The Redemption Of Billy Cannon

Wright Thompson: ANGOLA, La. –The prison dentist walks slowly down the gravel road past the warden’s house. He is stooped, with a big belly, two white tufts of hair and a bald spot. He’s got a bulbous nose and a creak in his step. But look closer. There are still pieces of the man he used to be. He moves with a subtle feline grace. He’s got the deepest blue eyes, familiar somehow, like an old photograph. They seem to only absorb information, never giving anything away. He’s alone, carefully making his way from the party to his white Ford truck. He’s been on display long enough.

“I’m going to play with my horses,” Dr. Billy Cannon says.

Even in his 72nd year, people can’t help looking at him. They see only the broadest strokes: the LSU football hero who fell unimaginably far. Almost no one is allowed to see deeper. He doesn’t like to be inspected — once he saw me taking notes in a hotel lobby and barked, “Put that damn book up” — because his life then becomes the property of the observer.

Of course, what he likes hasn’t mattered for a long time now. For the past half century, he has existed mostly through the eyes of others, the narrative of his life in their control. They stare, they whisper, they point. They wonder what to make of his hard exterior, or the gruff responses he gives to strangers, or the fact that he has spent much of the past two decades in virtual seclusion.

Reasons You Should Read Tinsel

First in a continuing series of nuggets from Hank Stuever’s book Tinsel, which you should get, if you know what’s good for you. If there are typos, they’re mine. Page 67:

People sometimes go to the mall twice a day. On weekday mornings and afternoons it is the “Strollerbriar” of its nickname, filled with bored moms who visit over and over again, eddying out by the play area, and watch carefully as their children maniacally romp on toys in the shapes of a giant, smiling plastic cell phone and a computer terminal. On Friday nights Stonebriar Centre fills with packs of teenagers, who seem to have stepped right out of television shows about teenagers, who screech joyfully at one another between checking their phones. Emo rocker teens with pink-tinged shag haircuts and Joey Ramone drainpipe jeans gather at tables by Sbarro pizza. On Saturday nights there are married couples, MILFs with their DILFS, who’ve hired babysitters so they can have dinner at Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen and now wander around Barnes & Noble, browsing together and then drifting apart, until it is time to ride the escalator together up to the AMC 24 for a 9:20 showing of a comedy starring Will Ferrell or Will Smith or Will Anybody. On Sundays, Stonebriar fills with football widows who paw lackadaisically through the sales racks at Macy’s and Nordstrom. On weeknights, near closing, lonely employees stare abjectly from the Brookstone and Hot Topic and T-Mobile.

I like it all, in spite of myself.

‘I Still Do’

Andy Meacham: ST. PETE BEACH — Julius Stewart and Angie Lee Burnham were childhood friends who moved away and married other people.

Both their spouses died young, and of unusual causes — his wife to a gas leak; her husband to a German U-boat.

The old friends reunited and wed shortly after World War II. They were together 64 years, until death separated them last week.

They died a day apart. Mr. Stewart, who was 90, died Saturday. Mrs. Stewart, who was 92, died Sunday.

“I think they decided that they were meant to be together,” said son Lee Stewart. “They almost knew what each other was going to say or do. It was sort of like a communication that you didn’t see.”

The Vestigial Tale

Joel Achenbach: Gary Smith writes very long stories for a living. They run 8,000 words. He crafts four of them a year for Sports Illustrated. He is a throwback, a spinner of yarns in what we will call for the millionth time the Age of Twitter. Narrative these days competes against incrementalized information — data, chatter, noise. Smith doesn’t think he’s a dinosaur, but he does fear that the long-form narrative doesn’t quite work on a computer screen.

“You’re on the Web and the Internet all day, and you got your trigger finger on that Scroll Down button. And you’re looking to move material across the screen. Move-and-skim is the mood you’re in.”

And that’s no way to read a story.

“A story curls you back into yourself,” he says, “and you need a special time and place and setting and mode for that. If it becomes all one smear with your work life and checking your e-mail, your Facebook, it’s lost all its reason for being.”

Poppy’s Story

Paul Grondahl with Poppy’s Story in seven chapters (thanks, Brendan). Here’s the first: ALBANY — “I ain’t nobody, boss. I ain’t nobody.”

The man was wrapped in three layers of thermal wear: coveralls, snowmobile suit, down jacket. He wore a wool hat with earflaps.

He had come to a South End food pantry for a free lunch on a Saturday in January. Outside, it was wicked cold. A biting wind knifed up from the Hudson a few blocks away — lip-chapping weather.

He’d spent the night outside, he said, and had been living on the streets, more on than off, for eight years. Right now, home was a blue-tarp shanty near the 787 overpass, down by the river.

“Wanna see it?” he asked. He leaned in close, gauging my reaction.

He smelled of damp earth and stale beer.

Before I could reply, he requested a cup of tea and off I went to fetch it. He wasn’t drinking the watery coffee poured from the spigot of a big silver urn like the others at the pantry.

My daughter had come to the pantry with a friend as part of a middle school community service project. I joined them in table-waiting duties.

The man expertly made breakfast tea and sipped it with a practiced, delicate touch, pinky extended.

‘I Have No Tolerance For Being Bored’

… over at Nieman Storyboard. Good stuff. Like this: Is there anything narrative journalism does that can’t be done by some other type of print or online story?

Narrative journalism is not about delivering information. It’s about delivering the experience of something. That’s what other kinds of journalism, with sidebars and timelines and hypertext and graphics and mapping—all the wonderful things that journalism can do to convey information—none of those things even attempts to deliver the sense of experience.

Ghosts In The Trailer Park

Check out Wes Ferguson: There will be tears tonight.

There will be voices in the cemetery — a child’s laughter, a whispered threat.

On a cool, damp night in Longview, paranormal investigator Misty Richardson says she will not fear the spirits she expects to encounter during research of a local burial ground.

“Me, what I believe is that I have the Lord with me,” she says. “We say a prayer and feel that He protects us. Some of them do try to possess you, so you have to do it with a clear head. If you act relaxed and peaceful, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

If you give in to panic, on the other hand, you become vulnerable. You must not panic.

New Ballgame

Wright Thompson: NEW YORK — I am a man of the people, which is why I generously tipped the guy who shined my shoes in a suite near the home plate of Yankee Stadium. Actually, that’s a lie. I didn’t tip him. Why should I? He gets to be in the presence of me and my fellow masters of the universe. Maybe he’ll catch success by osmosis, and that’s tip enough. Someday, if he works hard, he can grow up to be like me: a man who enjoys a beautiful fall day by spending $1,200 of other people’s money on a baseball ticket.

I am the American Dream. I drink wildly expensive French wine with my ballpark lunch and give half the bottle to the guys slaving away in the kitchen, because generosity toward the working man is a burden I carry with grace. I order a $60 glass of pregame scotch and throw the last swallow away, because backwash is for proletarian strivers.

The Misadventures Of Tom Sawyer

Lane DeGregory: Tom Sawyer is in jail.


He’s well known at the Hillsborough County lockup: trespassing, drinking in public, resisting arrest. Alkie crimes. It’s petty stuff, but the record fills 83 pages. And that’s just in Florida, since 1993.

At 77, he’s one of the oldest guys in the Falkenburg Road Jail. In his mug shots, he’s always wearing overalls. Sometimes his thin chest is bare beneath the dingy denim. Sometimes he wears an undershirt. But always, those overalls — except, for some reason, in the most recent booking photo.

The other day I went to see him.

“You want to talk to me?” he asks, shuffling into a holding room. “Why?”

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