True Stories

article image
2009 © Chris Lyons /
David Schimke

Bar timewas 60 minutes old when I pulled into the ramshackle shed my landlord charitably referred to as a garage, a one-stall structure that sat 30 yards behind the house in an unlit alley, just a block from an inner-city parking lot where dealers dealt in the dark. Beat from a busy Saturday-night shift, I climbed out of my compact, compact car and did a full-body search for a cigarette. A split second later I saw him for the first time, standing just a few feet away, an inch from the back bumper, blocking my only way out.

He looked to be in his late teens or early 20s. Dressed in a dirty orange tank top, baggy jean shorts, and unlaced high-tops, he had the shoulders of a gym rat and the pallor of a barfly. If I had seen his shaven head in a prime-time crime drama, I would have laughed at how stereo­typical he looked. At that moment, however, I was not amused.

He asked if I needed a light and I said no. He asked if I could spare a smoke and I said yes. And then he launched into his story.

If you’ve ever been solicited on the street, the plot will sound familiar: Down on his luck, he was in Minneapolis looking for work, but his mom was sick and he needed to catch a bus back to Detroit. He’d never done this sort of thing before, and he would be forever grateful for whatever I could spare. If I was willing to part with $40, though, he could be home before sunup.

On the street in the middle of the day, I could have thoughtlessly waved off the request or magnanimously parted with some pocket change. This was different. I feared that I would have to pay, one way or the other. Luckily, I had just stopped at a cash machine and had two crisp twenties in my pocket. I gave them over without hesitation. He said thanks, told me he would not forget the gesture, and walked away.

It turned out to be a solid investment.

Two months later, as summer was turning to fall, my roommate and I were hanging out in our backyard grilling burgers and tossing around a football. A young, bright-eyed guy wearing a brand-new Yankees cap poked his head over the fence and asked how we were doing. We were doing great.

“I’ve been looking all over for you, man,” he said to me, unlatching the gate. I was still trying to place the face when he produced a $50  bill. “With interest,” he said, smiling.

He thanked me again, told me his mom was feeling better, and that it taken him a while to find me because he couldn’t recall exactly where I lived. He did remember being a little uneasy that night, though.

After all, it was dark out, and it’s not as if I lived in the best of neighborhoods.

College students frequently pass through the Utne Reader offices to tour our independent press library and chat with staff members. My sole agenda during these visits is to figure out ways to encourage young people with a passion for journalism, especially since meaningful discussion of the craft has lately been replaced by hand-wringing over the economic potential of the blogosphere and “the death of print.” I was pleased when, just recently, one of our guests from Macalester College asked me to define alternative media.

After stressing that mainstream newspapers and magazines regularly produce deeply reported, essential material, I told her that the best periodicals on our shelves value potent, personal storytelling. I pointed to independent and alternative publications such as the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Walrus, which transport audiences beyond the headlines, where extraordinary people living in unusual circumstances challenge our preconceived notions.

I told her that if a writer can get readers to empathize with the protagonist (or antagonist) of a story, there’s a chance to transcend their political biases, lessen their cynicism, and maybe even change the way they think about the world–if only for a few pages.

If I needed my audience to consider the state of America’s overcrowded, unnecessarily punitive penal system, for instance, I could simply publish the results of a report like the one Amnesty International compiled in 2005. The data-rich document establishes that sentencing juveniles as adults, even in cases of murder, runs counter to the fundamental tenets of international law and neither deters future crime nor squares with what the scientific community knows about young, unformed minds.

Alternately, if I really wanted to leave a mark on the reader’s psyche, I could feature a first-person essay from a prisoner, like Kenneth E. Hartman’s “Sentenced to Life” (p. 30), originally published in Notre Dame magazine.

As important as Amnesty’s research is, the imprisoned author’s description of growing old in “the joint”–a world where “violence is king”–combined with ruminations on his younger, shadow self, trumps the numbers. You can quote a thousand experts, but this eloquent correspondent will break the hardest of hearts as he describes the harsh realities of a life lost behind bars, without the possibility of society’s forgiveness or redemption.

Show, don’t tell. That’s what my mentors in the alternative weekly business always told me. That’s how you change hearts and minds. An editor could fill a magazine with measured analysis establishing that a justice system built around rehabilitation is not only humane, it also reduces crime–or he could commission a piece like American Craft‘s “Men with Quilts” (p. 66), which features a gang of hardened convicts sweetened by the act of sewing.

I could reprint a chart from a popular fitness magazine that gives you seven easy ways to meditate–or you could pile into Buddhadharma‘s “The Angry Monk” (p. 54), a confessional in which the author observes that “a lot of pissed-off people” wind up at his monastery.

My guess is that the second piece will prove much more useful in your pursuit of inner peace–if only because it will make you laugh aloud.

I ran intothat stranger in my alley over 20 years ago, and if you were a friend of mine back then, you probably heard the story. It used to be one of my favorites.

Just a few days after I met with the kids from Macalester, it occurred to me that I hadn’t revisited the incident for a long time. What’s more, I’d never written about it.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I guess my reluctance was born partly out of inse­curity. Magazines are full of feel-good anecdotes, after all, and I’ve always been wary of blowing my own positive experiences out of proportion, of seeming like a Pollyanna.

In fact, even now I feel strangely compelled to tell you that over the intervening years I’ve been lied to, cheated on, stolen from, and even physically assaulted. Employers have cut my wages. Wall Street has squandered my investments. Presidents from both parties have knowingly lied to my fellow citizens and me, over and over again.

Oh, I’m no wide-eyed idealist, my friend. I’m a seasoned journalist, hardened to humanity’s failings, ready to call out bad behavior on our playing fields and street corners, in our corporate boardrooms and chambers of government.

I also know that, nine times out of ten, I probably would have been robbed blind that night. I know I could have been beaten, stabbed, or worse. There’s still a part of me that wonders what would have happened if I hadn’t bothered to stop at the bank before driving home. Things might have gone very differently, very badly, very quickly.

But, here’s the thing–and there’s just no way of getting around this–that’s not the way it went down. The guy’s tall tale turned out to be legitimate. He really did need a bus ticket. He really did track me down and pay me back.

Meeting him had an impact on me at the time. It gave me hope. It still does.

I guess that’s the beauty of a true story. It’s impossible to screw up the ending.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.