My first story source flashed me her boob. We were sitting at a bar in downtown Cleveland and, after laying out the basics of the information she had to give, the spirit of Axl Rose touched her and she ripped open one half of her blouse and screamed.
"Nipple pierced," I wrote fastidiously in my notebook. The woman was a confidential source. But if she decided to go on the record down the road, I figured, that could be lead material.
It was a story involving zoning.
My career in journalism started when a burly man, with whom I had in the previous few hours ingested roughly seventeen whiskey shots and a pony keg of Pabst Blue Ribbon, asked me to step outside for a smoke.
We were at Harbor Inn in the Flats, the epicenter of America, he would tell me and anyone who would listen. As this man — let's call him Pete — sucked down a Camel, I swayed in front of him and muttered whatever it is a 25-year-old mutters when he is blackout drunk and trying to impress his potential boss during a job interview. Something about the correct way to operate a riding lawnmower, I would guess.
Pete torpedoed his cigarette butt to the ground and threw a number at me. At first I thought he was telling me how much a used Zamboni costs, since the conversation so far had revolved mostly around hockey and the glory of enforcers and blood. Then I realized he was offering a salary to write at the Scene. We shook hands. We went back inside and drank some more. Then I was at my hotel, vomiting into a plant in the lobby, proudly employed.
I reported to work as the Nell of journalism. I didn't know how to do anything. Public records were an unfathomable mystery that I figured I would never understand, like Pilates. Interviews were a bizarre sporting event where I was supposed to write really quickly and think of questions at the same time, with no time allotted for sipping a beverage or checking Twitter.
Simply getting around the city was perilous: My out-of-state driver's license was expired, the gravity of which I understood after a Cleveland police officer kindly informed me that he would put me in handcuffs if he ever spotted me driving again. I told Pete I had to leave work to go take a driving test and then hustled from his office before he could take me drinking, my usual punishment for such amateur stunts.
I spent all my money (and more: Thanks, Capital One!) on piss-stained couches, an ill-advised semi-feral cat, sushi rolls, alcohol and parking tickets.
If I were to describe as a culinary experience the copy that I turned in to Pete at this time, it was that mush they eat in The Matrix, sometimes with a few edible raisins sprinkled on top. After reporting to the Jake to do a brief story on the Cleveland Indians' front office, I spent the first several hundred words describing Derek Jeter slinging a giant physical therapy rubber band at Alex Rodriguez with his legs while their New York Yankees stretched on the field before a game.
Pete took me drinking and explained that though it was an interesting scene, stories should usually be about the stuff that the stories are about.
I didn't have much, but I did have my powers of observation. When a story subject smelled like a rich guy who might own a boat, I wrote YACHTSMAN real big in my notebook like I had just uncovered Watergate. "Like that yachtsman line!" Pete might boom at me in the following staff meeting, before I unloaded that week's pitches: Can I embed at a bowling alley? Also, a one-eyed bum taught me how to jimmy parking meters! Am I doing good, boss?
This was how I made a living. We produced a regular column bearing the byline of fossilized Plain Dealer scribe Dick Feagler in which he mused that LeBron James was "queer-bait" and that rapper Soulja Boy was a prime candidate for an "ice bath and a lobotomy."
In the visiting locker room at the Quicken Loans Arena, I jostled with professional beat writers and held my flip phone to Steve Nash's face like it was a microphone.
My managing editor, a Californian who kept a yoga mat in the shotgun seat of his car, reported back to the staff that he had seen the mayor of Cleveland naked in a YMCA men's room. (Frank Jackson is a show-er, not a grower, if you're wondering.) We would skip out from work to play pickup basketball, or to induce comas with Indian buffet fare, or to play afternoon whiffle ball in an abandoned lot without irony, like a small group of overgrown 1930s orphans.
When we least expected it, Pete's big hands would grip the edges of our cubicles and his Chief Wahoo-outfitted head would peer over expectantly. That meant the rest of the afternoon would be spent at Harbor Inn, often in order to stupefy some pitiable young job candidate who would try to finish his explanation of how he envisions story structure like we hadn't all just watched him vomit potato chips on the street outside. Sometimes they would make it back to their hotel and a trusty potted plant. Other times they would sit wide awake in the passenger seat of Pete's van parked behind a gas station overnight while Pete got a little shut-eye.
They would wake up the next day with a pounding headache, a vague recollection of misdemeanors or low-level felonies committed the night before, and — if they were fastidious record-keepers — a scrap of paper with a number scrawled on it indicating their new salary.
These new colleagues — including the then-dental marketer who now runs the paper and is basically one of the most powerful men in the Midwest — would instantly become my best friends. It was like summer camp, only instead of tetherball, we would compare sick metaphors, which means we definitely would have gotten our asses kicked at real summer camp. I even got my wife from Scene. I plucked her from the marketing department and wooed her at Hoopples, where we were serenaded by noted local maniac Glenn Schwartz, gumming his guitar and ranting about Orientals having pissed in the beers we were drinking.
If Clevelanders are sick of people who spent eleven months in their city waxing nostalgic about the blissful simplicity of life there, they shouldn't have made the place so fucking awesome, is what I'm trying to say.
These days, I have the sort of job that requires me use a transparent pseudonym in this column. I wear khakis to work like a 14-year-old Catholic school student. I use spreadsheets. And my best sources are often attorneys.
Sometimes a male attorney wears a sheer dress shirt with nothing underneath.
When that happens, I write "nipple" in my notebook.
Hey, if the guy eventually decides to go on the record, it could be lead material.
The writer prefers not to get fired for writing this.