Build some character.


This is why, when the northeast is hit by some wussy little snowstorm, inconveniencing Wall Street Masters of the Universe and, more important, scores of network-TV reporters, so that the storm leads all the newscasts — Big Apple paralyzed! Capital socked in! — the rest of the country just rolls its eyes. That weather system is moving up from the southwest; we’re told that by day’s end we could experience snow, sleet and possibly a thunderstorm. It’s snowing now, hard. I’m reminded of a line from “Polar Star,” Martin Cruz Smith’s great murder mystery set, no kidding, on a factory ship off the coast of Alaska: “Come. Enjoy the refreshing Bering weather.”

OK, then. I need to call Hicksville today. It sounds like it should be a state of mind (“Dude. Go back to Hicksville.”) but it’s not, just an unfortunately named town in Ohio, on the Indiana border. For some reason our co-prosperity sphere has some money in a bank there, and I need to find out what it’s up to.

There used to be a rock club in Hicksville — the name escapes me — and for a while they booked some semi-significant bands. The owner was quoted once saying she thought most of them came just for the club’s embroidered jackets, with “Hicksville, Ohio” on the back. The club was popular with Fort Wayne kids during the Era of 3.2 Beer, a curiosity of local law. Until the Mothers Against Drunk Driving pushed through the 21 drinking age nationwide, Ohio had a two-tier system. Eighteen-to-21-year-olds could drink so-called “low” beer, which had an alcohol content around half the standard product. When you showed your ID at the door, you got either a “low stamp” or a “high stamp” on your hand, which you showed the bartender when you ordered. Not surprisingly, this law had a mixed record, enforcement-wise; you could always figure out a way to sneak the high stuff somehow. Anyway, in Indiana people younger than 21 couldn’t set foot in any bar, so they drive the 20 miles or so up Rt. 37 to Hicksville to hear Huey Lewis and the News and get a watery buzz on.

It should not surprise you to know that Rt. 37 had a lot of fatal accidents. Alcohol: Cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Anyway, Hicksville. When Alan was a young reporter at our newspaper, he was driving through Hicksville one day and spotted a large sign in a yard: God’s Tiny Kennel. Chihuahua Stud Service. Of course he knocked on the door.

The resulting story was a gem. The proprietress of God’s Tiny Kennel (I just like to write those words) was a dedicated Christian who believed she’d been called by God to this work. The dogs all had names like Scrappy and Sparky and Little Man, and she prayed over every litter, that her chihuahuas would go forth in the world and spread Christian love. (Please, no jokes about fear and trembling.)

I tipped a friend of mine in Columbus, a writer who loved to travel around the state and find stories like this, and he wrote a great one, too. His lede was a long string of “begats” — “And God looked down on Scrappy and saw it was good, and Scrappy begat Tiny Tim, who begat Little Man, who begat…”

Anyway, stories like this are the reason some of us went into feature writing, rather than, say, chasing down corrupt politicians or other crooks. Some of us think, heretics that we are, that if papers ran more stories like this, we’d have more readers.

Ah, well. It was only a few years later that well-dressed newspaper executives, with their flat abdomens and snappy ties, would start sneering at this genre, sometimes known in the business as “the 100-year-old cobbler story.” The new focus in features was on news you can use, stories with “utility,” stories that “help readers manage their lives.” By the turn of the next decade, our paper would have passed on God’s Tiny Kennel because a) it was out of our circulation area; and b) it lacked useful information. Once Alan shepherded a lovely little tale into the paper, written by one of his staffers. It was about a group of Philippine war brides who came to this country and were terribly lonely until one by one they found one another, and now, years later, they still meet once a week for a Philippine-food potluck and a little mah jongg. The editorial reaction in the morning news meeting? It needed a sidebar on how to play mah jongg.


Anyway, it’s all behind me now. After watching that Frontline special the other night, it’s clear a lot of other things about newspapers will be in the rear-view mirror soon, too.

Postscript: I just Googled “god’s tiny kennel” to see if anyone else ever wrote about it. One citation: Mine.

So, bloggage: Jon Carroll discovers Pump It Up. Kate went to a PIU party last fall. I knew it was a zillion-dollar business idea because it left my frontal lobes baffled and my medulla oblongata in raptures (those two parts never get along). Simultaneous genius and appalling excess: It’s the American way.

And that’s it for me today. I had a great one yesterday — after months of feeling I’d been buried alive, two-count-em-two editors reached out yesterday, both with interesting assignments. It gives me the strength to carry on.

Posted at 10:00 am in Media |

11 responses to “Build some character.”

  1. Connie said on March 1, 2007 at 10:20 am

    In this part of Indiana the teen drinkers just had to cross the state line. My HS and college days were in the brief period when the legal drinking age in Michigan was 18.

    We used to call the place we boarded our dog in Seymour “Phil’s Christian Kennels.” Because as we left Phil always said “God be with you on your journey.

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  2. Marcia said on March 1, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Oh, the God’s Tiny Kennel thing made me laugh out loud, especially the begats.

    Ron White has a bit about dog breeding that’s hilarious; he takes his male dog to do his stud thing, and they offer to teach him how to do it at home, for the sake of convenience. And he’s like, no way, I don’t want that dog following me around, pleading with me. “But you did it yesterday!”

    Anyway. Pump It Up. Ew. Classify that in the Chuck E. Cheese fount of hell on earth for me.

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  3. LA mary said on March 1, 2007 at 11:13 am

    Colorado has, or at least had, that 3.2 beer rule too. It always seemed pretty silly since anyone who wanted to get drunk still got drunk, even if it took a few more beers.

    Regarding God’s Tiny Kennel, it reminded me of a woman who used to post comments in the Compuserve Crime Forum. She was particularly rabid and nasty, but had a picture of a white, long haired chihuahua with a pink bow on its head next to her signature, with the line, “happiness is a warm puppy.” It was often following a statement like, “Michael Schiavo should have his balls cut off and he should rot in hell.”

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  4. Connie said on March 1, 2007 at 11:26 am

    Yes Marcia, I too class Chucky Cheese as a fount of hell on earth. I recently visited the very expanded grocery store of my childhood, only to find a Chucky Cheese style full size automated musical group performing in the middle of the produce department. Totally freaked me out.

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  5. MarkH said on March 1, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Idaho and Utah, as well, still have 3.2 beer sales. It’s what’s available when you see beer in the 7-11 type stores. But Utah has a tiered bar liquor license system allowing for beer bars that are only allowed to sell 3.2 beer. It’s either that, or the “private club” system, where you are required to purchase a “membership” to be allowed in. There, you get anything you want in liquor that is in precisely measured shots, either from a machine or mini-bottles. Some restaurants still have no liquor license, so you have to brown-bag. The whole thing is tightly controlled; ridiculously so. The tourism industry has been trying to get this convolution changed for years, as they feel in hampers the convention business, particularly in Salt Lake City. Mormon influence is being (slowly) diluted in the Salt Lake area, but it still holds throughout the state.

    3.2 beer; sure takes me back to high school and college. “Hey, pal, I got 6% the other night!!”.

    Yes, Nancy, whenever we see reports of nasty weather in the east, we always shake our heads as well at the “sky is falling” (no pun intended; or, maybe it is) attitude of the news organizations. I suppose it’s because of the greater masses of people affected, so it makes news. But it seems they are playing on the fears of the gullible masses as well, with blairing sound bites and on-location reporting that makes everything seem unnecessarily catastrophic, the recent Syracuse area dump excepted. Out here right now, we are getting our usual late-winter snow, and temps have moderated up to +10-25. We needed the snow, too, as El Nino did have a significant effect in the mountains, keeping things mild, unlike the plains. But, word has come that La Nina is on the way back by 2009, promising way more winter nastiness and snow.

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  6. Karen said on March 1, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Speaking of Salt Lake City…we visited there a few years ago. At the front desk of the hotel (they wouldn’t give us directions to a bar over the telephone), we were told to go up a block, turn right, go down the alley, and go down some stairs to “The Goat’s Breath”. While my cousin and I sat down at a table, my husband went to the bar to order drinks. The bartender asked if he was a member. The lone other customer, hunched over a beer at the bar, said, “He’s my guest.” Thanks to him I got my Marguarita which eased the pain and suffering of a traumatic airplane flight and hotel check-in.

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  7. brian stouder said on March 1, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    eased the pain and suffering of a traumatic airplane flight

    I have had exactly one of those.

    When something goes mildly (in real terms) sideways during air travel, the stress of the moment is a funny thing – undeniable and insuperable…and then suddenly gone.

    Sorta disorienting

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  8. Joe Kobiela said on March 1, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Went to a bar in SLC called the DEAD GOAT missed the Goat Breath. Sounds like the same place.
    I Waved when I flew over Wednesday, did you wave back??

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  9. nancy said on March 1, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    Didn’t you see me? I was up on the roof, waving.

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  10. michaelj said on March 2, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Grew up in Detroit. Lived in Boston in 1978. Detroit never, ever had a storm that came close, including the ’65 ice-out.

    As for 3.2 brewskis, Nazis make that in Colorado, right? Or is it that Mexican stuff that requires citrus?

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