The one thing I kept thinking during our conversation was -- who cuts his hair?
I was interviewing Mike Thomas, a feature writer for one of Chicago's two remaining daily papers -- the less expensive one, the one with the better sports writers, the one with the smaller page size that makes it easier to read on the train, the one you can finish during your morning break at work, the one whose upper management ripped off the company for millions of dollars to finance their ritzy lifestyles. That one.
Mike writes about arts and entertainment and I write ads and commercials. We live in parallel universes, which, under ordinary circumstances don't often intersect. But, our paths have crossed because he is my instructor in a class called Magazine Writing for Dummies. Okay. It isn't really called that, but it could be. We, the ten women who signed up for this non credit class, are there to learn the tricks of his trade and maybe even sell something to a magazine for a paycheck.
has a real job -- accounting, marketing, teaching. The mostly young women, except me,
each confess they are in the class because they have always had a desire to write.
I am the only one, besides our teacher, who harbors no
longings, because I, like him, already write for a living. Ads, commercials,
video scripts, press releases, new product concepts, the list goes
on. Everything but feature articles and books.
When it comes to a place on the food chain, however, writing ads is to writing feature stories as Jello pudding is to
chocolate mousse. One just seems way classier than the other. Plus,
nobody attacks you for selling out or doing it for the money.
In my twenties -- I'm feeling defensive now -- I dabbled in feature
early on, after comparing the paltry $100 I got for two lifestyle
articles I sold to a magazine, versus the regular paycheck I got
writing ads, I stuck
with writing ads. For a couple of years in the nineties, I wrote a
column of sorts, Creative Couples, for a local production
magazine. I also took the pictures and wrote a short article about the
sculpture at the Chicago Botanic Garden for my local paper. Impressive, no?
Going around the table introducing
ourselves during our first class together, I discover that Mike Thomas,
the feature writer, has always wanted to be Mike Thomas, the adwriter.
The guy who has the job I want
once wanted the job I have. Perhaps we both harbor illusions, or maybe
just delusions about the other's profession.
In no time we reach week four in class and the assignment is to practice interviewing techniques by using each other as guinea pigs. Since there is an odd number present, Mike volunteers to be my partner for the exercise.
"Treat the interview like a conversation," he tells us, after
showing off his very small, sleek digital recorder that's about
the size of an elongated cigarette lighter. Very unobtrusive. Clearly, it's a easier to have
a conversational interview without a clunky recording device sitting
"Pay attention to details, what the person is wearing, what the room looks like."
Details. All right. Our classroom is in a red brick, re-habbed factory building across from the train tracks
in one of Chicago's gentrified neighborhoods. As proof, there is
a great breakfast joint down the street that is packed on the weekends
with gay couples and young marrieds.
Beyond the industrial gray walls and floors lining the inside of the building is an eclectic group of businesses that function on the other side of huge metal doors. Waiting for class to start on my first night, while sitting on the hard steps leading to the second floor, I noticed everything from a dance company to some kind of exercise class to an antique shop.
Each week our writing group gathers around a makeshift conference table in
a long and narrow, very chilly, painted brick room on the first floor.
Hot water and herb tea bags for our ten minute break are only steps
away in the student-teacher lounge. To
further sustain us during the two and a half hour class there is a glass container the size of a fish bowl in the middle of the table. Before we arrive, someone mysteriously replenishes the bowl with a fresh assortment of candy pieces.
I am partial to the Tootsie Rolls myself. I take them out, one at a
time, peel off the wrappers carefully so I don't rip them, put the
candy in my mouth and spend the next five minutes folding the wrapper
into tinier and tinier squares until it won't fold anymore. Then
I throw it into the wastebasket by the door. During the class, I usually go through six or seven Tootsie Rolls that way.
Eating Tootsie Rolls, I realize, is not the best way to disarm the subject of my
interview, seated at the head of the conference table. Opening my pocketsized notepad, I begin."So when did
you realize you wanted to be a
writer when you grew up?" I ask Mike, astonished at how mundane my
question is. He leans back in his chair. To get more comfortable? To
away from me? I can't tell.
Trying to capture everything in my mind's eye if nothing else, as I ask
one dumb question after another, I suddenly notice
his hair. It is short, brushed back, jet black and gleaming, with a hint of
curl in front. Not something ordinary men can accomplish without help.
I am suddenly fascinated by the perfection of each hair's alignment vis a vis his head.
Barber or stylist? I wonder as I continue with my inane queries. Local neighborhood guy, or some Michigan Avenue
salon for men? For some reason his perfect hair
makes me assume he must be organized. Neat, too.
Probably drives his wife crazy squeezing from the bottom of the
This is confirmed, I decide, by his uniform -- a smooth, starched white
dress shirt, a Brooks Brothers blazer, and shockingly spotless designer
jeans, which look professionally pressed.
I realize that he wore the virtually same thing the week before. He probably has
a closet full of bright white dress shirts, lined up next to several
fitted blue blazers and sends his jeans, at least twenty-four pairs, to the dry
cleaners. In fact I would make bet
that the next time we have class he will be wearing a white shirt,
blue blazer, and jeans again.
Suddenly my pen drops and I reach down to pick it up, only to notice that his
black boots aren't freshly polished. Not scuffed or anything. Just not
shiny shiny. That's a relief. We all need a little imperfection to let
out the evil spirits.
Somehow I manage to learn that our teacher used to make up and write
his own stories as a little boy growing up. He discovered an interest
in writing about music and the arts in college, working for his school
paper. When he couldn't get his dream job in advertising after school,
he went to work in the communications department of a corporation that
makes cardboard boxes, writing videos for their sales meetings. One
thing led to another and now this thirty something husband and father is on the staff of
a major metropolitan newspaper, while also writing for magazines like
GQ. He's even co-authored a couple of books. Obviously, I got a lot of facts, but I sure didn't get much of a story.
The entire interview is compressed into twenty minutes. After one of my
most penetrating questions no doubt, Mikelooks at his watch
and says it's time to finsh up. I wonder if we'll get any feedback from
partners on how well we did with our interviewing techniques. We don't. I wonder if we'll be asked to
write up our little practice interviews. We aren't. But I
decide to write mine up for my journal anyway. I didn't use a tape
recorder during my
impromptu interview, so I don't have any quotes I can use, except for
his brief instructions. The editor of my journal has low standards, so
a dearth of quotes shouldn't be a problem.
The next time our class meets we discuss ledes, which I always spelled
"leads" -- the opening line or paragraph of an article. To paraphrase the old dandruff
commercial, your lead is your one chance to make a good first impression. One chance to
readers by the throat and
get them to read what you wrote. We also
talk about "walk offs," which, just like their baseball
counterparts, are the paragraphs that end your article, where it
wouldn't hurt to hit a homerun. Next week -- nut grafs. What the heck
I tell Mike I'm writing up our interview, promising to email
it to him when I am done. I recite my opening line for the
piece, where I wonder who cuts his hair. He laughs and says, "Ed." Not Mr. Edward, Monsieur Ed, or even Eduardo. Just Ed.
So, Ed it is. Like Da Coach -- Mike Ditka. Or Da Bears -- Shecawga's favorite sports
team. And Da Mare -- the first Mayor Daley. A guy named Ed is Da Barber for Da Teach's hair.