The one, the only Nancy Nall uses a story about an adulterous politician---no, not John Edwards; the mayor of Detroit, and getting caught cheating is the least of his problems--- to teach a lesson in good newspaper writing.
Nance's excellent advice boils down to this. Avoid embellishing. There are some stories in which the plain facts provide all the color and drama and comedy you need. And don't indulge in mind-reading, because A. you probably aren't any good at it and B. again, there are some stories in which the plain facts provide all the color and drama and comedy you need.
Nance starts with an example that doesn't avoid either embellishment or mind reading and then compares that to some good writing that does, and I wasn't surprised when the good writing turned out to be by a reporter for the Detroit News by the name of Ron French.
Ron is an old friend of ours from our salad days in Fort Wayne. He and Nance and the blonde were part of a group of young reporters who were the core of what was then a very fine local news desk, surprisingly fine for a paper that size. The group also included Ron's future wife, Valerie, and another friend of ours I'll call Missy, just because it will annoy her if she happens to read this. All of them were good reporters and all of them wrote very well, but even back then Ron was probably just a bit better than the rest. As Nance reminds me, he had a good eye for the odd but telling detail and a knack for knowing just where in a sentence or graph to stick it that would electrify the whole story.
Ron was also a Mets fan, despite having been born and raised in the wilds of Indiana, which is probably not incidental to his being a smart reporter and talented writer.
Nance's post also reminded me of another post of hers, a real nice one, concerning another old colleague of theirs from those days. Unfortunately the post was relaying news of the man's death.
I didn't know Bill all that well. He was a good deal older than Nance and the blonde and Ron and their group and didn't hang out with them. I remember a cheerful, energetic, fast-talking man with jet black hair always perfectly combed and parted and a very red face. He was a Vietnam vet who'd left the New York Daily News to come cover the arts scene in Fort Wayne, Indiana but who never seemed to regard that as a comedown. He reported on the local theater, museums, music, dance, and all the other arts plastic and performing, without snobbery or condescension, that last bit always getting him in trouble with community theater types who tended to forget all the praise he gave them whenever he happened to hold them to the standards that pretended to aspire to. That seems to be a quirk of community theater types everywhere. They always want an A for effort even when the effort went into putting on a stinker of a show. But Bill enjoyed the theater. He enjoyed all the work and the artists he covered. He was in his way a force for good, a critic who added to the art he wrote about just by writing about it intelligently and constructively.
So it seems a shame to eulogize the man with the additional biographical fact that he was also an enthusiastic and unabashed patron of the local whorehouses. But it can't be helped. Bill's cheerful adventures with prostitutes and his stories about them defined him to us as much as his arts reporting and made him something of a legend in our minds. You had to admire a guy who could recommend a massage parlor with the same objectivity and expectation that you'll thank him for it later as he'd recommend a play or a concert or a restaurant. As I recall, he preferred places where the employees were of Asian background or descent, but that might have been our embellishing, based on his war record, allowing us to allow ourselves to work the half-sung phrase "Still in Saigon," into a conversation about him.
The other reason that part of his sex life has to be mentioned is one that Bill himself, a die-hard tabloid newspaper man, would appreciate---it leads naturally into a story that mixes sex, politics, and crime.
I don't know if Fort Wayne, which liked to bill itself as The City of Churches because of all the steeples that dominated the otherwise unimposing skyline, had a higher proportion of whorehouses than other cities its size. I doubt it. But the ones it did have operated more out in the open than the ones in any other places I've lived. Most of them were massage parlors with obvious names like The Doll House and they were located in just about every neighborhood business district. When the local DA decided to crack down, the ones he shut down re-opened not too much later as "modeling studios." Local "artists" could come with their sketch pads and charcoal pencils to draw the "models" who would pose for "tasteful" nudes.
The story begins with this, it came to the police's attention that several of these massage parlors were owned by a local bail bondsman whose business partner and chief bookkeeper was his sometime girlfriend, a woman who had run for city council several times. The police wanted her and the bail bondsman, but at first they were only able to bring him in. Somehow she eluded them.
Here's what I wrote in my notebook at the time:
R., a former Republican candidate for city council is wanted by the police for her connection with a prostitution ring run by her boyfriend, a bail bondsman. There's a warrant out for her arrest but so far she hasn't been caught. I don't think she's actually on the run. The cops just don't know where to look for her. She must be out of town.
The blonde's old boss predicted something like this in an editorial meeting the last time R. ran for the council. They were discussing which candidates to endorse and Stuart said that R. was trouble because of her involvement with the bondsman who was a known sleaze even before the news about his massage parlors broke. "Something's going to blow," Stuart said. [Editor's note: Obvious oral sex jokes go here.]
Allegedly, R. and her boyfriend operated The Fort Wayne School of Massage and Reflexology. [Editor's note: No, he's not making that up.] Presumably the masseuses had Ph.D.'s and were called Professor. What did the profs wear under their caps and gowns was wanted the police wanted to know, and how much did it cost to find out?
Before the professors began their careers in tutelage, the Fort Wayne School of Massage and Reflexology was known as Tender Touch Massage, a name that had the virtues of hominess, comfort, and truth in advertising. Snobbery brought them down.
[Editor's note: Actually, the name was changed during a crack-down on massage parlors. Guess it was hoped it would fool the vice cops. "No need for us to investigate that place, chief. It's a school of reflexology not a whorehouse."]
R. sometimes worked at the school, but she didn't give massages. She did the books and the laundry and she ran the credit cards. Yep. A lot of customers---students---paid with their credit cards. They received receipts from R.'s legitimate business, a downtown boutique specializing in women's vintage clothing and jewelry. Wives who looked at the credit card bills probably got their hopes up for some very nice Christmas and birthday presents they never received.
Desperately trying to explain husband to irate wife: I swear, honey, I didn't give anything to any secret girlfriend! I'm not having an affair! All I did was go to a massage parlor a few times!
R. looks like the woman Dustin Hoffman's character was trying to look like in Tootsie, shapely and pleasant looking but plain as can be, with the same bouffed out blond hair and big round glasses. In one of the photos in the paper she has her glasses off and looks slightly cross-eyed. She's younger than Tootsie though, and although plain still prettier than Dustin Hoffman, so I can imagine that on a good day she might feel attractive and on a bad day feel ugly and this whipsawing of her vanity probably makes her insecure enough about her looks that she'd be willing to accept any proof that she's attractive, including the attentions of a man of dubious reputation twenty years her senior whose regular female company she'd find out was his prostitute employees. I don't know if love or fear of rejection made her willing to go into the business with him. Maybe she just saw a good opportunity. Maybe the prostitution scheme had an erotic thrill for her. Maybe she was a vicarious member of her own faculty, imagining herself the most popular professor on the staff, her classes always full.
I wrote that nearly twenty years ago and you probably noticed that I hadn't yet learned Nance's lessons about avoiding embellishment and mind-reading. [Editor's note: He still hasn't.] Of course, I thought of myself as a fiction writer in those days too, so I felt free to to embellish and read minds, and my notebooks were full of what would turn into, or what I hoped would turn into, short stories. And you can see I was already at work on one there. In fact, I did write half of one, but it kept trying to turn itself into a novel by Joseph Conrad. In those days I didn't know any better because I hadn't read enough Elmore Leonard and I thought all good fiction had to be convoluted and psychologically "complex."
Maybe I'd have had better luck with it, too, if I'd let it become a novella.
Somewhere I've got all the newspaper articles that would tell me what happened to R. Her bail bondsman/pimp boyfriend was tried and convicted. His trial was a comedy that would have made a good short story in itself. I remember that the first thing the prosecutors felt they had to do was establish that the Fort Wayne School of Massage and Reflexology was just a massage parlor and that a massage was really sex for pay and the professors were prostitutes, and in order to prove this they called some of the regular students who'd been arrested in a raid to testify. One of these students was an old man who used to ride his bike to the school for his weekly classes from the Lutheran home for senior citizens where he lived. Nance is right, sometimes the facts just speak for themselves. On the stand, he was asked by the DA if he saw any of his professors in the courtroom that day.
The old man, who took testifying very seriously and didn't want to make any mistakes, put on his glasses and took a long look around the room and then took another long look back before his gaze settled steadily and very deliberatively on a pretty young woman sitting in the front row of the gallery.
It was our friend Missy who there covering the trial for the newspaper.
Missy, thanks to a scolding, judgmental, and sexually repressive mother and a loving but fanatically religious and sexually repressive father who used to light votive candles before the statue of the Virgin Mary in the hallway whenever she went out on a date, had a hyper-active conscience and some self-esteem issues particularly when it came to her status as an unmarried woman nearing thirty with what should have been regarded as a normal and healthy sex life. Of course all eyes in the courtroom turned to her, which was embarrassing enough, but Missy herself became convinced that the old man was about to identify her as one of the professors and that everybody would believe him. She suddenly imagined that her near future would be filled with conversations in which she had to explain again and again that she was not moonlighting as a prostitute.
It was not helpful at the moment that she could hear her mother's voice in her memory calling her a whore and see her father sadly shaking his head and lighting another candle.
Which is probably why, she said, she had to fight the urge to stand up and confess right then and there.
This little incident has always reminded me of a line from William Maxwell's short story, My Father's Friends:
Once when I was sitting in the jury box the judge said, "Will the defendant rise," and I caught myself just in time.
I think we're all like that, possessed by a vague, undefined guilt for crimes and sins we can't name or even remember having committed, and immediately ready to confess when the lights on the cop car appear in our rearview mirrors or the priest pauses dramatically during a sermon or someone just tells a story about someone else's transgressions.
Missy caught herself just in time.
I don't remember what happened when the cops caught up with R. and I sure don't know how her conscience acted upon her if and when the judge said, Will the defendant rise?
Guess I'll have to finish writing that novella to find out.