“Still Richard” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Five)

After recently absorbing long stories about murder, rape, and child death, I desperately needed a change of pace. So I welcomed the chance to read a profile of 64-year-old Richard Simmons, “Still Richard,” by David Davis for SBNation.com.

Richard SimmonsI was suprised to find out that Simmons was still out there, actively teaching aerobics classes and bringing his manic energy to thousands looking to get fit. Davis takes a look at Simmons today and explores his role in the fitness craze of the 1980s.

The story is one part first-person adventure of a writer trying to keep up with the aging fitness star, and one part reported feature, a thoughtful consideration of Simmons and his legacy.

Davis does a great job here describing Simmons’ big entrance and the feeling the energy in the room:

Suddenly, Richard walks in the room. His day-glo orange tank-top glitters with patterned crystals. The shirt matches his shorts – those trademark striped shorts that always seem a bit, well, short. He wears white tights, white socks and a gleaming pair of white New Balance sneakers. Covering most of his face is a pair of oversized, goofball glasses from the early Elton John collection.

At 64, he is a bit stooped. His kinetic hair, as familiar as Don King’s, is not as full as it once was. His face is no longer youthfully cherubic. But his arms are wiry strong, and his energy level is switched to ON. He personally greets everyone in the room and breaks into song: a rousing chorus of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match!” is followed by “Hello Muddah, Hello, Fadduh.”

He approaches me, a complete stranger, takes my face in his hands and kisses me on both cheeks. He smells of expensive moisturizer. He tells a slouching woman to stand tall: “Head up! String on your nipples!” he says, motioning with his hands as if he were raising her breasts with two drawstrings.

The energy is contagious. The chattering gets louder and more animated. It feels like we’re about to go on a cruise.

The story weaves back and forth between that class and narrative about Simmons’ rise, career, and slow fade into kitschy nostalgia (for most Americans). Davis uses a nice technique of using quotes or blasts of music to signal the transition between the broader story and the present day narrative. He also uses quotes from Simmons’ books and public appearances to flesh out the context of the man.

The end of the story presents a very likable Simmons, still energetic, still connected deeply with his fans, but also a man who seems lonely and increasingly aware of his mortality:

Does being known as the clown prince of fitness diminish what he does? I wondered. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “When the king is upset, he doesn’t call for the chef. He doesn’t call for the wife. He calls for the little man in the pointed hat. I love comedy. I love having a sense of humor. I had to use that as a child not to get beat up every day because I wasn’t Mr. Masculine. That comedy was my sword and my shield. Still is. There is nobody I’m afraid of.”

He starts to cry. “Whether they laugh at me or with me, it doesn’t matter. Let them laugh loud.”

If I have one problem with this story, it’s that Davis hints at some heartbreak and loss in Simmons’ life, but leaves it floating there on the page, unexplored and unexplained. At the end of the piece, Davis dangles this out there:

“I have loved deeply,” he said. “I have lost intensely. I will never love again. I get that love by people who care for me. No, I don’t take them to bed, but I take their friendship with me in my heart.”

Who is he referring to? Is this a recent loss? Someone from a long time ago? It’s a pretty dramatic statement to include in the story without any context. It is unclear whether Davis didn’t ask a follow-up with Simmons, or whether he did and Simmons didn’t answer. The reader is left in the dark.

Despite that, this well-written profile is a fun read. Simmons is hard not to like. He also seems a little more complex than we would know from his appearances on talk shows and late night television.

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“Urban Meyer Will be Home for Dinner” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Three)

Sportswriting is often overlooked as a source of serious journalism, including long form narrative nonfiction. Yet many of my favorite nonfiction writers — Gary Smith, Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger — have focused much of their talents on the world of sports. Wright Thompson’s “Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner,” from the August 6 edition of ESPN the Magazine, is one the better recent profiles I’ve read.

This profile looks at the new coach of the Ohio State football team, starting his new job after struggling with life-threatening stress and burnout at his last job. It’s an honest look at a man who struggling to reconnect with his family and his ambition at the same time. If you’re a sports fan, as I am, a lot of Meyer’s career choices have been mocked and criticized by sports pundits (Meyer quit his job from Florida twice before retiring and unretiring to go to Ohio State); few really had any sense of what was going on with him or what was driving his decisions. This story reveals a lot about about the personal crises Meyer faced.

Urban Meyer

Photo by Jamie Sabau for ESPN The Magazine

One thing I admire about this piece is that it is a very traditional feature story; no complex structure, no deception, no literary trickery. The narrative is almost the textbook curve of a “hero’s journey.” Aside from the opening scene, it is mostly a straightforward chronological story, giving us Meyer’s history leading up to today and the conflicts in his life. Thompson offers this direct “nut graf” in the ninth paragraph:

In front of him is a second chance. Behind, there’s his old dream job in Florida, which he quit twice in a year, and the $20 million he left on the table, unable to answer the simplest of questions: Why am I doing this? During the break, he studied himself for the first time in his life, looking for a new him or maybe trying to get the old him back — the person he was before a need for perfection nearly killed him.

And Thompson employs the strongest tool for a nonfiction writer: scenes. The story if packed with little moments from Meyer’s life, flashes of emotion and experience that take the reader inside his private life. Here’s one amazing paragraph from the story, rich with detail and scenes that say so much about the young Urban Meyer and his struggles:

He discovered more than a calling in college. He met a beautiful woman named Shelley, and after he got his first job in Columbus, she moved to town. Once, a possum peeked its head over the television, and Urban and his roommates screamed and stood on the couch, yelling for Shelley, the Ohio farm girl, to do something. Urban made less than his rent. He lived on happy hour egg rolls. Staying up all night during the season, he cut 16 millimeter tape, nursing a six-pack of beer through the tedious job. He loved it. To make ends meet, he picked up shifts at Consolidated Freightways, driving a forklift. Shelley calls it his “Archie Bunker job.” He bought steel-toe boots, and three or so nights a week during the offseason, he pulled the graveyard, getting off at 6 a.m., showering and heading to the football office. At the warehouse, they got a breather about 2 a.m., those callow faces yellowed in break-room light, eating peanut butter sandwiches, maybe a bag of chips. He looked around and saw the same question on every face, one he knew they could see on his: Why am I doing this?

That paragraph is only 196 words, but consider the research and interviewing that led to it. It describes five scenes from nearly 30 years ago, and Thompson dug up details like what he ate, what he wore, and what he was thinking at the middle of the night. This little paragraph is a short story. It’s a narrative inside the narrative, beautifully written.

The close of the story is ambiguous, which isn’t surprising, because the football season is about to start, and nobody knows how this will all turn out. The story ends at a new beginning for Meyer. The future is murky and unknown, something we see in the final image from the story:

Standing before his players in the meeting room, he can smell it, hear it — feel it even, in places he doesn’t understand and can’t control. Nobody makes a sound. Meyer’s shirt is wrinkled, untucked a bit. Thick veins rise on both sides of his neck. He squints out at the team, his eyes dark, hiding everything and nothing at all.

It’s an ominous final scene. Most readers, by this time, will feel sympathetic to Meyer, hoping for him to succeed without letting his career consume his life and health, but Thompson doesn’t try to sugarcoat it: Meyer is back at work, fired up with intensity and passion, and it’s unclear if it may unravel him and his family again.

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The Art of Writing the Tough Profile

Shigeru MiyamotoGay Talese’s famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is a legendary profile for many reasons, perhaps most notably because the iconic singer wouldn’t talk to him directly. Talese nonetheless delivered an incredible profile of Sinatra, without the benefit of a direct interview.

I thought briefly of Talese’s story when I read Nick Paumgarten’s excellent New Yorker profile of Ninendo creative genius Shigeru Miyamoto. What is clear from the story is that Paumgarten actually had very little opportunity to spend time with the elusive Miyamoto. The only scene in which he directly interacts with his subject is in a Nintendo corporate conference room, through the use of a translator.

And yet, Paumgarten still manages to make the most of that limited access. Here’s a snippet of his really effective use of observation, description, and vivid detail:

Miyamoto, dressed in a striped button-down shirt and black pants, regarded me with a wide smile. Up close, I could see that he had freckles and a few gray hairs. His upper lip sticks out a bit, like that of a character in a Matt Groening comic strip. He was carrying a beat-up and bulging old leather diary with a painted, hand-tooled relief of a horse on its cover. A friend had made it for him. It was where he jotted down thoughts and ideas. He said he was very busy: there was a deadline looming for the release of a new handheld device with a 3-D display that requires no 3-D glasses. Also, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Super Mario, and he was judging a competition in which thousands of players had used a Nintendo program to make and submit their own Mario animations. Miyamoto himself was to narrow these down to fifty finalists.

As Minagawa translated each of my questions, Miyamoto often buried his face in his hands or rubbed his eyes and frowned, as though Minagawa had misheard me and, instead of asking Miyamoto to parse the differences between entertainment and play, was telling him he’d gone broke. But it became clear, once he began talking, animatedly, with extravagant hand gestures and giggles of delight, that the apparent anguish was merely an expression of deep thought, a counterpoint to his ebullience in answering.

Paumgarten makes the most of a very constrained, limited interview. The doesn’t just get Miyamoto’s quotes, but we see him, hear him, and get a sense of his personality. He might be sitting in a boring conference room, but that doesn’t stop Paumgarten from still creating a vivid sense of his subject.

It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have ideal settings or opportunities to interview subjects, but that’s no excuse for doing a bad job telling the story.

The Business of Hating the Trash

Author’s Note: This story was written in 2007 for a Nonfiction Techniques class. It hasn’t been submitted for publication. When I first when to the city dump, I got kicked out for walking around, taking notes, and trying to talk to people. I had to go back and make a formal request with the city to do some interviews. When I finally got that sorted out, I was lucky enough to to meet James and John, two men who I think made for an interesting profile.

Five miles northeast of the Washington Monument, the National Mall, and the U.S. Capitol, a narrow, garbage-strewn road leads to a place that resembles the end of the world. It looks like the aftermath of a tornado, a hurricane, or a Godzilla attack. On an open dirt field behind a barbed-wire gate, dozens of crushed refrigerators, some still adorned with magnetic calendars and pizza delivery numbers, lay stacked on top of each other like dominoes. Black birds hover over a mound of demolished bookcases, smashed cabinets, broken office chairs, and metal desks with dented, mangled legs. This debris sits in the shadow of a twenty foot pile of cracked bed frames, unhinged doors, stained couches, shattered television sets, collapsed wheelchairs, splintered coffee tables, and crooked, rusty bicycles. And within a few days, everything here — these heaps of once-valued relics from homes, offices, backyards, and bedrooms — will be gone, shipped off to be buried or incinerated. But in their place, new mountains of garbage will rise up and fill this landscape again.

The Fort Totten Waste Transfer Station, hidden half a mile behind Catholic University, serves as a central hub for solid waste in Washington. Garbage trucks haul 1,500 tons of trash in and out of here every day. Residents also come here to drop off bulky, oversized junk. Dozens of city workers man the trucks, scales, grapples, and loaders that keep the endless flow of trash moving out of the city. If the Capitol and the White House are the heart of Washington D.C., then Fort Totten Station is its stomach. And the people who work here — who see every day what Washington consumes, uses up, and throws away — may know the city better than anyone else.

Few people have seen more garbage in a lifetime than James Riggans, a 65-year-old operation foreman who has worked here for 41 years. It’s hard to tell if James is short, or just stoops a bit. Brown-tinted glasses partially hide his eyes. His face is lined with age, roughened with stubble and a salt and pepper mustache. He wears two things that declare his loyalties: a burgundy Redskins baseball cap and a blue D.C. Government sweater.

In 1966, James got his first job with the city, “throwing trash” as a sanitation worker, before being assigned to Fort Totten. “Back then, you had to have muscles,” James says. Looking out his office window at sanitation workers one-third his age, he shakes his head. Workers today, he points out, use trucks with mechanized lifts that do most of the heavy work. “They’d never make it back in those days,” he says.

James worked here in the 1960s, when the place was just a massive incinerator. He endured long, sweaty days, throwing garbage into blazing furnaces, breathing in smoke and ash. Many old friends and co-workers, perhaps not coincidently, have already passed away.

In his five decades at Fort Totten, James has seen people throw away almost everything. He’s watched people abandon boats, broken-down cars, and mobile homes. In a city where one in five people live in poverty, Washingtonians routinely discard perfectly functional computers, printers, kitchen appliances, fans, heaters, exercise machines, televisions, and bicycles. Department stores used to dump truckloads of overstocked bedding, power tools, and appliances here to clear warehouse space.

James was here the night three inmates from Lorton Prison were dropped off among with the trash. They escaped the jail and climbed into a garbage truck stopped at the adjacent waste facility. But their getaway was short-lived. The truck left Lorton and came to Fort Totten, only to dump them into a trash pit, along with a truckload of garbage collected along the way. Workers noticed the fugitives in their orange jumpsuits, screaming for help as they struggled to climb out of the pit. D.C. Police arrived minutes later to help them out.     

John Carter, 43, the other operation foreman at the station, stands at the entrance of a storage bay — known as the “tipping floor” — joking with a few of his workers before sending them off to load their trucks. His job is to make sure everything passes through the station smoothly. Having worked here since 1984, there are few problems he hasn’t already seen.

The tipping floor is longer than a football field and looks like an airplane hangar. Massive yellow Caterpillar loaders, industrial machines straight out of a science fiction movie, rumble slowly across the floor of the bay past two stories of cardboard, paper, and collapsed boxes, a thirty-foot high pile of assorted bagged trash and loose garbage, and a massive stack of metal furniture, bed frames, and construction materials.

To John, getting rid of these towers of trash is a day’s work. At 4 a.m. every morning, trucks arrive and drop off tons of new garbage from around the city. “The challenge for me,” he says, “is to get rid of it”

John, once a running back for the Cardozo High football team, looks more like a lineman now, tall and heavy, with thick arms from years of physical labor. He wears a black skull cap, an inside-out black sweatshirt, dark jeans, two small silver hoop earrings, and a huge skull ring on his left hand, where he used to wear wedding rings from two failed marriages. His round, boyish face would make him look younger than he is, if not for the mustache and chin-beard, peppered with gray hairs.

In 1972, environmental regulations mandated that the station stop incinerating garbage and be re-tooled to serve as a transfer station. Until the station was fully rebuilt to better handle the storage, loading, and processing of trash, it wasn’t very efficient, smelled terrible, and sent foul odors into surrounding neighborhoods. Scattered garbage attracted unwelcome insects and animals. “We used to have seagulls as big as pit bulls around here,” John says.

John often gives a speech to his staff, especially the new employees, a pep talk where he hammers home the idea that their job is adversarial — it’s them against the garbage. “I tell the guys: ‘you’ve got to hate the trash!’” Trash is the enemy. If it isn’t gone by the end of the day, trash wins.

There’s no small irony that the man who gives speeches about hating trash has inherited it as a family business. As a boy, John often came here with his father, who worked at Fort Totten for thirty years. His mom used to warn him that if he wasn’t careful he was going to wind up at the dump like his father. She was right.

But John seems content with this fate. He doesn’t envy friends who hate their jobs, who toil away bored at keyboards all day. “This job,” he says, “you see where you make a difference. You see point A to point B. I know people that talk about their work, and they just feel like they’re going to a job every day, just to do time. I don’t feel like that. It’s always something different.”

In the corner of the office John and James share — a small gray room with phony wood paneling, cold fluorescent lights, and two metal desks littered with papers — several bright, abstract paintings lean against the wall. The canvases, salvaged pieces of wood cabinets and doors from entertainment centers, explode with splattered bursts of crimson, gold, and lime paint. They look like something a young Jackson Pollock might have done. John creates these paintings when work is slow. He calls them “recycled art.” Sometimes, when there are a few moments to spare from the business of getting rid of everything, it feels good to create something worth keeping.

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The Crab Seller

Author’s note: I wrote this for a class assignment in fall 2007. At first I tried to interview the guys in the “fish cleaning” shack, but they refused to talk to unless I paid them something. I still think I missed out on the best characters at the D.C. Fish Market. Still, I soon after met Donny Pham, who turned out to be a pretty interesting guy. A few weeks ago, I was down at the fish market with my wife and baby and we saw him, still there, still working hard, still trying to snag a few more customers…

Wisps of silvery steam rise up from below hundreds of orange-shelled Maryland crabs piled in front of Donny Pham. Standing next to his co-workers, two middle-aged men with deep wrinkles and tobacco-roughened voices, soft-spoken 36-year-old Pham, clean shaven except for a thin mustache and goatee, could pass for a crab-selling intern. That’s not far off, actually, as he’s only worked at Jessie Taylor Seafood for six months, a blink of an eye compared to some of his co-workers who have spent decades here, steaming, seasoning and selling hundreds of thousands of local blue crabs. Donny, wearing a black Yankees cap over a jumble of medium-length black hair, a frayed beige sweatshirt, and yellow gloves, fills a sack with a dozen crabs and hands it to a college-aged woman in a Redskins jersey. As she walks off, Donny rests his elbows on the counter and sighs. It is one of his first sales of the day, and just the start of a long weekend.

October is always slow at the D.C. Fish Market, but rain has been falling on Washington almost non-stop since Tuesday, so business is unusually light. The market consists of a square of asphalt the size of a baseball diamond, surrounded on three sides by massive floating barges that rise and sink with the tide. Right now, the tide is high, and fish mongers and crab sellers alike serve customers at eye level. The barges face the dock with overloaded storefronts that showcase huge bins of fresh seafood: live, wriggling crabs, tidy lines of tilapia, cod, and salmon fillets stacked on top of crushed ice, and massive piles of translucent pink shrimp, oysters, clams, prawns, and squid. On this murky, wet Saturday morning, only a few scattered customers, bundled in overcoats and clutching umbrellas, roam around the storefronts. Despite the weather, the market is ready for business.

“How you doin’, buddy?” Donny shouts, with a thick southern accent, trying to get the attention of an old man shuffling by. “Got crab sale here! Some shrimp? Hot soup!”

The man eyes Donny for a split-second, glaring at him as if he were a potential mugger, jams his hands deep into his coat pockets, and keeps walking. Donny isn’t offended — he’s used to being ignored. It’s part of the business. Some customers are friendly, he says, but others show up certain they are being hustled. “Some people just come up here irate,” he says with a shrug. “In their mind, you’re just trying to screw them over.”

Donny doesn’t have time to ponder the hostility from some customers, because a young Hispanic couple, huddled under an umbrella, walks by the storefront.

“How y’all doin’?! Crabs here! Hot soup!”

They look at him blankly, so Donny adjusts his pitch.

“Hola, Amigos, Hola! Camarones! Sopa Sopa!”

Despite Donny’s energetic attempt at bilingual salesmanship, the couple keeps on walking.

Donny works 14-hour days at the fish market every weekend. Rather than make the four-hour drive back to his home in Accomack County, Virginia, to be with his wife and kids, he stays on the boat overnight. And while some might not envy working elbow- and knee-deep in seafood all day, then sleeping on a barge that sways and bobs with the changing currents of the Potomac River, Donny counts his blessings. He has lived through far worse.

When he was two, Donny and his mother were among millions who fled Vietnam at the end of the war. His recollections are murky, but he remembers fragments. They sat on a beach for nearly a week, waiting for rescue boats to come. The boats arrived and they were squeezed on board with other scared, hungry, desperate refugees. Soon after the overcrowded boats motored out to sea, he says, the ships came under attack. He remembers chaos, mayhem, and screams.

“They started bombing, shooting people like crazy,” Donny says. “We were the only boat that made it out of there. Two of them got blown up.”

Damaged during the attack, overloaded with refugees, and ill-equipped for the journey, the boat took a month to sputter north to Korea. Many of Donny’s fellow refugees didn’t survive the trip.

“We were out of food. They were just throwing bodies overboard,” he says. “You remember stuff like that… you can’t help but remember something like that.”

Donny and his mother moved to America as migrant workers, settled in Virginia, and became naturalized citizens. He trained and found work as a heating and cooling technician. He married “a typical Eastern shore American woman,” had three children, and eventually moved into a house built by Habitat for Humanity. For Donny, everything seemed to be falling into place, until last spring, when he was laid off.

Donny and a friend, who had also been laid off, drove up to Washington, looking for work at the fish market. The uncle of Donny’s wife has sold seafood at the market for nearly 25 years and encouraged them to come up. Donny’s friend took one look around — overwhelmed by the noise, the shouting, the haggling over prices, the wafting stench of crab and fish and shrimp — and bolted back to Virginia. But where his friend saw long hours, sore knees, and headaches, Donny saw opportunity. He stayed.

Donny was terrible on his first day — he bungled orders, didn’t understand what people wanted, and had a hard time handling cash exchanges. “I didn’t know nothing from nothing.,” Donny said, laughing. “I didn’t know nothing about seafood. But I tried.”

After more than a decade spending his days working with pipes, furnaces, and thermostats, crawling under buildings and into heating ducts, it took a while for Donny to learn the tools of “a people business” — talking to customers, engaging them, and making sales. It isn’t a perfect job, he says, but it’s steady cash, something to pay bills while he tries to build his own business as an independent heating and cooling contractor.

Donny hasn’t told his children much about what he went through before coming to America. He’s relieved that they have the safe, stable childhood he missed. He shares with them a little about Vietnamese culture, but encourages them to think of themselves as Americans. “I tell them, be proud of your heritage, but you’ve got American heritage, too. Be proud of that.”

It seems he has given himself the same advice. Donny Donny’s life embodies the classic American story: an immigrant who works hard to build a life, a family, and a better future. It’s not always easy, or fast, or glamorous, but in his case, he works towards that dream, one crab at a time.

Donny notices a short, middle-aged woman in a zipped up puffy red jacket, standing about ten feet away and squinting at the steaming mound of crabs in front of him.

“How you doin’, miss? Help you today? We got a crab sale going on today!”

The woman scowls at him. Donny pretends not to notice.

“Give you a good deal… Two and a half for fifteen dollars?”

She turns and walks the opposite direction, but Donny doesn’t give up. He calls out to her, one more time, even though the sale appears hopeless.

“Well, what are you looking for, miss? I can help you out! Got a full barge here!”

Donny shakes his head and smiles. He doesn’t mind a challenge.

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