Moving day

I think (but am not 100% sure) that I’ve successfully moved this blog into my main site, tommytomlinson.com. So if you’re looking for new stuff here, head over there. My main site has plenty more stuff — a bio, a bunch of old clips, that sort of thing.

(I reserve the right to put all this back the way it was if I screwed up the move. Which is definitely possible.)

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The Bat and The Bear

Rock Hill, South Carolina, somewhere around 1990. I’m a reporter in the York County bureau of the Charlotte Observer, working alongside a sportswriter named Joe Posnanski. I’m 25 or 26, he’s 22 or 23. I’m covering fatal wrecks and school board meetings, he’s writing up high-school football games and a weekly volleyball notebook. We get to be friends, and we find out we have the same impossible dream. We want to be newspaper columnists.

Some nights, after deadline, we throw a baseball in the parking lot of his apartment complex and talk about making it to that sacred place, down the left rail of the front page of the section — him in Sports, me in Local. Our mug shots at the top. We’re full of ideas about how we would do the job if we ever got there. I’ve been sneaking little scenes into my straight news stories, seeing how they look on the page. He’s been practicing nearly every day, picking something out of the sports world and writing columns that nobody sees.

We scan the wires and out-of-town papers, and when one of us finds something great, we clip it out or print it — this was before the Internet, children — and share it with the other. Before long we both have thick file folders, our homemade textbooks, full of lessons from Dave Barry and Leonard Pitts and Jim Murray and the other columnists we loved.

We spend long nights just sitting around and talking — our romantic lives were not exactly thriving at that point — and one of the things we talk about is this: What was the greatest newspaper column of all time?

After much debate, we decide on two. We call them The Bat and The Bear.

The Bat was written by a young sports columnist out of Detroit named Mitch Albom. You might know Mitch Albom as the author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” followed by several best-selling Hallmark-ready novels that have sold untold million copies. Mitch has made himself mockable — I’ve mocked him some myself — but in his prime, as a columnist and feature writer, you couldn’t beat him.

The Bat was a piece about a school superintendent, a former member of a Little League World Series champion, who had been shot to death by a disgruntled teacher. Throughout the story, Mitch talked to surviving members of that Little League team, one after another. He asked to see their trophies. He noticed something. The figure at the top of the trophy is a batter waiting for a pitch. But every time one of the players got out his trophy, the bat was missing.

It had been a long time, the trophies were fragile, things fall apart. Mitch saw something bigger:

The snow falls, summer is a distant memory, and even golden boys of Little League have the bats taken out of their hands.

The Bear was a column by Jimmy Breslin.

Breslin had many more famous columns. The one he wrote on the gravedigger at John F. Kennedy’s funeral is still taught in journalism schools. The one he wrote about the cops at the scene when John Lennon was shot still pops up on the anniversary of Lennon’s death. But the one Joe and I loved was about an 11-year-old boy named Juan Perez.

Juan and two friends broke into the Prospect Park Zoo one night and slipped into the polar bear cage. When the bears saw them, the friends ran, but Juan Perez did not. And so he became a child in the middle of Brooklyn who was eaten alive by polar bears.

You can imagine the TV crews and the front-page headlines. But Breslin saw something bigger:

I guess it was a momentous story because of the manner in which the boy died. But at the same time, perhaps somebody should stop just for a paragraph and mention the fact that there are many children being eaten alive by this bear of a city, New York in the 1980s. To say many is to make an understatement most bland, for there are hundreds of thousands of young in New York who each day have the hope, and thus the life, chewed out of them in a city that feels the bestowing of fame and fortunes on landlords is a glorious act, and that all energies and as much money and attention as possible be given to some corporation that threatens to move 40 people to Maryland.

The column is 30 years old and isn’t on the Internet — at least I couldn’t find it — and so I dug a version out of a database. It’s from a Toronto newspaper, reprinting the original from the New York Daily News, and somehow Toronto cut the best line. Breslin hammers the developers and the politicians who chew up and discard kids every day in New York — he even gets in a shot at Donald Trump — and then, after a couple paragraphs of this, he drops in one perfect sentence:

They shot the bear.

I write all this because Jimmy Breslin died on Sunday at 88, and he was the best columnist there ever was, and I stole from him freely — his language and his spirit — until I found my own voice. He got out there and talked to people and found the story and wrote it up. It sounds easy, like falling into a pool. But there’s falling and there’s diving.

Joe and I kept working and got lucky and found editors who believed in us. We both got the jobs we dreamed about, and then others beyond our dreams. Our romantic lives got better — we’re both married now — but we still spend long lunches and phone calls and text threads continuing that conversation we started more than 25 years ago.

I’ve read many a story in all those years. I’ve got a lot of favorites. But none will ever matter as much to me as The Bat and The Bear. They gave two young guys something to reach for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The morning after

I spent election night alone in a Raleigh hotel. An interview didn’t turn out the way I hoped it would. The rest of the night didn’t turn out the way I hoped it would, either.

I got up this morning, checked the TV — yep, it happened. Texted my wife. Signed onto the computer and refreshed Twitter way too many times. At some point I had to get my eyes off the screens. I went for a walk. The air was cool enough for a jacket, but the breeze felt good and clean.

A few blocks away I found a diner called Big Ed’s and sat down for a late breakfast. The waitress brought coffee and I started to check my phone but instead I looked around. Nobody was weeping. Nobody was gloating, either. People were talking about the election, of course, but they were also making weekend plans and talking about basketball season. One older man sat with three younger ones. They were at the next table, so I could overhear that the younger guys were part of some work-release program. They passed around their phones, sharing pictures of their kids.

The waitresses were quiet but cheerful. They had to get up early this morning to go to work. That’s what most of the rest of us did, too — got up and went to work, or raked the leaves, or checked in with our mamas. Our American lives will change in profound ways because of what happened Tuesday, but down at street level, for most of us, we will do what we always do, because it’s what we have to do to keep going.

I have friends and family members who wanted this day to happen. They include people of faith who voted for the most un-Christian candidate I can remember, and women who voted for the most anti-woman candidate I can remember. That is their right. I have contradictions, too. All I’ll say for now is that we’ll keep talking, and in a year or two it’ll be interesting to see what they think about the deal they made.

Every time there’s an election result I don’t like, or some movement that makes no sense to me, I think of Tommy Lee Jones in the first Men in Black movie: “A person is smart. People are dumb.” But that doesn’t go quite far enough. A person is smart. People are dumb. The country is even smarter. Our country has taken a thousand blows. People from outside have hurt us, but we have hurt one another even more. We have survived it all because our system is terribly flawed but basically good, and our people are terribly flawed but basically good. That’s a lesson some of us find hard to believe right now. But history bears it out. It is a stronger and deeper truth than any count of electoral votes.

On my walk back I stopped at a street corner to wait for the light. A young woman walked up and asked if I knew how to get to Salisbury Street. I started to explain but then I remembered I had a map of downtown in my pocket — one of those little sheets they give you when you check in. I didn’t need it. I handed it to her and she smiled and headed down the block in the cool fresh morning.

You might feel lost right now. There is always a map. There is always a way.

 

 

 

 

 

A long night in Charlotte

This shouldn’t need to be said but let’s say it. There were honorable protestors in the Charlotte streets last night, and there were people who came to break and burn. It’s possible, even likely, that some changed sides during the night. They showed up to stand for peace but anger overwhelmed them. Or they showed up to riot and their hearts pushed them a different way. Our lives are complicated.

 

This shouldn’t need to be said but let’s say it. There are honorable and skilled police all over this country, and there are police not worthy of the badge. It’s possible, even likely, that some change sides under pressure. They practice calm reason but pull the trigger too soon. Or they itch to take down a suspect and decide, in the moment, to leave the gun in the holster. Our lives are complicated.

 

It’s 1 o’clock Thursday morning and the cable networks are still showing live updates of the chaos in uptown Charlotte, two and a half miles from our house. I can hear the helicopters. I’ve lived in Charlotte 27 years. My wife and I met here. Our roots are sunk to the waterline. One of the things we love most about Charlotte is that it has always been a warm and friendly city. But it is also an American city, and every American city lives with the threat of a street fight over the tensions that have always defined us: freedom vs. control, justice vs. peace. They are values this country has battled over since the beginning. This week, it’s our turn.

 

It is our turn because a police officer here shot a black man Tuesday afternoon. Maybe you have already decided who was right and who was wrong. The truth is, only a few people know. Police say the victim was holding a gun. The victim’s family says he was holding a book. We haven’t seen all the pictures or any of the video. We don’t know the facts. We just know how it makes us feel.

 

The officer’s name, by the way, is Brentley Vinson. The victim was Keith Scott. They are actual people with names and families, not just cardboard stand-ins for what you already believe. Put those same two human beings in that same spot on a different afternoon and maybe it ends another way. The possibilities are as countless as the stars. But here on the ground we have to live with what happened – one man dead from an officer’s bullet, and two nights of blood and broken glass.

 

The anger is always just under the surface, even in a friendly town. Like most other places, Charlotte has wealthy white suburbs and a poor black urban core. Like many other places, we have basically re-segregated our schools and limited the chances of our children to grow up around anyone different. Like a lot of other places, we have a troubled history of police shootings. Just last year a jury could not reach a verdict in the case of Randall Kerrick, a Charlotte officer who shot an unarmed black man named Jonathan Ferrell 10 times. Prosecutors chose not to try Kerrick again. It was a victory of sorts that they decided to try him at all.

 

The violence in Charlotte comes from the same place as Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem. It comes from the same place as the rise of Donald Trump. It comes from a mutual mistrust of those who are not like us, and the furious belief that America is rigged to favor the other side. Mostly it comes from a shared history that we can’t escape. From the beginning, when our country was built on the backs of slaves, we have been clothed in sins that will never wash all the way clean. With every generation we will turn more tolerant, more welcoming, more alike than we are different. But our resentment and shame over race is built into our genetic code. It has been there since the birth of the nation. Our past bleeds into our present, and that’s why things are never black and white, just always a frustrating gray.

 

Wednesday afternoon, in between the first night of protest and the second, I had a cup of coffee with a smart young sportswriter. We were talking about how Cam Newton spoke out in a blunt and bold way about race late last season, but has taken a softer tone this year. The young writer didn’t know what to think. Is last year’s Cam closer to the truth, or is this year’s Cam the real one? Or are they both authentic parts of the same person?

 

I told him to get used to the confusion. People never get more simple. Life never gets more simple.

 

Last night, watching on TV, there were heroes on the street. A public defender named Toussaint Romain got in between the front line of protestors and the front line of cops, brokering peace. A few protestors tried to chase off the others just looking for something to destroy. A few cops walked over to the protestors and lifted up their faceguards and started a conversation.

 

Those are small things, but they matter. On some nights, like these last two in Charlotte, it seems like we live in different worlds, separated by bullets and tear gas and rocks thrown through windows. Sometimes that’s the only way the voiceless can speak. Sometimes it’s the only path to justice. But there’s also a space in between, somewhere in the gray smoke, where we can try to reach one another as human beings. We have to step into the smoke, knowing that we do not always know, understanding that we do not always understand. Otherwise we’re destined to meet here again and again, late at night, on the streets.

 

 

 

 

 

A Prince story

I went looking for the ticket stub today but couldn’t find it. I’ve kept the stubs from almost every concert and ballgame I’ve ever been to, but somehow this one slipped away. That’s OK. The memory holds.

We camped out all night for tickets. In the ’80s you had two options if you wanted tickets for a big concert. You called Ticketmaster the morning they went on sale and listened to a busy signal over and over for six hours. Or you stood in line all night at a ticket outlet. We stood in line because Prince was bringing his Purple Rain tour to the Omni in Atlanta and we had to be there.

So we took a place on the sidewalk outside a record store called Turtle’s in Athens, Ga., sometime on the evening of Nov. 30, 1984. I know the date because the Georgia-Georgia Tech football game was the next day. My friends Virgil and Perry, who went to Tech, were coming for the game anyway so they got there early to camp out for tickets. Our friends David and Andy joined us, even though they weren’t going to the show, because it sounded like fun and also because we had Jack Daniels.

Pretty soon the line went down the sidewalk and up the side of the parking lot and across the back side of the lot next to the street. It’s hard to stay up all night, even when you’re 20 years old. Andy and I amused ourselves by doing Scooby-Doo impressions. It’s possible we did this for hours, and possible that the people near us in line threatened to kill us if we didn’t stop. My memory is a little hazy on that part.

What I do remember is that Prince’s music was everywhere. Somebody had “Dirty Mind” on a boombox, and somebody else had “D.M.S.R.” blasting from a car, and everything from the “Purple Rain” soundtrack was all over the radio. It struck me how diverse the crowd was for a mostly white Southern college town. You could love Prince for the guitar licks and the funk grooves and the dirty lyrics and the perfect pop melodies. You could love him if you were straight or gay or something else. He erased every line in the sand and did it in platform shoes. He was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

If I remember right, the tickets went on sale at 10 in the morning. At 10:05 somebody with a bullhorn said the show was sold out. Only a few people at the front of the line had gotten seats. The rest of us moaned and cussed. All that time for nothing.

Then the bullhorn clicked on again.

“He’s adding more shows!”

Today I know they probably had more shows scheduled all along and just wanted to make sure people were in line to buy the tickets. But that morning, it felt like a miracle. After another half-hour or so we made it into the store and bought three seats for the fourth show of five. Our seats were behind the stage. We didn’t care. The show was five weeks away. I held that ticket close every day.

Sheila E. was the opener. Like Prince, she was gorgeous and she could really play. At the end they cut the lights and she did a percussion solo with neon drumsticks. She would have been an A-plus club show by herself. But then, after intermission, the lights went down again. It’s one of my favorite moments in the world, when you’re at a big show and all of a sudden it goes dark and you know the thing you’ve been waiting on for so long is about to happen.

Dearly beloved …

He opened with “Let’s Go Crazy” / “Delirious” / “1999” / “Little Red Corvette” — four homers to start off the game, parked in the upper deck. Nobody sat down after that. I’m not sure we breathed for the next two hours, except maybe for laughing along with “International Lover.” I can’t find a bootleg from that night — if you know of one, holler — but back then “Baby I’m a Star” was routinely going 15 to 30 minutes, with multiple solos and dances and whatnot. I remember never wanting it to stop. The band was so tight — one of the many things Prince did was bring the joy of a hot live band to a concert scene being taken over by synths and drum machines. He stood in the middle of it all, ripping guitar solos and screaming the high notes and dancing like James Brown crossed with a stripper. They hit the long breakdown to end it and walked off the stage and we all just stood there spent.

That was encore 1.

Encore 2 was “Purple Rain.”

The words of “Purple Rain” are about a breakup, but the music is gospel. They could play those chords in a Baptist church on Sunday and it would fit right in.  I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life, and a couple that equaled that night, but I’ve never been to another show that was so much at once — so many different styles, so many brilliant ideas, so many connections that no one had made before Prince came along.

The music built to that last big solo, and we swayed in the purple light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, 600

They threw a big party at the Charlotte Observer on Thursday. You could also get by with calling it a wake. The reason for the party was that the newspaper is moving out of the building it has lived in since 1970, on the spot where the newspaper has been published since 1927. The reason for the wake had nothing to do with concrete and steel. It was about the people who make newspapers, and what they believe in.

Hundreds of people filled the lobby of the old building at 600 S. Tryon St. There were Pulitzer winners, and people who sold millions in ads, and circulation directors who figured out how to get the paper on the doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of people at 6 in the morning every day. There was Cynthia McCarter, the security guard who knows the building like a mama knows her child, and Gladys Shamblin, who could get the phones working when God and AT&T had no idea how. People had taken off work and used up vacation time. Gary O’Brien, the great photographer, flew in from Tucson, Arizona. I can’t remember the last time I hugged so many necks.

The old building doesn’t have much going for it but memories. It has always been ugly. The newsroom on the fourth floor has narrow slitted windows that would be useful in case of a Viking invasion but are terrible for letting in light. The escalators break so often that the one safe job at the paper was escalator repairman. In the last few years the elevators started trapping people, and sometimes the doors open and close on their own, like a scene from “The Shining.” A few years ago the paper sold the building to its parent company’s pension fund, and the pension fund sold it to developers. It will surely be a teardown. I would pay a fair amount of money to push the plunger that blows the building up.

But the Observer is not leaving because the building is decrepit. They’re leaving because the staff needs only a fraction of the space. The Observer has shed employees by the hundreds in the last eight or 10 years, just like every other paper of any size in this country, because the ways newspapers used to make money are gone. Classified ads, which used to fill entire sections of the paper, vanished into Craigslist. Businesses took most of their display ads online, for a fraction of the cost, or just built their own websites. The printed paper is still a moneymaker, but younger readers don’t want it. The Observer (and most other papers) have more readers than ever when you add print and online, and the money from the digital side is growing, but it’s not enough to cover the nut.

None of this is new. You’ve heard it for years. What you might not have heard is the distant quiet of an empty newsroom. What you might not have seen is the vast vacant mailroom, big enough for two basketball courts, where dozens of workers stuffed sales papers and coupons into the daily paper. They moved that operation out of the building years ago, along with the presses two stories below that used to rumble all day with editions that went to every corner of both Carolinas. There was a huge window in the lobby where you could watch the presses run. Some nights, when I had a big story in the next day’s paper, I’d stand and watch for a while on my way out the door. The papers rolled off the presses and wound through the pressroom, too fast to keep track of, like blood coursing through a giant beast. I could feel it in my heart.

There’s a mural covering that big window now, so you can’t see the empty room behind it.

 

*****

 

We believed. No, that’s wrong: We believe. Still do. We believe in what a newspaper means to a city. A great newspaper tells stories and raises hell. It helps you figure out what your government is doing and what you can do about it. It shows you where to buy a new car or a pair of shoes. It gives you a crossword puzzle to work on with your morning coffee. It is a public utility. You turn it on and it’s there like the water or the lights.

It’s hard work putting out a great paper. “You’re gonna cry,” somebody said Thursday when I walked into the newsroom. “It’s OK,” I said. “I’ve cried in here plenty of times before.” The Observer has never been a shouting-type place — you rarely even heard a door slam — but there have been plenty of uncomfortable conversations, and quiet seething anger, and gripe sessions down at the vending machines. This is the same as pretty much any situation when strong creative people work on something together. I read about a TV writers’ room one time, and somebody said that no matter how heated it got in there, the same rule always applied: Best idea wins. At the Observer, the best idea usually wins.

The upside is that most days it was a glorious place to work. You didn’t have to wear a suit and nobody shivered in fear when the boss came through the door. One of my all-time favorite Observer moments is when the new CEO of our parent company came to town on his tour of the newspapers the company owned. He gave a brief speech and asked if anybody had questions. Binyamin Appelbaum, one of our business reporters, asked the CEO to name some good work he’d read in the papers he was now in charge of. The CEO’s second-in-command jumped in to answer the question, but Binya stopped him. “No,” he said, pointing at the CEO. “I want HIM to answer.” At a lot of other places, he might’ve gotten fired for that. At the Observer, we were taught to hold powerful people accountable — no matter who. (Binya, by the way, is now killing it as an economics reporter for The New York Times.)

What I still haven’t gotten to, way too far into this story, is how much fun it was. I’ve been gone from the paper nearly four years now and the thing I miss the most is just coming into the newsroom and shooting the shit with people I enjoy being around. It’s such a joy to work with smart, committed people who care about the same things you care about. We would pass around stories we loved, or crazy reader emails that made us laugh. We’d idle away downtime with endless debates or silly contests. The art department used to have an epic Nerf basketball game that involved complicated rules and shots made from various spots around their office. Every so often you’d hear a gigantic roar in there, and you’d know somebody made the full-court shot from the other end of the room.

The best times were when a big story broke. All the petty disputes, all the efforts to avoid work that day, all that was dropped in an instant and the giant machinery of the newsroom meshed together. It was like watching a pile of parts assemble itself into a precision clock. To work with a group of absolute professionals putting together a package of stories on a tight deadline … there will never be anything better in my working life. And once you’re in it you see how many people it takes to do it right — from the people answering the phones to the copy editors saving us from errors to countless other people whose names you never see in the daily report, but who are in there just as deep as the electrons and ink.

I’ve written a lot of this in past tense, because I don’t work at the paper anymore, but the present tense holds. There aren’t as many people who work there now, but they still do great work every day — more than every other media outlet in town put together. Wherever you’re reading this, that’s probably true in your city, too. We have far more news outlets than ever before. Some of them do important, compelling work. Most don’t. If the NFL expanded to 500 teams, there would be a lot more football. Tickets would be cheaper. But it wouldn’t be a better game.

 

*****

 

They made a wall with all our names. There were thousands of them — all the people (or at least all the ones they could identify) who worked at the Observer over the years. At first it reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial, or one of those small-town monuments to the war dead. That’s not comparing journalists to soldiers, although many journalists have risked their lives covering wars. It’s more about a struggle a lot of us have in different ways: trying to fight for something bigger than yourself, and feeling like you’re losing. You don’t have to be a soldier to deal with that. You can be a pastor trying to keep a church alive, or a parent raising a troubled kid.

The business I love has put a lot of good people on the street and left behind a lot of empty buildings. I love it anyway, and so do the people who came by the paper Thursday, not so much to say goodbye to the old building but to say hello again to one another. I did most of the best work of my life with those people, and had most of the good times I’ll ever have, and met the woman I married. Newspapers can break your heart. But I’ll let it be broken every time for what I got out of the deal.

After three hours or so, the old building emptied out, except for the people who still had to put out the news. Alix and I walked through the revolving doors and out of 600 South Tryon, probably for the last time. But the party wasn’t quite over. Some folks had arranged to meet at a bar around the corner. We went to spend a little more time with our newspaper friends, a little more time, just a little more time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elephant in the Room: The end of the beginning

 

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Some of you know that I’ve been working on a book for a while — it’s called “The Elephant in the Room,” and it’s a memoir about my life as a fat man in a growing America. Just after midnight last night, I wrote the final sentence and then typed -30-, which is old newspaper lingo for the end of a story. I emailed the draft to my agent. Most of my columns for the Charlotte Observer were about 600 words. One of the features I write for ESPN might run 4,000. This was 61,000 words. I hope a few of them are good.

This is just the end of the beginning. A few trusted readers are going to take a look and give me some thoughts. I’ll read those and make some changes. Then my book editor at Simon & Schuster will get ahold of it, and he’ll have more ideas. What we end up with will be different than what I turned in today. That’s how it works and how it ought to work. I don’t know when there will be a book for you to buy. But you can bet I’ll let you know through this blog, Twitter, Facebook, emails, town crier, etc.

There’s still a long way to go. But for now: I wrote a book! I think I’ll go sleep for a couple of days.