Ten hurdles to narrative journalism
Use 2002 to conquer this obstacle course of progressively demanding techniques
Countless reporters will throw themselves underneath the wheels of the narrative journalism movement this year. They’ll waste time, waste space and frustrate themselves and their editors.
This will happen because too many reporters embark on long, narrative-style stories without first building up the reporting and writing skills that are needed to exploit the power of unfolding events. Narrative journalism–reconstructing a story in the manner it happened, making the reader feel like he was there–involves a violent reordering of traditional journalism. You have to discover and strengthen many new groups of mental muscles and make them simultaneously come into play.
Narrative can be practiced on countless small levels. It can be a descriptive paragraph, a single scene, a beginning, an ending–and if you haven’t done each of these maneuvers dozens of times, in small, isolated ways, you’re not ready to turn a story into a pure narrative. This point was made several times by speakers at last month’s Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference in Cambridge, which drew more than 600 participants: The folks whose narrative work you’re admiring spent 10 or 15 or 25 years painfully building the skills that allowed them to unleash those pieces.
In that spirit, here’s an obstacle course you can chart for 2002: Ten hurdles, each a bit higher than the last, requiring slightly more sophisticated uses of narrative technique in everyday stories. If you’ve already mastered them individually, concentrate on mixing and matching new combinations. The intent is to conceive of reporting and writing the narrative as a privilege to be gradually earned, not a birthright. Tell yourself you’ll clear one hurdle, or one new combo, each month:
1. Write a small descriptive nugget or anecdote within your feature story to add extra depth. Patrick McDonnell was telling the story of two Irish priests who had gone to the same seminary and now ran two churches in Los Angeles that catered to Latino immigrants. He decided to include a slight digression about a pair of red shoes:
…It is a sympathy that comes naturally to those raised in rural Ireland a generation ago, when Ireland resembled the Third World more than today’s thriving European nation. So many people had left that, to young O’Connell and Cunnane, the big cities of New York, Boston and London seemed oddly like extensions of their communities, home to countless aunts and uncles whose exploits were discussed at the dinner table.
They recall the parcels with hand-me-downs that would periodically arrive from America–like the one with red wing-tip shoes that came one day to the O’Connell home in County Cork.
O’Connell’s father took a liking to the shoes, which were comfortable on a fine summer day. He died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at age 53. “They were taking him out of the ambulance, the sheet was over his head, but you could see the red wing-tip shoes,” recalls O’Connell. “I’ll always remember: He wore the red wing-tip shoes the day he died.”
The priests are products of the Irish seminary system that has for years sent missionaries and diocesan priests to far corners of…
2. Write a small interior or ending segment of a breaking news story with narrative flow. This was the ending segment of a story Jeffrey Gettleman wrote about Nino’s, a New York City spaghetti joint that has become a refuge for workers removing debris from the World Trade Center site. As an ending, he reintroduced a character, Faith Stevens, who sings heart-stirring songs with white-feathered wings on her back:
Late at night, the vibe is more solemn. The mix tends to be fewer cops and more rescue workers who arrive straight from the site, shivering cold.
A bright spot is when the angels come. The Stephens family, seven children ages 2 to 18 and two beaming parents, traveled 1,800 miles from Texas to spend the holidays in New York singing carols at Nino’s and several firehouses. They sold reindeer pins to pay for their travel expenses and winged costumes.
The nasty weather and the bleak recovery work swirls out of focus for a moment when the children shuffle to the front of the clattering restaurant.
Everyone stops: the soldier guarding the Brooklyn Bridge, the police officer at ground zero, the firefighter who’s been sifting through debris all day, every day.
“Come on, sing us a good one!” someone yells.
And then little Faith Stephens steps upon a chair, brushes her hair from her face and belts out one more.
3. Write a longer interior or ending narrative segment in which you reproduce a more complicated conversation. Here, Solomon Moore’s profile of one woman’s decision to convert to Islam in December, 2001, ended with a scene in which the woman, Dia Richardson, who had spent most of her life partying hard, told some of her friends about her surprising decision:
Last week, she went to her friends, hairdressers Simone Richardson and Maurice Mitchell, at the Silver Slipper Salon for a little respite. Richardson strolled in wearing a head scarf and Simone Richardson–no relation to Dia–looked at her old friend quizzically.
“I’m a Muslim.”
Simone’s jaw dropped. “No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”
Mitchell didn’t look up from the hair he was curling. “If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it.”
After an awkward silence, Simone told the woman whose hair she was styling: “She’s out of control. I’m praying for her. You know when Muhammad went into that cave, and he was supposed to hear from God or whatever? Well, when he came out, he seemed to have a lot of the same issues that are in Christianity. It seems like a knockoff of Christianity.”
“It is a knockoff of Christianity,” Richardson said. “Just like Christianity is a knockoff from the Jews.”
“Six months,” Simone said, combing out a kink. “I give her six months.”
“What temple do you go to?” Mitchell asked.
“It’s called a mosque.”
“You’re not supposed to date?”
Simone sounded concerned: “What about the submissive part?”
“What do you mean, submissive?” Richardson asked with slight annoyance. “You’ve been watching too much Sally Field in ‘Not Without My Daughter.’ ”
The questions continued. By the end of the visit, Simone Richardson and Mitchell seemed more worried about their friend than convinced by her. But they tried to be supportive.
Richardson offered them the Arabic salutation, “Assalam-al-aikum”–God’s peace be upon you–and left in time for her evening prayer.
4. Use a narrative spine to give some badly needed spice to an ordinary daily feature. Here’s what I did one day when the City Desk decided it needed to do a hot-weather story one July. The desk already knew the angle it wanted: Who has the hottest job? I was pissed at getting the assignment relatively late in the day and as I drove around different neighborhoods in the hot sun, I decided my revenge would be using my own voice. I had done no planning, so I ping-ponged my way from one worker to the next, using the suggestions they gave me.
Think you had it tough Tuesday? Air conditioning break down? Store sold out of electric fans?
Don’t try crying on Ed Barnes’ shoulder. You wouldn’t like Barnes’ shoulder. By the time you read this, his shoulder, and the rest of him, will have been exposed to 400 tons of asphalt, heated to 450 degrees, ripe for spreading across a school play area in Downey.
Barnes, a crew foreman, was a front-runner for the informal title of Hottest Man in Los Angeles County, or Worst Heat-Wave Job. He declined the honor Tuesday as he and three laborers prepared for today’s repaving job by applying hot oil and a fiber-like mat to the old asphalt.
“Everything stays hot under you,” said one of the workmen, Johnny Cisneros. “Sometimes you even get blisters on your feet.”
It was not even noon, and it was already nearly 100 degrees. The oil reeked and felt like it was burning through a reporter’s shoes. What could be worse?
“Roofing,” Barnes answered. “Here you burn your feet. There, you burn everything.”
And so an hour later, as the mercury pushed past 100 and a light, dry wind whisked through the San Gabriel Valley, the Hottest Man title was offered to a slender, shirtless young man hauling heavy Spanish tiles into place on the roof of a rebuilt home in San Gabriel.
Ronald Carton grinned and rushed from his perch to accept the honor.
“Absolutely,” the 22-year-old roofer said. “Picking these things up (the tiles weigh 10 to 15 pounds apiece), burning your hands. I don’t use gloves. You get callouses. You fry up here. Drink a lot of liquid. Lot of Dr. Pepper. Sun comes off those tiles–it’s 115 degrees up there.”
Eventually, though, Carton also allowed that this particular job was not the worst imaginable. What might be, then?
“Hot roofing,” he advised.
And so an hour later, as it hit 105 in Pasadena, the title was once again offered, this time to a stocky man in his 40s perched atop a large apartment building.
John Burriola accepted the honor and climbed down a tall ladder. He and two assistants had started about 6 a.m. so they could knock off before the worst heat set in.
What set Burriola’s work apart from Carton’s–and anybody else’s who feels sorry for himself–was the liquid asphalt, heated to between 500 and 550 degrees, that Burriola was spreading over the building’s roof before laying the new cover.
Over the liquid asphalt…
5. Employ narrative in the lead of a breaking news story. Look for a story where you can hold back the news in the service of telling the story more deeply. (You should warn your editor before you start typing, or at least before you hit the “send” key.) Here, Joe Mozingo, faced with a tragic shooting in a city where tragic shootings are an everyday occurrence, used narrative to make the numbed reader feel the awfulness. He not only held back the death (8th graf), he held back the arrest (11th graf):
Drinking beers and joking in the bleary hours of morning, the group of men playing cards in the courtyard of a Willowbrook apartment complex said they didn’t think much of the confrontation when it happened.
Their neighbor, Sergio Chavez, had opened the screen door of his tiny clapboard cottage and brusquely told them to keep the noise down while his family struggled to sleep in the stifling heat.
But when Chavez slammed the door and climbed back into bed, one of the card-players got up from the game and stormed off to his truck.
Moments later, according to Jesus Alvarado, the man came back in a rage, yelling and swinging a pistol in the darkness. With his arm swaying haphazardly, he aimed at the screen door and opened fire.
After several shots, he stopped and ran away, leaving only the piercing sounds of a desperate father and a little girl crying in the balmy air.
“He shot my daughter! He shot my daughter!” rang out through the community of Mexican immigrants, a tight-knit group who often go surf-fishing together on the weekends. “He hit my family,” he cried.
His two young daughters, both sleeping on a piece of foam on the floor, were hit–7-year-old Janet in the neck, 9-year-old Crystal in the heart.
While Janet was listed in stable condition at a hospital Saturday afternoon, Crystal was dead before the ambulance arrived, family members said.
Sergio Chavez was shot in the leg. He was treated and released from the hospital.
Several members of the large extended family in the crowded house escaped injury, including a 1-year-old who was sleeping in a crib leaning against the metal door that was riddled with bullets. A 2-year-old girl and Chavez’s wife, Irma, were also unharmed.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Francisco Medina, 27, of Lynwood, in his truck shortly after the 3:15 a.m. shooting, authorities said. He is charged with murder and assault with a deadly weapon and is being held without bail at the Century station. Alvarado said he did not know Medina, who was visiting a friend in the complex.
Now the story resumes a conventional structure as the witnesses are interviewed and reflect on the killing:
Alvarado said they the group was just drinking beer as they sat joking and talking amiably around a stereo speaker. Neighbors, who were sitting together in lawn chairs Saturday afternoon grappling with the tragedy, said no one was affiliated with gangs and the area is generally peaceful.
Adolfo Montes, cousin of Irma Chavez, was sleeping in his van behind the apartment when the shots woke him up. When he heard the crying, he jumped…
6. Profile a person-in-the-news through the technique of a day in his/her life. In this case, John Glionna was assigned to do a daily profile of the guy who was in charge of California’s power supply during the worst week of the state’s energy crisis. He found a way to define the character’s job quickly, and got us into the timeline by the fourth graf:
FOLSOM — Tim Van Blaricom is a soft-spoken man with his finger on the pulse of California’s daily struggle to eke out enough electricity to keep the lights on.
The 34-year-old former Navy aircraft engineer is the shift manager for the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit agency that controls the state’s surging power grid.
It is a stressful, sometimes thankless job, he says, one that can fray your nerves like an old electrical wire. The windowless room where he works crackles with the tension of Houston Control, the buying frenzy of the New York Stock Exchange and the surreal atmosphere of “Doctor Strangelove.”
At 9:50 a.m. Thursday came one of its worst moments. As Van Blaricom monitored his bank of computers in the bowels of Cal-ISO headquarters, he suddenly sensed that the state’s supply of megawatts was plummeting.
“What I saw made my blood pressure rise. I knew that we weren’t going to have enough juice to get by.”
The story begins to use the narrative flow to provide a spine for digressions that show us how the world works:
What he saw was that just as residents were running through the last of several thousand megawatts Cal-ISO had purchased from the Pacific Northwest, the state was plunging into another emergency. The technicians call it “Path 15”: The electrical lines feeding Northern California from the southern part of the state were bottlenecked at Bakersfield.
Van Blaricom picked up the phone and summoned a conference call with managers from the state’s three largest utilities. Trying hard to maintain his composure, he ordered Pacific Gas & Electric to conserve 1,000 megawatts of electricity by immediately cutting power to about 670,000 customers, beginning in the north, which is made especially vulnerable by a lack of transmission lines.
Then he sat back, bit his lower lip and watched nervously for the next two hours as the blackouts rolled through areas of San Francisco, Fresno and Sacramento.
Van Blaricom and several dozen colleagues labor at the heart of California’s battle to keep the lights on. Often working 20 hours a day, drinking coffee to stay alert, they make the wrenching, split-second decisions to avoid what in the past two days has become inevitable: temporarily putting unwitting Californians in the dark….
The description of how the agency works went on for several grafs before John re-introduced Thursday’s dilemma:
The problem Thursday morning was the same one as Wednesday: Because of hydroelectric power shortages, unplanned outages and hesitance on the part of some sellers, the state could not purchase enough electricity to meet its needs.
And now we go back to the timeline:
When Van Blaricom gave his blackout order, Elliott and a dozen other Cal-ISO staffers quickly gathered in a large glass-enclosed conference room known as “the fish tank.”
Dividing up responsibility, they began calling the press as well as state and federal regulatory agencies–spreading the word to emergency response teams across Northern California that power would soon be cut.
Outside, the main Cal-ISO control room floor is vaguely shaped like a baseball diamond, with Van Blaricom’s desk situated at home plate. At 10 a.m., moments after the shutdown order, he looked up at the far wall to a bank of computer-generated bar charts and liked what he saw: PG&E had begun closing down its nonessential customers in a patchwork array across hundreds of miles. The state’s electricity usage had begun to wane, thanks to the blackouts and the conservation they inspired in unaffected areas, restoring enough reserve power to create a small buffer.
Van Blaricom explained that PG&E officials, not Cal-ISO, decide which areas will lose power: “We tell them it’s got to go and they make the decision.”
He still didn’t think he was out of the woods. So just after 11 a.m., Van Blaricom gave a second shutdown order. To spread the burden of inconvenience, he told PG&E officials to bring up the power to the first batch of customers, but to cut power to 500,000 more.
Around noon, Van Blaricom–whose duty as shift manager is so exhausting that he only works the job for two consecutive days– gave the order to end the second blackout.
But the drama wasn’t over. Technicians continued to monitor the dispatch board, the mammoth 180-foot-long electronic wall that shows where the electricity is located at hundreds of substations with names like Coolwater and Four Corners spread across California and neighboring states.
Meanwhile, others scoured the Western electricity market, looking for generators, power companies and other sellers who could provide the state with electricity for the critical surge of usage in the early evening, when people return home from work and children get home from school.
At 1 p.m., an Internet server glitch meant that technicians could not keep track of electricity available on the open market and had to get on the telephone to do business.
Dennis Leahy, a senior grid resource coordinator who began his career in the electricity business 30 years ago digging ditches for a utility company, looked on warily…
Later, the ending:
By midafternoon, thanks to a few last-minute power purchases from Canada and Arizona and lower usage because of warmer weather, Cal-ISO officials were expecting to avoid further blackouts for Thursday and perhaps even over the weekend.
Van Blaricom tried to force a smile. Arriving at 5 a.m., he had expected another 15-hour day. For a moment, his thoughts turned to home and a comfortable spot on the couch.
“Last night I went home and watched ‘Gilligan’s Island’ on Nickelodeon,” he said with a smile. “Something totally mindless. It was great.”
7. Write a pure narrative of a story that you can observe and then tell in chronological order. Like this last-day-at-school story by J.R. Moehringer:
Miss Gizzi gets that look on her face and says be quiet, everyone please be quiet, but how can you be quiet when there’s just one day left, one tiny day, a few fidgety hours before the magic and freedom and endless twirling days of summer?
Summer. The word is like the sweetest candy in your mouth. It makes you squirm and giggle–you clap a hand over your mouth, but too late, the giggle already slipped out–and you’d better be careful, because Miss Gizzi might give you a pink card, which means you’re bad, or a blue card, which means you’re really bad, and if you’re bad enough she might not even send you on to third grade, who knows.
You’re one of about 440,000 Orange County public school students who have spent the last week watching the clock, studying the calendar, gazing out the window. In Santa Ana, they got out last Thursday. In Orange, last Friday. But in Miss Gizzi’s second-grade class at Arroyo Vista Elementary School in Rancho Santa Margarita, this was the day to end all days.
Tuesday! The morning starts, and you know that when the big hand hits the 12 and the little hand touches the two, those massive doors will fly open at last, letting you and all your friends run for daylight like a jailbreak of 4-foot-tall prisoners, and this room where you’ve spent one-seventh of your life will vanish completely from your thoughts, like the front tooth you lost last week.
Just hours to go.
“Miss Gizzi,” says a plaintive voice from behind a raised hand. “Can we count down the last 10 seconds and then shout: ‘THIRD GRADE!’?”
We’ll see, she says, getting that look, asking everyone again to please be quiet please.
“You’re not showing good self-control right now,” she says, “and I can’t send you to third grade until you show good self-control.”
For a second, maybe two, there is total silence. Then, a giggle, followed by a murmur and an urgent whisper. Something that needed to be said right now, something that couldn’t wait until recess.
Maybe you could concentrate on schoolwork if there weren’t so many things to watch and smell and think about this week, like the commencement music from the sixth-grade graduation down the hall, music that sounds brassy and important, like the Future. Even more distracting is the boy in the back of the class who’s picking his nose. Then there’s Matt, who’s suddenly discovered a talent for reading upside down, which cracks up Cameron, who turns his book upside down, too, and before you know it half the class is reading upside down and laughing, some of them throwing their heads back and cackling like Snoopy.
“Everybody’s doing cartwheels,” says an exasperated Brianna, watching the mounting mutiny among her peers. “Everyone’s all wild. You can’t concentrate on what you’re working on, and Miss Gizzi gets all grumpy.”
Does she ever. When Miss Gizzi smiles at you it feels like your heart might…
Here’s how the story concludes:
“Miss Gizzi,” someone asks, like a thirsty person begging for water, “how many more hours?”
It’s so unfair, the way time slows down when you get close to Christmas or birthdays or camping trips, something Matt has spent a lot of time thinking about.
“When you’re excited about something,” he explains, “it always goes fast. But when you’re bored with something, it goes slow.”
His friend Lara nods, as though Matt is the smartest person in the universe. When he asks her if she understands something, she’s afraid to say no, so she says things like, “No, sort of, mostly.”
Goodbye forever means nothing when you’re 7 or 8. The awesome truth that this moment will never come back, that the last day of second grade will never happen again, means nothing to you now, because there are pools to be swum and video games to be conquered.
On the other hand, with only a few minutes left, a change comes over everyone in the room. Leaving Miss Gizzi and Miss Hoffman doesn’t seem like such a great idea all of a sudden. How can you leave these two women who smile all the time, who teach you things and make themselves such a part of your life that once in a while you slip and call one of them “Mom”?
“She needs to hold all of us before we go,” says Kristy, hugging Miss Hoffman tight.
That’s all Miss Hoffman needs, a desperate grip like that around her waist, before the tears fill her eyes, and when the children see her crying they swarm and throw themselves upon her.
Now, someone looks up and sees that there’s 10 seconds left, and the countdown begins: “Three, two one . . . THIRD GRADE!”
Out the door they go, holding hands with their parents and toting their overstuffed backpacks, and as the door slams shut behind the last one, Miss Hoffman and Miss Gizzi exchange a look, and the tiny classroom they’ve shared since September suddenly feels like the largest, loneliest, quietest place in the whole wide world.
8. Write a pure narrative of a more complex story that might take two or three days to report and write–a piece that has to be reconstructed rather because you didn’t have the luxury of observing it chronologically. This 637-word piece by Lisa Pollak of the Baltimore Sun is a beautiful example. It is a third shorter than J.R.’s yet, as you’ll see, more adventuresome and harder to pull off:
At 7, Nyasha Dixon wanted a room of her own. Sharing a bedroom with her 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister was getting on her nerves. You’d feel the same way if someone popped the head off your Little Mermaid doll, scribbled on your kitten stickers and threw your stuffed dinosaur out the window in a rain shower.
A big sister can only take so much.
Lots of kids draw pictures of houses. Nyasha, the oldest of four, drew houses with initials in the windows, always marking one room as hers. She longed for a place where she could lock the door, hide her toys and talk to her stuffed animals with no one pestering her.
One day earlier this fall, Nyasha went grocery shopping with her mother. The store was holding an Oreo cookie-stacking contest. “Do you want to try?” asked the lady at the Oreo table. While her mother shopped, Nyasha built a chocolate skyscraper so high that when her mother returned, the Oreo lady was raving: “Your daughter did so well!”
They didn’t think much of it. But a few weeks later, a letter arrived, announcing that the Baltimore second-grader was one of 10 finalists in her age group in the National Oreo Stacking Championships. She’d earned a free trip to Florida for the finals and a chance to win a $20,000 savings bond.
Enough money, she figured, for a big house with you know what.
The competition took place last week. The first contestant was another local stacker: 7-year-old Ian Bembenek of Ellicott City. Ian, using the five-at-a-time stacking method recommended by his father, calmly used his allotted 30 seconds to build a structurally sound, 22-Oreo edifice.
One kid after another attempted to better Ian’s score. But after nine contestants, no one had.
The 10th, and final, contestant was Nyasha. “Ready, steady, stack!” yelled the judge.
The 30-second clock started ticking. Nyasha laid a two-Oreo foundation, and built from there, stacking and stacking until the cream-filled tower rose past her chin. Past her mouth. Past her nose. It wobbled and leaned, but she held it steady.
Then, when time was up, Nyasha removed her hands.
The tower collapsed.
Ian Bembenek was declared the National Oreo Stacking Champion and awarded the $20,000 savings bond.
For Nyasha, there was sadness, followed by consolation: A trip to Disney World with her siblings. But four kids under 8 and one parent is no easy trip, and her mother feels sure that were it not for Nyasha’s help — Please, Nyasha, hold the baby; Please, Nyasha, take your brother to the bathroom — someone surely would have been left at the Magic Kingdom.
When she got home, Nyasha had a conversation with her stuffed animals.
“How did you do in the contest?” they asked.
“Fine,” said Nyasha.
“I’m glad,” they said. “How many did you stack?”
“A very big stack, but then it just curved and fell and I only had three Oreos left standing.”
“Well, that’s all right,” said the stuffed animals. “At least you tried your best.”
What made this conversation special wasn’t that the animals answered back; they usually do. It was that it took place in a room in her home that used to be an office. With a little furniture shuffling, the office was easily converted into what her mother had decided in Florida was a much-deserved bedroom for Nyasha.
That, as they say, is the way the cookie crumbles. When she related this tale the other night, Nyasha shut her door, spread every doll she owned on the bed and ate Oreos dipped in milk, just the way she likes them. Out her bedroom window she could see the moon; it was only a sliver. But some day, she knew, it would be as round as you know what.
Note: Lisa’s piece was supposed to be about the winner of the cookie-stacking contest, but the reporter found the runner-up far more interesting and trusted her instincts. And thanks to her editor, Jan Winburn, for reading this story aloud at last year’s National Writers Workshop in Ft. Lauderdale.
9. Write a day-in-the-life piece about an institution that has no news peg and thus challenges your ability to find the humanity in everyday existence. John Glionna once brought a local hardware store to life:
The little man stands there with the shovel from hell, the spade seemingly used to unearth a thousand graves, dig too many ditches–its wobbly handle badly taped, its metal edge jagged, rusted and harelip curled.
He shoots a dead-serious stare at Tom Baumgartner, the floor manager at B & B Hardware, this tough customer with his dirty blond hair, dust caked in the squint cracks around his eyes and a tan that suggests years of hard work under an unforgiving sun.
“I want a new one,” he says with prison curtness, motioning toward the tool. “This one here’s got a lifetime guarantee.”
Baumgartner glances from that weathered face to the hapless shovel and back again. This isn’t just any sorry spade. It’s a Seymour fiberglass-handled special. With a lifetime, last-shovel-you’ll-ever-buy guarantee.
“Give him another one,” he grunts to a manager.
Moments later, holding his new tool over his head as he stomps from the store, the workman is jazzed: “Man,” he says, “I never thought I’d get a new shovel! Woo-hoo!”
Call it just one strange, lightning-fast encounter in the daily tool-selling madness at B & B Hardware, the half-century-old, misshapen little do-it-yourselfer’s haven on the border of West Los Angeles and Culver City.
For its customers, the venerable family owned enterprise with the narrow passages and mad-scientist’s-laboratory cluttered shelves seems a throwback to an earlier era of no-nonsense good service and one-stop, you want it, we’ve got it completeness.
To witness a day in the life of this place, drenched with the scent of strong cologne, is to explore a second home to local contractors, professional fix-it people, weekend repair warriors and confused novices.
B & B welcomes them all with open tattooed arms.
On this Tuesday morning, just like all the others, Baumgartner opens his doors at 8 a.m., rolling out display racks for such hardware essentials as garden tools, work gloves, industrial-size step stools, even ice cube trays–all under an outdoor wall emblazoned with ads for Milwaukee cordless drills, Makita power tools and various drain care products.
Already, 20 customers wait. Fidgety people in suits and dresses running before-work errands stomp their feet in a line near the door, like the postal worker who lost her office keys the night before and now must copy another set before anyone finds out.
There are workers in blue jeans and work shirts leaning against a nearby wall, drinking coffee served from a portable snack truck. And the contractors who begin each day with a pit stop at B & B, now waiting in their pickups, taking sips from steaming cups, doing job calculations in their heads.
“Mornin’ folks,” Baumgartner says, nodding to several people. “Hey there, Ethel. You back again, Bill?”
Herding inside, customers cluster at the help/return desk. A gray-haired woman is first in line, emptying a package of household fuses onto the counter.
“This is the second time I’ve had to bring these back,” she snaps. “What kind of junk are you people selling? They can’t all be defective, can they?”
Clerk Santos Montellano smiles.
In a time of soulless oversized hardware chains and inexperienced, inattentive clerks, B & B’s staff has been around for an eternity–a crusty collection of hardware veterans who bring a lifetime of nuts-and-bolts experience from other hands-on careers such as sushi chefs, sheet metal workers and aircraft mechanics.
Take Montellano. He’s a former policeman who says he was once shot six times in a bus stop run-in with a gang member, a dutiful son who obeyed his father’s deathbed last wish that he abandon his dangerous cop career and go to work at the local hardware store where the old man had been a regular customer…
You get the idea. It’s a story about nothing that is intended to tap into those normal moments that make life what it is. Another segment a bit later in the story begins:
Now the line at the help desk is five customers deep. One man wants a knob for his kitchen stoves. Another seeks an igniter for his portable gas grill. A woman wants to know where the catches for kitchen cabinets are located.
One by one, Baumgartner and Montellano handle them with years of coolly collected knowledge of how things work. Theirs is a world of hundreds of thousands of knickknacks, whatchamacallits and thingamajigs–smoke alarms, picture hangers, tool pouches, drywall sanders, toilet brushes, vacuum bags, spackling paste, extension cords, pipe joints, sprinkler stands, caulking glue, roofing tar, welding masks, sump pumps, water filters, toilets seats, toolboxes, fluorescent lights, Braille signs, spring hinges, solid brass door knobs, bug foggers and more than 200 sizes of nails.
At a back gate, Billy Keen has his hands full assisting three people at once–while training a new employee.
One man is nervous, snappish. He wants help loading his truck with heavy cans of roofing tar. Keen’s eyes dart between two customers, helpless to assist either just yet.
Just three months ago, the 36-year-old Keen was homeless and is now lark-happy just to have work to support his pregnant wife. Moments later he is yucking it up over a joke about an Irish priest with Lawrence Mendoza, a retired contractor who has frequented B & B for 40 years–and not just because the store gives a 20% discount to contractors and other regulars.
Over in plumbing, a female customer asks bearded clerk John Shelton what he’s doing for lunch.
“You helped me out so much the other day,” she says, “I just wanted to say thank you.”
The story was structured with periodic digressions that allowed us to know more about individual employees. Now it includes some material on how the store was founded and the amount of traffic it gets. Then back to the day:
Now it’s midafternoon, amid the noon-to-3 p.m. rush when the tool-selling crush hits hardest.
The parade of customers never stops: men in filthy cowboy boots; mothers standing in the middle of aisles, children tugging at their clothes, reading the back label of some paint can; cold-eyed contractors whose arrogance says they know exactly what they’re looking for; and skinny, nervous men with pleading looks, holding some spare part like it came from another planet.
One man in a green work shirt wanders the aisles aimlessly. “There’s so many things. I don’t know where to start,” he says.
Here’s how the story ends:
But even B & B Hardware has to shut its doors sometime.
At 6:15 p.m., Baumgartner announces that the store will close in 15 minutes. He looks toward the door, on the lookout for that last straggler to arrive two minutes late, breathless and pleading. (“One woman swore she’d have my baby if I let her copy a key.”)
Sure enough, just as the outdoor racks are pulled in and the doors are locked, a woman leaps frantically from her car, running toward the door.
“You can’t be closed,” she tells old Sam Durley, the veteran security guard. “Do you think they’ll let me in? Oh please, they’ve got to let me in.”
They let her in.
10. Use a narrative vehicle to illuminate the human drama that would get lost in conventional journalism. Erin Texeira was confronted with a little-noticed lawsuit won by a college teacher in a discrimination case. As she explored the story, what really interested her was the plaintiff’s expert witness, a professor who had spent decades studying workplace discrimination and was making his first-ever appearance in court. She decided to tell the story from the expert’s point of view by reconstructing the trial. She used a goose-bump moment (see the Dec. 17 posting) to start the story:
Professor David Wellman takes the witness stand.
In his trembling hands are nine green file folders with dozens of Post-its sticking out. He awoke at 5 to review the notes, reminders of things he must tell the jury. He is testifying as an expert for the first time in his life.
Sitting in front of Wellman is Mohamed Osman Elsayed Mukhtar, the plaintiff, who has been hospitalized and sought counseling over the stress of this case. Elsayed is convinced that he was fired from his teaching job at Cal State Hayward because he is black, a Muslim, from Africa.
Elsayed’s case is shaky. There is no direct evidence of discrimination, no leaked document, no overheard insult. Just a strong feeling that something–something–was wrong when the university has ignored the recommendations of several faculty committees and two arbitrators and refused to give him tenure, citing substandard teaching. This is the same professor whom students have twice voted mass communications “teacher of the year.”
Elsayed’s lawyers say Wellman’s testimony is crucial, probably the only way to prove that the seemingly unbiased actions of university officials were discriminatory. He is a white professor who studies modern racism. Not the in-your-face racism of past generations, but the subtle, easily disguised sort.
During the trial, held in September, Wellman, 60, will tell the jury that, after decades of research, he has devised a test to decode hidden institutional discrimination. Each of those nine green file folders is devoted to a specific criterion. Wellman will use them to explain how university officials practiced a veiled–possibly unintended–bias against Elsayed.
His heart knocks around in his chest as he sits between the judge and the jury. He smooths his hair, freshly cut.
After a few minutes answering introductory questions, his mouth goes gummy. He reaches for a pitcher of ice water, only to have it cascade s over his lap, his papers, the witness stand. Jurors snicker and clerks scramble for paper towels.
Great start, Wellman moans to himself. Absolutely great.
And now back up and tell the life struggle of Professor Wellman:
Wellman, a UC Santa Cruz sociologist who lectures on race issues, grew up noticing race in 1940s Detroit, when his parents declined to follow other whites, who left as black families moved in. Eventually he was the only white kid in the neighborhood.
As a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, he studied the civil rights movement and then became part of it. He protested blacks’ exclusion from jobs in Bay Area hotels and car dealerships, and advised lawyers during Huey Newton’s trial, at which the Black Panther was acquitted of killing an Oakland police officer…
…Wellman developed a body of research on decoding white racism and began teaching, enduring loud, relentless objections from many white students. They didn’t believe that their skin color afforded them unspoken, unearned privileges. After a few years, he decided to leave race research behind. It was too hard, too exhausting. He began to specialize in the sociology of working-class America and won a grant to study longshoremen in San Francisco.
A few black professors, including Troy Duster, a race expert at Berkeley, sat him down. Whites such as Wellman, they said, were vital to white studies. Blacks could not change things by themselves. Don’t leave–keep at the race thing, they urged.
This section continues to describe Wellman’s evolution during the civil rights movement. It then tells the story of the plaintiff, Professor Elsayed, and how through a tangled series of events Elsayed came to hire Wellman. Then:
As the trial neared, the defendants’ lawyers objected to Wellman’s testimony, insisting that he was not a scientific expert, that sociology is not a science, just a social science–junk science, as some call it.
Increasingly in the last decade, however, social scientists had won permission to testify. The test: Could they present and make sense of scientific knowledge that the average juror wouldn’t already have? Could a race expert help a jury see discrimination it couldn’t see on its own?
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, known to be liberal, allowed Wellman’s testimony. If the defense could use experts in mass communication and tenure, she said, the plaintiff could have a race expert.
The narrative brings us to the goose-bump moment where we began the story:
On the fifth day of the trial, Wellman takes the stand. Don’t screw up, he tells himself. These are high stakes. This guy’s career’s on the line.
An academic might write a book and, if it doesn’t get published, it’s not the end of the world–you take it to another publisher. You do a lousy job in class or you get a lousy evaluation, you teach another class–you still get paid, and if you have tenure you’re not going to lose your job. This was more dramatic, more immediate…
Prompted by Elsayed’s co-counsel, Darryl Parker, Wellman distills the nine criteria for decoding workplace racism. They do not sound earth-shattering: Is the employer’s decision supported by fact? Does the employer apply its standards consistently among people of different races? Did the employers’ explanation of its decision change when the employee challenged it? No, no, yes, Wellman answers.
Six more criteria follow. In each, Wellman says, the university failed miserably. Take No. 5: “Is there statistical information to support the claim of unfair treatment?” Wellman says that, under President Rees, the university approved 98% of white tenure applicants compared with 69% of blacks.
During one hour and 20 minutes of questions, Judge Wilken repeatedly interrupts Wellman to keep his testimony brief. The professor feels rushed, unable to provide context for the theories he has shaped for so long. He wishes he could tell jurors more about his recent analysis of corporate diversity for the Ford Foundation, which found that most companies talk a lot about diversity but are weak on follow-through…
He’s still nervous and wet from the spilled water. He knows he’s supposed to direct his answers to the jury, but he’s so anxious he barely takes his eyes off co-counsel Parker. He tells a friend later in the day that he thinks his testimony merits about a C-minus. He doesn’t notice that several people on the eight-member jury–one Latino man, three white men and four white women–are leaning forward in their chairs.
After a few grafs in which we see how the jurors were evaluating the testimony, we finally come to their verdict:
During the trial, the administrators had repeatedly cited the campus’ long-standing policy of considering diversity in hiring. They had pointed to the ethnic and religious mix on campus–a place where they said Elsayed blended right in. They said his appearance and background had nothing to do with denying tenure.
With little bickering, the jurors disagreed, awarding Elsayed $500,000 for emotional suffering and $100,000 for lost wages.
They ordered President Rees to personally pay $20,000, Provost Martino to pay $15,000 and Dean Navarro $2,000.
Employment discrimination experts called that kind of slam-dunk ruling in such an iffy case–including the decision to punish university officials directly–extraordinary. The university recently filed for a new trial…
The ending was structured as an epilogue, ending with the expert witness:
Wellman has been contacted by nearly a dozen lawyers who want his help in other cases of discrimination. He has considered stepping back from his race research to provide expert testimony full time. He probably won’t, because research is his first love. But he’s quite sure he’ll be involved in more cases in the future.
He worries that talking about the case will make it appear that a white professor saved a black professor, reinforcing a tired, demeaning story line.
But he doesn’t think this jury would have believed him had he not been white. He thinks–and his black colleagues have told him–the jury probably would have thought a minority professor self-serving if he said such things.
This, he figures, is why he got back into doing race research. To do his part.
“I’m just very pleased to have been able to be . . .”
His voice rises, his hands stab the air, and he chuckles.
“. . . REL-ev-ant!”
As you jump each of these narrative hurdles, or each new combination of them, you’ll push yourself to report more deeply. You’ll become more conscious of saying, “Can I watch?” rather than interviewing after the fact. You’ll force yourself to go back to each source more often, asking him or her to expand on details we normally don’t care about in conventional journalism. You’ll still waste time. You’ll still get frustrated. But you’ll have elevated your mechanical sophistication, which will turn each small defeat into a lesson.