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Looking Back

When I worked at the Flyer ...



So, the Flyer is 15 years old, eh? I believe that makes it an adolescent, which my father likes to describe as "a psychopath with a decent prognosis." Having spent a few years kicking around the Flyer's newsroom, I must say it's a fair assessment.

My mind drifts back to my interview there. I was more or less stuck in Memphis because of a recent DUI and I decided to see if somebody would pay me to write, so I wouldn't have to work. At age 26, with no driver's license and living with my folks, I was perhaps the perfect Flyer staffer. Dennis Freeland interviewed me, told me I was "over-qualified" for the job (presumably because I had actually worked for a newspaper before), and then hired me for $6 an hour. Dennis, always the giver, upped it from $5 because I had a college degree.

I think I was called a paid intern, but honestly, I have rarely had a more enjoyable job. I would stumble in each day around 10, get some coffee, and ask who needed what written. In my first year, I did news stories, book reviews, commentaries, staff editorials, features, movie reviews, whatever. Dennis almost fired me on principle because I gave five stars to a movie with Robert Downey Jr. in it. I would go on to write a review which said that Sniper, starring Tom Berenger, was a better movie than Platoon, which just happened to win the Oscar that year.

One of my first assignments was to settle an argument -- in the paper, for reasons that still aren't clear -- over the home state of the Beverly Hillbillies. In our usual hard-hitting journalistic fashion, I called a few friends, one of whom claimed to have seen every episode, and we quoted him as an expert. We occasionally stooped lower, but I won't discuss such times here.

I had the great pleasure of being the guy who got the assignments nobody else wanted. For example, I appeared in various photographs over the years, posing on one cover as a guy in a straitjacket and another one where my sandaled feet were used to demonstrate the state of Tom Lee Park after the Music Fest. The highlight, of course, was when I somehow got to participate in the fighter-plane simulation, with a photo of me looking dumber than Michael Dukakis in that tank. The caption read, as I recall, "The intern's mother says he looks like a real fighter pilot." Between this and my admission that I threw up after the plane landed, I never had another date in Memphis.

But hey, what journalists get dates, anyway? It's an odd gig from the start, filled with odd people -- no way to earn a living but a hell of a place to work. I remember going off to college and my brother saying, "Don't work for the student paper; that's where all the geeks are." I did it anyway and look where it got me.

But not many job descriptions basically say that every Tuesday around 2 p.m., when the paper is done -- or maybe 3, or 4, or 5 -- the staff will retire to the P&H Café for a classic trade: burgers, fries, and a couple rounds of beers for the whole staff in exchange for a small ad in the paper.

Hunter Thompson liked to say that journalism is "a ticket to ride," and I couldn't agree more. The Flyer had the added advantage, though scary at times, of printing virtually whatever I wrote. I still cringe over the quotes I got, and used, from Andrew Dice Clay. But there was also the time that my Life Dream Number One -- the Grateful Dead in Memphis -- came true, and about six weeks ahead of the shows, Dennis said, "Paul, I want something about the Dead in every issue between now and then, and when they get here, the issue is all yours." I got to go to Charlotte, interview band members, plop my brother against the front of the stage with photo credentials, and use my backstage passes to make more friends than you'll ever know.

One of my other reporting highlights was during the press conference announcing the renovation of the Exchange Building. The developer had the audacity to announce that the whole thing would be done in something like a year. I was standing there between reporters from The Memphis Business Journal, Downtowner, and the CA, and all four of us chuckled when he said that. Renovate that building in a year? When pigs fly, I thought. So I asked this guy, again, if he really meant to say that the whole thing would be done in a year, and he said yes, and we all laughed even harder.

And in the next issues of the Downtowner, Business Journal, and CA, his absurd claim was repeated verbatim. Those guys, after all, fancy themselves as objective journalists. Not me, then or now. I concluded my story with a paragraph saying something like, "In a related development, a flock of pigs was seen flying across the Mississippi River, headed for downtown Memphis."

Not my greatest line or anything, but it's the principle of the thing. Say something stupid, and the Flyer will call you on it.

When the Exchange Building project was done, somebody at the Flyer sent me a clip of the story announcing it, and the developer was sweet enough to let himself be quoted saying, "And pigs didn't even fly!" The fact that it was about three years since that press conference wasn't mentioned.

And then, of course, there's the Rhodes-Jennings Building. It just seemed silly to me that there was a broken, falling-down building in the middle of downtown that the owners refused to do anything with. About three other people in the city felt the same way, but one of them was a lawyer and one was a dedicated activist. So I started writing stories about it. And after the second one, somebody at the Flyer said, "Why are you writing about that building again?" So it began.

Something like two dozen court dates ensued, each one followed by a thoroughly smart-assed story in the paper. The judge would tell them to fix it, they wouldn't, then the judge would talk about how pissed he was getting, and then nothing would happen. It was beautiful -- and nobody cared, which only made me care more. But nobody at the Flyer ever told me to cut it out. I always figured they either weren't reading it or they had written me off as a freak long ago. But even that didn't get you in trouble at the Flyer. Come to think of, what does?

And when I left the Flyer, and Memphis, what was my going-away present? A framed picture of the Rhodes-Jennings Building. I've got it on my desk as I write this, in fact.

I admit that such silliness is what I often think of when the Flyer, and specifically my time as a staffer, comes to mind. But I'm naturally silly, as you know. Of course, there were serious stories, as well, like the story about problems at the library, which we started working on when a person answering the phone there didn't know which side of the Mississippi Memphis was on.

So I'm glad you guys are still kicking some ass and calling the occasional name. And I hope to keep writing my little travel articles. The initial, sweeping assignment I was given almost eight years ago -- "destination-oriented travel writing, with a twist" -- took place over a beer, as I recall, and I've never signed anything to confirm it. Since then I've knocked out more than 220 of them, not one of which could honestly be called serious. But, like working for the Flyer, it sure is fun.

In closing, I love you weirdos; keep up the good work.

Paul Gerald is the travel writer for the Flyer.

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