Narrative In Song

I got a new computer a few months back, after my old laptop finally expired, and then I spent many hours ripping all my CDs to the hard drive. It was a real pain, but now I can burn discs with everything I want and nothing I don’t. Nifty. So the other day I told a writer friend I would make one for her, and I asked her what tracks she wanted, and this is what she said:


“OK,” I said.

And this is what I came up with:

1. Bruce Springsteen, “The River.”
2. Ben Folds, “Landed.”
3. The White Stripes, “Little Ghost.”
4. Ryan Adams, “New York, New York.”
5. Janis Joplin, “Me And Bobby McGee.”
6. Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day.”
7. Bill Morrissey, “Robert Johnson.”
8. Counting Crows, “Round Here.”
9. Dave Matthews, “Gravedigger.”
10. Mary-Chapin Carpenter, “This Shirt.”
11. Bob Dylan, “Man In The Long Black Coat.”
12. Dire Straits, “Romeo & Juliet.”
13. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
14. Simon & Garfunkel, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.”
15. Ben Harper, “Diamonds On The Inside.”
16. Willie Nelson, “Pancho And Lefty.”
17. Aimee Mann, “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart.”

A couple are not true narratives, but they’re close enough.

How about it, folks? What did I miss? What are the world’s greatest narrative songs?

Mystery at the Christmas House

Read Kruse’s story: The lights were off, the music was stopped, the doors were locked. There was a U-Haul truck backed up to the side of the main building at the Rogers’ Christmas House complex. And upstairs were Ann Chapman, who was in charge of marketing, and Bill Chapman, who was in charge of the day-to-day finances and operations, and they said in a quiet room they were closing the business for two weeks to figure out how or even if they would reopen.

That was Jan. 10.

Three days later, the iconic Hernando County business was back open, 9:30 to 5, as always. Only there were fewer employees. And the Chapmans were gone.

Folks around town started to talk.

The Trail Goes Cold

Read Marc Kaufman’s story: As Neil Armstrong prepared to take his “one small step” onto the moon in July 1969, a specially hardened video camera tucked into the lander’s door clicked on to capture that first human contact with the lunar surface. The ghostly images of the astronaut’s boot touching the soil record what may be the most iconic moment in NASA history, and a major milestone for mankind.

Millions of television viewers around the world saw those fuzzy, moving images and were amazed, even mesmerized. What they didn’t know was that the Apollo 11 camera had actually sent back video far crisper and more dramatic — spectacular images that, remarkably, only a handful of people have ever seen.

Three For The Cold

Michael Brick on mercy or death, Dan Barry from Sunday, and some daily inspiration from Hank Stuever back in February of 2003:

A good five inches of snow falls, and the cubicle landscape is suddenly populated the next day by more manly men, who seem to have hiked in from the backcountry, or driven in on their imaginary snowmobiles.

Gone are the gray suits, the khakis, the software-logo golf shirts and tassled loafers. When it snows, the American office starts to look like Stein Ericksen’s ski lodge, filled with variations on the Brawny man — at least as far as the guys are concerned. This is a good thing, since Office Park Dad spends so much of his life feeling somehow less a man. He is a Shetland wool bonanza — layered, hat-haired, rosy-cheeked. He looks ridiculous and still, remarkably, sexy.

Never mind that the roads were cleared by 8, and that he parked the Jetta in the garage under K Street, barely stepping in a puddle. He’s here, everybody: Eddie Bauer has arrived for his workday.

Nothing completes a winter wonderland downtown like the sight of guys who wear the same thing every day wearing something else. At last you see the too-thick sweaters they got for Christmas, or the outerwear they buy for fun. The Gore-Tex, fleece, and puffy parka factor goes off the chart. All that flannel plaid makes us think of the logging industry or not-so-romantic camping weekends. There’s a certain swagger to cold-weather guys, which may mean: long johns.

They don’t shave (the prep time instead went to shoveling the driveway), and they exude a harmless machismo of self-satisfaction because they made it in, as opposed to those suburban Maryland wussies who decided to stay home with the brats. Lunch tends to run long on a day like this, and it seems like all the guys decide to eat together at pubs and taverns instead of girly-man places like Au Bon Pain or Chicken Out.

After that, it’s time to hit the slopes for the rest of the afternoon, schussing back to the cubicle, ready to chop down the forest. The coat closet by the reception desk smells ripe and woolly. Snow Day Man sits at his desk and waits for the avalanche search-and-rescue distress call that never comes. (He is indifferent to the snickerings over there of Snow Day Woman, wearing that silly pashmina — or worse, tights — and her Incredibly Dumb Hat.) The daylight wanes and he begins to think about his journey home. He can handle whatever Old Man Winter deals him out there on the Beltway frontier, because he’s a lumberjack, and he’s okay.

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So Saith Simon

David Simon, former Baltimore Sun cops reporter and force behind the brilliant television shows Homicide and The Wire, visited the St. Petersburg Times on Friday to talk about the role of narrative journalism in prolonging the slow death of newspapers. (This one had Gangrey written all over it.) His main point seemed to be that stories — not articles, not reports, not infoboxes — will keep readers with us in the coming decades. He said people want something with depth, with nuance, with a beginning and a middle and an end, written by someone who’s become an expert in the subject, rendered through the characters’ eyes.

“You’re going to have to provide them something they can’t get by calling up AP on Google,” he said.

My favorite of his points was the one about knowing your audience. Reporters tend to imagine the average newspaper reader when they write. Forget him, he said. Forget your colleagues too.

“The guy you want to write for is the guy who’s in the middle of the event,” he said. “If he has to admit that you own his world, then you’ve succeeded.”

Here’s a sampling of his other pronouncements.

On using quotes instead of dialogue: “The thing that all journalists do, and it basically destroys narrative storytelling as an art, is they quote people.”

On how to get the kind of extraordinary access he got in writing The Corner: “You just have to show up every day and not lie.”

On projects undertaken for the sole purpose of winning awards: “Any one of you that starts thinking about what prize your shit is going to win before Dec. 15 is an asshole.”

On forcing a sense of balance instead of simply reporting what you saw: “All that journalism where you quote everyone saying, ‘On the other hand,’ — (it) eventually means nothing.”

On copy editors who want to stop and explain every new term:
“Copy editors need to be beaten with a stick.”

On watchdog journalism, which he has forsaken in favor of explanatory narrative:
“All I want to do is come to the campfire with the best story.”

‘Man Down’

Damien Cave in Baghdad: Staff Sgt. Hector Leija scanned the kitchen, searching for illegal weapons. One wall away, in an apartment next door, a scared Shiite family huddled around a space heater, cradling an infant.

Two Ends Meet

Read Tom Lake’s story: In the end they identified just one tooth. It belonged to the old woman’s son. Now she sits on a brown wraparound couch in her living room, telling stories to a priest. On her wrist is a metal crescent with this inscription:


Exploring The Dictates

Justin George on Gene’s: Someone sneaks out the side door, and a breeze blows in. The DJ interjects with another message: “Shut the door, baby.”

It’s an order meant to keep the pounding music inside, but it also represents a dividing line patrons respect. What goes on inside and outside Gene’s Bar are separate matters, patrons say.

The police and City Council see it differently. Gene’s Bar is Tampa’s most notorious wet establishment, and after years of complaints, council members have called for it to be shut down. City officials have grown so tired that they are negotiating to buy the bar in order to put an end to it. They view Gene’s as a cocktail glass that swirls with all the problems that take place on its East Tampa corner – 22nd Street and E Mallory Avenue – but customers say the drug deals, shootings and stabbings that have plagued police for years aren’t the bar’s fault.

“All that’s on the outside,” said Leroy Daniels, 26, whose forearm is imprinted with a tattooed fist and the name of the projects where he grew up.

It’s An Honor

New York Herald Tribune. November 1963.

Washington – Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting.

It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.”

Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him.

“Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said.

“Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.”

Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging.

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it.

“That’s nice soil,” Metzler said.

“I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”

James Winners, another gravedigger, nodded. He said he would fill a couple of carts with this extra-good soil and take it back to the garage and grow good turf on it.

“He was a good man,” Pollard said.

“Yes, he was,” Metzler said.

“Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up,” Pollard said. “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”

Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacquleline Kennedy started toward the grave. She came out from under the north portico of the White House and slowly followed the body of her husband, which was in a flag-covered coffin that was strapped with two black leather belts to a black caisson that had polished brass axles. She walked straight and her head was high. She walked down the bluestone and blacktop driveway and through shadows thrown by the branches of seven leafless oak trees. She walked slowly past the sailors who held up flags of the states of this country. She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes. She walked out the northwest gate and into the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. She walked with tight steps and her head was high and she followed the body of her murdered husband through the streets of Washington.

Everybody watched her while she walked. She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly. Even though they had killed her husband and his blood ran onto her lap while he died, she could walk through the streets and to his grave and help us all while she walked.

There was mass, and then the procession to Arlington. When she came up to the grave at the cemetery, the casket already was in place. It was set between brass railings and it was ready to be lowered into the ground. This must be the worst time of all, when a woman sees the coffin with her husband inside and it is in place to be buried under the earth. Now she knows that it is forever. Now there is nothing. There is no casket to kiss or hold with your hands. Nothing material to cling to. But she walked up to the burial area and stood in front of a row of six green-covered chairs and she started to sit down, but then she got up quickly and stood straight because she was not going to sit down until the man directing the funeral told her what seat he wanted her to take.

The ceremonies began, with jet planes roaring overhead and leaves falling from the sky. On this hill behind the coffin, people prayed aloud. They were cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men and they were saying prayers out loud and choking. In front of the grave, Lyndon Johnson kept his head turned to his right. He is president and he had to remain composed. It was better that he did not look at the casket and grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy too often.

Then it was over and black limousines rushed under the cemetery trees and out onto the boulevard toward the White House.

“What time is it?” a man standing on the hill was asked. He looked at his watch.

“Twenty minutes past three,” he said.

Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral. He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.

“They’ll be used,” he said. “We just don’t know when.”

“I tried to go over to see the grave,” he said. “But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn’t get through. So I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I’ll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is, you know. Like I told you, it’s an honor.”