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Matthew Kassel

Alternative Reality: ‘California Divided’

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I thought that it was a good couple of weeks for alt weeklies as I surveyed recent stories published in alternative papers around the United States for the second installment in this regular reading list.

In Portland, the Willamette Week covered the city’s embattled mayor, Ted Wheeler. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, filed a charming profile of a blind pharmacist named Charles A. Champion. Christina Sturdivant Sani looked at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C. for the Washington City Paper. In Phoenix, a New Times reporter zeroed in on the questionable practices of Arizona’s former parks director.

Back East, DigBoston took aim at Massachusetts’ state gun purchasing agreements. All About Beer, the country’s oldest beer mag, was eulogized in Durham’s Indy Week. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, wrote an intense personal essay on his brother’s suicide. And the Chico News & Review published an amusing and informative dispatch on the Jefferson separatist movement in Northern California.

It goes without saying that I came across more good writing than I could include in this modest list. But I hope this mix of profiles, investigations, and personal musings will keep you busy until next time.

1. “Portland’s Mayor Is Struggling on the Job. And It’s About to Get Harder.” (Rachel Monahan, December 5, Willamette Week)

The Willamette Week, Portland’s best alternative newspaper, gives readers a long, detailed status report on the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, whose term began at the beginning of last year. Reporter Rachel Monahan portrays an ineffectual leader who is losing the faith of his allies after failing to deliver on a number of campaign promises, such as providing a shelter bed for every homeless Portlander.

No man is an island, but Ted Wheeler looks marooned. Next month will mark his second anniversary in one of the highest-profile jobs in Oregon politics—and Wheeler is struggling in a remarkably public manner.

No one doubts his intelligence or his integrity. But nearly all of the two dozen people WW spoke to about Wheeler say those qualities are not enough. They describe a mayor unable to move the city forward on challenges large and small. He’s disappointed the left and the right, while frustrating the institutional players who want to see Portland’s achievements measure up to its potential.

Wheeler seems unable to take control.

2. “Dr. Charles Champion, a Memphis Institution for 50 Years” (Maya Smith, November 29, Memphis Flyer)

Charles A. Champion is the blind proprietor of Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, TN. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, has written a lovely profile of this 88-year-old pharmacist, who now spends most of his time greeting customers at the front of the store.

Opaque lenses hide eyes that, for the last four years, have been able to make out only faint light. The man in the glasses, wearing a white coat embroidered with “Dr. Charles A. Champion,” sits in a green chair in Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Champion is 88 years old, but still has his wits about him and shows up to work every day.

His wife of 60 years, Carolyn Champion, is sitting to his right. His cane, a stack of newspapers, and a plastic bucket of peppermints are on his left. Trusting his ears and gentle nudges from his wife, he gives one of each to everyone who walks by. Champion is the owner of the South Memphis pharmacy and has been there every day (Tuesday through Saturday) since 1991.

There are many fine details in this piece. But I liked this one in particular, a saucy quote from Champion, who has several strong opinions on medicine: “I turn down more people than I serve,” he says. “Just because you want a certain drug, it doesn’t mean you need it. I have to be the one to look out for people. I won’t give someone medicine just so they can continue living unhealthy.”

3. “California Divided” (Stephen Magagnini, November 29, Chico News & Review)

California’s Jefferson separatist movement has always served journalists well. In 1942, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle named Stanton Delaplane won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the “gun-toting citizens” who wanted to secede from the Golden State. In the Chico News & Review, Stephen Magagnini takes stock of the movement as it exists today in Northern California, which he describes as an “unlikely assortment of survivalists and hippies, pot growers and hardline cops, real estate appraisers and loggers, fencing instructors and gun lovers, Latinos and anti-immigrants.” Jefferson’s leader is Mark Baird, a rugged Trump supporter and something of a libertarian cowboy.

The movement has long been popular with a segment of rural far-Northern California, but Baird, 65, a strapping reincarnation of John Wayne, started breathing new life into Jefferson five years ago. The 6-foot-4-inch fire tanker pilot, rancher and Siskiyou County reserve deputy sheriff cuts an impressive figure. He sports a black belt holster, but instead of a sidearm, packs his weapon of choice, a copy of the Constitution.

Though it seems unlikely that the Jeffersonians will get their way, it would be foolish to dismiss the movement outright, given that Trump’s victory was a surprise to such a large swath of the American population.

4. “The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local D.C. News” (Christina Sturdivant Sani, November 29, Washington City Paper)

Christina Sturdivant Sani, the Washington correspondent for The Commercial Observer and an urban journalism fellow at Greater Greater Washington, takes a look at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C.’s media scene.

As a black journalist and native Washingtonian, I am equally proud to report local news and frustrated by my industry.

Beyond local black media, such as the Washington Afro American and the Washington Informer, there’s an underrepresentation of black journalists at print and digital outlets that cover D.C news.

In a city comprised of 47 percent black residents—the largest racial demographic in the city—it pains me that “mainstream” publications are majority white, most of them by a significant margin. It’s also telling that after writing for a dozen local news outlets, I’ve only had black editors at the Afro.

To its credit, City Paper gives Sturdivant Sani the space to take a look at its own track record with diversity. “Many editorial staffs around town, including Washington City Paper,” Sturdivant Sani writes, “could use a heavy dose of melanin — to document D.C.’s historically black culture and preserve the wellness of its black journalists.”

5. “Parks and Wreckage: Meet the Archaeologist Who Brought Down Parks Boss Sue Black” (Steven Hsieh, November 29, Phoenix New Times)

Steven Hsieh, a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, digs deep into an Arizonan archeological scandal. The protagonist of his story is Will Russell, who, while serving as a compliance officer for Arizona State Parks, blew the whistle on Sue Black, the department’s director who, with her deputy director, James Keegan, approached development “with more regard for awards and political ambition than archaeological sites,” Hsieh writes.

During Russell’s year and a half at Parks, he grew angry over practices he viewed as flagrant violations of state law.

Not long after he was hired, it became clear to him that Black and her allies, especially Keegan, did not value his role as a compliance officer. Parks leaders pressured Russell to treat antiquities sites not as cultural resources in need of protection, but as obstacles to development.

Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show Arizona Parks built gardens, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and cabins on several archaeological sites without following procedures intended to protect Arizona’s cultural resources.

6. “Fire Sale” (Chris Faraone and Curtis Waltman, September 27, DigBoston)

DigBoston, the cleverly named alt weekly, is currently knee-deep in an investigation into Massachusetts’ opaque state gun purchasing agreements, in collaboration with the Emerson College Engagement Lab and Muckrock, the non-profit news site.

Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.

The second installment in the series was published in late November, and the next part, on tasers, will come out in January, according to Chris Faraone, who co-wrote the story and serves as DigBoston’s news and features editor.

7. “Saying Goodbye” (Anthony Mariani, November 15, Fort Worth Weekly)

A recent cover story for Fort Worth’s alternative newspaper — which, every week, publishes breaking news and cultural criticism along with a longform piece that usually tops out around 5,000 words — gets quite personal. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, writes about his brother Adam’s suicide, and the essay is sad, manic, and occasionally uplifting.

Everyone keeps telling me not to blame myself, that there was nothing I could have said or done to have changed a thing. But why? Why can’t I blame myself if that’s going to make me a better person, a better son to my mother and a better brother to my sister and other brother? And, perhaps most importantly of all, a better husband to my wife and father to my son? I was a lazy brother to Adam. There is no doubt about that. That is a fact. I could have called him more often. I texted him a bunch but rarely ever called. And I knew. I knew he was not doing well. Our mom exploded a couple of years ago when I chose to spend my vacation with my friends instead of with Adam. What’s the big deal? I whined. I even solicited Adam’s blessing while I was living it up with my buds. Ever humble and ever supportive of his little bro, he wrote off Mummy’s angst toward my vacation as her simply being her usual neurotic self. At least that’s what he told me. He was a good brother that way.

8. “For 39 Years, Local Mag All About Beer Shaped the Craft Beer Scene. This Is How It Collapsed.” (Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, November 27, Indy Week)

America’s oldest beer magazine, the Durham-based All About Beer, founded in 1979, appears to have ceased publication in mid-October. The magazine, whose website now sits abandoned on the web like so much digital flotsam, played a large part in elevating the country’s burgeoning craft beer movement, as Michael Venutolo-Mantovani makes clear in his detailed postmortem for Indy Week, the alt weekly serving North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

At the magazine’s founding, there were fewer than one hundred breweries across America, nearly all of which were mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. But even then, AAB quietly heralded the ultra-nouveau movement of craft and small-batch brewing. Its fourth issue had a brief mention of newcomer Sierra Nevada—today the seventh-largest brewer in the U.S., with production facilities in Asheville. In the decades that followed, AAB found itself on the leading edge of an exploding scene.

It’s a sad moment when a publication goes under. Let’s pour one out for All About Beer.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

Alternative Reality: An Alt-Weekly Reading List

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There have been a lot of eulogies for the alt-weekly lately, and understandably so. Over the past few years, we’ve lost a lot of them: the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, the Baltimore City Paper, Knoxville’s Metro Pulse, the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Missoula Independent. The list goes on.

But the story of alt-weeklies isn’t all about attrition. It’s also about resilience in the face of local media contraction. Around the country, alt-weeklies continue to publish deep investigations, irreverent features, and weird columns that you just don’t find in other publications, often by promising young writers who are discovering their voices. The work usually goes unnoticed because alt-weeklies have always operated under the radar. But in this regular reading list, I hope to rectify that.

Whenever I travel to a new town, the first thing I look for is its free alt-weekly, which can most often be found stacked inside a street corner box. Alt-weeklies help me get a read on my new locale, and at their best, they offer a kind of X-ray — social, cultural, political — on a city that you might not find in the daily paper.

Here are some stories which, I think, do just that — and more.

1.Miller Cane: A True and Exact History, Chapter 2, Part 4 (Samuel Ligon, November 8, 2018, Inlander)

Since mid-September, the fiction writer Samuel Ligon has been serializing a novel in Spokane’s Inlander, one of the country’s more robust, and adventurous, alt-weeklies. It’s a hard-boiled work with terse dialogue and staccato sentences. It tells the story of a guy named Miller Cane, who “has been making his living conning and comforting the survivors of mass shootings,” as an expository summary at the top of one part explains it. The installments, which are also broadcast on Spokane Public Radio, will debut every week for the next year or so. The first part jumps right into the action.

Miller Cane was six days into the Rosedale massacre when Heffner slid into the Legion Hall during an afternoon animal session. Miller didn’t recognize him at first, was focused on calming a howling beagle he’d just settled into a survivor’s lap. But the rage vibe was unmistakable, a disruption in the air over all the animal distraction, even as Heffner slouched and slunk and tried to keep himself small as he looked for a seat, finally taking a broken office chair by the coffee urns in back. It never would have occurred to Miller that a survivor from Cumberland would show up in Texas — a thousand miles away — at a completely different massacre. Maybe the man was just disturbed. Weren’t they all? Maybe his hurt came off as hatred. Miller had seen that before. But he couldn’t help wondering, just for a second, if the man might be another shooter, fresh on the scene to finish them all. He didn’t want to think that. Connie Lopez seemed to know something was off with the dude too, keeping an eye on him from her table in the center of the barroom as she chopped cilantro for chili.

The fourth part of the second chapter is the most recent installment to have been published. This is the sort of thing newspapers don’t really do anymore, and it’s a thrill to watch Ligon perform the high-wire act of writing a novel in public.

2. “Syed Irbaz Shah Wants to Be Deported, So Why Is He Still Here?” (Chris Walker, October 23, 2018, Westword)

Bureaucracy, like inertia, is a difficult subject to make compelling. But the rule doesn’t apply when it comes to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the story of Syed Irbaz Shah, a Pakistani national who was deported from the United States earlier this year but remains locked up in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Colorado because, to simplify a complex situation, he can’t get his passport.

The tension at the core of this tale is so ridiculous — and the chain of events that led to Shah’s imprisonment so serpentine — that you can’t help but continue reading to find out how and why Shah got into this predicament. Chris Walker, a staff writer for Denver’s Westword who covers local news and music, does a good job ironing out all the wrinkles in a story that amounts to a kind of low-key procedural thriller.

Today the Pakistani national remains in the Aurora immigrant detention center where he’s been held since February. While the circumstances surrounding Shah’s case are unusually complicated and technical, he, his family members and multiple lawyers believed that they could overcome any hurdles to get him out of the United States. Instead, they’ve become bit players in a Kafkaesque tale for our time, in which someone who desperately wants to be deported during the most deportation-loving U.S. administration in recent memory can’t seem to get himself booted across the border.

3. “Despite demolition efforts, blight spreads undetected throughout Detroit’s neighborhoods” (Violet Ikonomova, November 14, 2018, Metro Times)

In this deeply reported, 7,000-word investigation for Detroit’s Metro Times, Violet Ikonomova looked into the state of Detroit’s vacant houses and found that many more of them were blighted — and, therefore, abandoned — than the city’s Land Bank Authority had accounted for.

The apparently inaccurate blight calculation raises questions about the reliability of the data being used to guide the day-to-day demolition operations of the city and Land Bank.

In Detroit’s Grandale neighborhood, near West Chicago and Greenfield, Luther Johnson has been monitoring changes in the landscape for 50 years. From the well-manicured yard of the red brick Tudor where he grew up, Johnson looks directly onto a vacant lot where the city recently wrapped up a demolition. On one side stands a vacant house whose door appears to at one point have been pried open. On the other stands a worse-off vacant house, its backside crumbling and wooden bones exposed.

“They should have torn it down,” Johnson said of the ramshackle house. “And I don’t know why they didn’t — they tore this one next to it down. They should have torn that one down before they tore this one down because this one was looking better.”

The Metro Times, it’s worth pointing out, has been doing yeoman’s work of late. The paper recently broke the story on Marc Peeples, a 32-year-old man who was repeatedly harassed by three white women for the unseemly act of building a community garden on a vacant playground in a Detroit neighborhood — or, to put it another way, “gardening while black.”

4. “Dartmouth Coach Callie Brownson Is a Pioneer for Women in Football” (Dan Bolles, October 24, 2018, Seven Days)

Callie Brownson, the offensive quality control coach for Dartmouth College’s football team, is also “something else,” Dan Bolles writes in his cover story for Seven Days: “the first full-time female coach in the history of NCAA Division 1 football.” Bolles, an assistant arts editor and features writer for Seven Days, Burlington’s alt-weekly and one of the best newspapers in Vermont, spent some time with Brownson on the field, and he came back with some memorable scenes, as his lede demonstrates.

Dartmouth College quarterback Derek Kyler drops back in the pocket and surveys the chaos unfolding before him. The receivers to his right are locked down in coverage. Ditto the tight end crossing the middle of the field. But to the sophomore QB’s left, Drew Hunnicutt has shaken free of his defender and is streaking toward the end zone. In a flash, Kyler winds up and throws, hitting his wide receiver in stride. The pass is perfect, but it didn’t have to be. Hunnicutt didn’t have a defender within six yards of him.

“Hooooooly shit!” a woman’s voice erupts after the touchdown. “He was wide open! Wide open!”

Callie Brownson springs from her position under the goalposts, waving a laminated playsheet as she strides toward a group of defensive backs. “How do you let him get that wide open?” she asks in disbelief, practically teasing the dejected DBs, who mill around the field, heads hung low and hands on their hips.

Brownson, 29, has been written about by a number of outlets, but Bolles’s profile is an intimate, in-depth portrait, one that readers have come to expect from Seven Days.

5. “Who is the real ‘Lady in Blue’ of Seelbach Hotel?” (Lisa Pisterman, October 24, 2018, Louisville Eccentric Observer)

In Louisville’s charmingly named Eccentric Observer — otherwise known as LEO Weekly — the author and historian Lisa Pisterman took a look at the mysterious case of Patricia Wilson, who, in July of 1936, fell to her death down an elevator shaft at the Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville and is now believed to haunt the building. She is known as the “lady in blue.”

She didn’t receive word that said estranged husband died in a car accident on the way to meet her.

She didn’t throw herself down the elevator shaft in response.

She wasn’t found half-naked in a negligee and stockings.

No one heard her fall, and no one ran out in the hallway to catch Lt. Gov. Henry Denhardt stealing away.

She did fall at least six stories, and she died instantly, not hours later at the hospital. She was not penniless. She had a nice funeral, and she was buried in a quiet plot of her own. She was described as beautiful, sweet and well-liked. She was grieved by those who knew her.

She was a real person, and her name was Patricia Wilson.

Using a number of primary sources, such as city directories and coroner’s inquest records, Pisterman give us as detailed a look as possible at Wilson’s life, putting to rest many of the myths and rumors that have accumulated through the years.

6. “Twin Cities construction is booming, and human traffickers are coming to feed” (Susan Du, November 7, 2018, City Pages)

For City Pages, the alt-weekly serving Minneapolis and St. Paul, Susan Du reports that a construction boom in the Twin Cities has helped created a kind of underground economy of labor trafficking. Du hinges her story on a Honduran immigrant named Yimer Iriarte, who came to the United States and found work in the construction industry after much hardship.

Eventually he found himself building a house in Apple Valley, where his luck changed.

One day Ricardo Batres, a pint-sized, sweet-talking El Salvadoran man, walked onto the site and introduced himself as owner of American Contractors and Associates. He dazzled Iriarte with offers of a lucrative partnership, a room in a house free of charge, and—to celebrate the completion of their first project—a pleasure cruise down the Mississippi River.

They were treasures Iriarte, now 21, will never forget.

Yet time would quell his hopes. The house Batres rented for 10 workers came without heat and hot water, nor were they allowed to use the stove. The landlord eventually threatened eviction, claiming Batres hadn’t paid the rent.

It only gets worse from there.

7. “Marty Wolfson Was Broke and Homeless Until a Horse Saved His Life” (Mike Clary, November 13, 2018, Miami New Times)

Marty Wolfson doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a “Florida Man,” but his story is perhaps one that could only have come from the Sunshine State. In this sympathetic New Times profile, Mike Clary gives readers a textured look at Wolfson, the son of America’s first corporate raider who went on to become one of the most successful horse trainers in South Florida, only to lose it all when his lucky streak petered out. Clary sums up Wolfson’s weird life story in a tidy paragraph.

Ironies abound in the story of Wolfson’s fall from grace. He was a rich kid who ended up broke. He was a painfully shy young man who later posed nude for a national magazine. And for years he succeeded as a horse trainer before finding himself at a rural recovery farm where he was paired with a thoroughbred that raced but rarely won. In the end, the 11-year-old gelding would save Wolfson’s life by demanding nothing at all from him.

8. “Death of a Kinkster” (Daniel Villarreal, November 5, 2018, The Stranger)

In this disturbing piece, Daniel Villarreal investigates a death in Seattle’s gay kink community, in which a young man, Jack Chapman — otherwise known as “Pup Tank”– died after having liquid silicone injected into his genitals. Chapman was romantically connected with a man named Dylan Ray Hafertepen, “a well-known member of the Dom/sub pup play communities in San Francisco and, later, Seattle,” Villarreal writes. “To his pups, including Pup Tank and Pup Alpha, he’s called Master Dylan, but on Instagram and Tumblr, he’s widely known as Noodles and Beef.”

It may sound weird, but such injections are a fetishized form of erotic body modification. Some men fetishize enlarged scrotums as a sign of potency, much like the bronzed huevos dangling from the Wall Street bull. Some guys like to nuzzle gigantic silicone-enhanced ball sacks while giving head, or they enjoy feeling them slap pendulously against their asses while bottoming.

Since World War II, cosmetic surgeons and back-alley “pumpers” have offered liquid silicone injections as a quick and dirty form of plastic surgery. When injected, the body surrounds liquid silicone with collagen, permanently providing a rounder and fuller appearance, smoothing wrinkles and reshaping sagging butts and breasts.

Was Hafertepen responsible for Chapman’s death? Villarreal story digs into that question.


Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

The Last of the Live Reviewers: An Interview with Nate Chinen

Fabrice Coffrini / Keystone / AP, Pantheon Books

Matthew Kassel | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)

Jazz has changed a lot over the past 100 years or so of its existence, but it has never been as stylistically varied — or more packed with practitioners — as it is at the present moment. That’s a good thing for listeners, who now have many points of entry if they are new to the music and don’t necessarily want to start with a record that was cut 50 years ago. Mary Halvorson’s slashing guitar, for example, may appeal to more punk-minded listeners. The pianist Robert Glasper’s Dilla-esque grooves are a good gateway for hip-hop fans. And the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s sweeping, spiritual-minded albums are a potential attraction for jam band aficionados. There’s a lot going on.

And yet, at the same time, there are probably fewer people writing about modern developments in jazz than ever. While niche magazines like JazzTimes and DownBeat are still going strong, there is scant jazz coverage in mainstream music publications (which tend to treat jazz like a novelty item), and the New York Times no longer runs weekly live jazz reviews (a recent development). Nate Chinen was, in fact, the last person to review jazz shows on a regular basis there, a position he left in 2017 after a dozen years contributing to the paper. He is now the director of editorial content at WBGO, the Newark public radio station.

In his new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Chinen draws on his experiences as a former newspaper critic, attempting to make sense of what’s been going on in jazz over the past few decades. It isn’t an easy task, and he does a good job collating a whole lot of material, pulling on interesting threads and adding context for readers who may not be all that familiar with the reasons why Wynton Marsalis wasand still is, to an extent — a polarizing figure. Mostly, Chinen approaches jazz on its own terms. He describes what the music sounds like now and conveys to readers where modern jazz artists are coming from. In doing so he’s created a book that is truly of its time. Read more…