My Tennessean journey (aka: There’s hope for us all)

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What with my Nicki Pendleton post, then the tragic passing of Chantay Steptoe-Buford, I’ve been blogging quite a bit about my comically bad Tennessean days. Even though I only worked at the newspaper for slightly less than 2 1/2 years (June 1994 through October 1996), I’m loaded with humiliation from the time period. Here are some beauts …

1. Catherine Mayhew, the features editor, assigned me a piece on a local chef who cooked weird and exotic meats—elk, snake, possum, etc. In the course of our interview, for a reason I’ll never understand, I casually asked the man whether he’d ever cooked human flesh. A few days later Catherine called me into her office and said, “Did you ask someone whether they cooked human flesh?”

2. An editor named Ted Power assigned me to cover a prostitution sting run by the Nashville Police Department. I was an amazing experience—I hid in a cheap motel room bathroom with a handful of cops, then jumped out when a customer arrived with the undercover officer/hooker. When I handed in the story, Ted couldn’t stop laughing. And laughing. And laughing. My lede: “All John Smith wanted was a blow job.”

Oddly, it never made print.

3. In 1995, I was working in The Tennessean features department. I was very close friends with Sheila Jones, our receptionist/office manager. Well, one night I was working late and Sheila had left her computer on. We used to talk shit all the time, so I went on Sheila’s computer and typed EAT SHIT! (or something along those lines) as an IM, and had her send it to herself. The next morning I arrived at work to find everyone in a panic. Turns out Sheila was worried someone was stalking her—especially after she had received a threatening message. Security was called, etc. When I confessed to Sheila, I was sickened. “Do we have to tell Catherine?” I said. We did. Wasn’t pretty.

4. Wrote a feature on a local rock band named Dreaming In English. Huge Sunday piece about a group trying to make it. Lead singer was a charismatic singer named Tyrone Banks. Throughout the entire piece, I IDed him as “Tyrone Brooks.”

5. Maybe my best. Was on the cops beat (as punishment for sloppiness); sent out to the scene of a murder. I arrived at the apartment. Was police tape over the door, absolutely nobody around. I touched the handle, and the door was unlocked. So I called The Tennessean office, where a veteran reporter named Dwight Lewis answered. “Dwight, I’m at the scene, and the apartment is open. Can I open the door and take some notes on the scene?” Dwight told me to wait, and he’d call me back in five minutes. Well, I waited and waited and waited, and finally grew impatient. So I opened the door: Bullet holes in the wall, blood splattered across the couch. I never entered, but I took notes. I close the door to leave, the phone rings. “Jeff,” Dwight says, “whatever you do, don’t open the door. Do not!”

Boy, did I ever get a tongue lashing for that one …

6. Wrote a column for the paper on how private religious schools shouldn’t allow prayers before sporting events. This sorta speaks for itself. The local alt-weekly, The Nashville Scene, called me The Tennessean’s “enfant terrible.” They were right.

3 thoughts on “My Tennessean journey (aka: There’s hope for us all)”

  1. Possibly a false memory, but I have to admit I have been dining out on your blowjob-lede story for more than a decade.

    I remember it as an election night when I was editing stories at the city desk for overtime pay (such quaint times were these) and you had just been busted to night cops for asking the Friths (now of Bread & Co., a popular haunt of the local elite) whether they had cooked a lion lately. They were friends with my socialite friend Emme Baxter, the biz editor, and great was the umbrage.

    I think your blowjob lede was a moment of genius, accidental or otherwise, bestowed upon a news org that nobody can blame for being unreceptive at that moment. In our brave new world of media fragmentation today, I don’t doubt that your lede would see the light of day on one “platform” or another.

    As it was, my job (and Ted’s) was to produce a fellatio-free family newspaper. But I recall feeling some regret that we could not come right out and say what you wanted to say.

    My clearest recollection is that when I told my sometime mentor Jim Leeson about the whole affair, he really wanted to meet you. Jim is 78 now and as cantankerous as ever. If you and yours pass thru again at some point, Nicki and I would love to rope ya into a crew with him for BBQ or catfish in the country hereabouts.

    All best,
    Tom

  2. lest you think yourself too original, the story is that david kennedy did something similar to your number 2 on his tennessean sojourn. his first story was on the 13-year cicadas. a major brood had hatched and was making that awful racket to attract the females. david’s lede: “If you hadn’t had sex for 13 years, you’d be noisy too.” or something like that… a lede that never made it into print either.

  3. thanks for taking me down memory lane.

    in your defense, i have to give you credit for the peyton manning feature section. throughout all of your freshman bumbles at the tennessean, you did manage to write some decent material. i have to think i was the only one who thought some of your word choices were good. if not good, always entertaining.

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