Thursday, October 11, 2018

Part VII: The Way Mike Worked -- And the Way He Didn't Work

I was convinced that I could persuade a Florida newspaper to take me on as a reporter. I had very little to base this on. I was an English major who took some journalism courses. I had a work-study job in University of Florida Information Services where I snapped photos of no-neck linemen, worked in the darkroom, and wrote press releases. I worked for two semesters as a general assignment reporter at the Independent Florida Alligator. I had clips from two free-lance articles I did for national publications.

That seemed sufficient. But I had lots of competition. 1976 was a heyday for newspapers. Two young investigative reporters for the Washington Post had brought down a president (imagine that now). Newspaper unions were strong. Most cities boasted at least two papers, some more. Newsrooms had yet to be invaded by computers. I figured that there was at least one paper that needed an eager and creative writer. My colleagues at the Alligator were getting on with the Miami Herald and Cocoa Today which grew up to be USA Today.

I decided to approach my job application as a fiction writer. In my 30 months at UF, I had completed three creative writing courses, one taught by the brilliant and enigmatic Harry Crews. I had submitted scores of stories and received lots of harsh critiques. I felt that I was ready for the rough-and-tumble world of the daily newspaper. I wrote an application letter in the third person. The normal approach was first person, as in "I am the greatest thing to happen to journalism since Gutenberg's press." Instead, I wrote "Michael Shay is the greatest thing to happen to journalism since Gutenberg's press." I typed the personalized letters on my Smith-Corona portable, using plenty of White-Out. I fired them off and awaited positive results.

I waited and waited. I got some form-letter responses, thanks but no thanks. I might have called some editors but my roommates and I didn't have a phone. Our landlady, Stormy, whose notable forebears had one of Florida's largest counties named after them, had the phone. Her house behind us was in worse shape than ours. Looking at it from the front, it seemed to lean. We kept expecting it to fall. When Bob or Bob or I got a call, Stormy would yell at us from her front door. We tried not to be summoned too often as we were afraid of her dog, Joe, who gave us the evil eye. And that's all he had, one eye, as he'd lost the other one in a fight.

I waited some more. A personal response came. It wasn't good news. The editor of the Pensacola paper had accepted my challenge and responded with a letter in third person. I can't remember the exact wording but it went something like this: "The editor of the Pensacola News Journal was  thrilled to received the job application of Michael Shay. The cover letter was very creative and gets an A for effort. As the editor read, he was not so impressed, as it included at least one factual error, a typo and several run-on sentences that were more Faulkner than Hemingway. The editor has marked-up these errors as we do in the newsroom and hopes that the applicant takes them to heart as he continues his job search. For now, this newspaper will continue looking for an experienced reporter." It was snarky and well done, with no typos or bad grammar. I was embarrassed. I always prided myself on sharp, clean writing. How many of my mistake-ridden job apps were floating around the Sunshine State?

A few weeks later, the editor at the Lake City paper called and offered me a job. I asked if I needed a car as I did not have one. He said that I would need a car and I would be covering the county. I said I would see what I could do. It seemed hopeless. I'd had a car earlier that year, a black Ford station wagon I bought for $150 from my friend Mike, a Vietnam vet who worked as a bouncer at a strip club. Mike and I took visiting writer Nelson Algren to the strip club one night and he seemed to have a pretty good time. I got about $150 worth out of the station wagon and sent it to the scrap heap. My girlfriend had a car but she was a full-time student and also had a job. One of my roommates owned a car but he needed it. I had no money - student loans were gone and I'd finished my work-study jobs. I pondered my situation. Lake City was a small cracker town where nothing significant ever happened. I turned down the job.

About this same time, a one-time law student who looked like an aging frat boy was working his way through the West, from his home state of Washington to Colorado. He raped and murdered women.  He was arrested twice and escaped twice, in both Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In 1978, Ted Bundy came South and cruised north Florida roads in search of victims. In February 1978, he kidnapped, raped and killed a 12-year-old girl in Lake City. The girl's body was found in a pig farrowing shed near Suwanee River State Park, where I had spent many hours swimming, canoeing and hiking. I always thought that I might have covered the Bundy story had I been able to come up with a car and taken the reporting job in that one-horse town. It's gruesome to think about but it could have happened. Bundy had raped and murdered two sorority sisters and beat up two others that January at FSU in Tallahassee where two of my sisters and many of my nieces and nephews attended college. He was caught later in Pensacola, tried and then executed in Florida's Raiford Prison in 1989. Prison guards celebrated with a raucous party and fireworks. He was cremated in Gainesville and his ashes scattered in Washington's Cascade Range.

I might have written the book on Bundy. That would have entailed me looking hard into Bundy to see what caused one man to become a savage. It would have made me a different person, one I might not have liked. As a free-lancer in Denver in 1982, I wrote a story for an alternative weekly about Colorado cold cases. Some were women who had been kidnapped, raped and murdered in the mountains when Bundy was on the prowl. They fit the killer's M-O. I was surprised to learn later that investigators knew about 30 murders by Bundy but suspected him in dozens of others, maybe as many as 100.

It snowed in Gainesville in January 1977 and our pipes froze. In February, I borrowed a car and went on a job search in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg. I stayed with friends along the way. I did not return with a job. The money was gone so I moved from Gainesville back home. I was blue. If Florida had basements, I would have been moping in the basement. As it was, I moped in the spare bedroom. I eventually rallied, got a job with a construction industry magazine, and moved out.

Looking back, I see a creative person trying to get a job. Stories surrounded me but I didn't know that yet.


RobertP said...

MIke, I liked Stormy's tiny house, which was clearly ahead of its time. It had the phone and an air conditioner. Well, an air cooler like you would have in the desert where there is no humidity, but it still worked better than nothing, which is what our house had.

And the house was very useful. She did not bother to lock it up, so when the other Bob put a chameleon in a small terrarium, we were able to feed it by going into Stormy's house when she was not home, turning on the lights and quickly grabbing the roaches as they scurried back to their holes in the walls and floors. Which reminds me of the night I was awakened by loud sounds in the other Bob's bedroom which ended with him sleeping on the couch. He had to abandon his bedroom as he was being attacked by the flying roaches. Revenge no doubt.

Joe the one eyed lab was not as bad as you make him out to be. And remember, when I was looking for roommates, Stormy was out of town and left me with only one edict-no roommates with a dog! She took it reasonably well when I broke the news to her that the new roommates had a dog. But Bart was so much more than just a dog that even Stormy came around. Sort of. Bart, in fact, was such an awesome dog, that even when I took him up to the Cotton's Minimart, and he peed on the front wheel of the really nice motorcycle, while the Biker as on the bike, that as I watched my life flash before my eyes, and apologized profusely, the Biker said no problem.

One other fact about Stormy-in addition to being a descendant of the family for which a certain County was named after, her father was a judge. He ran for Supreme Court of Florida and had the distinction of losing to the first African American to win a state wide election in Florida. Stormy and I were very proud to have cast two of the votes to help make that happen.

Finally, I too was unable to find a job in Florida and moved back home to Chicago (before the pipes froze) and then on to KC. It worked well and would not change a thing. Except that I would have found a way to install air conditioners in our house in Gainesville. Have no idea how I survived without AC.

Enjoying your work article and learning a lot about you. By the way, going through my stuff in my basement (which we do have in the KC area) came across an article on the Halloween Ball written by you. Next time we meet up, perhaps you can autograph it. Sorry for the long comment, never learned the art of brevity. Still have as a prized possession a handwritten rough draft of a paper on which Dr. Duckworth wrote "I almost went blind reading this". But hey, I got an 89 on it.

Ok, must stop, Take care and keep writing


Michael Shay said...


You tell true tales about the legendary house in G-ville. Stormy was one for the books. I would have to make her up if she didn't exist. She was nice in letting Bart stick around, even though he and Joe got into many fights. Stormy's boyfriend tried to intervene in one and was bit, had his fingernail ripped off, I think. The key was getting out the hose and spraying down the dogs, threatening them with drowning if they didn't stop. Joe looked mean but he was OK with humans.

Not sure if I ever got an A in Duckworth's class. He was a tough one; a great teacher.

I've remembered a lot writing about my jobs. I didn't take the direct route to the job I wanted. I guess I never really had the exact job I wanted, but I kept at it anyway, and still do. I give thanks that I'm still around and in possession of most of my faculties. I want to walk again without the help of a walker but that should come with time. Meanwhile, I remember...