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.