In January 1993, I threw an overnight bag into the backseat of my Chevrolet Citation and set out from Texarkana, Arkansas, where I lived, for Owensboro, Kentucky, where I hoped to be living soon.
I was 22 years old, on the brink of 23, into my third year as a newspaper copy editor, cocky as all hell, and pretty damn depressed. The job back in Texarkana had been sliding sideways for a while, had never really been much fun to begin with (outside of some co-workers whom I loved), and was coming to its end, one way or another.
The previous summer, I’d butted heads with the editor and the general manager. On a slow news day, I’d built a sports-section centerpiece around Magic Johnson and his impending return to the NBA after an abrupt retirement in December 1991. The next morning, the general manager had left a clip of the centerpiece in my mailbox along with a note: “Magic Johnson is an immoral HIV carrier and our readers don’t care about him.” The editor hadn’t backed me up. I began looking for a new job almost immediately, while hanging on as best I could to the one I had. Some months of waiting and hoping had led me to that long car ride to Kentucky.
The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, where I’d be interviewing, was at the time one of the finest small newspapers in America—well-written, formidably staffed, beautifully designed. Pretty much everything the paper back in Texarkana was not. I was up for a job that split my duties between copy editing the sports section and the local/state section. I wanted it. Bad.
I was also hedging my bets. The same day I interviewed in Owensboro, I drove to Carbondale, Illinois, and talked to editors at the Southern Illinoisan about a job in sports. I was near certain I’d be leaving Texarkana expeditiously. I just wasn’t sure where I was headed.
Within 24 hours of my return to Arkansas, I had offers in hand from both papers. The Messenger-Inquirer offered $380 a week, the Southern Illinoisan $410. Both were well above what I was making in Texarkana, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. In a display of wisdom I wouldn’t always replicate in my career, I accepted the offer in Owensboro. Never have I been so happy to tell a boss I was leaving as I was that day in Texarkana. My recollection is that he wasn’t terribly broken up by the news, either.
I’m a third-generation newspaper journalist, so I know a little something about this. It’s a hard way to make a go of it in life, and it’s getting harder all the time as the business model for advertising-driven journalism dries up. I left the business in 2013, happy that I could do so of my own volition but fretting almost daily for the future of well-reported news. My hopes haven’t exactly been buffeted in the years since; see our recent presidential election and the flourishing of propaganda for a sad reminder of the fix we’re in.
Here’s what good newspapers demand of their journalists: a broad education, the ability to absorb and aggregate information, to ask pointed questions and receive informative answers, to write well quickly, and to do all of that within the strictures of daily deadlines. It’s not easy, and the pay for those skills—any one of them being much more lucrative in the open market—is historically bad. For a long time, newspapers have counted on employees having a certain love, a certain sense of duty, that supersedes the crappy pay.
For a long time, I obliged.
In Owensboro, Kentucky, as much as anywhere I ever worked, it was easy to do so.
I lived and worked in Owensboro for about 18 months, before a (comparatively) big paycheck called me up to a bigger paper where I had only a fraction of the enjoyment.
Owensboro, you see, was special.
On the copy desk alone, there were a half-dozen colleagues right around my age, single like me, hardworking and hard-playing, the best and the brightest in that town. For most of my stay, I shared an apartment in a subdivided old mansion with one of my night crew buddies. Another one lived across the hall. Still another downstairs, directly below our unit. The one non-journalist in the place, an older lawyer, hated us. Hated our hours and our exuberance. Now, 23 years on, I’d probably be more inclined to agree with his take on things. Then? Fuck him. We were having a ball.
In a Facebook age, all of those friendships I made back then have been nurtured and recalled. Heen. Lovett. Cindy. Biv. The Toddler. Noelle. Newton. Hunter. Ben and Berry and Keith, old man riverpark, the one who keeps on keeping on.
You ever dream of returning to younger days? I do. And when I do, I usually dream of Owensboro.
I tell my fiction students that there’s a formula for good novel writing. It doesn’t have anything to do with plot twists or the introduction of tertiary characters or unreliable narrators.
Here it is: memory + experience + imagination = story.
When I started writing Julep Street, back in 2013, I was thinking a lot about my memories of my time in Owensboro and the experiences I had there. In Carson McCullough, the abruptly turned out newspaper editor who follows some of his darkest impulses, I had a vehicle for my imagination. What if I’d stayed in Owensboro? I liked it there, the city and the job, and I might have hung on at the paper long enough to meet someone, settle down, buy a house. And what if I’d stayed long enough to see the newspaper business sour there, same as it has most everywhere else, and I’d felt trapped by all the things I’d been too lazy to pursue when times were better? What if I’d found myself at the end with nothing much to show for the journey?
I don’t know, man. It might have been a hell of a story.