Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column

Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column

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Overview

On any given day, millions of Wall Street Journal readers put aside the serious business and economic news of the day to focus first on the paper's middle column (a.k.a. the A-hed), a virtual sound-bubble for light literary fare — a short story, a tall tale, an old yarn, a series of vignettes, and other unexpected delights that seem to "float off the page." In this first-ever compendium of middle-column pieces, you'll find an eclectic selection of writings, from the outlandish to the oddly enlightening. Read about:
• one man's attempt to translate the Bible into Klingon
• sheep orthodontics, pet-freezing, and toad-smoking
• being hip in Cairo, modeling at auto shows, piano-throwing
• the fate of mail destined for the World Trade Center after 9/11
• the plight of oiled otters in Prince William Sound

...and much, much more. Edited by 20-year Journal veteran Ken Wells, and with a foreword by Liar's Poker author Michael Lewis, Floating Off the Page is the perfect elixir for fans of innovative prose in all its forms and function.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743226646
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/01/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael Lewis, the bestselling author of The Undoing Project, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, among other works, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.

Read an Excerpt

from Chapter One: THE WAY WE ARE NOW

3. Men Will Be Boys...

TEMPE, Ariz. — A champagne-colored Lincoln Town Car cruises the fringes of nearby Arizona State University, pulling into the parking lot of McDuffy's. It's a popular student hangout with neon beer signs, perky waitresses and sports games blaring on multiple TVs. Four guys in shorts and sneakers pile out and head for the entrance.

"Uh-oh, it looks like I'm going to get carded," says Dave Protz. The joke lasts as far as the door: After all, he is 44 years old.

Mr. Protz has come all the way from Plymouth, Wis., for five days of spring break — spring break for adults, that is. Grown-ups of all ages are taking advantage of a booming economy to whoop it up in the sun. Only instead of family vacations, these folks — mostly middle-aged men — are trying to relive their college days with outings that can resemble the rowdiness of the Fort Lauderdale beach scenes of lore.

Myrtle Beach, S.C., for example, has about a dozen new bars now catering to this special kind of March madness. For the mature spring-breaker, there are bikini contests, 75-cent draft beer and hairy-chest competitions. On a recent night, Jason Rice, a Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce official, happened to drive by Xanadu, a loud nightclub that advertises wet T-shirt contests; he saw a sea of people, many of them with gray hair, waiting to get in. "At this point, nothing surprises me," says Mr. Rice, who estimates that one-third of the town's $2.4 billion in tourism revenue pours in during the spring season.

For many of these post-college spring revelers, golf is the beard — that is, ostensibly the main attraction, and a convenient excuse to spouses and significant others left at home. The Tempe-Scottsdale area and Myrtle Beach have nearly 150 golf courses between them. And another magnet of the seven-iron set, Hilton Head Island, S.C., finds itself not coincidentally another of the places where the over-the-hill gang hangs out for spring kicks. The entertainment is somewhat high-brow in the town of 29,000, but a club called Monkey Business is still packed nightly, even if it requires shirts with collars.

Here in the Scottsdale area, some residents complain about aging revelers racing through town or streaking nude at hot-tub parties. "They're obnoxious," says Debi Gaitens, an executive recruiter who shuns downtown this time of year because of the crowds.

Granted, most of these baby-boomer retreats are hardly the stuff of MTV highlights; some aging spring-breakers declare defeat after one night of heavy drinking.

But on a recent weekend, Mr. Protz and his three buddies, all brothers-in-law from the same Wisconsin town, head straight from the airport to the liquor store to buy three bottles of Absolut vodka, which they promptly drink, stirred into tonic water, in the hot tub at their luxury condo. They groggily call it a night, but not before reminiscing about their own college spring breaks years and years ago. Only today, instead of six to a room in a dumpy beachside motel, they are staying two to a room in a $300-a-night condo.

The next evening, happy hour finds them at McDuffy's, where the presence of a large number of college girls doesn't seem to be a deterrent. "Why should the college kids have all the fun?" asks Mr. Protz, an impish salesman and self-appointed ringleader. A few months ago, he announced to his wife and three children that he deserved a chance to cut loose from the winter stress.

One of the brothers-in-law, Dean Wesenberg, needed a little arm-twisting to persuade him to tag along. "I've never done anything like this," says the clean-cut 35-year-old Mr. Wesenberg, sitting awkwardly on a high stool at McDuffy's.

Around him are bouncers in full referee gear who have had to eject older tourists for getting too fresh with the college girls. "They're pretty harmless but you have to keep an eye on them," says Jake Guzman, a manager at McDuffy's.

Mr. Protz and company, though, take the attitude that, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. The next night, at a club called Giligin's, the group finds itself alone at a table, watching the rest of the crowd dance and throw napkins at each other. They have run out of Monica Lewinsky jokes when two of them finally approach a couple of women at the bar about doing "Jell-O shots."

This, according to a 19-year-old caddie they have met, is a popular game played by college students in bars here. The etiquette, such as it is, goes like this: The shot, a cube of Jell-O saturated in vodka, is placed upon some part of the anatomy. The imbiber then licks it off. Consent is highly advised.

Mr. Protz, in fact, jokingly offers to throw his own body into play. But the women, both youngish lawyers, laughingly decline, although one slurps up the spiked Jell-O from his hand.

Nearby, California lawyer Michael Lonich and 11 other buddies are shuffling about to the Doors' '60s anthem, "Break on Through," while a DJ announces the next special on tequila shots. Each of them is pushing — or well past — 40. "This place is perfect for adult spring break," Mr. Lonich says. His group has spent five days watching spring baseball, playing video games in bars and drinking the night away. They have also played a round of golf a day — which Mr. Lonich says was the primary reason so many of his friends could slip away from their families.

As further proof of this, travel companies that specialize in booking golf vacations say they detect a surge in interest among their mostly male clients in being booked into places where opportunities to play the 19th hole match the challenges of the first 18. "One of the first questions my clients always ask me is where the bars are," says Jeff Savage, president of Tee Time Travel Inc. in Scottsdale.

In fact, a government survey for the greater Scottsdale and Phoenix region found that, except for scenic beauty, golf was the No. 1 reason tourists said they came. But the sport ranked only seventh in activities tourists actually did. Two spots higher on the list: nightclubbing.

Beyond that, at least one campaign to lure golfers trades on the fact that some of the good old boys who go on golf vacations don't mind ending up in places with lots of pretty girls. One ad for a Myrtle Beach golf package shows a young woman on a beach, poised in a sporty golf outfit.

Still, despite complaints in some corners of Scottsdale that the aging spring-breakers indulge in boorish behavior, most people here see the upside. There's little danger the place will turn into a hot spot of middle-age rowdiness: Scottsdale's high-priced hotels and green fees averaging $140 a round deter the honky-tonk tourists. "These aren't kids," says Richard A. Bowers, manager of the city of 190,000 residents. And among the estimated two million golfers who visit Scottsdale annually, most still come for golf.

It's also not entirely clear whether Mr. Protz and the Wesenbergs, having gotten their spring break, will get a break back home. While the men are cavorting about Scottsdale, the Wesenberg wives and Doreen Protz are stuck back in six inches of snow, sipping Tom Collinses and plotting their revenge: Their own trip to Las Vegas. Or maybe Germany?

"He's dead meat," Lisa Marie Wesenberg says of her husband, Dean, who left for the trip on her birthday and hasn't called since. Pam Wesenberg is also perturbed by the male exodus. "I don't think husbands and wives should take separate vacations," she says.

But not to worry. After two nights of bar-hopping and drinking, the spring-breakers opt for condo-cooked dinners, the hot tub and bed by nine. "I'm tired, I want to go home," says Duane Wesenberg, complaining of body aches and a hangover.

— NANCY KEATES, March 1998

Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Table of Contents

Contents

Foreword

Introduction

CHAPTER ONE

THE WAY WE ARE NOW

  1. Phone Hex
  2. "Nothing Personal. We Sue All Our Friends."
  3. Men Will Be Boys...
  4. ...And Some Boys Will Stay That Way
  5. Not Your Mother's Cemetery
  6. Why the Girl Scouts Sing the Blues
  7. Pity the Toad
  8. Ruff! Ruff! Ruffage! Here, Rover, Have a Nice Bean Sprout!
  9. Bambi Deconstructed
  10. The Deeper Meaning of Mail
  11. Luck Among the Ruins

CHAPTER TWO

STYLE

  1. The Art of the Perfectly Awful
  2. Roasted Porcupine and Basil, With a Hint of Tire Mark
  3. Domes of Resistance
  4. The Agonies of Miss Ag
  5. And the Winner for Placing the Most Bras Is...
  6. Men in Brown
  7. Poetic Justice
  8. Hair Wars
  9. Rise Up, Ye Sleeveless Men!
  10. Men Are from Hardware Stores, Women Are From...

CHAPTER THREE

THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW

  1. The Fat Man Cometh
  2. Prisons, Guns and Knickers
  3. But Will the Klingons Understand Deuteronomy?
  4. The Steak Tender, the Soup Positively Rodentine
  5. The Sky, Sometimes, Is Actually Falling
  6. The Offal Truth
  7. Carrots, No Schtick
  8. Your Orthodontist and Ewe

CHAPTER FOUR

MEN AT WORK

  1. The Waning Days of Mr. Coke
  2. Fishing with His Nose
  3. Blowing Up on the Job
  4. "Bear Hunting Is Hard on Wives"
  5. Charles Atlas, Grandpa
  6. One Writer's Novel Problem

CHAPTER FIVE

OBSESSIONS

  1. The Longest Replay
  2. The Bean of His Existence
  3. Y2K Alert! (But It's )
  4. Claim That Tune!
  5. This Cup Must Not Be Runneth Over

CHAPTER SIX

WHAT WE WROTE HOME ABOUT

  1. A Navy and Its Demons (and Dragons)
  2. A Fence Without End
  3. The Last Word
  4. Touring God's Country
  5. Smoke Got in Their Eyes
  6. Yes, We Have No Bananas
  7. Of Counterculture, Counter Cultures and Pig Rights
  8. A Night Among the Snipers
  9. Things Are Hopping in New York
  10. The Struggles of Otter

CHAPTER SEVEN

PLAY'S THE THING

  1. Fish Story
  2. Golfing in the Spring: One Hole, Par
  3. Having a Fling or Two
  4. Why Tiger Is Glad He's Not Japanese
  5. Not Your Father's Buick

CHAPTER EIGHT

NOTIONS AND CONTROVERSIES

  1. Naked Assumptions
  2. Little Feats
  3. China, in Stride
  4. No, This Isn't How They Invented Chicken Tenders
  5. Why the Future Isn't Coming Up Roses

CHAPTER NINE

SCRIBES, DESCRIBING

  1. Traveling Cheap, but Not Sleazy
  2. In Praise of Small Words
  3. Z-less in Zanzibar
  4. Being Hip in Cairo
  5. Check Out That New Model — Uh, I Don't Mean the Car
  6. Puzzlements
  7. Play It Again, Ma'am

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Introduction

"A-hed" — Named because it is shaped roughly like a capital A, it is The Wall Street Journal's internal designation for a one-column, three-line, 18-point Caslon Italic headline, with an indented one-column, three-line, 12-point Scotch Roman deck, framed in a box formed by a quarter-point rule, and anchored on each side by dingbats. Alternatively, the feature story that sits under that headline in the "middle column" of the Journal's front page. When executed properly, with solid reporting, wit and fine writing, it is so light and engaging that it seems to float off the page.

What, you may ask, are feuding nudists, dueling translators of the Bible into Klingon, and the makers of high-quality prison underwear doing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?

They have shared the umbrella of the "A-hed" and become part of its lore.

When the first A-hed appeared on Page One of this newspaper on Dec. 17, 1941, the kernel of a great idea had clearly been planted. World War II had been under way for ten days and the nation, according to the short piece that didn't carry a byline, was caught with a peculiar shortage for those suddenly patriotic times — American flags.

For its time, that story amounted to a flight of sheer whimsy. The Journal back then was known exclusively for its single-minded coverage of business. That valuable piece of journalistic real estate known as the "middle column" was not yet fixed in its offerings; it had taken various styles of headlines and was given over to numerous matters core to the paper's purpose — commodities charts, stock trends, business briefs. But the paper, already more than a half-century old, was in the throes of major change, and that first A-hed was a glimpse of its broader future.

Of course, the Journal is still predominantly and preeminently a business publication, but regular readers of our pages know that the modern paper, here and globally, energetically covers politics, social issues, societal trends and, in its Friday Weekend section, travel, leisure, arts and even sports. And five days a week, on its front page, the Journal delivers up an A-hed whose chief purpose is analogous to an aperitif or fine dessert — it sweetens and pleases the palate of readers ready to tackle (or take a break from) stories about bonds, microchips and commodities futures. Not that an A-hed can't be serious; in its early days it usually was, and it still sparingly is — witness, herein, former Journal staffer Charlie McCoy's moving tale about the efforts to save an oil-smeared sea otter during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, or Joshua Harris Prager's story on the personal trials of former major-league baseball player Bill Buckner long after his game-turning error in the 1986 World Series.

The credit for inventing the A-hed concept surely goes to Bernard "Barney" Kilgore, father of the modern Wall Street Journal, and Bill Kerby, the Journal's first Page One editor. Mr. Kilgore, a mild-mannered Midwesterner, joined the paper right out of DePauw University and became its managing editor in 1941 at the age of 30. More clearly than anyone before, he saw the Journal's future as a truly national newspaper, one that would keep itself rooted in Wall Street but, on its front page, deliver the wider world in a voice that tempered the urgency of a metropolitan newspaper with the analysis and stylish writing of a good magazine. His famous declaration — "Don't write banking stories for bankers. Write for the banks' customers" — cut the Journal loose from its stiff, almost technical writing style. He created a rewrite and editing staff for Page One and put Mr. Kerby in charge of it. Whole new forms were invented — What's News, which delivered world, national and business news in punchy capsules; the Column 1 "leder," whose aim was and is to illuminate matters of social, cultural or political importance, or to demystify events in the news; and, not least, the A-hed.

Year after year, the middle column, according to Wall Street Journal readership surveys, continues to be among the paper's best-read features. It has been emulated by countless U.S. newspapers and some magazines; journalism professors across the nation routinely clip it and give it to students with the admonition: "If you wish to write well, learn to write like this." In 1971, a Fortune magazine feature on the Journal helped to cement the A-hed's place as an icon of contemporary journalism by describing it as a story often so engaging and light "as almost to float off the page" (hence the title of this book).

If Mr. Kilgore, who died in 1967, helped invent the A-hed, it's also true that the form was still very much a work in progress into the 1960s. On many days, the A-hed resembled that very first one — a short business story with a quirk. (One example: a piece on how World War II was very good for the greeting-card industry.) Alternatively, it was often a news feature. When the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in September 1959, his travels and doings occupied the A-hed spot for five days running — an occurrence entwined with a bit of Barney Kilgore lore. Or, as Fred Taylor, a Journal managing editor who was aboard then, recalls: "The late, great Barney Kilgore was gadget happy and had just got one of the first car phones. So the reporters trailing Khrushchev used Barney's car, calling in their stories on the wonderful phone to the extent they ran down the car battery and got stuck somewhere in Iowa."

The success of the A-hed owes as much to the quality of ideas as it does to good writing, and the idea factory itself owes much to Journal culture. Page One has always been famously picky about A-hed ideas, yet famously egalitarian about who comes up with them. It is still very much a decentralized art. Any reporter at the paper can pitch and write an A-hed for Page One, as can (and have) news assistants and interns (with proper guidance and editing, of course). Once an idea is accepted, the paper gives the lucky scribe what most metro newspapers would consider a languid amount of time to report and write a story that is usually under 1,500 words in length. True, many A-heds are done in a day or two, but it isn't uncommon for A-heds to take a week to report and a week to write — even longer. Consider that when Journal staffer Carrie Dolan alighted in the San Francisco bureau as a fresh-faced college graduate in 1982, she soon found herself in conference with Ken Slocum, the taciturn Texan who was bureau chief at the time. A clever features man, Mr. Slocum had a Texan's bias against what he considered fancy, overpriced, big-city hotels. He inexplicably shoved a note across the desk to Ms. Dolan that mused that it was probably possible for a person to travel across country for the price of a single night in the more expensive hotels in the Journal's headquarters city of New York.

Carrie was starting to wonder what that had to do with her when Ken drawled: "So Carrie, you better get goin'" — and then broke into a chorus of the Willie Nelson song "On the Road Again."

And off she went, in an account that appears in this book, driving for a week coast-to-coast in a cheap rental car, trying to prove Mr. Slocum's theory in the A-hed column.

Ms. Dolan's story shows what comes of a quirky set piece, well executed. The A-hed's history is also filled with stories of opportunity — reporters in exotic, remote, even dangerous locations putting their well-honed features eyes to the ground around them and coming up with gems. Barry Newman, unquestionably the current dean of Journal A-hed writers, was banging about the Australian Outback in the spring of 1978 when he realized that the Aussies had built a barbed-wire fence longer than the Great Wall of China to separate sheep-eating dingoes (wild dogs) from the nation's wool crop. It was certainly an A-hed but there was a small hurdle: A New York editor, who could not envision the splendor of such a fence from so far away, cabled Mr. Newman to say that such a story probably wasn't worth spending more than $200 on. So Mr. Newman rented exactly $200 of air time from a local pilot with a small plane and got the color he needed from above.

Tony Horwitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1995 for his coverage of workplace issues, recalls covering the conflict in Serbia and realizing that there were probably A-heds even in that madness. So one night, at considerable risk, he crawled up a hill above Sarajevo and into a Serbian sniper's pit where he spent time with Serbian gunmen discussing Isaac Bashevis Singer stories while the Serbs sporadically sprayed sniper fire on Croats below. (Mr. Horwitz, now a full-time author on leave from The New Yorker, got his story; it was impossible to tell whether the Serbs got any of their targets.)

Adventure, pathos, humor, irony — this is the stuff of storytelling and the elixir of storytellers. If The Wall Street Journal were a house, the A-hed would surely be our front porch — a place where stories are spun out with a kind of spare exuberance, for an audience of clever listeners.

So pull up a chair and enjoy!


— KEN WELLS

Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
readingfiend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love short stories and essays and I enjoyed these. Interesting stories about people and places around the world that I would never get to read in my local newspaper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fabulous. A great read. Great Keillor.