The Reporting Life
Oh, the places you'll go
By Chase Hoffberger, Kevin Curtin, Richard Whittaker, Eric Puga, Kathleen Maher, and Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 3, 2021
Our reporting has taken us everywhere from the Supreme Court and death row to up and down Dirty Sixth. Sometimes we interview our heroes; sometimes it's all just a wild goose chase. Here are a few stories from the trail. – K.J.
Make Friends With the Security Guard
by Chase Hoffberger
Contributor, 2007-2013; staff writer, 2013-2016; News editor, 2016-2018
I always felt like I was punching up to my predecessors, so I'd spend hours and hours reading their stuff to figure out how they did it. I remember the first time I read Chris Gray's review of the Outkast album Stankonia. Every line jumped. Or the straightforward way that Audra Schroeder and Michael King could speak their way into each line. Jordan Smith was so schooled in her subjects; Mike Clark-Madison, for all intents one of them!
My favorite memories were the ones of stories that I reported with other colleagues. I remember, on my first day full-time, barging into UT's Board of Regents meeting with Richard Whittaker (in a black skeleton T-shirt) after news broke of the Erwin Center's impending demolition. Or rushing out of a Black Panther screening in 2018 to take a call from Nina Hernandez, who'd just connected the dots on our election takeout on David Crain's busy surrogates. I remember eating hamburgers with Jana Birchum after a visit to death row. And of course, whatever that R. Kelly event was out at the Mansion in 2012.
Kevin Curtin and I had gotten a tip that an unvetted promoter was being shady about the kind of event he was putting on there, so we went out there to see if R. Kelly was going to actually perform – or what the crowd would do if he did not. I remember Kevin got, like, relatively dressed up and we drank cheap red wine with ice out of these clear plastic cups. A few hours into the night there was no sign of Kelly and the promoter was being real dodgy with us, so Kevin ducked out to smoke a cigarette. When he came back, he had all the answers. Like that scene with Chris Farley in Wayne's World, Kevin had talked up the parking security guy and got a full schedule of valet arrivals and departures. Wouldn't you know the fix was in: Kelly was barely even going to be at the Mansion long enough to exhale inside the venue. I can't imagine Austin's heard much from that promoter in the years since.
A Little Lunacy
by Kevin Curtin
Music columnist, 2012-2018; staff writer, 2018-2021; Music editor, 2021-present
I write this after 2am wearing a sweaty, Cheetos-stained rainbow Speedo. I just finished playing a show in the unsightly garment and by "playing a show" I mean rolling around onstage, hitting myself in the head with a microphone, and singing about stealing catalytic converters.
Afterwards, someone came up to me and said: "I can't believe the Chronicle lets you do that."
Truth is, in the 10 years I've written for the paper, no one there has ever given me a single word of reprimand or warning in regards to my lifestyle, art, or sense of humor – all of which occasionally breach the fringes of lunacy. I believe that if I wrote for any other publication, I would've frequently found myself in somebody's office listening to them tell me how I'm a "representative of their business" and I can't hitchhike to and from a festival while on assignment or host a whippit lounge at a concert or show up to Zoom meetings without a shirt on. The Chronicle doesn't treat you like an employee – they treat you like a human.
The important thing is how that same latitude extends to journalism. They believe in telling stories in the way the writer needs to tell them. If I wanted to cover South by Southwest by spending a day at the airport baggage claim watching the characters roll in, or report on a noise ordinance dispute by moving into a room at the hotel in question, or chronicle the demise of Sixth Street's live music culture by spending a week reviewing happy hour cover bands and Top 40 DJs, they've trusted that's what I needed to do as a storyteller. In the 1,500 articles I've penned for the paper, no one's ever undermined my instincts by telling me what to write.
That's the dream for a writer and I think it's rare. It's freedom of the press – not the one in the First Amendment, but the freedom for someone in the press to be themselves. I believe that's how you produce the best writing and it's part of why I love working at the Chronicle.
Bound by Horror
by Richard Whittaker
Intern, 2006; contributor, 2006-2011; staff writer, 2011-2018; Screens editor, 2018-present
It's strange to be at the beginning and the end of a story. I'd been in the room at SXSW 2012 when writer Corey Mitchell and Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo first announced they'd be running a hybrid heavy metal/horror film festival, although they were talking about a one-day deal at the North Door. What they stumbled into in October 2013, the Housecore Horror Film Festival, was a goliath that swallowed up the entirety of the Emo's complex for three days. That was Mitchell all over, always wanting to give people more, and that's how the 2014 festival snagged the official 40th anniversary reunion for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Of course I was going to write about the film that shaped the Lone Star State film industry, and I talked to everyone I could, from director Tobe Hooper to Ed Guinn, the truck driver who smashes Leatherface into skull with a well-pitched wrench. The article, "Cowboys vs. Hippies: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Subtext" (Screens, Oct. 3, 2014), was sprawling, but it's one piece of which I'm the proudest. And then Mitchell called me to ask me if I would moderate the reunion panel. Of course, I said yes, and we packed the stage at Emo's with just about everyone still alive from the production. We even had to find extra chairs for extra guests who turned up, unannounced. It was a magical hour that flew past, every guest gracious and funny and filled with memories. Mitchell hugged me after and thanked me. Later that day, I saw him setting up chairs for the outdoor screening of Chain Saw, and he looked so happy. That was the last time I ever saw him. Later that night, he died of a sudden, massive heart attack. The story of which I am so proud, which he helped make possible, will always be tied to that moment. Still miss you, brother.
These Takes Were Built to Last
by Eric Puga
Beer writer, 2015-present
Six years of opining on a supernova trend like craft beer will yield you an imperial ton of dubious takes. Like the time I wrote about Hops & Grain (R.I.P.) and Austin's chemistry being undeniable and that they should look into getting a new house (second facility) together. Or when I spent like 1,000 words complaining about the negative impact Detroit's Atwater Brewery would have on small local breweries as they imminently set out to move to a large facility in Southeast Austin (whoops!). Or the time I reckoned Skull Mechanix to be the "most overlooked" beer program and taproom in town. Wait. I was right about that one, you fools!
The good news is that although my takes are awful, there are a lot of them, and I've had the pleasure of submitting them all for your beer-snobby discontent to the best alt-weekly in America and maybe even helping to build up the culture of small beer in Austin a little bit along the way. One story that springs to mind that teetered between "controversial" and "confident rush to judgment" was the story we published declaring Austin Beerworks' Pearl Snap Pilsner as the "Official Beer of Austin" ("Brewed Awakening," Food, May 15, 2015) after a panel of seven industry beer knowers holed up in the spooky abandoned former dentist's office one floor above the world-famous Draught House and drank it out until everyone decided upon the One True Beer. Reddit went mad! The comment sections were alight! We had a cool little celebration about it at the Mohawk afterwards honoring that amazing Pilsner, and all the people I'd admired forever at the Chronicle came over and said stuff like "congrats on your story" and "great job." We all drank Pearl Snaps and smiled. It was the right choice. And you know what? Six years later, the decision still holds up.
"Clueless White Lady Investigates Austin's Gangs"
by Kathleen Maher
Assistant editor, 1981-1989
What in the world possessed me? Well, I know. I was enchanted by much of the graffiti going up all over Austin and I'd seen several prominent tags repeated again and again. The obsession over gang kids was just gearing up. So I decided to talk to some of the taggers around town.
The wonderful thing about Austin, at least in those days, was it was pretty easy to find someone who knows the someone you're looking for. That someone was just about never Kevin Bacon.
Anyway, I did find some kids over in the park and they were lovely ... and patient, OMG. I still shudder to think about how I must have come off. We toured around town, and they showed me some of their favorite efforts. Some were random tags, some were part of larger sponsored murals. All of it is gone now.
They explained the hierarchies and territory of Austin's gangs at the time. Those were much more innocent days. Some kids were in gangs because their parents were in gangs. One kid introduced me to his aunt who talked to me about the culture of Austin's Eastside and how it's changing and what's being lost. Little did we know the dominoes were just tipping.
I remember the article coming out fairly decently, at least the letters to the editor didn't call me a moron ... that time.
Late Night With Elaine
by Robert Faires
Arts editor, 1993-present
Interviewing celebrities has always struck me as a little surreal. Me, ink-stained wretch in the depths of Flyover Country, having a one-on-one with someone who's been on Broadway, who has a shelf full of Grammys, who worked with Preston Sturges – it's just not the natural order.
Then there have been those celeb interviews where circumstances took the surrealness up a notch: a phoner with Bob Goulet from my bedroom at 7am, one with Carol Channing as she was cooking breakfast for her hubby Harry, and my favorite, one with cabaret legend Elaine Stritch in the Chronicle offices. At midnight. Alone. ("Elaine Everlasting," Arts, Aug. 29, 2008)
People you interview get to set the time you talk, so I expected Ms. Stritch to do that. What I didn't expect was for her to make that time the witching hour. In 25 years of interviews (at that point), that was a first. But Stritch was a notorious night owl, and that was when she settled in at her roost in the Carlyle Hotel, so if I wanted to talk ...
I did. Alas, my cassette recorder jack didn't fit my home phone (you think I wasn't gonna record this?), so I had to drive to the Chronicle to plug it in there. The dark, empty Chronicle. I've never been real comfortable in buildings by myself late at night (ghosts, serial killers, I imagine them all), so being there had my nerves jangling. Then I made the call. She answered herself (no PR flak for Stritchy). And we talked. Had a real conversation, for nearly an hour. Which was surreal, like all my celeb interviews, but it was amplified by my being alone in that deathly still office, the only sound this famously whiskey-soaked voice in my ear, engaging me in private conversation. Like something in a haunted house tale.
Thirteen years this month, and I still get tingles. And still cannot believe it.