Category: Southern Culture

A Trip of Many Firsts

Photo by Latoya Shelton
Walkin’ — A contingent from the University of Arkansas at Monticello walks in The Big Apple over Spring Break.

** Editor’s Note: Through the generosity of an unidentified donor and the New York Times’ American Democracy Project, five students from the University of Arkansas at Monticello made a trip to New York City for Media Pro Workshops and the College Media Adviser’s annual spring conference. Four of the five had never ventured north of Missouri; one had never flown. Here’s her story for your late Spring reading.

Photo by Ron Sitton
Lady Liberty — Linna Jones poses in front of the Statue of Liberty. Her trip marked many firsts in her life.

By Linna Jones

Many thoughts ran through my head, while packing for what would be the first plane ride of my life. I took this first flight to New York City and the upper part of the East Coast. I took my first trip to the airport as the passenger and a first of many new experiences. I feared the airline would lose my luggage or I might get motion sickness as I sometime do when traveling by car. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how I would react to the plane and I didn’t know what world was behind those nylon dividers at the top of the stairs, where people checked their ticket to go through to board at the Little Rock National Airport. I watched people going into the nylon maze before, but I never passed that point. I knew everything would be a surprise.

Before the Airport

I started packing in the afternoon of March 11 for the trip; I selected my clothing carefully knowing I might meet many people in the world of journalism.

In the big black rolling nylon suitcase on the floor, I placed the sorted clothing items into the bag starting with my slacks and blue jeans. They filled a narrow rectangular section of the bag, with empty space in the shape of an L around them. Next, I placed my shirts in the L folded neatly as possible to fill the empty space. I folded my black-hooded fleece sweater and placed it in the left corner of the suitcase where the lid opened to expose the inside space.

I then packed my white New Balances wrapped in a Wal-Mart sack to keep them from getting dirt all over the clothes. I placed my toiletries or anything else that would cause a mess if the contents leaked in gallon freezer bags. As always, I packed two Ace bandages just in case I twisted my ankles. In another Wal-Mart sack, I placed three books; two for my literary journalism class and one just to read, if I wanted to.

After I packed all that I thought I needed, I still had a little room in the suitcase so I put a pillow in there, too. I heard that items in suitcases may be displaced during travel and handling, so I shook it to see what would happen inside the suitcase. The contents shifted out of place without the pillow. The pillow steadied the contents and filled-up the empty space.

Just in case, I packed a carry-on with a change of clothes, a pair of shoes I could walk in, a scarf and hat (in case it was cold when we arrived) and my homework that needed to be done.

The next morning, I checked out of my dorm room and went to weigh my suitcase. I parked my car behind the Baptist Collegiate Ministry building on the day of the Wellness Fair. Vehicles packed the parking lot of the John F. Gibson University Center. Jeff Peebles, a Public Safety officer, pulled up by that time in his squad car; he guessed the weight of my suitcase, after picking it up, to be 38 pounds. Peebles overestimated the weight by three pounds; it weighed 35.

I returned to find my Buick Roadmaster blocked in by another car and I tried every possible way to get it out. Eventually Beth Dillard, a resident in my dorm, offered to move the red truck on the right side of the car. I feared I would hit the car behind me by not having help in backing up. Another member of the BCM walked up and he backed it up for me while I watched how close he got to the car. Finally, he backed it out and I thanked him for his help and started on my way to Star City to meet my mother.

I arrived at the Star City Nursing Center 30 minutes later and met my mother and fellow church member Janice Mizell, who rode along to drive my car back home. I entered through the double glass doors and turned down the right wing of the nursing home to visit my grandmother in her room of white cement blocks, white Venetian blinds and tan divider curtains. This time, she didn’t know I was, but I talked to her anyway. “Who are you?” she asked. “I am you ornery old granddaughter,” I said. She looked at the ceiling never turning her head. She often kept her eyes closed, because she is blind. I told her I was going on a trip. She still didn’t know me and at times, decided not to talk. I told her I loved her and I left. I walked down the hall to visit another resident and then I left.

We loaded the car and started on our journey to the airport, but we stopped at my father’s work place to pick him up. My mother drove right by it saying she sometimes missed it and we turned around and turned onto a dusty gravel road. She turned left on another gravel road, out the window we passed barren fields not yet planted for the year. We finally turned in the shop yard, where tractors were parked under open-air tin-roofed sheds and parked in front of the shop with a concrete floor and particleboard walls on the inside. My mother took out the overalls and dress shirt she gathered for my father and he changed. While he changed, I placed my toothbrush and other items I forgot to put in my luggage, out of my black leather carry-on and into my suitcase.

Soon we traveled on our way to Little Rock. Anxious and excited, I looked out on the road and at familiar scenery of empty fields, railroad tracks paralleling the highway and the beginnings signs of Pine Bluff passing by my window. We passed by Pine Bluff and traveled to the Wal-Mart to eat at a Burger King near it. From there, we traveled on to Little Rock and to the airport.

Little Rock National Airport

We arrived at the airport an hour and a half earlier than the 3:30 p.m. meeting time. Mizell and I carried in my carry-on, heavy coat and big black suitcase into the airport. We stopped by a seat where we entered and sat down. My mother and father came in after they parked the van. We sat near the baggage check area for the airlines and watched as families with small children, men and women in business suits and other travelers walked by carrying or rolling their luggage. We sat in front of Delta Airlines check in and I tried to remember which flight our group was scheduled to fly on. I forgot to bring my flight itinerary and it set on my desk in my dorm.

I went and asked about where to check my luggage at Delta Airlines and the attendant ask my name and for my identification. She told me the flight was with Northwest Airlines. I decided to wait for everyone else to arrive before I printed my ticket and checked my luggage.

I kept a close eye on my luggage. I heard of unattended luggage being stolen, even if left for a minute. I sat with my mother, father and Mizell and talked while we waited.

At one point I left them, I felt the need to move, and walked up steps to the gift show on the second floor. I walked in the brightly lit space filled with books, reading materials, candy and snacks, post cards, Razorback memorabilia and other items. While there, I talked to a staff member of an airline. I asked him questions about flying, one of them being, where can I get my wings? “It all depends on the airline and you have to ask the flight attendant,” the man said. We spoke for a little longer and parted. Before I left, I bought two packages of peanut butter and crackers for the plane in case I needed them. I waited to buy water until I was on the other side of the nylon maze. I descended the stairs and again joined my party and continued waiting.

Soon after, everyone arrived and we checked our bags. We walked down to the end of the room to the Northwest Airlines’ counter. I waited in line and showed my ID to the attendant and he even didn’t weigh my bag. He lifted and said it weighed below 50 pounds. “How can you tell?” I asked. “I deal with bags all day, I know,” he said. I didn’t question him and then tried to print out my tickets, and didn’t have a clue about what to do.

After I asked what to do, I slid my debit card in the machine and with help found my way through screen taps I printed my ticket. I collected one and walked off thinking I had all of them. I didn’t and a woman called my name and said I left my ticket. I thanked her and put the tickets into an envelope and safely into my purse.

I then stood in line to have my luggage scanned, which was by the ticket machines and divided lanes of the Northwest counter. They took my luggage. Ronald Sitton, the journalism adviser, collected numbers from the parents of the students just in case something happened.

Pretty soon, the time arrived to go and I handed my keys over to my mother. It felt strange not to have them hanging from my belt loop, but I decided not to take the chance and lose them. “Have fun and be careful,” mom said. “I love you.” I hugged my mother, father and Mizell and walked off with the group to get ready to board the plane.

Photo by Latoya Shelton
St. Paul’s Chapel — Flanked by Danielle Thomas and adviser Ronald Sitton, Linna listens intently to UAM alumnus Chester Johnson describe St. Paul’s Chapel’s role in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and Ground Zero.

The Nylon Maze

The second floor of the Little Rock National Airport hosts a gift shop, a restaurant and the entrance to the terminal. Looking at it, the nylon strips and the poles extended from the beginning of the little room to the scanning machine. The strips and poles reminded me of a maze. I looked at this barrier before as a person merely dropping someone off, but I never walked into it, only away. It seemed like a mystery, a portal into another world. I walked up with three other members of my group and waited in line to get our tickets checked.

As I waited I watched the man checking tickets; he looked like he enjoyed his job. He laughed and joked with the passengers as he looked at the tickets. When I finally reached him, he greeted me with cheerful tone and expression. He looked at my ID and asked, “Did you know your license was about to expire?” I said I knew, but I didn’t have time to renew it. I also knew I would be back in the state of Arkansas before it expired. We spoke for a few more moments and I walked through the maze of nylon bands

The room where they scanned seemed blank with only white, black and grey as the color scheme. I approached where they scanned the luggage and other personal items; I watched a man remove his shoes and contents from his pocket and place them in a grey plastic container. A woman working with the TSA, the security for the airport, repeatedly shouted a warning “Remove all liquids and gels from you carry-on. If you don’t you will hold up people behind you,” the woman said. Danielle Kloap, a fellow classmate, dug into her bag and pulled out a bottle of water. The woman told her to throw it away. Kloap looked unhappy about this, but she threw it away. She removed her shoes and placed them in the plastic bin with the contents of her pockets her purse and her gels and liquids.

When a free space opened up on the counter, I picked up a bin. I removed my shoes and placed them in the bin along with my purse and coat. I guided the bin and my carry-on to the scanning machine and put it on the conveyor belt when they told me. I walked through the metal detectors, and collected my things on the other side.

I picked up my carry-on, coat, cell phone, purse and other items from the bin and put on my black loafers. I almost stopped for a minute, surprised by a long room with multiple sitting areas for the flight gates and restaurant for people to eat. I followed Kloap, Michael Thomas and Michael Ford, because I did not want to be left behind or lost. They stopped at Quiznos. I bought a bottle and I paid $2.62. For some reason the price didn’t shock me; I somehow expected it to be high. I placed the water in my purse and walked to keep up with the group to get to our flight gate.

The Flight

The time soon arrived to board, each passenger showed the flight personnel their ticket and they scanned it. The group and I walked down this long tunnel, which connected to the door of the plane. I carefully stepped into the plane and a room that looked like a long tube met my eyes. Blue seats three wide lined the sides of the plane creating a narrow aisle. Passengers found their seats and put their luggage in the overhead compartments.

I sat between Latoya Shelton and Kloap and it looked like we were close to the wing. Shelton sat down first and then I clumsily sat down and then placed my luggage underneath the seat in front of me. Shelton looked at me “You’ve never flown before have you?” she asked. “No,” I said. I soon found my seat belt and put it on. I remember staring ahead looking at the interior of the plane and it felt like the plane was moving, creeping at a slow pace. I looked out the window and saw the ground moving like a movie, except I was the one moving. I watched the ground and the people or objects move out of the window as they taxied the plane onto the runway.

When it reached the runway, I heard the engine power up and felt the plane slowly gain speed and rise. Each time the plane ascended, my stomach felt like a gymnast doing back flips. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths to ease the queasy feeling in my stomach. My head felt like it was about to explode from the pressure, but the gum I chewed helped. The plane soon leveled off and I pulled out my journal to write down some notes and occasionally I looked out the window.

The plane passed over fields and waterways. The view reminded me of the satellite view on Google Maps or a patchwork quilt of greens, browns, blues and whites sewn together with turn rows, and drainage ditches. I looked at one of the fields as we passed and it had water furrows, wavy lines, like a rice field.

In about an hour, the plane reached Memphis, Tenn. I looked through the window and at the earth to see the city, which looked like a mini city built by a child from Lego blocks. I saw a silver pyramid out the window and as the plane turned in the sky, I saw it from multiple angles. When the plane was finally cleared to land the details of the landscape, houses, cars and even the side of a FedEx truck became more readable.

We arrived at Memphis International Airport around 5 p.m., but a delayed flight kept us there for two hours.

To New York

The plane soon arrived to carry us to LaGuardia and the island of Manhattan. The passengers boarded the plane and the plane allowed passengers a little room to move. Kloap and I moved to different rows than the number on our tickets read and I sat comfortably with three seats to myself. The nauseating feelings I felt the first time didn’t happen this time. I sat by the window watching the ground move beneath the plane.

During the two-hour trip, I attempted to do a little homework and completed some of it.

I looked out of the window, when the plane approached New York City. I looked at the glow of the lights and saw patterns among the buildings, street lamps and other illuminating devices. As we flew around the island of Manhattan, I saw the tall buildings, and the lady liberty herself. I took pictures of the lights from the view out of my window and prayed the pictures would turn out all right; they didn’t.

As the plane flew lower to the ground my head felt like a balloon with too much air. I popped one of my ears, but I couldn’t pop the other one. The captain came on the intercom announcing our arrival and said the weather was about 30-40 degrees, colder than when we left Tennessee. The plane finally landed and we exited the plane and went to collect our luggage. After finding all of it, we rented a SuperShuttle van to take us to The Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Avenue at 45th Street.

In New York

My view of New York City came somewhat from the movies and television shows I watched. I expected it to be cleaner; I don’t know why. The height of the buildings amazed me for the first few days and then the older buildings fascinated me more with their architecture and style.

The buildings made me feel small, but it was the people I met and some of the things I experienced that really stood out in my mind. St. Paul’s Chapel stood out among all of the tall buildings. From the outside, the chapel looked small among the high rises around it, but the inside made some of the biggest churches I’ve seen look tiny. I felt like I was walking with the forefathers of our great nation and the volunteers and firefighters of Sept. 11. Chester Johnson explained what happened during the attacked on the World Trade Centers and how St. Paul’s Chapel helped when they were needed most.

Times Square — Linna stands on Times Square, which is a long way from Gould, Ark. (Photo by Sitton)

For the longest time, I wanted to see a Broadway play. I got my chance to see one the night of March 15 and proved to myself that I could walk New York City by myself. I knew “Mary Poppins” might be playing in New York from a friend who saw it in London told me it was coming to the United States. By this time, I walked with others to Times Square enough to know where I was going, but I was still unsure. I wanted to see the show and after a nap, I bought a map and asked for the best way to get there. A bellhop at The Roosevelt Hotel showed me on the map and I began my walk to the discount ticket booth, where I thought I needed to buy my ticket. I passed the familiar sights on my way to my destination. When I arrived, I found out I needed to purchase the ticket at the theater. When I asked where it was he told me it and then I asked what was near it. He told me to look for “Champs.”

I started my walk and asked a couple of times if I was going in the right direction. I soon saw the word “Champs” in red lights and turned right. I saw the New Amsterdam Theatre and to my surprise a McDonald’s I saw on the Food Channel one day. It looked like a theater, too, all-lit up in lights. I remembered the cable program saying they changed a large amount of light bulbs to keep the thing lit.

I walked up to the theater and up to the ticket booths and asked the cost of tickets for Saturday and Sunday nights. The man quoted a Sunday ticket being $120, and then he said there was a ticket for $80 in the mezzanine section that night. I said I would take it. I pulled out a $100 bill and paid for the ticket. I looked at my watch; it read 7:30 p.m. and the show started at 8 p.m. I went next door and bought a chicken club sandwich. The inside of the restaurant looked like the backstage of a theater, just like the program described. I soon returned to the New Amsterdam Theatre. I rode the elevator to the mezzanine section of the theater and found my seat. I waited for the show to start.

Two women and a man from Spain sat in my row. I tried to talk to a woman beside me and found out she didn’t speak English. The young woman with an accent explained that her mother didn’t speak English and the daughter often translated for me. I tried to speak to her in what Spanish I remembered, but I used broken Spanish and probably slang.

The play soon began and color met my eyes and the beautiful music and talent met my ears as I watched and listened to the performance. I remembered some of the scenes from the collector’s program I saw over a year ago and looked at my own. At times, I sang along with the actors and other times I just soaked all of the color and song I could in my mind.

After the night of the play, New York City poured out new sites. I watched another play: “Chicago.” I met a woman and other volunteers who collected money for the homeless and an elderly woman who watched the crowd carefully to cross the street in safety. I walked across with her. I looked upon the face of the Statue of Liberty and felt short standing beside a bronze replica of her face. I only came up to the wide part of her nose.
I even tried a little white wine, only two sips though, but I will save that story for another time.

Troubled Actor Brad Renfro Dies at 25

We do not cover a lot of celebrity, tabloid-style news on this Web Press, but it’s different if we know someone who pops up in the news, especially when that someone dies tragically and unexpectedly.

Brad Renfro, the young actor from Knoxville, Tennessee who broke into the movies from a DARE theater program for troubled kids in the 1990s with a major role in “The Client,” based on John Grisham’s novel, was found dead Tuesday morning in Los Angeles. He was 25.

The cause of death was not immediately determined, according to sources, but an autopsy was planned. Renfro had reportedly been partying with friends the night before, which is not surprising, since that’s how he spent a lot of his time based on my experience knowing him in Knoxville from 1996-2000.

He was a nice, soft spoken and even shy young man. As well as showing some talent as an actor, he was a decent guitar player who showed up for the Wednesday night weekly blues jam at Sassy Ann’s on a regular basis. I played the drums several times in the same ad hoc combination, and partied with him a number of times, but never really got close to him. He came from a relatively poor and troubled home and could be quite distant when asked questions about himself and his family.

I tried several times to do a formal interview with him but he always declined.

Renfro’s lawyer, Richard Kaplan, told the Associated Press he was on the road to recovery from addiction.

“He was working hard on his sobriety,” Kaplan said. “He was doing well. He was a nice person.”

Renfro recently completed a role in “The Informers,” a film adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel that stars Winona Ryder, Brandon Routh and Billy Bob Thornton, according to the AP.

“Brad was an exceptionally talented young actor and our time spent with him was thoroughly enjoyable,” Marco Weber, president of the film’s production house, Senator Entertainment, said in a statement.

Renfro had his share of run-ins with the law over the years. He served 10 days in jail in May 2006 after pleading no contest to driving while intoxicated and guilty to attempted possession of heroin after being arrested on Skid Row while attempting to buy heroin from an undercover agent in 2005. He was placed on probation in January 2001 and ordered to pay $4,000 for repairs to a 45-foot yacht he and a friend tried to steal in Florida in August 2000, the month I left Knoxville for New Orleans.

I was told a wave of crack addictions hit Knoxville about that time and destroyed the lives of a number of talented musicians from East Tennessee.

He was arrested again in May 2001 and charged with underage drinking, violating the terms of his probation, and was ordered into alcohol rehabilitation the following March.

In 1998, Renfro was charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana. He avoided jail time in that case due to a plea deal, aided in part by his sponsors in the DARE program and in Hollywood.

His other movie credits included “Sleepers” and “Deuces Wild,” as well as “Apt Pupil” and “The Jacket.”

AP: Troubled Actor Brad Renfro Dies at 25

Crazy In Alabama?

Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson

Have you ever wondered why so many movies depicting the South also contain an underlying crazy theme?

I guess that’s what they think of us in New York and LA.

One of my favorites is Crazy in Alabama, featured on HBO recently. It’s a comedy-drama released in 1999 written by Mark Childress, based on his own 1993 novel of the same name. It stars Melanie Griffith as an abused wife who flees small town life in the South for California to become a movie star – with her dead husband Chester’s head in a hat box.

Meanwhile back in Alabama, her nephew, the story’s narrator, has to contend with a racially-motivated murder involving a corrupt sheriff during the Civil Rights Era.

It’s an interesting model for any would-be Southern writer thinking of trying to get New York editors interested in stories that will also play well on the big screen.

I’ve been mining the movie field of late thinking of stories to tell myself.

One of my favorite books written by a Southern author and then made into a movie is The Prince of Tides, based on a 1986 novel by Pat Conroy.

It tells the story of the narrator’s struggle to overcome the psychological damage inflicted by his dysfunctional childhood in South Carolina and stars Nick Nolte as a football coach and Barbra Streisand as a New York psychiatrist. While changes to the film upset some Conroy purists, it was a box office smash and put Streisand on the map as a director. It was also recently featured on HBO.

Conroy is probably the premier Southern author of the late 20th century whose work has been both financially successful and also acclaimed in literary circles, unlike John Grisham’s work, which is relegated to the legal thriller genre. In spite of the film’s flaws, The Prince of Tides does capture both the character of the South and New York in the introspective times of the 1980s, making it an irresistible tale that will last – like Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.

But neither of those movies is what draws me to the keyboard tonight.

I doubt if it qualifies for the National Film Registry, but another innocent little tale caught my attention today. Sometimes when the cable offerings are weak, it’s worth stopping on the story of Doc Hollywood, or Dr. Ben Stone, played by Michael J. Fox, not my favorite actor by a long-shot.

My first column mug shot: Hotter than MJF?

But in this one, which reminds me of a story from my own life, he plays a hotshot young doctor who longs to leave the drudgery of the emergency room and finally leaps at his chance at more money and less work on the West Coast. But along the way he gets off the Interstate and smashes his 1956 Porsche Roadster into a judge’s fence and is forced into community service at the small town of Grady, South Carolina’s general hospital.

There he meets and falls in love with an ambulance driver named Viloula but called “Lou,” sexy and smart and played by Julie Warner, who has in incredible nude scene emerging from one of Grady’s famous fishing lakes. The town is also known for its squash, which the mayor uses to explain a slice of life in his attempt to lure the doc to stay in town – as he bets him $10 that he will not score with Lou.

The story is perhaps just a bit too cute for serious movie critics. But it reminds me of a time when I was 23-years-old and just out of college working in a small town at my first professional newspaper reporting job.

It was 1984. The town was Bay Minette, Alabama. The paper was The Baldwin Times.

Upon graduating from the University of Alabama in Bear Bryant’s last year, I had lofty goals of one day working for a great newspaper like the New York Times. But in those days, the mobility of college students was far more limited than it is today.

I advised students at Loyola New Orleans from 2000-2002 who were able to make the leap to New York, DC and LA. But being poor and from Alabama during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, and George Wallace’s last term as governor, some of the best opportunities to break into newspapering came working for weeklies in small towns across the South.

The movie about Grady reminds me of those times, not because the stories are totally similar, but because some of the experiences and emotions ring true of being a young person trying to decide whether to make a life in a small town, where the living can be easy but perhaps not so lucrative, or making a break for the big city life and the big time bucks.

I also have to laugh at all the machinations people in small Southern towns will go to trying to lure young professionals to stay. This kind of scene plays out, still, in many towns across the country, as the out migration of the young and educated continues apace today. It is as true of Alabama today as it was in 1984, I’m sure, and can lead to some incredibly funny stories.

There’s not enough space and time here to tell them all. Maybe one day if I get around to writing a memoir.

Let’s just say I had a number of experiences with young women there, like Lou, who either wanted to seduce me to stay in Bay Minette – or to hook up with someone who could get them out.

I’m thinking of one particular young woman now about my age at the time who openly displayed a crush on me. I won’t reveal her name. She may still be there – or maybe she got out.

One night she displayed this crush a little too openly at a Christmas party, held at the Holly Hills Country Club, when, after a few too many glasses of wine, she tripped on the hem of her long dress and fell right into my arms. It was a classic scene of a drunken Southern debutante right out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Tom Wolfe novel. As she fell toward me – and I still recall the scene in real-life slow motion, in part probably due to my own inebriation – the top of her bright red dress slipped down off her left breast, fully exposing the nipple for virtually everyone at the party to see.

It bordered on a scandal, since she also happened to be the chamber of commerce president’s daughter, making her the perfect ambassador to try grabbing me for life. Perhaps like Doc Hollywood I should have more actively pursued that road, but there were complications.

Now at 50, do I harbor any regrets about leaving small town life there?

Only one. And it happened many years later.

In 2002, back when it was announced that the Alabama governor’s race results came down to 3,000 votes in Bay Minette, I went back there from New Orleans for The New York Times – to investigate the election.

But when Siegelman conceded, I was pulled out of Bay Minette and sent back to New Orleans.

Knowing what I know now, since the Jill Simpson affidavit came to light, I wish I had stayed and worked my sources. I learned how to cover a courthouse and develop sources there, in that courthouse. It was the best school in the world for getting hands-on experience in that world, in more ways than one. Don’t even ask about the secretaries in those days.

But of course it takes time and money to really work a story like the election, just as it takes time and money to work up a full scale relationship with a fine smart woman – in a small town or anywhere else.

And in the news game, there ain’t never enough time – or money.

Life blogs on…

Now that I think about it, there’s plenty of craziness to go around and write about in this world. And it’s not all in the South.

I’m thinking now of a crazy New York editor, a woman, in part a figment of my imagination.

And I’m also thinking, if I had stayed in Bay Minette, either time, none of this would have ever happened – the good or the bad. Perhaps there is no stopping fate in any event – if there is such a thing.

I’m not convinced.

Life is not like a box of chocolates or cherries. It’s more like a full-blown meal.

How good it turns out to be any given time is complicated and turns on choices and chance, luck and timing.

It can be as scrumptious as the fried green tomatoes in mushroom sauce at Jacquimo’s in New Orleans, or as spare as the BLT at the drugstore in Bay Minette.

And I’m convinced, politics and government do matter – in all kinds of ways many people don’t even seem to fathom, certainly not in a crazy place like Alabama. Maybe you have to be a little crazy to try to break out – or to try making a difference here.

Maybe you have to be a little crazy to try making art – or a living – as a writer in this world, if you didn’t start out in it rich.

I can only wish good luck to the striking writers in New York and LA. I hope they win that fight to get part of the proceeds from sales on the Web Press. One of these days maybe I’ll get a share of my own in that world, after we get rid of George W. Bush.

I understand Childress did it while working a day gig at Southern Living, not exactly a bastion of great journalism.

Long live the movies…

Norman Mailer Dies at 84

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer shown at a lecture entitled ‘The 20th Century on Trial’ at the New York Public Library on June 27, 2007.

by Glynn Wilson

It is hard to believe Norman Mailer is dead.

I just met him in September on a subway ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and I had planned on writing him a long letter after studying the Harper’s magazine article that became the Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night.

The article, The Steps of the Pentagon, and the book, deals with a protest march on the Pentagon in Washington Mailer was sent to cover as a journalist for Harper’s, edited at that time by Willie Morris of Mississippi, the youngest editor in the storied magazine’s history.

While other practitioners of “New Journalism” such as George Plimpton, Truman Capote (an Alabama native), Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese (who attended the University of Alabama) were pioneering the non-fiction novel, also referred to as “creative non-fiction” or “literary journalism,” Mailer uses the occasion of the protest march and his arrest and night spent in jail to do his own version of self-portrait, taking off on the Vietnam War. But since Morris had his doubts about the use of first person in the magazine, Mailer wrote the piece in the third person, referring to himself as the protagonist.

Now anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper or a magazine knows that there are few editors who will allow a writer to use first person to place himself in the story, since that flies in the face of the economic definition of objectivity used by American news organizations. But using the third person is even more rare, although Mailer, being the combative, controversial and outspoken character that he was, not only got away with it. He won a Pulitzer Prize as a result and has been praised for it by the likes of the New York Times, which says in the lead to his feature obituary today that Mailer “loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation.”

NYT: Norman Mailer, Outspoken Novelist, Dies at 84

The Associated Press is also leading it’s AP A wire this morning with Mailer’s obit.

AP: Norman Mailer Dead at Age 84

And you can learn more from this free online encyclopedia entry on Mailer.

Wikipedia: Norman Mailer

Here’s my story on meeting him, which I never ran before now because I was not positively sure it was him. Now that I see the AP photo of him from earlier this year, however, there’s no doubt it was him.

On A Personal Encounter With Norman Mailer

After following Jill Simpson to Washington, D.C. to be there for her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in the political prosecution of Don Siegelman, I decided to make the four hour trek to New York and spend a few days there on my extended fall trip this year.

(You can read more about that trip from the September archives.)

The plan was to run into a former protégé of mine from my time in the master’s program at the University of Alabama in the mid-1990s who lives in Brooklyn. And the plan was to meet in person with Scott Horton of Harper’s magazine blog fame and Joe Conason at The Nation Institute to further cement my relationship with them on covering big stories out of the American South.

I crossed into Manhattan after sundown on Monday, Sept. 17, and got into Brooklyn in time for some food, beer (and a special Coney Island refreshment) before crashing for the night in a basement apartment in an old Jewish neighborhood not far from where Mailer was born and raised.

The next day, I called up Scott Horton and arranged to meet him at the Union Station Oyster Bar for an appetizer and a few glasses of wine. We talked about the Siegelman case, Jill Simpson and the funny state of Alabama, and then I got back on the subway for the 30 to 40 minute ride back to Brooklyn.

As I sat in the back of a subway car and looked out the window over the East River at the Statue of Liberty off in the distance, I noticed four old men just a few seats in front of me laughing and talking and having a good time. One of them looked exactly like the photograph on this page, and I began to study his face. Could it really be Norman Mailer?

I had started up a conversation with an attractive, exotic young woman and hated to interrupt it, but I just had to know for sure if I was riding the subway with Norman Mailer. So I asked her: “Do you think that could possibly be him?”

She had no idea who I was talking about, so I got out of my seat, approached the man, and asked: “Are you Norman Mailer?”

I immediately felt a little guilty, since I hate it when I see and hear stories about tourists approaching famous people and bugging them in public. He did not answer right away, but smiled and looked at his compatriots. I looked at them too and mouthed the words: “Is this him?” The one who made the most eye contact with me glanced at Mailer to make sure he was not looking and gave me a little wink and a nod in the affirmative.

I tried to get a conversation started by telling them that I was a visiting writer from Alabama who was a big fan of Mailer and Willie Morris, thinking that might get him to open up and talk to me.

In fact, I mentioned that I had recently taken a trip to Oxford, Mississippi where David Rae Morris had a show in a gallery there with many pictures of his dad Willie Morris.

(You can read my column on that trip here: Escaping Shadows: The South as a Backdrop for Art).

Instead of engaging me, Mailer started speaking Yiddish and making a joke with his buddies, probably about my Southern accent and knowing I would not be able to understand a word they were saying. I was still not 100 percent sure it was him, sitting there holding a walking cane and a folding chair.

I just stood there holding onto the silver pole in the subway car listening to them cut up, but when their jibberish slowed down and then took a long pause, I asked the man I thought was Mailer what he did.

“What do I do?” he said with a New York accent, looking right at my face good for the first time, almost angrily.

Then, looking down at the chair he was clutching in his old, wrinkled hands, then back up at me with a smile and a remarkable twinkle in his old blue eyes, he said, “Mostly I sit.”

“Sit?” I asked, joining in the fun. “Where do you like to sit? And what do you do while you are sitting?”

“I sit down on Broadway and watch the girls walk by,” he said, cracking up his friends.

It had been a beautiful fall day for sitting outside and watching people, so it made perfect sense.

The men kept on speaking in Yiddish and joking around and I figured I had interrupted their fun enough, so I said good night and went back to my seat in the back of the car by the exotic young woman.

When I got back to Alabama, I looked up Mailer in Wikipedia and in the Harper’s magazine archives and read “The Steps of the Pentagon.” It was then that I realized what Mailer had accomplished writing about himself in the third person.

Like Truman Capote or Hunter S. Thompson, I am more comfortable writing in first person, but the style of journalism is often the same. A writer who places himself in the action of the story goes beyond mere objective journalism and is able to construct a more readable and complete narrative coverage of events. And that is what this Web site is often dedicated to doing.

Le׳hitra׳ot, Norman Mailer. You were a great American character. You will be missed.

Escaping Shadows: The South as a Backdrop for Art

Photo by Glynn Wilson
David Rae Morris in front of the Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi and the image of his father, the writer Willie Morris.

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means, and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again… Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal… This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.
– William Faulkner, from Lion in the Garden, 1968.


Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson

OXFORD, Miss., July 28 – Like overcoming our fears in life, escaping shadows is something we all must face – or die trying.

Driving across the landscape of northwest Alabama out of the shadow of Birmingham’s dark past and into the light of a place in Mississippi known for its literary giants, who cast shadows of their own for others to escape, it is the shadow of the South itself I long to escape. It may sound funny, but the only way I know how to do that these days is to drive a Chevy van with a canoe on top from one part of the South to another in search of stories and pictures.

Photo by Dave Stueber
Writer Glynn Wilson at the grave of William Faulkner in St. Peter’s Cemetary in Oxford, Mississippi.

It is hard to get away when some fortune teller long ago said, and she turned out to be right so far: “You will always be tied to this region, in spite of all your efforts to escape.”

Elvis Presley escaped by picking up a guitar and singing his way into history, although like a lot of us, he never really left.

The writer Willie Morris escaped by going off to school in Oxford, England and by going to New York, as all great American writers have done in the past. Morris regretted never having met Elvis, even though they were about the same age and both from Mississippi.

For David Rae Morris, an artist and photographer with indelible ties to this place even though you get the feeling he would like to escape it, his ultimate search for escape has been in some ways like the journey of the children of Elvis Presley, the attempted escape from a famous personage, his father.

Although in David Rae’s case, the shadow of Willie Morris the writer and teacher is not so towering as the shadow of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who is known by so many people across the globe that the shotgun house of his birth in nearby Tupelo, Mississippi, along with the museum and chapel built there, stays busy year around.

So David Rae’s journey seems to have been as technically if not emotionally as easy as a lazy float down the Mississippi River into New Orleans. At least that’s where he found a city to call home that almost compared to the one he was born in, London, and the one he was raised in and would always judge other cities by, New York.

But it may very well be that the town where he is most accepted and welcome is Oxford, Mississippi, also known as the “Little Easy,” where the descendants of the people who knew William Faulkner knew Willie Morris better than anywhere else, including those in his home town of Yazoo, Mississippi.

Many of the photographs on display at the Southside Gallery on Oxford’s town circle, also known by locals as the “center of the universe,” show Willie Morris here, in black and white. Walking with his dog Pete, pointing a drunken finger at his son holding the camera, posing by Faulkner’s grave or gazing into the Southern horizon, the images show an extraordinary and contradictory man mostly past his prime.

Yet he seems content in his Southerness, more at home at the University of Mississippi teaching writing than he claims to have been in New York in the 1960s as the youngest editor in the history of Harper’s magazine in its heyday.

So what was it like to be the son of Willie Morris before he died in September, 1999? Who was this man who cast such a shadow over his son that it took him almost eight years after his death to address the world on the question in black and white?

“Which Willie Morris,” David Rae asks, looking around at the photographs. It is, to be sure, a broad and general question that begs for an abstraction, not a concrete answer, about a man with a multi-faceted personality.

The photographs are part of the exhibit “Willie and Katrina,” on display at the Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi from July 9 to August 4. The second half of the show, which is overshadowed by the enduring images of Willie Morris, show the devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, America’s worst ever natural disaster.

While Willie was alive, David Rae says he never really saw his father as major subject of his work. One of the most enduring images in the show, the one used on the invitation, shows Willie walking with his dog Pete in the cemetery where Faulkner is buried. It was taken while the young photographer was trying to figure out how to shoot abstract, art photographs of cemeteries.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” David Rae says. “But now it knocks my socks off.”

It must have taken awhile after his father’s death for David Rae to be able to deal with the idea that he was in possession of a series of interesting images of an important literary figure. Going back and finding the photographs and putting the show together must have been somewhat cathartic.

“I’m happy now I have the pictures,” he says.

Later, at the opening party after the gallery reception, I tried again to find out more about the father-son relationship, setting it up with the story of what I remember of my own father who died at the age of 47 when I was only 15.

Was he a strict Southern father like mine or more lassie faire?

“He would tell me what he thought,” he said. “But he would always be supportive of me, no matter what I did. He was supportive, but I was always trying to get out from under that shadow.”

Always curious about politics, I had to ask about Willie’s. I know David Rae’s from all the time spent talking about it over Friday lunches at the Rendon Inn in Mid-City New Orleans during the four years I spent there. And it’s not much different from his dad’s.

According to his self-portrait in the memoir New York Days, Willie Morris called himself a “Jefferson Democrat.”

“He would absolutely hate George Bush,” David Rae said. “He loved Bill Clinton.”

And I suspect he would have railed against Alberto Gonzales and the way he has run the Bush Justice Department.

Since Willie was known as practical joker and to be something of a party animal, a fun-loving drinker, I asked David Rae why he does not imbibe. He quit drinking a few years ago, he said, “Because it was the best thing for me.”

Maybe that was part of getting out from under that shadow, a shadow that may have contributed to causing his father to lose out on a longer stint at the Big Time in New York, although you won’t read that in any of the official biographies.

He left Harper’s because of an age-old story in the media business: New owners more interested in higher profits, not necessarily in funding the creation of art, literature – or great new journalism.

It may say something that he ended up in Oxford and died at the same age as Faulkner.

Townsfolk and university people sometimes repeat the town’s unofficial motto, “We may not win every game, but we ain’t never lost a party.”

The university’s most enduring cheer in football season goes:

Hotty Toddy gosh almighty,
who in the Hell are we?
Hey! Flim flam bim bam
Ole Miss by damn!”

Although in an anomaly of history, and one of the few knocks on the place I could find, is the fact that cold beer is not sold in Oxford. It is said the former mayor owned the ice company and no one has bothered to try to change the ordinance.

Oxford, in Lafayette County, lies in the rolling hills of North Mississippi about 80 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The primary employer and central to the area’s character and economy is the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as “Ole Miss.” The town and the county served as the inspiration for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha county.

The small town is widely known for its Southern charm, Old South feel, party atmosphere, and of course its beautiful women, which even Hugh Hefner of Playboy called “the finest in the world,” according to the Wikipedia entry on the town. I can attest to the truth of that statement after just a few hours hanging out in Oxford and looking around, even in the middle of summer when most of the college coeds are away at the beach or back home at the pool.

The place is also considered a major literary center, and it is often said that everyone in town is “a lawyer, a writer or both.” Famous author John Grisham still owns a house here.

Willie was not a lawyer, but he was a rebel, and one of the most important writers to come out of Mississippi and spend considerable time in Oxford.

Photo by Glynn Wilson
William Faulkner’s house at Rowan Oak, the writer’s estate just blocks from the courthouse circle in Oxford, Mississippi.

I think, like a lot of writers, Willie Morris tried to live by something Faulkner said in his speech to the Nobel Prize committee. He said a writer “must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

According to a woman in town named Milly who knew him, “Willie lived the way he wanted to live.”

If any of his friends had tried to say something to change that, according to David Rae, “They would have been banned from the inner circle” of folks who got to hang around with Willie.

Maybe that’s important for all of us to remember, to live like we want to live.

Elvis surely did it and died too young of a drug overdose. In New York Days, Willie describes Elvis as the biggest Southern rebel of them all.

“Elvis Presley was a revolutionary from Tupelo,” he writes. “In Elvis the incipient young white rebels found an early expression more subversive by far than Kerouac, Ginsberg … and all the beatniks.”

Writing for Southern Magazine in 1986, not long after returning to his native state from New York, Morris wrote: “There is much of the South … I wish I could escape forever.” Chief among them, he said, lay “…every manifestation of institutionalized, right-wing, fundamentalist religion, richer and more pervasive than it ever was. To escape the South, however – all of what it was and is – I would have to escape from myself.”

Maybe David Rae Morris will never fully escape the shadow of his father, because to do so, he would have to escape from himself.

Maybe I will never escape the South, because that would mean going somewhere I have no frame of reference. As flawed as it is, as backwards and at times downright infuriating, the South is a place with a history that serves as a backdrop for art.

Photo by Glynn Wilson
The house Elvis was born in is now the centerpiece of a museum and shrine to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Exhibit Features Photographs of Willie Morris, Hurricane Katrina

Award-winning photographer David Rae Morris will present “Willie and Katrina” at the Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi July 9 to Aug. 4.

The first half of the exhibit, “Willie Morris in Oxford,” is a series of portraits he took of his late father, the noted writer Willie Morris, in the early 1980s. The second half, “The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” is a sample of Morris’ extensive coverage of the storm and the resulting tragedy that has befallen his adopted city of New Orleans.

Although he evacuated the city two days before Katrina made landfall on August 29th, 2005, Morris returned almost immediately, first to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and then into New Orleans in early September.

“The only way for me to make any sense of what had happened, was to throw myself into my work,” Morris said. “New Orleanians are a very resilient bunch. The designers of the levees and flood walls failed us, the federal government has failed us, and our local leaders have failed us. We are truly on our own.”

An exhibition of portraits of his father was already on the schedule at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans for the Spring of 2006 when Katrina struck.After almost two years of non-stop coverage of the aftermath of the storm, Morris turned his attention back to the portraits of his father. The majority of the 25 black and white photographs, were made between 1980 and 1985.

“I’m moving from one emotional mine field to another,” he said. “There’s a lot going on in these photographs. My father had returned home to live in Mississippi after almost 30 years in self-imposed exile, and I was in college and still trying to determine my own direction as a photographer.”

At the same time, his relationship with his father was also undergoing a transformation.

“As a young man in my early 20s, I was trying to establish my own independence and I often used the camera as a way of setting new boundaries,” he said.

The images range from his father’s walks with his beloved black Lab, Pete, behind William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, to driving in the country, to staying up late with friends at his new house at 16 Faculty Row on the Ole Miss Campus.

A reception will be held July 26, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. An expanded exhibit of the Morris’ portraits of his father entitled “Letters From My Father,” will open at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans October 6th, and continue through December 2007.

Willie Morris from North Toward Home

To see one image, go to: WilliePete.jpg.

Willie Morris and The Southerner magazine

When Southern American writer Willie Morris died on Aug. 2, 1999, at the age of 64, I was the editor and publisher of a new online magazine called The Southerner at Southerner.Net. We put out a special issue on Morris with some of the top writers in the country weighing in on this special character in Southern literary history.

This was the first attempt in the world, as far as we know, to develop a Website that tried to live up to certain standards of a print magazine, down to a cover photo and printable content. The style of it seems sort of antiquated now, although it is an interesting look at the early days of the Web. We even had maybe the first audio file ever linked from a Website, an interview I did with author Gay Talese. You can still listen to it.

If you don’t know who Willie Morris is, here’s one way to find out.

The Southerner: A Tribute to Willie Morris

One Night at the White Water

NORTH LITTLE ROCK (June 1) – Believe it or not, I still get out to live music on occasion. Just not as much as I’d like.

Two weeks ago, I missed the Towncraft festival. I really wanted to catch the reunions of Ashtray Babyhead and Mulehead, as well as see Ho-Hum again. But I suffered from finals-lag. Instead, I get to see video clips here and there.

Original art for GRASSMUSIC for the Era

But I did take the time to catch a second reunion of sorts. But first a little background. Back in the mid-’90s, I met Chuck Brouillette, who introduced me to Jeff Davis and Mark Jones. Jeff and Mark played guitar in Grass, a blues-rock band that occasionally played around town. Chuck, Mark and I worked at Friday’s. We all hung out with Micah Hall, Ron Hollis and Doug Morgan on the corner of JFK and McCain in North Little Rock. Those were crazy times.Read more: One Night at the White Water

A Retirement Home For Out of Work Journalists?

The newspaper industry is in trouble, and in no measure, it’s because of out of touch people like William Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News who also publishes a blog.

His latest misinformed missive was the lead story today on the Poynter Institute’s media blog put together by a little guy named Jim Romenesko.

Romenesko: Your daily fix of media industry news, commentary, and memos.

First, here’s some of what he had to say, followed by my response.

I’m a fan of some conspiracy theories. And so really, what could be a more compelling conspiracy theory than the plot to destroy the American newspaper, hatched – in our imagination anyway – by a secret cabal of bloggers and Web gurus meeting in a diner off Calle Ocho in Miami, then launching their assault on circulation from a Grassy Knoll somewhere in cyberspace?

Except this is one conspiracy that can be easily debunked. The American newspaper is being assassinated by “a lone nut.” And we’re going to tell you the name of that lone nut:

Craig Newmark of Craigslist . . . a man whose altruistic vision of running a business to NOT maximize profits is now threatening the livelyhood of thousands of working men and women across this country, your neighbors who work at and publish your local newspaper, jobs that were once supported by the classified ads that have migrated to the most free . . . Craigslist (sic: dot org).

Last week, Newmark’s co-conspirator (OK, he’s not a totally “lone” nut) – his CEO Jim Buckmaster – told stunned Wall Street analysts how they’re happy to forego profits to save you a couple of bucks on a classified ad, and put some of my best friends on the unemployment line in the process. They even leave on the table money in ways that wouldn’t come directly from their customers:

If you won’t charge customers for ads, and apparently you won’t, then at least start accepting those text ads, and funnel those millions of dollars into the newly formed Craig’s Foundation. And what will be the main benefactor of this new foundation? A scholarship fund, to pay for the college education of the dozens of displaced journalists across America losing their jobs everyday. . . . And if there’s any cash left, how about building a retirement home for any newspaper folks who might somehow see a diminished pension down the road?

The “lone nut” theory of the American newspaper assassination

Since no one else will ever set the record straight on this, apparently, perhaps because they have not studied the issue enough to be in command of the facts, let me have a go.

It’s not that much of a mystery to me why newspaper reporters do not understand what’s going on here. Most of them got into newspapering in the first place because they could not do math. And from their early days in the business, they shunned any knowledge of the business side of newspapering, believing that to know the facts about business would jeopardize their objectivity.

But anyone who has ever worked as an academic, teaching journalism, should be familiar with the literature on how newspapers make money to pay reporters. And its not from classified ads or the price of a subscription.

Admittedly, a lot of academics don’t have those facts at their disposal for a variety of reasons. I once got into a heated argument with a faculty member at a reputable regional university who insisted out of ignorance that the Washington Post was a national newspaper, for example. But anyone who knows the facts here, including the publisher and the circulation manager at the Post, knows this to be true: The Post made a conscious decision not to invest in regional printing plants and daily distribution across the country like USA Today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It is a metropolitan newspaper with distribution in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

They now have an opportunity with the Web Press to reach out to a national and international audience, however, and so far they seem to be capitalizing on it – without charging for access to their Web edition.

So let’s be clear. Craigslist.Org is not putting any newspaper reporters out of work because the revenue from classified advertising never, ever went for paying the salaries of reporters in the first place. Nor did the price of a mail subscription or the price of the paper in the newsstand or box on the corner.

The price of the paper itself has always been earmarked primarily for the cost of distributing the newspaper. If anything was left over from that, it went for the cost of printing the newspaper.

Fact: It costs nothing to print or distribute a newspaper on a Web Press. It does cost a little to put it online, but nothing compared to the millions of dollars of paying for and maintaining an offset press, not to mention the rising cost of paper and ink.

Classified ads in newspapers has been a source of revenue for paying staff at newspapers, but mostly for the production and circulation staff. News staffs and most of the employees of newspapers have always been paid from general advertising revenue.

So perhaps Mr. Bunch should redirect his ire at Craigslist toward building a retirement home for newspaper delivery boys and pressmen.

But guess what? There’s an antidote to Craigslist and the newspapers have it in their power to overcome the threat from the competition. If they would just stop bashing the online revolution and join it, they are in a powerful position to take advantage of it. If newspapers would just invest in original journalism and put it online for free, thereby putting themselves in a position of generating a massive amount of traffic AND online advertising revenue, they could survive.

They could even start their own free online classifieds to compete with Craigslit. They could sell Google text ads and pocket all the money and brag at the end of the year to their stockholders.

But apparently, newspaper managers (and columnists) are so out of touch with the reality available right in front of them that they will go on bashing the Web until they are out of business.

When that day comes, us former newspaper reporters who understand the Web Press will be right here to take over where they left off – if there is a First Amendment left after Bush’s appointments to the federal bench get done with sending it to the trash heap of history.