I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. But Jan. 15 resolutions? Well, that’s a whole other prospect. Actually, it was just an idea that came to me two weeks after it would’ve seemed fitting, but it was an idea none the less, and I wanted to follow through.
Here it is: I’m going to read a story a day for a whole year.
Now, I’ve got a little making up to do. The goal is 366 stories in 366 days (happy Leap Year, btw) rather than one per day, since I got a late start. This also won’t be about reading a quick newser on Trump’s latest tweet or a gamer on a college basketball showdown. I’m talking about features, stories the writer put some real time and effort into. It’s not about length so much as depth. Does the piece try to say something? If so, it counts.
The reason for this plan is twofold. For one, I used to read a lot more than I have recently. I used to put out a list of my favorite stories at the end of each year, but I didn’t do it for 2019 because, frankly, I’d spent too much time watching TV and playing games on my phone than reading. But the second is, I think good writers get better by reading, and I want to get better. I want to read a lot, and I want to really give some thought to what the writer did with the story. Why did it work? Why didn’t it? How might I have approached it? And, of course, what can I steal from this for my own work?
So here’s the plan: I’ll read 366 stories in 2020 and post a link to each of them here. For some, I’ll write a bit about them. For others, just a link. But in a time when we could all use a reminder of why journalism matters, I hope it’ll at least be a good home for some quality work and, ideally, offer a little inspiration for me to do some quality work, too.
Got a story I should read? Please send me suggestions HERE.
1.) Lived In Bars by Helena Fitzgerald in Good Beer Hunting
Everyone who loves bars has at some point wrestled with some big questions about their own alcohol consumption. This makes me feel at least a little better about the idea that maybe it isn’t just the booze that keeps me coming back.
2.) How Toto’s “Africa” Became the New “Don’t Stop Believin” by Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone
I feel like there’s more of an idea here that’s not realized. Alas, Sheffield is still great and if you want a good book recommendation I suggest picking up “Love is a Mixtape.”
3.) He Is Our OJ by John F. Harris in Politico
4.) The Incredibly Happy Life of Larry David by Brett Martin in GQ
I generally hate celebrity profiles because they’re inherently just a story about the interview, which is lame. In this case though, the story of the interview really tells us a lot about Larry David, which should come as a surprise to no one.
5.) How Dog Parks Took Over the Urban Landscape by Alissa Greenberg at Smithsonian
6.) Who Was I in College by Wright Thompson in Mizzou News
This was a fine piece about Wright’s time at Missouri and the old haunts he inhabited there, but it’s not my favorite piece by Wright about old bars. His best story on the subject is about Elaine’s, an old sports writer favorite in New York City, a place that, once Wright finished college and left to become the best sports writer of his generation, getting to drink at Elaine’s was a benchmark, a sign he’d made it. It’s a great piece, but I absolutely loved the ending.
The last night at Elaine’s was a time to remember, to celebrate what had been done and look forward to whatever was coming next. That’s what a great bar does. It stays the same so we can measure our own change. That’s why we mourn them when they disappear.
How great is that? It’s beautiful. Man, Wright can put an ending together. I wish I could just steal all his endings.
But let’s talk about bars. I’ve spent a lot of time at a lot of bars over the years, but when I read any stories about the ones that really meant something, the bars that were so bad they were good, the ones that were uniquely YOURS not because of all the great stuff but because of all the flaws that you and a select group of other unfortunate misfits all managed to love anyway, when I read those stories, I think of Charley B’s.
My first big-boy job in journalism (if you can call making $24K/year a “big boy job”) was at the Albany Herald in a small town in Southwest Georgia. This was in 2005, when small-town newspapers could still be a good place to start a career. I flew in to interview and my boss picked me up at the little commuter airport. He wouldn’t let me rent a car. He told me later it was because he didn’t want me to see too much of the town and not want the job. That was a smart plan. Albany was terrible, a true bastion of the worst parts of the old south, poor and decaying and overtly racist far too often, a place where the smart folks got out and the folks who remained weren’t too interested in change, no matter how bleak the future looked on its current trajectory. All of that is to say, Albany wasn’t a town with a lot of fun places to go out.
And yet… we went out. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. And, if we were out, the night certainly ended at Charley B’s, an absolute gem of a dive bar, where a moose head hung on the wall with dozens of panties dangling from its antlers, the men’s room had a hole in the wall between two urinals marking the spot where a third one had long since disappeared, and there was a weekly “swimsuit” competition in which the MC repeated the event’s slogan: “Skin to win, ladies.”
I had, to be generous, a love-hate affair with the place during my time in Albany. I would’ve preferred to be anywhere else, and yet I wouldn’t trade those nights for anything — me, at the dawn of a career I couldn’t even really see at the time, commiserating with people who’d become some of my best friends despite meeting them in a most unlikely of locations. It was a place where, when I walked in, my beer was already waiting on the bar, but also a place that insisted I pay a cover even when I got there at 1:15 a.m. and the band had already packed up to go home. It’s a place where a bartender once bribed me with beef jerky to back down from a fight in the parking lot. Fond memories? Maybe not. Memories? OK, that’s perhaps going too far, too. But it happened.
I eventually moved on from Albany — a long story in its own right — and I’m certain I swore I’d never go back. But of course I went back. We never escape our darkest fears and worst impulses. It’s why alcoholics are always “recovering” and never “recovered.”
I was in a bad place at the time. I was in between jobs, uncertain I’d ever make it as a writer. In Albany, I’d been a semi-big fish in a very small pond, and I left to go do something more. I’d accomplished nothing. I left, too, to follow a girl, but we broke up. (Spoiler alert: We got back together later. We’ve been married 10 years.) I thought I was special, and the world outside little Albany had told me I was not.
So I went back to visit friends and drink away a few sorrows and feel a little better about myself by spending time in a place I figured was beneath me but, in fact, was always exactly where I belonged.
When I walked back in to Charley B’s on that first return trip, I was stunned. They’d fixed the place up. Sure, the moose was still there, but they’d invested some money in new tables and bar stools and cleaned and polished and, while I wouldn’t have recommended eating off the floor, I think you probably could’ve at least done it without catching a flesh-eating bacteria.
It was fitting, I guess. I was a different person now, too. I just expected when I returned, I’d get that same feeling — maybe arrogance, but at least some sense of self worth by spending a little time in a place where I knew I could do better. But that’s now how it looked. The bar got better, and I was barely treading water. This awful dive bar had made more progress in a year than I had.
But I was at Charley B’s, so I drank. I drank and drank and then I had to pee. I walked into the men’s room, where a new stall had a working door and none of the sinks were dripping brownish liquid and no vomit was on the floor. And then I saw it. There, in between two urinals, was a hole in the wall.
I was elated. I took my spot at one of the functional urinals and I beamed. Sure, there was a fresh coat of paint on the walls, but this was still my place. They’d kept it that way, maybe just for me. This place was a dive, and it was happy that way. They could add a little window dressing when they had to, but if Charley B’s was OK with its scars and its flaws and its limitations, hell, so was I.
I left the bathroom and ran to the bar to find Frankie, the proprietor of the place.
“Frankie!” I yelled. “What a nice touch! You cleaned up the whole place, but left the urinal missing for old time’s sake! I love it!”
Franky looked confused.
“No, man,” he said. “We replaced the urinal. Somebody just got drunk and ripped it out of the wall again last week.”
And that’s why we love old bars. They stay the same so we can measure how far we’ve come.
7.) So long, salt and vinegar: how crisp flavours went from simple to sensational by Amelia Tait in The Guardian
Sucker for food stories.