Journalism: It's a Tough Racket!
** Opening title sequence inspired by David Mamet and The Tomb of The Unknown Journalist (Oh, you know who you are, Jerky!) **
I never wanted to be "a journalist." Really. I never found the world of journalism fascinating - because I never focused on the Watergate aspect of it - just, ironically enough, the obituaries side of it - which bored me to death ...and tears.
I remember being a youngin' at Willoughby South High School. I used to draw satirical cartoons of my friends in a "Dallas"-like parody. It was fun and I never searched for kudos (although subconsciously, hey, I probably did). My classmate Ken Arko used to say out on the porch, drinking cheap beer, as we sat around a makeshift bonfire: "Hey, can you imagine one day if McVetta got famous and did this for a living..."
When I took Introduction to Public Speaking at South, I got up and did my little routine. Not about airline peanuts and the such - I wasn't that well traveled yet. But I would riff about "G.I. Joe" (which was BIG in it's day) and imagined Cobra Commander in the most mundane - and preposterous - of awkward situations. This got big laughs by my classmates. And one day - one speech - when I strolled up to the podium, up the center aisle, and a classmate whispered on behalf of my upcoming speech to another fellow classmate: "Oh, this is going to be GREAT" - I knew I was hooked - on trading laughs for love.
I ended up getting an "A" in that class - a rarity for me. But when my English teacher, and God bless her I don't remember her name, just the memory of her soul - told me that I had a gift to embrace the masses, I cherished that until this very day...
After I graduated, my friends tried hard to persuade me to join them down at Ohio University: But I didn't have the grades or the SAT's - or the wisdom - to validate me going. If I knew now, what I knew then - that OU had a "top notch" film and journalism school, I might have done otherwise. But I didn't.
Instead, I tried my luck at Lakeland Community College without much fanfare. That is, until I ended up enrolling in another Public Speaking class. My first speech was on "The Oprah Eliminator 2000" - where I went out of my way to draw a diagram of a Twinkee under a 500 lb. weight to lure Ms. Winfrey into my web of sadistic satire. The crowd loved it - and lust like Oprah with the Twinkee, they ate it up. My "professor" - unfortunately - did not. He pulled me aside - despite the guffaws and applause of my classmates - to inform me I was "a disgrace to society." This was the first time when I had my greatest realization: Play for the masses, not the establishment.
"I can't stand this indecision - married with a lack of vision. Everybody wants to rule the world..."
Upon arriving at the concrete slab known as Cleveland State University, I started out as most: Taking the required classes and drinking with my standardized frat boy friends. That is, until they graduated, and I was left holding an empty bag of Labatt's Blue memories. I needed something more, and in the college paper, The Cauldron, I soon found it.
It started out innocently enough, me writing for the Sports section, making my "fairly routine observations" about Mike Ditka and the such - but it grew into so much more. Not to go "all Terrance Mann" on you, but the cosmic tumblers soon opened up a comedic karma universe I could only dream of upon arriving. My pitiful band of rebel friends and I took the small opening we had and turned that newspaper into a Wonka-like factory of savory chocolate journalism wonder.
When we got our hands on some compromsing photos of a CSU administrator in a diaper - chugging to a beer at a company Christmas party - we KNEW we had to run it. In an "Animal House" moment, where the "this could be the best day of our lives ...but YOU'RE gonna make it the worst!" media advisor strongly advised us against running the photo, because it "just wouldn't be proper" - we decided to go for the laughs. And from the reaction - and my own impulses - I'll go to my deathbed damn glad sure we did!
Things turned out ugly after that - pompous to say, but The Beatles of college journalism (and doesn't every staff of every college newspaper think of themselves this way, right, Kent State?) - and their egos, - eventually got in the way ...and we all went our separate ways. Even after my friend, Pete Chakerian, got voted off the island as the next editor of the paper - and I was left in limbo - the only place I had left to turn was the English department who wanted me to come and join their merry band in graduate Creative Writing studies.
I worked that summer in The Cauldron ad department (retained by pity) - forbidden to write for the paper ever again. Out of boredom, I sent my pitiful little resume to The Free Times - which was worshipped at the time as "a God" by the other staff members, but really had no context for me, other than a bunch of "liberal hippies" producing their version of a journalistic underground railroad.
It was then I caught "the call." The Free Times wanted to talk to me after I sent them some snarky cover letter, produced out of a fit of creative contempt. Hey, it was all good. One professor in the English department begged me not to go, stating: "How are you ever going to make a living writing for The Free Times...?"
"Hey, that's Kramer! Kramer's on 'Murphy Brown!!!'"
I soon landed my first "job" out of college: I was writing for The Free Times and later became an Editorial Assistant, which was way cool for a kid my age then. Some of my duties entailed decrypting Harvey Pekar's "chicken scratches" - his columns written in a No. 2 pencil. I was also, from what I remember, obligated to change Mr. Pekar's adult diaper, upon demand - but it was all good.
I didn't even realize it, nor did I foolishly appreciate it, but I was surrounded by a lot of amazing talent at that paper. Marc Jaffe wrote "The Quiz" - the same guy who wrote the "nipple Christmas card" for "Seinfeld." Mark Winegardner went on to write the next "Godfather" novel. Mark Naymik is pursuing his political passions at The Plain Dealer. And that sourpuss, Harvey, got his own movie (a good one!) made about his life.
But I'll always remember my days "slaving away" for the editor of the paper, Cindy Barber. Opening her mail, answering her unwanted phone calls, running her errands and the such. It's true: I was Murphy Brown's secretary - but it was GREAT, holy hell fun, baby! (Cindy is now running her own highly-touted rock'n'roll utopia concert hall, The Beachland Ballroom, which I hear has no television sets in the bar - What? Are they Amish there, or something...???).
But, as all good things, it sadly came to an end - piece by peace. The "Super Friends of local indie Cleveland journalism" each went their seperate ways - and I was content being the "Gleek the Super Monkey" of the bunch. Through my own blend of rampant immaturity and a nice showerstorm of journalistic politics, all I was left with were some clips of my work and fond memories - all good.
"I’ve got another confession to make - I’m your fool. Everyone’s got their chains to break -Holdin’ you! Were you born to resist or be abused? Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you? Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?"
Things weren't all bleak: I later went on to write for SCENE magazine in Cleveland, after editor, Mark Holan, and Pete Chakerian brought me on board. And to this day, I'll always remember the story of Mr. Holan interviewing Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and asking his impressions on "Jim Thome's batting average." (McEditor's Note: Rumor has it, a gun shot was heard on the other end of the line a few minutes later...) Mark Holan was a good guy (but, like a lot of us, deserves better than what he got from this "profession") - and I believe, if I understand correctly, went on to obtain his Archaeology degree and is somewhere in Tunisia searching for The Lost Ark...
SCENE copy editor, Erich Burnett, was the ONE GUY who could take my prose - chop it up into little pieces - and actually MAKE IT BETTER. If I ever put down the Blue Moon Belgian Ale, and write my "book about nothing," I'll be sure to look up Mr. Burnett's services to come on board to edit my merry band on meaningless banter.
"Jack, this island brought us all here together for a reason. Some of the people on this island view it as a curse, but I view it as a wonderful thing..."
My TRUE passion is storytelling. The Force willing, maybe one day I'll wash up on the shores of Hawaii in my tattered Grady Sizemore Indians' jersey and my "Lost" screenplay in hand - and J.J. Abrams will have mercy on my tortured soul.
Other than that, I just have to laugh at it all, really. Friends and family are no substitute for writing - but it sure is a fun obsession to partake! As commentator Bill Needle once told me: "There's two kinds of people who go into this profession: One who truly LOVES what they are doing - and those who just want to get recognized at the grocery store."
Which one are you? Thanks for listening!