Friday, February 20, 2009
Chimps gone wild in tabloid world
Many sober and sensible journalists advised me never to mention the eight years and 1,000 stories I did as an offbeat feature reporter for National Enquirer. They said the toxic connection would forever doom my professional advancement.
I considered what they said, gave it its due then immediately started stapling my greatest hits from those swashbuckling days to the resumes and queries I was sending out in 2000.
The full color clips were of me getting sledge hammered while laying on a bed of nails, gaining 20 pounds in one week on the eat-like-Elvis diet, and spending a day wearing a kilt ala Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” to see if women found it sexy (my disappointment that they didn’t was mitigated by the joy I got out of mooning wise guys who ridiculed me for my skirt).
I figured the unusual package would inoculate me against the kind of stick-in-the-mud editors I’d want to avoid in the first place, and it would ratchet up interest from editors looking for reporters with unconventional backgrounds.
I wanted to prove a guy could emerge from a scandalous tabloid background and eventually succeed writing cerebral essays and prosaic features for prestigious publications.
And, of course, I was right. Those clips led directly to nice long runs with some top magazines that gave me the clips I needed to get some at bats in the big leagues.
But I’ve spent much of the last week feeling nostalgic for those days because of the story that’s dominated the national news all week, and you know I don’t mean the billion-dollar bailouts flying around Washington like so much confetti.
Of course, I’m talking about Travis the chimp that went ape. Or as the tabloid New York Post calls him, “Furious George!!!”
It reminded me of the dozens of stories I did about people making ill-advised decisions involving living with various creatures beyond the realm of what’s commonly considered domesticated.
There was Joe Taft who in 1997 shared his home with 24 tigers and lions -- “Indiana Man Thinks Killer Cats are Grrrreaattt!!!”
He ran an exotic feline rescue center from his rural home. “I’ve had as many as nine big cats in my house at once,” he told me. “The come and go as they please. The big tiger sits in my recliner and watches TV. She likes National Geographic Explorer and Bugs Bunny.”
I remember complimenting him on raising well-rounded maneaters.
There were stories about 24-foot pythons, alligators, giraffes and elephants and the difficulties and messes that went along with sharing your property with animals that usually reside in zoos or jungles.
I don’t remember ever doing a story about a woman sharing a home with a chimp because I’m certain the demanding Enquirer editors would have dismissed it as too routine, although the lover-like relationship between Travis and his nut job owner might have earned a nod on a slow week.
But it’s hard for outsiders to appreciate how sensational a story had to be to earn an assignment.
Case in point: I remember one time seeing a story about an armless woman who cooked, kept house and drove a vehicle with her feet -- all outstanding elements. But the item that caught my eye was that she also worked as a secretary. I turned in the lead that started out, “Armless woman types 50 words a minute -- with her feet!”
I still recall the rush I’d get when I’d see a story as compelling as that one. I thought it couldn’t miss and was crestfallen when the editor told me not to bother. How come, I wanted to know?
“Fifty words a minute? That’s not that much.”
Whenever I teach a class, I always mention my Enquirer experience and stress that aspiring writers should get into writing, not for any perceived glory that comes with writing for high-profile magazines, but for the pure joy of telling a great story.
So now I spend my days sitting around writing scattered essays about things like how to become more patient and compiling a growing stack of terse rejection letters for books that may never be published.
I’m just about where I wanted to be nine years ago when I set my goal to become a respected writer who works for prestigious magazines.
And I watch the news about Furious George and can only come up with one nagging question:
What the hell was I thinking?