Showing posts with label gossip. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gossip. Show all posts

30 August, 2012

Southern Jaunt : Paint City Politics / Muckraker Goulash

Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apple. - Sherwood Anderson

Journalism without a moral position is impossible. -Marguerite Duras

Every journalist is a muckraker. - Note From Travel Journal

Life long resident and year 'round haunted house proprietor Jim Warfield recently told me that there was a time when people referred to Mount Carroll as Paint City. "Because," he went on, "people would paint the buildings downtown." Jim is an endless repository of stories about this place, and his knowledge at times seems preternatural because a good number of his stories pre-date his existence.

This, of course, is how it ought to be. But The Long Memory is suffering from serious ill repair, and there's few people left with any interest... and even fewer with any interest in listening.

In a place like Mount Carroll, true prominence tends to be counted by the number of generations deep your family can be found in the cemetery on the hill overlooking town from the western horizon. It also helps to marry into the right family. (As opposed to the wrong one, which depends on which way the gossip is blowing.)

Since I have to cool my heels here in Paint City whilst waiting for the divorce to be finalized, I had to find something to occupy my time besides keeping regular hours at both the coffee shop and the bars. As I mentioned previously, I wandered back into freelance muckraking for the area paper that I used to rake muck for when I lived here before.

A note on muckraking. The term is one that tends to be used in a negative context; it's one that is used to describe bad journalism.... i.e., "biased" or "sensational" or "whatever doesn't match my worldview." There is this notion, often spouted by journalism professors, newbies to the job, and a public that hasn't bothered to to look into the actual history of journalism, that "true" journalism is "objective."

Dear Readers, let me assure you... there is no such thing as "objective" journalism. Our whole existence is subjective. We relate to the world from behind our own eyes, from the "I" position. The most we can hope for is distance... to be able to look at a situation with as few preconceived notions as possible. This is difficult, and requires effort. It also requires an honest appraisal of your ego -- which is challenging. Especially when you have one.

I'd also like to point out that any journalist who's really doing the job -- especially in the arena of politics -- is a muckraker. And any journalist worth his or her salt KNOWS this. You can't deal in the muck that is politics ... small town or otherwise... and expect to keep your hands and shoes clean. It doesn't work. The best you can hope for, if you care at all about the job, is find the narrative that needs to be told. That autobot Tom Brokaw said once -- and it might be one of the few things I agree with him on -- that journalism is all about finding the narrative. When people quibble over journalists covering "the facts" what they're really pissed off about it that the muckraker isn't telling the narrative THEY WANT TOLD.

A good journalist, like any good writer, will let the story unfold for itself. And just because all journalists are muckrakers, that doesn't mean they're devoid of a moral or ethical stance. To the contrary, a moral and ethical compass becomes that much more necessary to the larger purpose: not only to let people know what's happening, but also to keep (at least) an eye and an ear on The Long Memory.

Paint City Politics

Since walking back into small town journalism, my return as been heralded and maligned, applauded and booed. This, as far as I can tell, means I'm doing something right.

Most recently... last night... I was called out during an open meeting of the Town Council by a former alderman -- now a disgraced, maligned, and ostracized ex-alderman -- Nina Cooper, economic astrologist to anonymous fortune 500 companies everywhere that clearly don't pay her that often. I can only gather she's no Edgar Cayce, since she recently had to pick a job at a local embroidery shop that was able to secure her job through the purchase of a machine, part of that money coming from a local fund called The Revolving Loan Fund -- a fund whose existence she questioned as an alderman.

The father of the guy who covered my old Paint City beat after I quit in January of this year showed up to the meeting. Everyone knows him because he used to teach in the high school; he actually had a few of the current alderman and the mayor as students. His son was fired, it seems, because a particularly angry, bitter, and bitchy alderman, Doris Bork -- who is staying alive simply to see the mayor ruined -- called the publisher, a guy who I generally count as pretty smart, and cried. The general consensus as been that he did nothing wrong, this other reporter. And while I need the gig... the travel fund is hungry... I do feel like he got a raw deal. (I should point out that she had tried to get me fired too, when I was writing for the paper before. The hubris of small town autocrats never ceases to amaze me.)

The meeting was smooth until the General Audience section, at which point the retired teacher stood up and asked Doris if she had actual proof of the mayor's misconduct -- misconduct that she has been spreading like gossip while working the check out line at the grocery store -- or if it was merely "another figment of [her] imagination."

She was, understandably, defensive. She insisted that she had never accused the mayor of anything and demanded a retraction.

And, after some hemming and hawing, some attempt at recriminations, slander, and criminalization, Nina stood up and asked me directly what the "source" of my article was.

The source. I was floored, really. That was the one I didn't see coming.

You see, the article was actually a commentary after the regular article and was formatted as such.  So, by definition, it wasn't presented as straight news. I've been accused of editorializing in the past; I do, I admit, write with a certain flair and an eye towards the underlying narrative of events. But I do my homework, and I'm a pretty decent writer.

I can also only assume that Nina never watched All The President's Men.  And while I don't know for sure, I'm sure she voted for Nixon. Twice. It wouldn't surprise me to hear she had a little groupie crush on the paranoid oligarch, either.

Come to think of it, that was a movie, too, wasn't it?

Naturally, there is nothing going on in Paint City that rivals the impeachment of Nixon. That there are folks here who are determined to make it that important -- even at the cost of taking the town down with them -- borders on absurd.

That's the problem with Scorched Earth strategies. Not only is your target annihilated, but so is everything else.

And I'm beginning to think that might be the ultimate point. If they can't have Paint City the way they want it, then no one will get it at all. It will fall into the dirt with them, rot in a shallow grave and become one more small town in America that disappears into the cracks of an abandoned state highway.

Come to think of it, I've seen that movie before, too.

Or maybe it's more like this:

05 March, 2012

Wayward Sacredness: Mount Carroll Reprisal: Part 1

It is the waking that kills us. - Sir Thomas Browne

My first sense memory of Mount Carroll is the sound of my friend and current host (along with his more than patient wife, Julie) Dave Cuckler singing and playing the guitar:

One of the reasons why this place still retains some resonance for me is that I relearned something crucial here. I relearned that people, when given the chance, can get together and do the right thing, and that people will often be kind if given the opportunity.  This place, like me, is a bit quixotic. There are musicians and artists and artisans and writers of all kinds -- some who are from here and some who migrated here for one of any number of reasons and stayed because there's just something about the place.

I also relearned that the rate of goodness or badness of most anyplace is directly proportional to the amount of time and effort you're willing to put in to it.

My temporary return to this place has been the mixture I anticipated. My friends, many of whom were not happy with my leaving, are happy to see me now that I've come back for a bit. The stories of my departure were varied and vague... which was deliberate on my part. The thing I've noticed is that it all gets easier to talk about the more I talk about it. And because I've been visiting friends along the way, I got to talk about it quite a bit more than if I had stayed around town -- which, I'm convinced, would have made things far worse than they need to be.

It's true I ran low on funds... even though people have been more than generous in regards to donating to the travel fund.  But I could've huddled somewhere else and prepared for more traveling. I came back here in part to plan, and because I missed my friends and the sounds of the music.

I found myself talking about this place a lot on the road... maybe more than I've ever talked about any place I've ever lived, including New Orleans. (And I loved and still love New Orleans.) 

But I also came back because I have to settle up; that is, I need to finish the recent past so that it's not hanging over me in the future... which means coming back temporarily, finding someplace to store my books and various sundry things until I figure out where to put them long term, and tie up the other loose ends of my  marriage.

Typing that paragraph just now, I noticed how much easier it is to type the utterance than it (still) is to say...
"and tie up the loose ends of my marriage."

I still don't know what that means. I'm still not sure if I'm going to be filing for divorce, or if she is. That depends largely on finances and partly on finding the emotional will to get it done.

Or maybe I have that backwards. It's possible.

Even though it's a thoroughly civil separation -- in as much as such a excising can be civil -- it's not without pain. And I expected it to be a little uncomfortable at times. I expected it to be painful. And I have moments when it is. Mostly because I don't know how not to care and how not to worry about her.

The only thing I have going for me in this regard is that I'm probably way more selfish down deep than I generally like to admit; and I'll admit to being fairly selfish. I don't know how you can be a writer, or an artist, and not be a little selfish with your time. The trick, I'm finding, is making sure to maintain a watchful eye and maintain a social conscience. And lately, that hasn't been too difficult. Between visits to D.C. and New York, keeping up with various Occupy movements across the country that are preparing for Spring, and being vary aware that the over this past weekend around 80 different tornadoes struck a large part of Midwest -- near where I was only weeks ago. The death count is around 30.

And, as if efforts weren't hampered enough, parts of Indiana and Kentucky were hit overnight with snow.

Meditating on this lends me perspective. Mount Carroll, like every other small town, has it's share of drama, infighting, and bullshit. Most of it driven into the public (notably on the City Council) by longstanding bitter rivalries, gossip, and underlying control issues that blossom into full fledged factions, cutting up the town, dividing friends and sometimes family, and doing more to slow the necessary growth and change that will enable this town to survive than the myopic, self-serving Agribusiness controlled County Board -- of which I have even less positive things to say than I do the City Council, which tends to resemble an Elementary School cafeteria, minus the lousy food. It's all words and hollow rhetoric with juvenile digs that gets tossed around.

It's a good thing that they, like the County Board, are only as necessary as people let them be. And at this point, I wonder why we bother with either one.

Since  returning, I've remembered the things I HAVEN'T missed... the juvenile and puerile political leadership, especially... and I'm thinking about pushing my trip up to see if I can go down to Kentucky and Do Something, rather than sit here and Think About It. 

That also means getting my shit together here, and quick. 

By the way... THIS GUY is an ASSHOLE. Pat Robertson is blaming the people for building houses where there are sometimes tornadoes. Also, he says the people didn't pray enough. 

I only point this particular idjit* out in order to illustrate the difference between humanity and douche baggery.. Luckily, I still find more humanity than I do douche baggery. Mount Carroll resonates with humanity, in spite of the back biters that infect local government** and greedy assholes who run the county^.  

And it's precisely that humanity that echoes in the songs played by my friend Dave and by other musicians, (who I will mention by name soon enough), and in the art done by friends like Heather Houzenga that will make my short stay more pleasant than it would be anywhere else as I plan the next step.

* For a proper definition, look in The Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases.
** There are one or two people of note who are not idjits. Since I'm not naming any names, I can't name you. But hopefully, Doug and Tom (oops!) you know who you are.
^I'm referring directly to a few people here... but the county is run by three of the 15 current members anyway. And since I've written about them ad naseum when I wrote for The Prairie Advocate News, I won't name them here. No. Really ... Fritz, Rahn, and Riebel. (Oops.)

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My exit window, for the moment, is still 3/21-4/1, though I'l go back through Kentucky before I head west.]

05 January, 2011

The Copper's Report

I was drinking in a town I'd never heard of in a bar that I wasn't familiar with when I overheard a group of men talking down bar from where I was seated mulling over my scotch and trying to catch some warmth. My purpose for being in an unfamiliar place? Story hunting. I was writing an article for a travel magazine of miniscule circulation about antique shopping in down state Illinois – down state meaning every place that isn't Chicago, for those not familiar with the gravitational truths of living in the Land of Lincoln. If you're not in Chicago, you're not anywhere, and never did that truth present itself more than when I sat in that bar, in town whose name I didn't bother to read on the sign, in a bar whose name I didn't bother to notice. The town was one of the more significantly sized towns I'd been through, a little southeast of my final destination, North Eustacia – known for it's antique shops, pleasant small town folk, and as the once world capital of hickory smoked lard. (That particular title still stands, though I understand that the town no longer uses it as a bragging point or in any of it's tourist literature.)

“Tell us about it again, Jasper.” So said one of the men, an older, grizzly humpty-dumpty shaped individual wearing engineer's bib overalls (and matching cap) that were near worn out in the ass over top a bright red flannel shirt that was crusted with the remainders of several long forgotten meals. “Tommy here hasn't heard the story.”

Tommy was apparently the much younger man in the group. Given his looks and general disposition, he was clearly related to Humpty; I would venture to call Tommy the man's son, but I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the poor woman who was undoubtedly too drunk to know better than to spread her legs or blind, deaf and dumb as to her lover's true nature. The resemblance was undeniable, though. From the size of his gut, though, Humpty could have birthed a slightly smaller version of Tommy and still made it to the bar on time.

Jasper was also a younger man, though clearly no direct relation to Humpty or Tommy. Jasper Cullen, as I later found out was his full name, was a part-time Police Deputy. His head was square the way most cops' heads are square … probably just the choice of hair cut … but his shoulders were narrow and he had a slight hump in his back. At first I thought maybe Jasper had had too much to drink; I soon realized, however, that the slight slur and the way he sometimes ran his words together had nothing to do with booze. It would be unfair – or at least, politically incorrect – to call Jasper Cullen the town idiot. It would be fair to say that his mother held the record for the most drinks consumed in a single evening, a distinction she achieved during the fourth month of her pregnancy. And if that didn't explain the pointed head and wide sloping forehead attached to entirely too small a face and nonexistent chin, the fact that he was birthed in womens' underwear section at JC Penny's 30 miles away might. At the time of her son's birth, the woman claimed to not only be unaware of her pregnancy, she also claimed emphatically that she was virgin; she had also “forgotten” about several panty and bra sets she had stuffed into her purse to purchase.

Either because of his parentage, or in spite of it, the men in town had always taken care of him; as I was to discover later, the women all took this personally, since any one of their husbands or fathers could have been the divine instigator. As such, when he wanted to become a cop after watching a three day television marathon of TJ Hooker reruns, it was generally agreed upon to let him hang around the police station; and maybe because the mayor at the time was high on the list of people who might actually be the other half of Jasper's genetic soup, it was agreed upon that Jasper could be a part-time deputy. It was a more or less harmless position: one that garnered more respect than dog catcher and put him in far less danger of being hurt.

Jasper smiled and laughed a slurry laugh. He seemed almost embarrassed. But after some more encouragement, he took a drink of his Shirley Temple and started in.

A call had come in while he was sweeping up the gun room and preparing to empty the trash cans. A teenage girl – someone everyone knew, but did not to mention specifically by name – called the station, crying. Her mother – someone all the men in town were well acquainted with – had locked herself in her bedroom and would not come out. Jasper told her he needed to call someone else... though why the girl didn't think to dial 911 was beyond Jasper... and that he would send them as soon as possible. But the girl was hysterical. Something was wrong; it wasn't unusual for her mother to be nodding out on the couch half drunk and wacked out on her prescribed pain killers in the mid-afternoon when her daughter came home from school. But it was very odd that she locked herself in her bedroom and refused to answer the repeated yelling and banging on the door. The daughter told Jasper that she had pushed something in front of the door and she couldn't open it at all.

Jasper tried telling her again that he would call someone; the chief was out of town on at policeman's conference and the other deputy was on vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Jasper, as a general rule, didn't go out on calls; he had a driver's license, and was cleared to drive a squad car, and to even carry a gun – though it generally didn't have bullets in it and the chief let him wear the holster to make him feel more like part of the department. But it was generally understood that Jasper himself didn't answer calls; and if any came in... mostly they didn't because anymore people dialed 911... he would call someone more appropriate. But the girl, who at that point was so hysterical that Jasper could hardly understand what she was saying, begged him. Please, she cried. Please come save my Mommy.

At this point in the story, while he was imitating the girl's voice, the men at the bar all guffawed.

Well, whether the young girl's crying pulled on his heart or whether he imaged what TJ Hooker would do in that situation was unclear; but it was at that point that Jasper … who himself had a mother he loved dearly … dropped his broom and told the girl he was on his way. He took the keys for the squad car – it was actually the K9 vehicle, but the dog had recently died from Parvo and had not been replaced – got in, started it up, turned on the siren (something he said he had always wanted to do) and went at high speed to the girl's house. He arrived in less than 2 ½ minutes and found the girl standing in the yard, crying and pacing. She had been crying so much that her eyes were near swelled shut.

Jasper said he didn't know a girl could cry that much.

She led him to the bedroom in the back of the small house. Jasper found that the door was, indeed blocked as the girl had told him. He drew his unloaded fire arm and announced himself as he had heard it so many times on television. “THIS IS TH' PO-LICE! OPEN UP!” Of course, there was no answer. Jasper tried pushing on the door. It was a little open, enough that Jasper could see the bed. There was no one on the bed. He pushed on the door a little harder, but it was blocked by something. He pushed a little harder, but the door seemed to push back. Then he put his shoulder into it and it seemed to give a little more. But not enough to get into the room.

Either out of desperation or frustration, the girl – who had just turned 16 – helped him on the next attempt. At this point in his story, Jasper got a little dreamy eyed and started to stutter a little. The girl, apparently, was very pretty and had a nice shape and was pushed right up against him – which was probably as close to someone of the opposite sex as he had ever gotten. Humpty asked him how it felt to have a pair of nice young tits pushed up against him and what she smelled like.

Jasper smiled, shifted uncomfortably on his stool, turned a little red in the face, and took another drink from his Shirley Temple to finish his story.

The door finally gave way enough for Jasper to get inside; before he did, though, he turned to the girl, making sure to look her in the face and not in her heaving jail bait breasts, and told her to go call the fire department. He told her to dial 911. And then, after taking a deep breath, Jasper, fire arm pulled, announced himself again, and pushed his way into the room. The bed was indeed empty,but it had been laid on recently. There were two empty fifths of rum, and a pile of little blue pills on the night stand. There was a funny smell and a muffled buzzing sound; but upon first glance, the room appeared empty. Jasper heard the fire truck sirens coming, and he was unsure of what to tell them when they arrived; he didn't want to look like fool for calling them out for an locked and empty room. And then he thought of the door, and how it was blocked and how there was no furniture in the middle of the room. Then he turned around.

The woman herself had been blocking the door; not a small woman, she had fallen and blocked the door, presumably after drinking too much and taking too many of her prescription pain killers. And there she was, jammed between the door and the wall. She was naked with a self-massager, the kind you can buy in most drug stores, stuck up in her. Her head was bleeding – probably from being banged when Jasper and the woman's daughter pushed the door open.

When the emergency crew arrived, they walked into find Jasper staring at the woman's naked body, his fire arm drawn. After they finally turned off the massager and removed it – the EMTs drew straws and the short straw lost – they attempted CPR. But it was no use.

At first, it was supposed that the head trauma had killed her; it was later discovered that she had been dead before she hit the floor. Apparently, the woman suffered from depression and chronic pain, and had decided to end her own life; but sometime between downing the pills with rum – her drink of choice – and dying, she decided that she wanted to go out smiling, which explained the clearly unorthodox use of the massager. At that point, the coroner could only theorize, and he supposed that maybe after achieving a mechanical climax, the poor woman decided she had something to live for after all, and she left the bed in an attempt to call for help; but, sadly, it had been too late.

“So what did you think, Jasper?” Humpty asked with a smile that showed all five of his teeth. “You ever see a woman like that before? Huh?” The men laughed and guffawed and shook their heads. They all knew the woman, each in their turn. And while she would not be missed, her death was considered a tragic inconvenience.

“So what DID you think, Jasper?” Tommy spoke up. Everyone had supposed – correctly – that the closest he had ever come to a naked woman was in a late night movie or one of those magazines they sell behind the counter at the corner gas station. Jasper took a drink of his Shirley Temple and smiled, his eyes wide and empty.

His pronouncement was met with laughter and fresh drinks all around. “Big titties,” he said.  

01 April, 2010


Brightly colored plastic eggs and fresh squirrel traps
are hanging from the trees,
blowing carefree in the breeze
while the school kids,
on Spring Break, get in
all the play time they can
until its time for dinner
and talk about the new clothes
they must wear
when they go to Easter Service.
The gardeners are out mulching
and turning over tired dirt
and the obsessive lawn mower
is manicuring his grass

while the missus
is in the kitchen casually
dunking hard boiled eggs
in brightly colored dye
while talking on the phone
to her best girlfriend
who is going on and on about
that poor young woman who
hung herself last week
in the County Jail. Tsk tsk, they say.
Poor, poor girl, they say.
What would make anyone
missus begins… and a mother, too
the her friend says, only to interrupt
herself  So they
change the subject
to talk about spring hams

because one of them
nearly drops an egg
from the distraction of wondering
what such a fast suicide
must feel like
instead of the long slow one
necessary to get into Heaven.

05 January, 2010

The Old Desk

I keep beer out on the covered front porch.
It’s winter in Northwest Illinois
and the relentless cold makes for great
refrigeration. My wife hides my beer
behind an old school desk she bought
at an auction; she says
she doesn’t want it to be
the first thing people see
when they visit. I laugh and tell her
her worries are cute and that somebody,
(not me) ought to be concerned. It’s possible
to derive some comfort from knowing
all your paranoia is justified. Our neighbor
notices when I take walks, asks me
when I see him at the post office
if I’m looking for work, and he pays attention
to whether we use our car, or when we leave
the garage door open. I can tell in people’s faces
when I see them on the street, or at the (only) bar
they’re trying to decide if I’m “ok” enough;
I want to tell them
the beer on my porch is probably
their best indicator, though most of them
will never come close enough to notice.

When she brought the desk home,
she (proudly) informed me
she only paid 50 cents. (She said)
It was too good a deal to pass on
and besides (she insisted) she was thinking
of me. It would be cute upstairs, where I write;
It could sit in the corner and I could use it
to put books on. But the desk
has done its duty; the seat
is smooth and splinter free –
worn by countless student asses,
made sore by the wood
and by the hours spent
learning cursive and reading
from old primers and struggling
with long division. The wrought iron legs
are rusted from years of exposure
through creaky floor boards and clapboard windows,
wet boots, and the dry heat
of a coal or wood burning stove. The desk top is
splinter and graffiti free, and has a hole
in the right hand corner for a bottle
of fountain pen ink. When I carried the desk in
from the car, I left it on the porch
where the orange rocking chair was
that she left to sit in when she goes
out on the porch to smoke. The desk will hide
a couple of cases of beer and some liquor,
too. Every night when I lock the front door
I think about locking the screen door too; but then
(I remind myself) this is not a town
where people steal your beer;
it’s much more intoxicating
to take note of visitors and
driving habits and the frequency
with which I (do or don’t) leave the house