchy, but when Mike Grafft eased the Buick Roadmaster with a barely functional transmission up to the curb and greeted the man through the passenger window, there were no worries in sight. Grafft is the most established, most experienced cab driver in Missoula, and according to his calculations, he’s driven over 1,000,000 miles transporting drunks, early morning airline commuters, businessmen, and sketchy anomaly characters like this one through Missoula’s confusing streets in his 20 plus years of driving. He hasn’t scratched a car yet.
The guy wanted to go to the Thunderbird Motel.
“You got it, bud,” Grafft said cheerily as he eased the Roadmaster out of first gear with a disconcerting tremor. Then he made light-hearted small talk, and the man in black reciprocated willingly like he hadn’t been treated this well in ages.
Grafft was the longest running driver at Yellow Cab, and now he’s the longest running driver at UCallus, a relatively new non-profit service in Missoula. They got started on Oct. 1 of last year, and their aim is simple: get drunken bar occupants home, safe. They don’t reference themselves as a cab operation, rather they’re a designated driving service. The whole thing runs on donations, which leaves every cab-ride open to the possibility that the rider will take it for free. At the end of the ride, it’s up to you how much to give the driver. If you don’t have money, the hope is you’ll make it up next time. It’s all based on trust.
“Free is the four letter F-word to me,” Kevin Sandberg said. He’s the founder of UCallus. “Somehow we got slammed into that ‘free way home category.”
• • •
Finally, Patrick Record, a photojournalism major, invested a lot of time looking into and thinking about the black-and-white framed portraits that hang in Charlie B’s, a popular working-class waterin’ hole in downtown Missoula. The portraits are the work of Lee Nye, who took them of the bar’s regulars decades ago. These are a much beloved part of Missoula’s vast drinking lore. The pictures and the bar are something everyone here knows a little about. Patrick went deeper and gave some nuance to what the pictures mean to Missoula. He interviewed Nye’s widow and the bar’s current owner. There’s a real sense of how the past is present, including the art of hanging out with the men and women who currently spend a great deal of time in the time and might have, in another time, merited a photo on the wall…
Belangie-Nye is currently working on putting a book together consisting of the collections. At her home in Lolo, Mont., stashed away in a corner of her office, she pulls out a DVD with two interviews of Nye. Sitting in a chair wearing a cowboy hat, Nye answers questions from Belangie-Nye about his collections.
When it came to taking the photographs there was a criteria that had to be met. They had to be a regular at Eddie’s, and have a good face. Belangie-Nye recalls Nye saying they had to have a “Montana face.” Basically meaning they had to be blue-collar workers: lumber jacks, railroaders and people of the like. Using a Roloflex two and a quarter camera, they were always done in the alley behind Charlie’s during the morning hours – “that’s when the light was the best,” Nye says. A gray corduroy backdrop was put up and it wasn’t uncommon for Nye to give his subjects his own red and black plaid jacket to wear for the picture. He did this for the contrast the red creates in black and white pictures.
Nye took great pride in his portraits, and truly believed his subjects really had to have the face to be photographed. He really felt strongly about this with the Native Americans. Nye believed the strong facial Native American features were being lost as generations grew bigger and bigger.
“I don’t think this face can be created again,” Nye says as he hold up the portrait of Joe Malatare, a Native American who is frozen in time while he lights a cigarette and smoke floats in front of his glassy eyes as they look to the sky.
Nye remembered things about each person he photographed, and recalls the memories as he goes through the photographs.
“This is Roy Davis, he played the accordion”
“Oh, this is ‘Honk.’ We called him that because of his cucumber on his head,” referring to the man’s big nose.
“Sylvester, he was a cowboy out of Wyoming. He was full of shit most of the time.”
He could have gone for hours.
* * *
It’s 9:43 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20, and Charlie is wearing a tan shirt, jeans and black suspenders, standing behind the bar cleaning up and organizing a few things as his bartender serves drinks. Sitting at the bar there’s six older gentleman, each of them with a draught and a small stack of cash in front of them.
Charlie turns around and holds up a cardboard poster tube, still sealed with postage tape. He looks at two of his customers as if they were just ordinary old friends and tells them he’s supposed to hang the poster because it has the state’s laws for bartenders. After a small chuckle, he spins right back around and stands it on its end behind the television.
“Here come the glasses,” the bartender says as a UPS deliveryman wheels in four large boxes. Charlie gets up and leaves to show the deliveryman where they go.
Soon after a man walks in holding a credit card and asks the bartender if he can use the phone and she slides it over. The man dials a number and after several failed attempts asks the bartender if he needs to dial nine first.
The guy sitting at the bar with a draught interjects, “It has to be a local call.”
“It’s a 1-800 number” the man replies.
“No, Charlie has restrictions up the ying-yang with that,” he tells the man as if he’s had to explain this to someone once or twice before.
Just before noon in walks a gentleman with long gray hair. He sits down at the bar and the bartender already knows what he wants, a screwdriver.
Patrick Smith, now 56, was the youngest to be photographed by Nye for the Charlie’s collection. It was 1974 and Smith was 23 with long blonde hair, and working construction. His picture is located behind the Fat Tire bicycle on top of the poker machines.
“I had just back from running the running the Grand Canyon. I talked him into it,” Smith recalls. “[Nye] sat you in there, made you look up or down and then you were done. It happened fairly quickly.”
• • •
So there we have it. I turned in Jour494’s final grades Friday afternoon. This week I’ll pack up my car and go. There was a great vibe on the ghostly, gray campus Friday, a feeling I had all but forgotten about: When you’re a student in college and finals are over but you haven’t left for home yet. The power naps, the extra cash in your pocket from selling back all those textbooks, the warmth of crowded bars. The feeling of having crashed ashore and survived.
I’ll be back this week with a FURTHER READING LIST and a farewell to Montana. It’s hard to go.