The Opportunist

An opportunistic pathogen takes advantage of your body’s weakened state to launch its attack. This type of disease only affects a host with a compromised immune system. If you’re healthy, you’ll be left alone.

Opportunistic infections are egged on by things like fatigue, malnutrition, skin damage and recurrent infections. They spring up at the worst moments to kick us while we’re down. In other words, they’re much like journalists.

Journalists–and writers in general–are opportunists. Or, the good ones are. They know a good story when they hear one, whether it’s a snatch of conversation in a shadowy cocktail bar or a loud altercation on the subway or a bit of gossip passed on by a friend. They’re not opportunistic to the point that they damage the host, but they recognize moments of weakness or novelty and use them to their advantage.

Here’s the trouble: My opportunistic instincts are crap.

When Clay Felker launched New York magazine in 1968, he did it with almost zero support. The main reason he succeeded was because he was his own best reporter. He got himself invited to important high-society events, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend every evening out. At those events and during those evening excursions he found his inspiration; he carried a notepad around with him and scribbled down, even mid-conversation, anything that sounded promising.

He got the hot gossip, the weird scoops, and commissioned people like Tom Wolfe to write madcap things like “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” about Leonard Bernstein hosting a party for the Black Panthers in his home. Seriously, no one else thought to cover these things before Felker rolled around.

Other writers tout the benefits to keeping a notebook all the time. Joan Didion wrote a whole, beautiful essay on the merits of keeping a notebook. It’s called, fittingly, “On Keeping a Notebook.

“See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.”

I do keep a notebook, but it isn’t passage to anywhere. I carry it around and fill it up, sure, with little snatches of limericks that bore into my brain during class or grocery lists or doodles of Onion Girl. “You’re so wrapped up in layers, Onion Girl, you’re afraid of your own feelings,” reads the Shrek-inspired caption, but Onion Girl won’t give me my next pitch. My notebook is a garbage dump for my mental overflow, not a genius-level idea goldmine.

In my longform essay class (because yes I am still in school, much as it doesn’t feel that way sometimes), we are charged with writing a single, 3,500-word essay by the end of term. The subtext of this prompt, at least for me, is that the essay should be the single most glorious and life-affirming thing I have ever written, should be picked up eagerly by the New Yorker, should put my name on the map as a writer, and should perhaps win me a pulitzer, but maybe that’s a stretch we’ll see.

Giving birth to that essay topic was akin to giving birth to a human child. I paced and agonized. I sweated and moaned and strained. I couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t settle to anything, couldn’t feel at ease until the idea had popped fully-formed out of my head. In other words, for a few days I was very unpleasant to be around.

The Idea came eventually, though were I to write it here it would seem anticlimactic. But the whole ordeal was a jarring reminder of Onion Girl, of my pretty, useless notebook full of brain garbage.

This is the part where I tell you about how I’ll improve–how I’ll get a new notebook and record brilliant scenes and tidbits and tips to use later in the production of brilliant work for brilliant magazines. But the truth is, it’ll probably take time. Sure, I can treat myself to my first molskine from the store down the street, but becoming an opportunist is about practice. It’s about honing in on things and remembering them. It’s about knowing, Clay Felker style, what makes a good story.

It’s about recognizing in the moment that something is intriguing, that you want to know more, and that others will, too.

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The Opportunist

Midnight in the Court System of New York City

Another assignment for Writing & Reporting: Sit for a while in civil arraignment court and see what there is to be seen. What struck me most was the contrast between the court’s employees and the defendants who took the stand.

There’s no one in night court.

My bag runs through the scanner alone. I’m the only one in line for the metal detector. I walk through unscathed, and my steps clatter down the empty hallway to stop in front of double metal doors. The guard gives me a quizzical look. What is she doing here, it says. He shrugs me through.

When I enter the courtroom, no one sees. I tiptoe to a seat near the back on one of the hard wooden benches. They’re scratched beyond repair, and a smattering of graffiti is carved into mine. “SHARP ONE,” it reads. “CHEESE,” “heLp,” and “FTP. Fuck your courts!”

The room is an echo chamber filled with ugly fluorescent light. The wood panels along the walls are almost as scratched as the benches, and the floor has been worn away by eons of shuffling feet. A single metal chain divides the rows of wooden pews from the front of the courthouse, which is buzzing with activity. Police officers, stenographers and legal assistants sit at computers, lean back in chairs or lounge against the far wall. As for the spectators, I’m one of three.

Behind me is a man in a dark jacket. He’s slumped back in his seat, staring eyes glazed over with exhaustion. In front of me sits a small woman with a thick pouf of curls and a paisley scarf. When she moves, I get a strong whiff of shampoo.

We sit tense and expectant. Up front on the other side of the chain is relaxed—cozy, even. Everyone knows each other. They’re completely at east. This is their routine and the court is their cubicle. They’re in it for the long run; arraignment court runs until 1 a.m. every day.

Police officers amble by clutching sheaves of papers in manila folders. The lawyers are either very old or very young—two tall, wizened, white-haired men and a handful of fresh-faced men and women in their 20s and 30s. They wave and smile and joke. Occasionally one glances my way, mystified. I’m the outsider.

The defendants who approach the stand one by one are outsiders, too. They share none of the ease that permeates caseworker headquarters. Every one of them stands with their hands behind their backs, crossed at the wrists, as if already cuffed. They stand, straight-backed, hats off, shoulders up, feet wide. Defensive stance.

A thick green coat dangles from the nervous fingers of the first defendant. He faces assault charges. But he’s held a job for 15 years, his lawyer argues. He’s gone 25 years with nothing but a DWI on his record. The victim told the DA’s office she didn’t want to press charges, but it was too late. The defendant hangs his head in silence.

“Alright,” says the judge. He’s tired. The square fluorescent lights reflect a shiny patch onto his bald forehead. His dark eyes narrow, brows going up, stubble-coated jowls curving downward in a frown as he looks at the man who clutches the green coat.

“I’m filing an order of protection until this sorts itself out,” he says. “You can have no contact with her in any form. If she tries to contact you, you may not respond. If you don’t stay away from her, you are going to jail. Understood?”

He’s the no-nonsense sort. The defendant nods and is led away.

The judge stifles a yawn with his hand, turns and cracks a joke to the female officer closest to him. She’s the one who reads the cases as defendants take the stand. The air around them relaxes as she smiles. They’ll be here all night—they need some way to keep up morale.

Then the next woman is lead in, and it’s back to business. She’s straight-backed, wide-eyed and silent. Pink socks peep out between grey sweatpants and slip-on shoes. The people’s lawyer reads out her case in emotionless monotone:

“A neighbor was quoted as saying, ‘Keep the kids away from her. She’s trying to hurt them. She’s a crack head.’” The woman bows her head, and the restraining order against her goes into effect.

The man behind me leans forward, almost touching my elbow, suddenly petrified by what’s happening on the stand. His breath is in my ear as he edges closer, closer… then the woman in pink socks comes for him and they leave.

More jokes: The judge stands up to stretch. He’s telling a story to the people’s lawyer, waving his right hand for emphasis. His voice echoes off the empty chamber walls, but the other man nods vigorously and smiles. The officer who reads out cases catches a word here and there. She turns to join in, and she and the judge razz each other for a minute or two until the next defendant takes the stand.

Ronald Gibson is a tall, gangly man with a disproportionately thick mustache dressed in ill-fitting green cargo pants and a navy jacket. He takes the stand and the stance: hands clasped behind the back, one holding the opposite wrist. At 10 a.m. he had a scuffle with his significant other. He says he said something to incite her and she went crazy, hitting him and breaking his computer. “She called the cops out of spite,” the people’s lawyer quotes, looking bored. “I want to see our daughter.”

Gibson, like the rest, looks down. The judge is firm. “Listen up, Mr. Gibson.” He reads again the regulations of a restraining order. “Do you understand?” Gibson nods, and is led away. His eyes, when they fall on me, look defeated.

It’s getting late. The court stenographer rests her chin on her palm. Her head lolls to one side as she waits for the next defendant. Near the stand, a young blonde lawyer paces back and forth leafing through papers. His blue basset hound eyes scan back and forth, and a fresh, pink neck shoots out of his crisp white collar like new grass. He’s tired. He takes a swig of soda, trying to keep his energy up. He might as well be standing in his own kitchen.

A new defendant takes the stand. He’s tall with a purple Mohawk, black jacket and red sneakers. He has an astute, pointed face, but his shoulders are tense with nervous stress. He’s been charged with stealing from his employer to pay for community college. He’s only 20.

The police officer who showed me in enters the courtroom. He walks past me down the aisle, humming something from The Nutcracker Suite. He’s waiting for his shift to end. He doesn’t have a care in the world.

Midnight in the Court System of New York City

Q&A with an Irish immigrant

Fun fact of the day: Very few people who live in New York are actually from New York. Some residents, like me, have gravitated here from other states. Some are here on a travel or student visa, and some are here illegally. For my Writing & Reporting class, we each interviewed someone who’s immigrated to New York. I chose Peter Doherty, a bartender and bar owner from Tyrone, Ireland. This is the finished product.

In a dark, dingy, crowded bar on a rowdy Thursday night, owner Pete Doherty isn’t slurping his usual whisky. Tonight his drink of choice is a strawberry milkshake from McDonalds. One of his employees slapped it onto the low table in front of him a few minutes ago, and he hasn’t put it down. Since arriving here from Ireland 14 years ago, Pete has developed an affinity for the distinctly American treat—his employees know him well. And, more important, they like him enough to spoil him.

It’s easy to like Pete. He’s the tireless owner. The bartender who never gets it wrong. Your best friend, even if he’s meeting you for the first time that night. His short, stocky figure motors around the floor of the Grisly Pear on MacDougal Street, which he owns with two of his friends. His hair is starting to grey, but his good-natured basset-hound eyes sparkle. Like a lucky few Irishmen, he’s a little bit immortal.

Pete doesn’t really think of himself as an immigrant anymore. He met his wife at a bar he owned on Sullivan Street, and they have two American children. He takes trips to visit his family, but his life and his business are here now. New to the city myself, I ask how long someone has to live here before they can call themselves a New Yorker. Ten years is a good guideline, he says. Or, in his case, after he spent his first night on a park bench off 5th Avenue. He’s come a long way since then.

Why did you first come to the U.S.?

I came here just for the summer to work the Jersey shore, Seaside Heights, on the boardwalk. A lot of my friends had done it before and there were a lot of us; like ten of us had come over that summer and we all shared a house. I only stayed there for like two weeks because it sucked. I was like, ‘New York City is 90 minutes away. Why am I still here?’ I had a friend who was in New York City, so for the first couple weeks I stayed with him. But he was actually staying with a friend, so his friend let me move in as well. But then he and his friend fell out, so [the friend] kicked both of us out. That’s how I ended up on the park bench.

Which park was it?

On 5th Avenue there’s a little park on the corner of 27th. There’s an office tower and there’s a little park with a couple of benches. Me and my buddy both slept there. It wasn’t that we didn’t have money or didn’t live anywhere; we just couldn’t find anywhere [to stay]. We had no references.

After you left the Jersey Shore, where did you work in the city?

I got a bartending job. It was uptown. I bartended my way through college, so it was just an easy next step.

Where did you go to college?

The University of Ulster. I got a degree in sociology. It’s a dosser’s degree, we called it. It means it’s not hard. It’s studying pop culture, so it’s not very difficult. I never really thought it through. I just thought, ‘I’ll go to college.’ You’re guaranteed to get in if you pick an easy subject. It’s state-run so I didn’t have to pay much for my tuition at all, but I got student loans for living expenses. I’ve got thousands of dollars of student loans back in Ireland.

Are you working toward paying them off?

(Laughs, shakes his head) No!

Have you been back to Ireland since coming here that summer?

Oh yeah, I went home after that summer. I was here with a J1 visa, I went home just before Christmas at the end of November, and then I was home for six months. I’d just finished college and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ And I thought you know what, I’ll go back to America. So I moved back here.

Was it difficult to get another visa?

No, it was pretty simple. You see this is pre-September 11, so it was way easier then. Now I don’t even know how you would go about it. Before September 11 they loved Irish people! Everyone in America did, so they were handing them out like candy. There were a lot of different programs back in Ireland that you could apply to and you were guaranteed a visa. That was back then. Now it doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve stopped all that and tightened up the borders.

Tell me how you went from working in bars to owning them.

It’s’ a natural progression, right? I just fell into it. I went out on a limb for myself. Every place is different, but you save money and once you have enough money saved you buy someplace, or you find an empty space and you build in it. I’ve built a bar before, but the guys who had this place before me went out of business. It was vacant, so I took it over. I just had to paint it and fix it up a little. It was nothing too crazy.

You didn’t have to knock any walls down?

No. Although I can knock walls down, I’m not very good at picking them back up (laughs).

What do you like about bartending?

It’s just fun. It’s a lot of fun.

Do you have any feelings about the recent vote for Scottish independence?

Oh, yeah! I’m really disappointed. I think they should’ve taken the vote and become an independent country. It has a huge amount of implications for Ireland; they would have to then give the Irish people the same vote because we’re a British colony. It would’ve made a huge difference. I might’ve even seen a united Ireland in my lifetime. When someone’s country is stolen from them by another, that’s something people are passionate about. So I like the idea of it, but I’m not really that proactive.

Where in Ireland are you from originally?

I’m from the north—Tyrone. I also lived in Belfast for like six years. But I’m from a really small place of about 3,000 people.

What makes Ireland, or Tyrone in particular, different from New York?

Everything’s different. Back home we have [a sense of] community, and you don’t really have that here. The food tastes better, the meat tastes better, everything tastes better in Ireland. Animals are fed what they’re meant to be fed. Everything is different. You should visit.

Would you ever move back?

Not to live, if that’s what you mean. I don’t think I could ever live there again. I think New York gets a hold of people and there’s an energy and a pulse about New York. It’s hard to leave.

Q&A with an Irish immigrant

Behind the Lens: The photographers of NYFW

For our writing and reporting seminar, we grad students were assigned a #NYFW story. We could cover any aspect of Fashion Week, as long as we spoke to people involved in it. I hung around outside Lincoln Center one afternoon and noticed the throngs of photographers–many more than there were fashion divas. I grew interested in their backstories. This is the result.

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The scene outside Lincoln Center on day three of New York Fashion Week.

Without photographers, the fashion industry would not exist. Designers’ work would never reach the masses and trends would fall flat if no one captured and spread them. Even fashion novices know that there would be no “America’s Next Top Model” without Nigel Barker to immortalize every aspiring pout and “smize.

Fashion and photography have played off of one another since Condé Nast hired German photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer to shoot portraits for “Vogue.” In the 1980’s and ‘90’s, photographer Richard Avedon shot Versace campaigns that shaped and defined the brand. Bruce Weber did the same for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren—neither brand would be the same today without Weber’s influence. The evolution of photography has changed the shape of the fashion industry time and time again.

New York Fashion Week brings fashion’s reliance on photos into sharp focus. Go anywhere near Lincoln Center and you’ll see flocks of camera-toting photographers clamoring to capture the best runway or street style looks. Some have credentials and some are novices. Some are at work and others are there for the spectacle and the experience. All derive energy from the high-fashion culture that surrounds them as they jockey for a shot.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Morgan Beye eying the surrounding crowd outside of Lincoln Center. Beye is the director of photography for Schiffer Fashion Press in Philadelphia. This fall the company will produce a look book with photos from every runway show in Fashion Week—all 277 of them.

Beye is in charge of a six-person photography team. It’s her job to corral the group and to send them out on assignment as needed. She’s an integral part of that group and comes with a few NYFW horror stories of her own.

“In the runways there’s a pit for photographers, and they shove like 200 grown men in there,” she told me. “You fight for a spot and you don’t want to lose it. Once I was pushed over and my spot was taken; I was on the ground and [the guy] stood there staring at me.”

Although her hand was bleeding and her expensive equipment lay scattered everywhere, Beye got back up and tried to focus on the shoot. In her words, “the show must go on.”

Today she’s armed and ready with a heavy camera bag on one shoulder and a clipboard clutched in the other hand. A press pass dangles against her stylish striped crop top and brushes the waistline of her black skater skirt. Her strappy heels are planted wide and firm. The next show is starting—she’s going in.

Louisa Wells has just come out. She’s riding the tide of people leaving the Song Jung Wan show at the Lincoln Center Pavilion. When she makes it to the front of the crowd, she adjusts her position, bends a knee and starts snapping photos.

Wells just moved here from Nashville, where she worked for local lifestyle magazines, and a few fashion bloggers reached out to her to take their Fashion Week photos. She’s also working with a friend on a “Bravo” piece, which gets her backstage access.

I ask what backstage is like. She laughs, then gives a familiar answer: “It’s crazy!” Hair and makeup are constantly going on around her. The stage lights burn with the heat of a Sahara sun. But through all the commotion, Wells focuses on capturing intimate moments.

“I was on the High Line earlier and I caught a little moment of a couple holding hands,” she says. “It was really cute. Stuff like that is my favorite.”

But she admits that “the pit,” as they call it, can be trying.

“There’s a pecking order for sure,” she says. “WWD [Women’s Wear Daily], Vogue, they all have top priority and everyone else fills in. It’s a matter of making sure people’s arms and legs aren’t bumping into your view. But it’s really cool because everyone starts to get to know each other.”

Photographers can be intimidating, especially in close quarters, Wells says. There’s a certain amount of judgment based on who shoots from a reserved spot and who boasts the loftiest credentials. Ultimately, though, photography is a democratic field. If your photo is good, it gets published. If it’s not, it doesn’t. In theory skill will out.

Sixteen-year-old fashion blogger Rachel Leiner certainly believes so. She runs a personal style blog with her friend in Long Island, but her passion is photography. She’s at Fashion Week to get some practice and to improve her technique.

“I’m still learning,” she freely admits. “Here everyone walks around with these huge lenses and I just have my little 50mm lens, but I think it really works for me and I get a lot of great feedback from what I do.”

The small lens matches her small frame, which is clad for the occasion in a simple black dress and chic Jeffry Campbell ankle boots. Unlike Wells and Beye, Leiner has no press pass around her neck. She won’t see a single runway this season, and that’s fine with her.

She wants to pursue photography, but doesn’t know if it will be her profession. She might want to do fashion shoots, but isn’t keen on studio settings. She represents Beye six years ago, and Wells three.

I ask who her favorite photographers are, and she answers: “I really like Richard Avedon.” She describes a famous photo of his: A black-and-white shot of a model between two elephants. Her face alive with enthusiasm, she sketches the shapes of their trunks in the air.

Perhaps she, like Avedon, will be the next to shape and define a brand. Perhaps she is the next stage of fashion photography’s evolution.

Behind the Lens: The photographers of NYFW

How I became a feminist

I was not born a feminist. I was not even raised a feminist. I did not become a feminist by proxy in my tender early college years. It took me a while to learn what feminism was. Now that I know, I embrace it.

Stage One – Ignorance

…Is not actually bliss.

Freshman year of college was rough because of: distance from home, demographic transition, half-hearted emergence from my timid shell in an effort to make friends. It was also rough because I was a journalism major, but had never written what could be called an article. My first was for “The Maneater,” a campus publication at Mizzou. When I got a column for “Move,” its accompanying magazine, I was thrilled.

The column’s angle was “a fresh take on classic literature.” I’d take one of my favorite books from high school English lit—“The Picture of Dorian Grey” or “The Great Gatsby,”—and compare it to college life. Dorian joined a fraternity. Gatsby’s parties went 21st century.

My first disastrous failure was a column about “Jane Eyre.” The subtitle was “Prude and proud.” (Looking back I am not, in fact, proud. It literally pained me to copy and paste the link. The things we do in the name of transparency.) In the column, I talk at length about hemlines and heels. The post was meant to suggest that more conservative women could still capture and hold the attention of men.

(Full disclosure: I had a major crush on a fraternity man at the time. He preferred the flocks of decked-out freshman that swarmed his house every weekend to me. I was jealous. I don’t think he even read the column.)

When the column was published, “Move” was flooded with negative feedback. I was attacked and so was my editor (sorry about that, Brandon). The consensus was that I was a female-hating slut-shamer. Me? I didn’t even know what slut shaming was.

I didn’t bother to find out, either. I tried to shut it out. Instead of educating myself, I retreated as far from the issue as possible.

Stage Two – Education

I can’t remember where I first heard about feminism. At the time the article came out, I had only just followed Jezebel on twitter. I think it must have been my friend Hanna Jacunski who first introduced me to the concept of feminism—its basic principles via assertions that women should be proud of their bodies, that there’s no such thing as a slut, that inequality is inherent in the system. These concepts made sense to me.

Then came Kari Paul. She was another of my first editors, and I thought she was the coolest. I followed her on twitter too, and started reading the articles she tweeted. I guess twitter was instrumental to my education.

I met Hilary Weaver shortly afterward—another feminist role model. She invited me to Mizzou’s Vagina Monologues, and I learned about the struggles of women and the battles we (and our bodies) encounter every day.

Along the way I read stats, learned about Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s street art project, and about artists such as Judy Chicago and Frida Kahlo in art history class. I formed my own ideas about street harassment when it happened to me for the first time. I took my first gender studies class abroad, and learned about the skewed representation of women in media.

I met Alicia Tan, Celia Ampel and Mary Kay Blakely. I read this article about motherhood, and this article about the term ‘feminism,’ and this one about abortion clinics closing in Texas. I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s entire TED Talk when that one Beyoncé song came out. As I got older, women’s issues became real to me; this is our lives they’re talking about.

By the time I registered for the Women’s Leadership Conference at Mizzou, I was educated enough to contribute to discussions. Subjects such as the wage gap and sexual harassment at work were talked about openly, and so were their possible solutions. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow were guest speakers there. Afterward, I spent hours online creeping their work.

I was inspired. The conference was my shining moment of realization—my pivotal point. My climax.

Stage Three – Transformation

Now, I am a feminist.

A few months ago, shortly before my college graduation, I looked up the “Jane Eyre” article. I read it and cringed. God. I can’t believe I wrote that.

But I’m living proof that the difference between damaging ignorance and productive activism is education.

Yesterday, I got a call from my friend Katie*, who’s an intern at a consulting firm. A few weeks ago, she missed a deadline. She’d agreed to go to a fellow intern’s house for dinner. She worked in her hotel room until it was time to leave, popped over to the friend’s house for a quick bite, and was back at her computer two hours later, but the next day her report was late.

Her manager called her into his office to express his displeasure that she’d chosen to “hang out with her friend, go on a shopping spree and have a sleepover” instead of getting shit done. He falsely assumed, based on his internalized female stereotypes, that she’d wasted the entire evening gossiping and chirping with another woman.

He could use some education.

On 4th of July weekend, I floated the Guadalupe River with some friends. My dear friend Megan* worried out loud that her swimsuit was “too slutty.” I told her that ‘slutty’ was a term coined by men to make women uncomfortable with their sexuality. Nothing was ‘slutty,’ and the only thing that mattered about her suit was whether or not she felt good in it.

The guys with us looked bemused. “Wait,” they said, “there’s no such thing as a slut?” No, I told them. They gaped. I laughed.

They could use some education.

Plenty of people start where I did freshman year. Plenty of people are ignorant. I hope there are too many resources out in The Universe for them to remain so for long.

‘Cause we should probably all be feminists.

*Names have been changed

How I became a feminist

Texas Monthly on the daily

It’s not uncommon here to open the blinds to a rain-streaked window. Most mornings are grey, but by mid-afternoon the day heats up to hot, soupy humidity. I kind of love it.

I take the bus to Congress Avenue. (For more on bus people, see this previous post.) I get off, walk to the formidable marble-fronted skyscraper that houses Texas Monthly, and take the elevator to the 17th floor. It’s usually filled with commuters who get on and off at various floors — the ones who ride from 1 to 2 are the worst. I am usually the youngest. I am sometimes the most casually dressed.

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Our view from the Texas Monthly offices on the 17th floor.

Floor 17 is a breath of cool air and a long, white corridor with a giant red “TM” at one end. I walk through the maze of an office (it takes up the entire floor) to my cubicle space. I am always early.

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The Texas Monthly logo that greets me every morning when I arrive and every afternoon when I leave. Nothing says ‘bold’ like red and white.

Post-commute hair repair is a daily routine because Texas is moist. The coffee is free, so I take some. Annie arrives, and our workday begins.

Texas Monthly is an amazing place to work. Today, there was half an apple pie in the kitchen up for grabs. World Cup games are always on in there, and there’s an oatmeal assembly area. Posters and printed pictures line cubicle walls — no office was ever less boring. Then there are the people. Yesterday, Francesca Mari bought me a chai tea latte to thank me for transcribing some of her interviews (read: doing my job). For the rest of the day, I walked on air. Every time John Spong walks past our editorial intern workspace, he greets us with a, “‘Sup, children?” Today his button-up was pink and polka-dotted and had teeny white buttons.

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Most of the hallways are lined with covers of old issues of Texas Monthly. They date back to when the magazine started; it’s interesting to see how times have changed.

Every week brings a new task. For the first few weeks I transcribed interviews for Pat Sharpe, renowned food editor and restaurant critic who’s also Texas Monthly staple. The week after that I worked on a conversation that Francesca had with a woman who spoke only Spanish — I knew that minor would come in handy.

I’ve attended a monthly editorial meeting in the intimidating glass-walled conference room, delivered batches of cookies to the communal kitchen, and had the opportunity to speak to Nate Blakeslee about “An Isolated Incident,” a long form story he wrote about an SMU student’s drug overdose. Tomorrow, Brian Sweany is giving us a tour of the Texas Capitol building. Next week we’ll discuss John’s story, “The Good Book and the Bad Book.” We can ask him anything we like.

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The walls surrounding the central kitchen are covered in quote decals from old TM stories. The quote in the middle is one of my favorites.

In short, I love it here. I am surrounded by people who love what they do, and who are some of the best in the business at it. My fellow editorial interns are some of the most driven and talented people I’ve met — they push me to excel. I’m reading and absorbing more than I ever have, and learning plenty along the way.

And yes, I’m still working toward that byline.

Texas Monthly on the daily

Fear and loathing in Goodwill

Around Christmastime I had a run-in with a man in Columbia’s Goodwill. It niggled at the back of my brain for months, so I wrote this essay for my capstone class. I’ve re-worked it dozens of times; this is the final product.

The Christmas lights had something sticky on them. It was brown. Possibly tape residue. Traces of the substance oozed into the grooves on my fingertips, and I made a mental note to wash my hands when I got home.

The line moved up a step. I listened to the cashier talk to a customer in Spanish. She was purchasing Christmas decorations for her home. For those with tight funds around the holidays, Goodwill is ideal. I’d been asked to provide lights for an upcoming party, so here I was spending $6 on gently used icicle lights instead of purchasing Walmart’s $15 version. I’d come to Goodwill out of thriftiness, not out of necessity.

A couple carried on a loud conversation behind me. Their toddler screamed and squirmed in the wife’s arms. They talked over him. A pause. Then, “Hey honey,” the man said to his wife. From his tone I imagined his face twisted into a sneer, fists balled. “How would you like a North Face jacket for Christmas?”

He’d spotted the white-stitched logo on my left shoulder blade. Accentuated by two white curving lines, it was hard to miss. His voice dripped venom and I could feel his hatred congeal into a thick cloud behind me. My ears grew hot. My stomach dropped.

I was the target of his verbal one-two punch – me and my name brand clothing that did not belong in a secondhand store as far as he was concerned thank you very much. I cringed but was too petrified to respond. I arrived at the front of the line, paid my $6 and fled.

Later, in the car, I thought of all the things I should have said. Not clever comebacks or witty insults but simple, levelheaded explanations. I had not paid for the jacket. My friend had toted it around in the back of his car for a semester. When no one claimed it he offered it to me, the only one he knew whose size is extra-small.

But apparently the man thought I’d purchased the jacket and hated me for it. In Columbia two sorts of people shop at secondhand stores: college students and those who must. He knew I belonged to the former category.

From the acid in his voice, I can only assume he belonged to the latter. He, his wife and their restless child were probably among the 20 percent of married-couple families in Columbia whose income in the past 12 months fell below the poverty line. The statistic for families with “female householder, or no husband present” is even higher – 32 percent.

College students who are not actively seeking work are not included in unemployment statistics. I do not appear in the United States Census Bureau’s report on “Selected Economic Characteristics.” I am not wealthy, but I am not poor. I have a support system – a safety net of parents and friends and relatives and job opportunities that my level of education will allow me to access.

The couple behind me has no safety net. A North Face jacket is beyond their means. It is beyond mine, too, but they couldn’t have known. To them, the logo I wore defined me – it was a symbol of my privilege. They knew nothing about me except that my jacket was manufactured and distributed by North Face. But, in this day and age of branding, jumping to conclusions is designed to be easy.

Logos convey messages. A symbol by itself is useless – a marking on a page or a piece of clothing. It carries meaning only because we assign meaning to it. A red octagon means ‘stop’ only because we have universally agreed that it means ‘stop.’ Even words are arbitrary. They are assigned to a concrete object not based on the object’s qualities, but because human beings assign labels to make sense of the surrounding world.

A North Face logo is a status symbol. Because North Face products cost more than similar “off brand” products, society has concluded that North Face equals wealth and class – two qualities that, in our competitive, capitalist society, we value above all others.

In South Korea, the North Face brand is tearing households apart. The logo is so fetishized that elementary and teenage bullies snatch jackets from their peers. Children beg their parents for the jackets and, if denied, go to extreme measures to procure them. Parents who hate to see their kids unhappy blow their paychecks and sometimes their savings on the designer outerwear. They are obsessed with the status that the jackets represent.

The North Face status symbol hasn’t reached these extremes in the U.S., but it’s enough to bring resentment bubbling to the surface at Goodwill in Columbia, Mo.

It’s easy to imagine the man’s story: a childhood in relative poverty, a struggle up the socioeconomic ladder, a triumphant arrival into middle-class society, an economic crash and a fall from grace. North Face, in all its infamy, is not unknown to him. Once it was nearly in his grasp. Now he despises it.

Our interpretation of symbols has gone a long way toward dividing us. The man’s outrage at the logo on my back was, for him, a knee-jerk reaction. He knew the logo and instantly made assumptions about the person wearing it. In a way, he was right.

I felt for him. His fury and despair and wounded pride had built into a brute force that he launched at the first target that came into focus – me. For me, he crystallized a lurking discomfort that has accompanied me for years in secondhand stores. Walking into them, I feel guilty. My upper-middle-class, collegiate status sticks to me, announcing to everyone that I do not belong.

An invisible gulf, imposed by a status symbol, separated me from the family behind me. But empathy for others can transcend designer logos and hallmarks of privilege.

Easier said than done. The global capitalist economy thrives on brand lust. It thrives on individual competition for brands that represent status; it thrives on the resentment of the man in Goodwill.

But if we make an effort to evaluate a person’s worth based not on brands but on character, perhaps we can undermine the cycle of jealousy. If he’d asked why I was buying the lights, maybe we would have struck up a conversation.

Who knows, we might have gotten along.

Fear and loathing in Goodwill

Shine on, you crazy diamond

It’s a cutthroat world out there, kids. At least, that’s what we’ve been taught. And that’s what we journalism majors have especially been taught.

Here at the Missouri School of Journalism we don’t even attempt to hide the ugly truth. Professors drill into our heads the bleak facts: There are a finite number of journalism majors. There a finite number of journalism jobs. The number of jobs is significantly smaller than the number of people who want them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected percent change in employment for reporters and correspondents is -13 percent. (Yes, percents can be negative.)

A rash of internship program closures, led by Condé Nast, means that summer and school year internships are even harder to come by. Remaining programs are flooded with applications from journo-hopefuls. Competition is fierce.

In this corner, weighing in at 115 lbs, is trendy magazine writer number one. Her wits are sharp as her Mirado Black Warrior pencils and she’s cranked out more story ideas in a week than you will in your career. In this corner, at 127 lbs, trendy magazine writer number two gnashes her teeth and rips out her notebook. Its spiral edges are ripe for opening gashes in human flesh. 

Ready, set, fight! 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

So says Ann Friedman, writer and public speaker extraordinaire, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during her campus visit this week. She and Aminatou Sow spoke at the Women’s Leadership Conference. What they had to say changed my perception of the journalism industry.

It’s called Shine Theory. It means that, if someone around you such as a friend or colleague succeeds wildly, you succeed wildly, too. You can be *gasp* genuinely happy for them because you know that they are an extension of your ideas and you’re an extension of theirs.

Shine Theory means that you build a community of awesome people. These people bounce ideas around, are in constant communication, and have deep, meaningful relationships with each other. They vie for each others’ success and communally promote each others’ reputations. They root for each other because if one of them shines, they all shine.

Here are the three key tactics to Shine Theory:

1.) Kiss down, not up. It’s great to build relationships with older, respected journalists and editors, but it’s even greater to befriend young up-and-comers. They have fresh ideas and fresh ways to implement them. Keep an eye on the younglings. Promote them. When you’re old and irrelevant, they might offer you a job. 

2.) Ask and offer. Don’t be afraid to ask for favors, but always offer something in return. At the conference, Ann and Amina had us turn to the person next to us and implement this. I got some more sources for a story I’m writing. My friend Ciara got a ride home to Chicago for spring break. It’s a give-and-take, people.

3.) Share the wealth. If you turn down an opportunity, recommend a friend instead. If you hear of a job that would be perfect for someone you know, tell them about it. This can be as simple as making introductions or hitting the ‘forward’ button on an email.

Imagine, just for a second, that we all did this. Imagine that we built our peers up instead of competing with them for limited resources. (This ties into the theory of horizontal loyalty, which is also worth imbibing.) Imagine if, like Ann, we each had a tab on our blog promoting our friends.

What a brave new journo world it would be.

Shine on, you crazy diamond

Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

You’ve been staring at the pages for hours, but you haven’t found him. You feel emasculated, befuddled, humiliated. This is a book for children ages 8-12 and it’s beating you. Where the eff is Waldo?

You found Wenda ages ago. Wizard Whitebeard? Check. The weird guy dressed in bumblebee stripes? Also check. The minuscule pair of binoculars and the minute scroll tied with a red ribbon? Check and check.

But no Waldo.

The pressure builds behind your eyes. They’re bulging, cartoon-like, almost touching the illustrated page, looking, looking…

But he’s nowhere to be found.

This is the process of searching for an original story idea in Columbia, Missouri.

Yes, Columbia is great. It’s a safe, small-town place with a big-city vibe, a hotbed of local businesses, and an unusual mix of hipster townies, budding families and college students. Charming. It’s also the home of the best journalism school in the country. Less charming.

Mizzou’s presence in Columbia means that j-school students have a monopoly on all happenings there. It also means that nothing in the city hasn’t been covered at least 23 times. Unless you’re talking fire or flood, chances are your story idea is woefully unoriginal.

This semester I’m in intermediate writing (more difficult than its title suggests). Our current assignment: find someone to profile. Someone interesting, original and easy to embody in text.

I thought I’d found the ideal subject when I stumbled upon Frequency Coffee and met Ryker Duncan. He was dressed in cutoffs, a v-neck, vans and a fedora. He had a cackling laugh that bounced off the walls and echoed in the basement space. He weighed each bag of specially-chosen coffee beans on a series of tiny countertop scales. He had sliced up 150 wood palettes with a circular saw to create the unique pattern of woodblocks on Frequency’s walls. He made steam engine noises while operating the coffee machine. He was perfect.

Like any good reporter, I began my background research with a google search. My optimism concerning Ryker dwindled when I discovered he’d been covered previously. A lot. Here and here and here and here and also here.

Every media outlet in Columbia had jumped at the chance to write about something (and someone) novel. They’d dived at the jugular of Frequency and its all-too-interesting owner, devouring sources and subject matter until nothing but scraps remained. Scraps that I couldn’t cobble together into an original story to save my life.

My professor soundly rejected my profile proposal. His motive? Too much previous coverage.

I saw it coming from a mile away, because everything in Columbia is covered and covered and covered again. People and businesses are interrogated to the point of exhaustion. If you’re a Columbia citizen and have never been interviewed, you’re in the shrinking minority.

Journalism professors and editors alike bleat that a good reporter can uncover stories anywhere. They feed us tips and tricks: “The five steps to finding stories,” “Notice what you Notice,” etc. etc. I agree that good writers should be able to uncover stories that others don’t, but I also believe that every location has its limit.

My theory is that, at some point, Columbia’s news potential will be exhausted. Ideas will dry up. The Ryker Duncans  and Frequency Coffees of the world will be the only things left to cling to.

And soon even they will reach their coverage limits.

Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

Back in the studio: Tales of a ballet-obsessed reporter

Another year, another stint with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet. What can I say? I’m obsessed. 

With every story assignment I find myself thinking “Hmm. How can I possibly fit ballet into that context?” 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. This latest piece for Professor Moen’s Intermediate Writing class is a vignette. It focuses on a slice of time in the life of a professional dancer: a single ballet class.

Peer critiques start tomorrow, but why not open the floodgates? Give it a read and tell me what you think. 

The air is tropical-rainforest thick; so hot that the wall-to-wall mirrors are smeared with a thin fog. A sheen of sweat covers everyone and everything in the room. As they move across the floor, the dancers glisten.

“Hot, isn’t it?” asks Emily Baker, grinning.

She’s come to rest against the long wooden barre that runs along the walls at waist height.  She leans on it and her arm forms a right angle, elbow jutting out over hip. Her earrings jangle as she tilts her head back and laughs.

Brown sweat-curls have escaped her bun and are plastered to her forehead and the back of her neck. A quick adjustment of her olive-green leotard and she’s off across the floor again, arms held aloft and legs extending above her ears. Her face betrays no hint of the effort it takes to get them there.

Baker, 23, is the newest member of Columbia’s Missouri Contemporary Ballet. For Baker and other MCB dancers, hours of classes and rehearsals are the norm. To pursue the craft they love, professional dancers restrict their diets, devote their days, and push their bodies to their physical limit.

Baker has been injured what sounds like a dozen times. She taps each body part as she names it, starting from the top and working her way down.

“I dislocated my shoulder once in rehearsal,” she says nonchalantly. “I’ve sprained my lower back a bunch, I’ve had tendonitis in both my hips and strained both my hips, I’ve sprained my knee, I’ve had Achilles tendonitis, I’ve had flexor hallucis tendonitis.”

But you’d never know watching her dance. She and the rest of the class have moved on to jumps. The Ballet Mistress, Julie, sets a combination. She says it once, expects it to be memorized, and it is.

Baker stares Julie down, moving her hands as though they were feet to memorize the steps. The music starts and she’s off. Every time her pointe shoes leave the marley floor there’s a sticking sound, like scotch tape peeled away from plastic wrap.

She goes through pointe shoes at a varied pace, depending on their make. Some pairs last months, others are busted in a single week. None are comfortable.

“I have a lot of toenail issues: losing them, bruising them, all that jazz,” she says.

“How do you work through that?”

A pause, then, “Motrin.”

Baker has more serious problems than toenails. She has asthma, and her attacks are induced by activity and humidity.

One summer when she was 18, Baker was the lead in five out of seven pieces for Atlanta Ballet’s summer intensive performance. The air conditioning broke the day of the show, and she suffered an asthma attack halfway through one of the pieces.

“It was in-studio, so everyone could hear me wheezing,” she says. “It sucked, but I danced through it.”

Today, class ends without incident. The final exercise, fouette turns in the center, is optional. Baker opts in, spinning in tight, centered circles. Her head whips around in time to the music. One leg rotates and comes into passe at a perfect 90-degree angle; the other leaps from pointe to flat to pointe as the knee straightens and bends and straightens again. She is perfectly balanced. She defies gravity, and it’s all in a day’s sweaty work.

Back in the studio: Tales of a ballet-obsessed reporter