Bill Minor, 1922-2017

March 29, 2017

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The great journalistic lions who reported the civil rights movement from behind enemy lines are inevitably passing away, even those who’ve led long lives. This year alone, we’ve already lost John Herbers, who reported for the New York Times but was revered by us in the Jackson, Mississippi UPI bureau for his previous work there. (He was still an icon when I got to that same bureau in the late Sixties.) And now, just as sadly, legendary reporter Bill Minor left us yesterday.

“Real news” journalists in the Deep South during the civil rights era were essentially war correspondents. Telling the truth amidst the Jim Crow culture was dangerous. The entire political and legal establishment was set against these guys, and as far as home-grown journalism was concerned, well, the local press was under local rule and it would call out “Yankee agitator” reporters by name. Good ole boys still ran things, including the state legislature and every significant institution.

The Paul Krugman of Sixties Mississippi was a nasty little bigot named Tom Ethridge, whose “Mississippi Notebook” column ran several times a week in the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest paper. In one titled “NAACP Witch Doctors,” Ethridge wrote, “The NAACP and their associates, seeking to exploit the unfortunate (Emmett) Till affair, have dug deeper into their bag of tricks. In a sense, they have reverted to ancient tribal instincts.” He liked black people just a tiny bit less than he liked union organizers: UAW founder Walter Reuther was the “top labor-fuehrer.” The paper printed no opposing point of view. There was your op-ed culture.

People like that were emboldened back then: they thought they represented the state as a whole. Reporters who spoke truth to power were on the bidness end of hate mail, death threats, and the occasional bit of vandalism: broken windows and even some flammable crosses. Then as now, none of the intrepid white patriots responsible had the guts to identify themselves, by day or by night. Bill Minor was one of the few public people to display the courage they so pitifully lacked.

Bill’s original podium was the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans paper, where he worked for almost thirty years reporting on Mississippi affairs (it’s next door to Louisiana), starting with the 1947 funeral of the notorious arch-racist Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo. He covered every important development along the way: the Dixiecrats, Emmett Till, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner, John Stennis, Ross Barnett, Trent Lott, and a lot of stuff you haven’t heard of, like the Mississippi contingent of influential Goldwater supporters who licked their wounds in 1964 and then helped jump-start the Republican Party across the entire Deep South, paving the way not only for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but arguably the current guy too.

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Bill at work in his heyday, when everything was on paper.

In Jackson, the state capital, Bill had a reputation as a liberal, but only by comparison. He came from Louisiana, also a white-oriented culture — hell, in the late Forties the whole country was white-oriented — and it took some observation and soul-searching after his Navy hitch in World War II before he gradually came to appreciate that a society in which segregation was legal and proper was not a just society. But if you’re open to new ideas in a state where change is the literal enemy, you must be a pinko. In reality, all Bill was, was honest.

When the Times-Picayune shut its Jackson bureau in 1976, Bill bought a paper called the Capitol Reporter and printed a weekly broadsheet for about five years. I published a few articles in the Reporter in the late Seventies — it was also a great paper for arts and culture, kind of a down-home Village Voice — but the reason people picked it up was to read Bill Minor on politics.

Racism and xenophobia have hardly been extinguished in the South — nor, I submit, where you live — but Mississippi has not stood still. The paper which ran those Tom Ethridge columns is under new ownership, and until a couple years before he died, one of its most popular columnists was…Bill Minor. I never ceased to be amazed by the genuine love he showed for his adopted state: his famous “Eyes on Mississippi” column always had its own eyes on the potential that sometimes, it seemed, only he could see. He was a stalwart, a treasure, an exemplar, a damn fine newsman, and today Bill Minor is remembered fondly and tearfully at the state Capitol and far beyond.

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A documentary on Bill’s life screens next month at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson.

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Jim Dollarhide, 1952-2016

March 18, 2016

UnknownJim Dollarhide apparently died on Wednesday in a fire at his lakefront home in Madison, Mississippi. I say “apparently” because they found a body in the still-burning rubble of his 3800-foot house and Jim is missing, but it will require some dental examination to make sure. The firefighters said the “structure was fully involved” by the time they got there at 10:41 p.m. after an emergency call from a neighbor, and the upper levels had already collapsed. It’s almost certain Jim is gone. If I have to retract this piece, I will do so with great joy.

I’ve known Jim since my advertising days in the Seventies. He was the first filmmaker I got to spend quality time with. I like movies and all, and I took enough production courses in graduate school to get some idea what filmmaking feels like, but this was the first guy I ever met who had already decided to make a living at it. To Jim, a beautiful image might be all well and good, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: it has to move.

You meet lots of gifted photographers in the ad game, but they produce a different kind of art. The still shooter shows you an instant in time. The filmmaker shows you the passage of time. Jim had the eye for nifty composition which any good fotog possesses, but it was that third dimension, the depiction of duration, that fascinated and obsessed him.

Jim was a blue-collar filmmaker. By that I mean he was no rarefied sissy on location; he could get down and dirty in physical labor with his crew, made up of people he liked and respected. But he demanded professionalism and courtesy. Once my ad agency hired Jim to do some films and tv spots for Yazoo Mowers, those big-wheeled monsters built like tanks. I was the agency producer, meaning all I had to do was stand around and nod, and guzzle the occasional soft drink. But even with my light load of responsibility, it was the most horrible shoot I’ve ever been on. For two weeks it was steaming even by Mississippi standards (the grips showed me how to dip a neck scarf in Sea Breeze astringent and ice water to cool down the circulation), we were in a severe drought so most grass was brown and we had to figure out how to color it (the mayor had even forbidden people from watering their lawns), and too many of the setups were on undulating spreads that required time-consuming engineering to lay dolly track for smooth camera motion. But we made it through somehow, and celebrated with a wrap party at Jim’s house. I decided to buy each of the crew members a really nice knife to say thanks for going above and beyond. I guess I’d gone there too: one of them said, “This is the first time a producer ever gave me anything.” Jim was walking by, and over his shoulder came, “He gave you a job.”

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Jim’s page on IMDb notes that he “founded a production company called ‘Imageworks’ two decades before Sony Pictures used the term.” I know it does because I’m the one who put it there. We were both running teensy little outfits in the Eighties and we had a symbiotic relationship. He was doing fewer commercials, which are tightly scripted beforehand, and more industrial films and longer documentaries, where he could call in a writer at the pre-production stage. The difference in our two companies was that Imageworks was hugely capital-intensive: Jim had to keep up with emerging technologies, so he needed new equipment all the time. He originally had one of those honking Steenbeck flat-bed editing decks, where to make an edit you physically snipped the film and spliced it back with tape, which is how movies had been cut since time immemorial. In those days some bigger houses were using a process called “negative to tape” for their first baby steps into online editing, but Jim had to separate wants from needs in order to survive in the more frugal environment of central Mississippi. Now the Steenbeck is as quaint a relic as the X-Acto knife, but Jim had long since moved on. It’s a shame that he largely missed out on the digital revolution of the past few years — shooting on location is cheaper and nimbler than it’s ever been before.

Jim not only loved his craft, he also loved his native state of Mississippi, but not in a Confederate way. He was a huge music fan and cherished the rich tradition of Mississippi Delta blues. He shot thousands of feet of B. B. King and became a good friend; Jim’s documentary plays every day at the B. B. King Museum in Indianola. After all the years slogging and working together for industry and commerce, I guess my favorite film of Jim’s is the scriptless HARMONIES: A MISSISSIPPI OVERTURE (1994), a labor of love and a piece of pure cinema that tells you everything you need to know about him in just 25 minutes. He was a kind, upstanding, talented man whose generosity of spirit mentored so many young men and women; their praises and tears are pouring in equally today. Goodbye, Jim. You were one of a kind, and you are already missed.


Eudora Welty, 1909-2001 (Late)

January 17, 2016

eudora-welty-205x302I wrote this the week Eudora Welty passed away and just found it again after all these years. It’s for her friends and admirers.

Eudora Welty died at the age of 92, in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where she lived most of her life. Until her health became frail a few years prior, she had been a fixture of daily life in her quiet, wooded neighborhood, but not in the way William Faulkner once prowled the streets of Oxford, where the bemused locals referred to him behind his back as “Count No-Count.” Miss Welty—for that is how everyone addressed her until they were sweetly admonished to use her first name instead—was a genteel, beloved, active member of the community. She could be seen pushing her grocery cart through the aisles of Jitney Jungle #14, inside its absurd and incongruous “English Village” façade, straining to reach a can on the top shelf but always bearing her beatific smile. She was a regular at Fannie Mae’s hair salon, where gab was as important as styling. One might easily pass her walking on the street in the sultry summer twilight. Never did anyone stop, point, whisper that they were in the presence of one of the towering figures in American letters.

That’s because Miss Welty did not tower. Her work did that for her.

She possessed two talents that many writers of prose tend to overlook, and about which most hotshot screenwriters, judging from their output, can only dream: Eudora Welty had exceptional eyes and ears. Her authorial might derives from a gloriously detailed visual atmosphere, and from her uncanny ability to replicate, and then enhance, the quirky Southern idiom she heard every day and had stored in memory from her girlhood. She enjoyed watching others exercise those talents, too, and was an ardent theatergoer in a time when Jackson sported more than one credible company. She served on the board of directors of New Stage Theatre, the pioneering group that had opened its doors in the mid-Sixties with a raging production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at a point when the community was more accustomed to the likes of SOUTH PACIFIC, and she saw nearly every show there. That’s how I got to know her, and that’s when she became “Eudora” to me.

At cast parties in the ornate residences of Southern ladies who lunched, in the rarefied social strata unlocked by her accomplishments, she would come up to the smitten amateur actors and bestow the kindest praise. She didn’t like everything she saw and she told you so, but her scorn was usually reserved for the playwright. I always wanted to say, compared to what you do, we’re five-year-olds putting on a show with flashlights in Daddy’s living room. I even suspected that her enjoyment might be something like what Daddy feels for his lisping children. But that’s not how one accepts a compliment gracefully, and Eudora was the living embodiment of grace.

Once Ivan Rider, then New Stage’s artistic director, invited me to dinner with Eudora, just the three of us. Wow! I looked forward to the event eagerly but nervously. What could I possibly say to amuse her? After a cocktail or two—and she was never shy about cocktail hour—I realized she was using a conversational gambit that comes in handy any time: we were talking about me. But whereas most of us coax someone onto the subject of themselves just to break the ice, Eudora was simply feeding the natural curiosity that made her an unique cross between an artist and a journalist. Ivan had conspired to serve barbecued shrimp, a New Orleans delicacy. To partake, you throw some old newspapers on the table, dump out the shrimp, put on bibs and any other protection you might have, and peel your way through the spicy, delicious mess. Eudora said this was a great dish because its sloppiness washed away any pretense, and diners would always “rise from the table as friends.” By this time, she was talking about herself. She’d just read a novel by a then-fashionable and wildly successful Southern author, and was not impressed: “Honey, you may think you’ve got it. But you don’t.”

The last time I saw Eudora, a friend had asked if I might facilitate some inscribed books for Christmas presents. Eudora insisted that we both come over. On the day, I was mortified that my friend was lugging an imposing stack of COLLECTED STORIES—I thought too many. But its author couldn’t have been more gracious, as ever. On her table was the current issue of Newsweek, with its stark black-and-white cover photo of John Lennon. She was quite disturbed over Lennon’s murder, not as a Beatles fan—she said she liked some of their melodies but I didn’t sense any particular passion—and not just for the potential work that the world wouldn’t get to hear, but chiefly for its meaninglessness; why slaughter an artist who had never hurt anyone? The culture of insanity had already introduced itself with Charles Manson, but we had not yet arrived at the point where schoolchildren took revenge on their tormentors with bullets. Eudora was perplexed over Mark David Chapman. Her vast empathetic skills were of no use here. She couldn’t put herself in his place. In the ensuing years, I’m sure she had to wrestle with this problem again and again, but by then I had moved away, to New York. And then she was gone.


Cassandra Channels Billie

April 25, 2015

61D3iXftobL._AA160_She was just billed as “Cassandra” back in Jackson, Mississippi in the 70s-80s, when she was the featured singer with Sergio Fernandez and his band at local spots like POETS in “The Quarter” on Lakeland Drive. All caps because the name was (rumored to be) a response to the overly cheerful T.G.I. Friday’s: it (supposedly) stood for “Piss On Everything, Today’s Saturday.” At first you said, Cassandra? I just want a pint or two; I don’t want to hear about how everything’s falling apart.

But this Cassandra melted you down within five minutes. Her worst quality, I have been told by more than one POETS server, was that her voice made customers forget to keep drinking. That’s how smitten we all were. Most decent-sized cities with local music scenes have one or two standouts who make you think, this individual is good enough to go pro. Well, ours went and did it. Her name was, and is, Cassandra Wilson, and she’s been a shining light among jazz vocalists in the wider world for more than 25 years.

After all that time and all that adulation, Cassandra has become so confident in the recording studio that she’s willing to take a few chances, and has it ever paid off on her latest release, COMING FORTH BY DAY. It’s an album of mostly covers of, and a tribute or two to, Billie Holliday, a singer whom Cassandra respects, admires, even adores. But this is no impression, not an attempt to resurrect a style or a voice. This is Billie through Cassandra, and she had the guts to engage Nick Launay, the longtime producer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (Did anybody else see that documentary, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH?) The supporting musicians thus range from T Bone Burnett to Nick Zinner, with Van Dyke Parks supplying the string arrangements.

The best way I can describe the result is, it’s as if Billie Holliday were sitting next to you and singing softly into your ear. Yes, there are some out-front dynamics, but in most cases Cassandra makes you lean in to her; the only other producer I might have trusted to get a similar ambience would be Daniel Lanois. You will never consider “All of Me,” “You Go To My Head,” “These Foolish Things,” or even “Strange Fruit,” the same way again. It’s the midnight set after the playboys and their girls have all gone home.

This album is not for everybody; Cassandra has plenty for you jumpin’ jivers in her catalog. But in a way, it’s a wonderful summation of her career, and never have I been prouder of Jackson’s knock-em-dead chanteuse.


Synchin’ ‘n’ The Reign

January 13, 2015
John Epperson at work.

John Epperson at work.

We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka.

Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.

Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.

John Epperson in mufti.

John Epperson in mufti.

John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.

Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.

Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.

The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and John Epperson performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Epperson is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget that Lypsinka isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Epperson’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, his Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.

After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.

P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.

6/2/15: Jim Bailey, referenced above, left us this year.


Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by brains bigger than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a creaky metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg. Lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image in our day required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type. I saved one (wish I knew where) that reads

A line o’ type. I saved one (wish I knew where) that reads “By TOM DUPREE”.

A chunk of type ready to be

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, before I ever saw one in person, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct yet comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays in our bold new century. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood

3/27/17: ETAOIN SHRDLU makes it back into the New York Times, only now it’s on purpose.


Callin’ Y’all’s Bluff

February 25, 2013

betteroffRemember when Texas Governor Rick (“Oops!”) Perry made some mild mutterings about secession? “There’s a lot of different scenarios,” he instructed a “Tea Party” rally in 2009. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot. When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation…and one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”

English teachers can parse the preceding statement from here till summer break (history teachers can only roll their eyes), and they’re welcome to it, but Chuck Thompson went one step further. He took a thought experiment out to book length: what might happen if the Southern states actually did decide to leave the union and form their own country? His answer is the book’s title, BETTER OFF WITHOUT ‘EM: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. Basically what he’s saying is, y’all go right ahead!

Now, let’s get one thing straight up top. I was born, raised and educated (“bred and buttered,” as they say in Ireland) below the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s true that I’m currently considered a “Yankee” because I live in New York now (the first rednecks I ever knowingly encountered were in my transplanted, thus newly acquired, 8th-grade class in Jackson, Mississippi, where my faint Virginia accent pegged me to local ears as a “Yankee.” I had suddenly been thrust into such a strange clime that I couldn’t even summon the words to tell these budding young crackers that Richmond, Virginia was the frickin capital of the whole goddam Confederacy), but I was and remain proud of my Southern heritage, as I really hope you can possibly be of whatever yours is. (More industrious English teachers may start wasting time parsing that paragraph while I continue to talk to the class.)

Despite living close to half my life here in heathen New York City, I’m still a Southerner, and I’m fine with that. You can take the boy out of Dixie, but… Ask anybody. If you try to deny it, a psychological burr forms which can torment you for the rest of your life: Craig Claiborne may have suffered from this syndrome, and Rex Reed appears to be in its latter stages. Best to embrace it instead, like Willie Morris or Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams – he’s really from Mississippi, chumps, just like Channing Tatum and Elvis! Or me: I think the Deep South is fecund with terrific arts, eats, tunes, lore – it’s almost certainly the most colorful area of our country, and I’m one of its products, hoss. But now, having tried my best to establish my bona fides, I must end the apologia and turn to Chuck Thompson, who’s probably still unaware of the magnetic cultural force this region exerts above all others, even after visiting sporadically for some two years. See, he done stomped in and got all Godzilla on the South’s ass. But guess what, down-homies? He “might could” have a point. Two or three, in fact.

First, the ground rules. Mr. Thompson defines the seceders, the new Confederate States of America, as twelve contiguous states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Most of these were in the original Confederacy – you know, the one that defended against the War of Northern Aggression. He recognizes that his most glaring omission is Texas, also a Confederate state. (The Stars & Bars is one of the storied Six Flags Over Texas.) But it’s problematic. Anybody from the Deep South would tell you Texas is a Southern state. But Texans themselves might disagree: they’d say their state is sui generis, fiercely independent, not a joiner but a leader. For discussion purposes I’ll hand Mr. Thompson a Texas-less South, but that means it’s no fair when, on several occasions, he cites a stat and then defers: “it’s X in the South, Y if you count Texas.” You said we’re not counting Texas, OK? He will examine this new configuration through the prisms of religion, politics, race, college football, education and economics. This book is frequently funny, especially the chapter devoted to cheerfully bashing NCAA football’s perennially dominant Southeastern Conference, but there’s nothing frivolous about the reporting: every fact is exactingly sourced and footnoted so you can double-check if you’ve a mind to.

Mr. Thompson was raised by moderate Republicans (a vanishing strain which he personally admires) in Juneau, Alaska; his father was an official elector for Ronald Reagan in 1984. He’s perfectly aware that the South isn’t unique in any of its aspects: there are racists, religious fanatics and dipshit school boards everywhere. What’s special about the new CSA is the confluence of these cultural and spiritual traditions and beliefs, and the outsized influence this relatively sparsely-populated region wields over the rest of the country. For example, nearly half of the obstructionist, gerrymandered House Republican majority, which retained that majority despite losing the popular House vote in 2012, hails from a former Confederate state. But if the new CSA were ever to actually cut itself away, things would change in a…well, in a New York minute. Rick Perry aside (naw, just this once let’s include him), the very idea of Southern secession in the 21st century is of course ridiculous, and by that I mean “worthy of ridicule.” So here it comes.

“We realize men have evil hearts and can’t be trusted,” the president of a secessionist group tells the author as a way of explaining the Southern worldview of, as he puts it, “fervent Christianity.” The twelve states in question are home to fully half the U.S.’s evangelicals and nearly every nationally prominent religious leader. Not all of them are white. A trip to the seven-acre New Birth Missionary Baptist Church complex in Lithonia, Georgia reveals demagoguery, money-grubbing and gay-bashing so intense that civil rights activist Julian Bond boycotted the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King because it was held there and presided over by notorious firebrand Bishop Eddie Long. In Mobile, Alabama, a spurious rumor that Muslims are about to build six mosques in town galvanizes the evangelical community. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky just appears to be funny until Mr. Thompson discovers that it attracted 1.2 million visitors in its first three years (adult entry fee: $24.95), and founder Ken Ham received generous tax breaks to build a $150 million “replica” of Noah’s Ark. “This, apparently, is the kind of socialism Kentuckians can believe in,” the author writes. He seems to appreciate the difficulty of living a humble spiritual life in a secular society, but what worries him is “end-timers” who not only believe Armageddon is near but honestly can’t wait for it to happen. Southern secession would further distance such fingers from the nuclear button: Mr. Thompson observes that without the South, George W. Bush couldn’t have gotten anywhere near the White House. Yes, apocalyptophiles aren’t exclusive to the region, but why not improve the odds?

President Barack Hussein Obama – did you realize he’s black? – is many Southerners’ worst nightmare, upending generations of received wisdom. Amazingly, he has defied Mr. Thompson’s Seven Deadly Sins of Southern Politics: demagogic dishonesty, religious fanaticism, willful obstruction, disregard for own self-interest, corporate supplication, disproportionate influence, and military adventurism. This incendiary combination is what keeps the South in the pocket of the Republican Party, which profits from pitting the region against the rest of the country. In a new CSA, Republicans would continue to rule supreme, but the makeup of the United States Congress — representing the rest of us — would be dramatically different. The fearless Mr. Thompson asks around to determine the redneckiest bar in deep-South Carolina, and dares to talk politics with the hulking biker types therein. (This place is so country that the house band has never heard of Marshall Tucker – and they’re from Spartanburg!) The resulting conversation makes no sense. Neither does the “pro-business” climate that has sucked auto-industry jobs from the industrial Northeast for decades, but at a fraction of the wages, and stripped of the union leverage that might possibly force any improvement. Manufacturers these days, claims Mr. Thompson, treat the South like a Third World country, so let it become one. Also puzzling is the bellicosity with which the region has always rattled military sabers, even at imaginary enemies. “Here’s a secret intel bulletin for all y’all who’ve never left Yoknapatawpha County and imagine the United States is constantly on the precipice of enemy invasion,” he writes. “The only way this country is ever going to surrender its liberty to a foreign power is if it keeps electing corrupt officials who auction it away to multinational corporations and overseas government interests in exactly the fashion that southern star chambers have been doing to their own people throughout their entire dyspeptic history.” Hyperbolic? Sure. But so is Bill O’Reilly, and y’all don’t seem to mind that.

Economics has always been a deep mystery. If Southerners hate big government, then why do they continue to take more away from the Feds than they pay in taxes, year after year after year? Get your government hands off my Medicare! was a hilarious placard at an early “Tea Party” rally, but too many Southerners simply don’t realize that they’re not entitled to their entitlements if their Republican puppet masters decide to snatch them away. Sorry, but if the South seceded, the rest of us would be getting a lot closer toward balancing our national books instead of subsidizing so many bloated, fried-butter-snarfing ER-bound deadbeats. (That sounded a tad harsh, even to myownself, but aren’t we all supposed to be acting like cold-hearted, free-market businesspeople?)

Now we come to education, the essential building block for everything else. Mr. Thompson doesn’t mean higher education here; there are many fine such institutions in the South (I was privileged enough to attend two of them, and consumed quality mind-food each time). Nope, we’re talking about basic education, the ultimate difference between sharecropping and shareholding. In the South, the notion of education for all has been under attack ever since the notorious flashpoint of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Following that judicial defeat, the region has steadfastly resisted progress (itself a loaded word among rabid Dixie conservatives) in learning. The first, doomed step was standing in the schoolhouse door. Then forced busing, with which earnest liberals actually twisted many public schools downward in the most egregious unintended consequence of the late 20th century. (Southerners at the time were secretly delighted to watch “enlightened” Boston parents endure the same busing agonies and act identically. See, people are alike all over, they sneered, and this time they actually had a frickin point.) Finally came white flight, with those who could afford it abandoning public schools in favor of home-schooling or private “Christian academies” and other euphemisms for “you have to be white to attend.” Today’s Republican Party (most vocally in the South) wants to dismantle public education, or at least leave it in such a shambles that no thinking parents would dare entrust their kids to the system, and instead use public money on vouchers to help ferret the young’uns away. You can see this sentiment wafting through the knee-jerk opposition to President Obama’s proposal for universal pre-school: the early argument was that it’s “too expensive” (as if a permanently undereducated working class isn’t), and it might strengthen teachers’ unions by adding more public-school teachers to the mix (the candid and cynical underlying truth). Some of the most notorious foot-draggers are the Usual Suspects, such as Little Rock, Arkansas, which required President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard in 1957; today, it can’t find a school superintendent who is (a) capable and (b) willing to oppose a particularly boneheaded school board. Ten of the fifteen states with the lowest incidence of high-school graduation are in the new CSA, and remember, there are only twelve CSA states altogether (public schools are largely financed by property taxes, which are as low in the region as its test scores). Mr. Thompson watches in stupefaction as the Biloxi, Mississippi board closes the town’s best school, Nichols Elementary, which is 90% black, to “save $400,000 a year,” even though the district is running a $10 million surplus, and even as the Kellogg Foundation offers a $1.5 million grant to keep Nichols open for at least three years. Huh? Biloxi’s only African-American member of the City Council, which has no power over the school system, believes the board wanted “to make sure that white schools in this district never have to be embarrassed by being outperformed by a black school again.” Speculation, yes — but given that it wouldn’t have cost Biloxi a dime to respond to the public outcry and keep the school open, can you think of another reason? A new CSA would be able to hobble its future generations all it wants. It simply wouldn’t be our problem any more.

I may be doing this book a disservice by reciting a litany of criticism — it’s actually a major-league hoot, a great deal of fun. Mr. Thompson is as fair as he can possibly be, and never misses an opportunity to tell us that individually, his Southern hosts and interviewees tend to be nice, warm, gracious people. But then he turns “serious,” and messes with the real religion down home: college football. I’m kidding, though not about the importance of the college gridiron to the new CSA; it’s what basketball is to Indiana, what hockey is to Minnesota. But Mr. Thompson has a, well, ball taking down the mighty Southeastern Conference (he’s a University of Oregon grad). He claims the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which has determined the best college football team since 1998, is stacked in favor of the SEC, and the reason is 15-year television contracts with ESPN and CBS which are worth a combined $3 billion. Yes, with a B. He believes SEC powerhouses regularly run up wins against weaker teams and otherwise game the system to make sure at least one of them is in contention every year, just as their tv partners want. I’m not the rabid fan Mr. Thompson is, but you be the judge — he seems to make sense to me. However, one thing is undeniable. If the CSA seceded, we would not only be able to establish an impartial way to test the SEC against other conferences, but the annual USA/CSA contest would also become more like a World Cup match in its ability to stir intense nationalistic emotion. The resulting fan frenzy would make the pros’ Super Bowl look like a grade-school kickball game.

This book makes you ponder. If the South seceded, we would sure miss some things about it, no doubt. Faulkner. Skynyrd. New Orleans. Bourbon. But we could still trade for bourbon, just as we currently do for every single dram of our Scots whisky. We could still read our Faulkner and crank up our Skynyrd. And as for New Orleans, if this loony idea ever did actually come to pass, the CSA International Trade Commission would be down on its knees begging for tourists. So we’d get our beignets too. This thought experiment is a goof, but with some non-ironic points to make as well. A righteously indignant Southerner might reply, yeah, but I could write the same thing flipped around! You may be right. I invite you to do so, and I promise to review it here with cheerful equanimity.


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