Remembering the Ship of Fools
I have been at this thing a long time. I’m talking about column writing, a game I’ve been playing for more years than I care to count — though if I actually sit down and tally it up, the number comes to about 20.
Twenty years. Crazy. I have been filling this here space at the back of YES! Weekly since January 2005, more than 350 weekly dispatches of Crashing the Gate. Taken by itself, it is an accomplishment of which I am proud. But my career goes back even further than that.
Some Triad locals may remember that I wrote a weekly column for the News & Record’s GoTriad that focused on bars and nightlife, an assemblage of bullet points that explored things like décor, drink specialties and something my editors called “pickup potential,” about which, as a happily married man, I could only speculate.
Before that I held a similar post at GoTriad’s precursor, Triad Style, though the column, which we named “Man About Town,” had more of a linear feel to it.
Before that, I worked for a monthly glossy magazine based here in Greensboro called In the Spotlight — I was young, and I needed the money. While working there I was still waiting tables, and I created a column about the travails of the service industry called “In the Weeds,” which is restaurant slang for someone who has four tables running and just got double-sat. Once I wrote a whole column about people who ask for too much bread. I still get comments from some of the service-industry old-timers about that one.
But way before that, before any of you even knew me — unless you were a student at Loyola University in New Orleans in the early ’90s — I wrote a twice-monthly column for my college paper, the Loyola Maroon, called “Ship of Fools,” an homage to my taste for the music of the Grateful Dead, and also because I was something of a fool back then, even more so than I am now.
My column wasn’t about the Dead. In fact, it was quite a bit like this one: stories, ideas, my thoughts about life and the ridiculous situations into which I sometimes get myself.
I’ve recently become reacquainted with these early works courtesy of a heads-up by an old friend, former running partner and Loyola philosophy professor John Howard, who alerted me to the LOUISiana Digital Library, an online archive where my old columns live on in perpetuity.
I wrote these things before the internet was even a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, and though I know I have some clips in a box somewhere in the back of my closet, I never thought I’d see them again, let alone that they’d be part of the eternal digital record.
Any writer will tell you that it can be painful to look at old work, and after spending an hour or so reading my old columns I think my scowls have created a few new wrinkles on my face. I started each column with a song lyric, which I thought was just groundbreaking. My prose style I cribbed straight from comic books and pulp novels. The belabored metaphors. The vague allusions to my marijuana habit. The frequent references to “The Brady Bunch.” Lamentations on my inability to get laid. And there was this… thing I used to do with italics and ellipsis… that I thought added emphasis and movement to my writing but which was actually just… confusing.
One column, from October 1992, is a direct rip-off of James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I had recently read for the first time. And it is indicative of my relative inexperience that I actually mentioned the story in my column. Amateurs borrow. Pros steal outright.
I pinched one of them directly from Jim Brady’s subway column in the city edition of New York Newsday using the St. Charles streetcar line as my vehicle. I managed to get off a few good lines in that one, but the overall effort was disjointed and indulgent.
Another was based on a poem I wrote on cocktail napkins while I was working behind the bar I tended to pay my way through college. Called “Booty Queens,” it was juvenile, misogynistic, rambling… and the rhyme scheme was all off.
Even the best of the lot — a screed about a poor black man that I watched stroll down fraternity row on Broadway in Uptown New Orleans — has serious flaws. It’s the work of an immature man, vaguely racist, awkwardly phrased, lacking cohesion and a clear point.
I still remember writing it on one of those old Macintosh computers with a 40-ounce Budweiser at my elbow and an unending series of cigarettes smoldering in the ashtray beside me, my ambition burning too as I typed away, the deep sense of satisfaction that came over me when I was done with the first draft.
I wish I could dash off an e-mail to that kid sitting at the boxy computer, with the bare feet and the shag of long hair — who, by the way, wouldn’t even hear about e-mail until almost five years later.
“Keep at it,” I’d say to him. “You’ll get better. And knock off that crap with the italics. It’s not working.”