To Live And Die In Chiraq

Ethan Brown in Playboy (NSFW, probably): When Lil Reese tells you to get out of the car, you exit the vehicle as fast as you can.

The tension began to boil at breakfast when Brandon, a paunchy white kid and perennial sidekick to Chicago’s hip-hop elite, promised Reese a free necklace from a jeweler friend in Los Angeles who bills himself as “Your Rapper’s Favorite Jeweler.” Now, in the backseat of a Chevy Malibu parked on Chicago’s South Side, Brandon’s generosity has been turned on its head by Reese, a brooding 21-year-old with bushy eyebrows and tattoos that crawl up his arms and onto his neck like lichen on an oak tree. Put simply: If you offer Reese a necklace, he’s going to want it now.

“Let me see that piece for a minute,” Reese says, tugging at the Medusa-head medallion around Brandon’s neck. “No,” Brandon says, pushing Reese away. “This is sentimental.”

A long pause.

“What the fuck is sentimental?” Reese shoots back.

“Reesie,” Brandon pleads, “he’s gonna FedEx two chains to you. I promise, yo.” His voice clears with sincerity. “On my mother.”

Reese is unmoved. “Let me see it now,” he demands.

“Reesie,” Brandon stammers back.

“I’ll give it back when I get those two pieces,” Reese continues, his voice growing cold.

“Yo, Reesie,” Brandon says. “I’m going to New York and I want to wear my piece.”

“Ethan,” Reese’s baritone booms from the back of the car, “step outside.”


Dan Zak: The scent on the breeze is — what? Guava, with a hint of lion’s mane? Or maybe a cocktail of vanilla and cherry menthol and jungle juice. Past the hotel lobby, the haze thickens. Smells sharpen, then muddle, then sharpen again. It’s smoky, except it’s not, because it is vapor that’s being expelled in great white plumes in the ballroom, which is clogged with vapers, because this is Vapefest. An announcement is being made.

“Meet Beefcake the Mighty,” says a young vaper in a teal polo shirt into a microphone, referring to the large man dressed as some kind of mythic warlord from hell. “He will autograph your juice for you.”

Where to begin.

With the haze, yes, and the smell. But then?

Start simple. Vapefest is a convention and fundraiser for users and vendors of electronic cigarettes. Users of electronic cigarettes are called vapers. Vapers vape vapor. Beefcake the Mighty is a member of the thrash metal band Gwar, whose albums include “This Toilet Earth.” You may remember the song called “The Obliteration of Flab Quarv 7.”


Death Of A Racehorse And Captain Waskow

Fascinating stuff from Paul Coover:

Hey Ben,

I was recently reading through some old Ernie Pyle stories because A) I graduated from a journalism school that bears his name on its main building, and was embarrassed about not having read more of his work and B) I want to continue to try to understand the best writing about the military for my current job. I came across something I think is pretty interesting.

I know “Death of a Racehorse,” by W.C. Heinz, is a much-loved piece of sportswriting among the Gangrey crowd. I love it, too — I’ve memorized some of the lines, and it’s what I return to when I need a reminder about how such tight writing can be so powerful. (I tend to get wordy, as you know.)

Anyway, “Death of a Racehorse” was written in 1949, and Ernie Pyle’s most widely-read column, “The Death of Captain Waskow” was written in 1944. The similarities are uncanny, and it seems unlikely to me that Heinz wouldn’t have been familiar with Pyle’s work, seeing as he was a contemporary and practicing a similar style of newspaper writing.

I’d love to see more established writers read the two pieces – do you think it could make for a Gangrey discussion? Not so much better/worse, but maybe they could break down the strengths of each and what we can take away?

I noted the following similarities, to start:

“Waskow”: “One soldier came and looked down and said out loud, ‘God damn it.’ That was all he said…”
“Racehorse”: “‘Aw —-‘ someone said. That was all they said.”

Pyle uses “a low stone wall” nearby as a way to illustrate death’s indiscriminateness. Heinz used a loose pile of bricks in the exact same way (which Chris Jones expertly wrote about here.)

Finally, the length and rhythm are similar. Both eschew traditional quotes in favor of short bits of dialogue, often unattributed. And the titles, obviously, make me think Heinz was tipping his hat to Pyle, who was killed in action in 1945.

Read both. Thoughts?

Tales From Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Life’s Small Moments Loom Large. From the WSJ (thanks TLoh): As night fell last Friday in Kuala Lumpur, businessman Philip Wood hurried to gather his bags for a trip to Beijing. He had confused the dates, but his girlfriend in China texted him to make sure he got on the plane.

A group of Chinese artists capped off their exhibition at a local cultural center in Malaysia’s capital city with a day of sightseeing and a banquet lunch of duck soup, fried shrimp and pork in brown sauce.

Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest

From Mayborn and the Dallas Morning News:

In an effort to foster narrative nonfiction storytelling at newspapers across America, The Dallas Morning News is sponsoring the second annual writing contest conducted by the Mayborn Conference: Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest.

We’re inviting submissions of extraordinary long-form narrative nonfiction previously published in a daily U.S. newspaper or a U.S. newspaper website. Writers and editors can submit one to five narratives, including narratives that are part of a series. The Best American Newspaper Writing Contest jurors will select three winners and three runners-up.

First place winner will receive $5,000 and free registration to attend the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference July 18-20, 2014 in Grapevine, Texas
Second place winner will receive $2,000
Third place winner will receive $1,000


Justin Heckert: I heard that the clown would never say a word. That he barely ever spoke, even to friends. That he chose to communicate through song, and all of his songs were sad. He was a really sad clown, sadder than all the others, and whenever he had something to say, it could only be cast through the baritone of his beautiful voice. Singing a cover of Lorde’s “Royals” had made him a famous clown, but he was still a shy clown, awkward and often timid in his surroundings. His reputation followed him like strings on balloons. He didn’t love people. He was cranky. He was sometimes hard to work with. He was known to pace silently onstage before he sang; he was known to glower; he recoiled at bright lights. He bristled at trivialities, like where to set his lantern. He had learned that to be seen in public was to make some people scared. He wore no big red nose, no goofy nimbus of hair, no long clown shoes that might make someone laugh if he slipped on a banana peel. He wasn’t just creepy, with dark eyes set off by white makeup that coated his face — he was straight-up scary, with a bald head and three black poof-balls dotting his pale white outfit, with a chiffon collar outlined in black; and he was almost 7 feet tall, and thin. No one could ever remember a time when he smiled, not even once, which can’t be said of even the most evil clown. His name — a name that evoked the last part of the rain, a word as gloomy as the clouds it came from — didn’t help.

Star-crossed Love in Afghanistan

Rod Norland (thanks, Mark): BAMIAN, Afghanistan — She is his Juliet and he is her Romeo, and her family has threatened to kill them both.

Zakia is 18 and Mohammad Ali is 21, both the children of farmers in this remote mountain province. If they could manage to get together, they would make a striking couple.

She dresses colorfully, a pink head scarf with her orange sweater, and collapses into giggles talking about him. He is a bit of a dandy, with a mop of upswept black hair, a white silk scarf and a hole in the side of his saddle-toned leather shoes. Both have eyes nearly the same shade, a startling amber.

They have never been alone in a room together, but they have publicly declared their love for each other and their intention to marry despite their different ethnicities and sects. That was enough to make them outcasts, they said, marked for death for dishonoring their families — especially hers.

Zakia has taken refuge in a women’s shelter here. Even though she is legally an adult under Afghan law, the local court has ordered her returned to her family. “If they get hold of me,” she said matter-of-factly, “they would kill me even before they get me home.”

The ‘Boys’ In The Bunkhouse

Dan Barry: WATERLOO, Iowa — A man stands at a bus stop. He wears bluejeans, cowboy boots, and a name tag pinned like a badge to his red shirt. It says: Clayton Berg, dishwasher, county sheriff’s office.
He is 58, with a laborer’s solid build, a preference to be called Gene and a whisper-white scar on his right wrist. His backpack contains a jelly sandwich, a Cherry Coke and a comforting pastry treat called a Duchess Honey Bun.

The Route 1 bus receives him, then resumes its herky-jerky journey through the northeastern Iowa city of Waterloo, population 68,000. He stares into the panoramic blur of ordinary life that was once so foreign to him.

Mr. Berg comes from a different place.

For more than 30 years, he and a few dozen other men with intellectual disabilities — affecting their reasoning and learning — lived in a dot of a place called Atalissa, about 100 miles south of here. Every morning before dawn, they were sent to eviscerate turkeys at a processing plant, in return for food, lodging, the occasional diversion and $65 a month. For more than 30 years.
Their supervisors never received specialized training; never tapped into Iowa ’s social service system; never gave the men the choices in life granted by decades of advancement in disability civil rights. Increasingly neglected and abused, the men remained in heartland servitude for most of their adult lives.

This Dickensian story — told here through court records, internal documents and extensive first-time interviews with several of the men — is little known beyond Iowa. But five years after their rescue, it continues to resound in halls of power. Last year the case led to the largest jury verdict in the history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission : $240 million in damages — an award later drastically reduced, yet still regarded as a watershed moment for disability rights in the workplace. In both direct and subtle ways, it has also influenced government initiatives, advocates say, including President Obama ’s recent executive order to increase the minimum wage for certain workers.


This fun thing – The Tom Waits Map – making the rounds among my friends got me thinking about place. In most of the daily stories I write, I don’t pay much attention to where something is happening.

Actions, plot, dialogue, quotes, characters, those things are a given. I watch for them. But place? I don’t look for it every day.

Then I read things like Neil Swidey’s “Trapped Under the Sea

Imagine you are venturing into a tunnel that’s been bored into the bedrock underneath the ocean and that continues straight out, hundreds of feet below the seafloor, for almost ten miles. There is no light, besides the faint glow coming from the bulb on your helmet. There is no sound, besides the water dripping overhead or sloshing around your boots. Most important, there is no breathable air, be­sides what you brought in with you, a lifeline pumping through a hose and into your facemask. At the end of the tunnel, you don’t even have enough room to stand up straight, since it chokes down to just five feet in diameter before ending abruptly. It’s the world’s longest dead-end tunnel, so there’s no way out other than turning around and making the hazardous trek back to where you started.

or Ben writing about researchingGrandma Gatewood’s Walk” with his feet

I also targeted my travel to spots that I had to see, places that were important to Emma. I climbed Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia and hiked stretches of trail in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Most important was Mount Katahdin, in Maine. To recreate Grandma Gatewood’s mountain ascent, in 1955, I hired the trail supervisor at Maine’s Baxter State Park as guide and gave him all the information I could about her hike. He led my wife and me on a trek that followed the route she would have taken.

and I remember place is important, too.

Anyone have a favorite piece that takes on place? How do you approach setting in your writing?