I suppose this will be my last Washington Auto Show story assignment in the old, husky, Brezhnev-era D.C. convention center; by next year, the city should have completed an even bigger, brighter, twice-as-massive convention center two blocks away. (I wonder what happens to the old one? I'll miss it. I'm a sucker for ugly buildings that nobody else loves.)
The auto show traditionally begins the day after Christmas: thousands and thousands of square feet of the newest models of cars and trucks, plus the usual Americana surrounding such events (junk food, amazing car wax demonstrations, appearances by soap stars and race-car drivers). I hope this is the last one I ever cover for Style, if only because I'm out of ways to describe it or translate it into a decent feature story. This would be my third auto show story assignment in four years. (A sample from last year: "This is a world where cars are never broken into or hit with Target shopping carts, where they never develop irritating quirks with their electrical systems just after the warranty expires, because the warranty never expires, because the fantasy has no problems for which a warranty could apply. … These cars will never be in wrecks, and so no one will ever die in them, except James Dean. Some cars are so pretty that James Dean ought to die in them, over and over …")
It's a little suspect, I suppose, since the Washington Post is listed as one of the main sponsors of the auto show. Here we are on the verge of war about oil, and there's a rumbling of groundswell against luxury vehicles that aren't fuel-efficient. It's hard to be light and fun with these kinds of issues looming in the subtext.
But this is what we call a "day hit." I'd need more than my allotted 25 column inches (just under 1,000 words) and a few hours to form any kind of auto show story that would fairly and accurately question the American car culture. There is one new way of doing it—albeit a bit hokey—and so I pitch it this way: What Would Jesus Drive? This notion comes off recent press attention on some Christian pastors who have started preaching environmental concerns to their SUV-driving flocks. My hope, as always, is to walk the line between snarky and informative, and not be cutesy either.
James Parcell, a Post photographer, is waiting for me. I hang up my coat and we talk briefly about what he's already seen, what kind of pictures he should take, what kind of things to look for. We walk onto the showroom floor—imports and luxury cars—and set to it. Once he feels like he's got it, we go our separate ways in the crowds. In about two hours, I've talked to maybe a dozen people, about half of them car salesmen, eliciting responses to "What Would Jesus Drive?" and trying to learn a little about their lives. It's a journalistic hit-and-run. As you walk away, they're left with the mistaken impression that they'll be in tomorrow's paper, even though I try to tell them that I'll only use a fraction of the people I talk to.
In about three hours, I have what I need, and I've hardly been enchanted by the cars this year. I like watching other people lust after cars, though. I do get it.
Back at the office by 4 p.m., where I'm one of five stories skedded for the next day's Style front. The lead piece will be Stephen Hunter's review of Chicago. Lonnae O'Neal Parker is working on some kind of essay about why she won't buy her children white dolls. Tom Shales is reviewing the televised version of this year's Kennedy Center Awards. Looks thin, thin, thin. My apologies to Post readers everywhere, but it's all we've got.
I open a file and slug it AUTOSHOW27. I could write it in my "P" file (for "private"), but I almost never do that. A newsroom works best when stories in progress are accessible to anyone, from Len Downie down to the news aides. I don't mind who looks in on my copy. The "What Would Jesus Drive?" angle works—barely. It's mediocre Style copy at best. I mess around with it until about 6:20 p.m. and hit hyphenate-and-justify: 26.10 inches. I don't think anyone will complain about stories running long tonight. I send it to Peggy Hackman, an editor on the Style desk. (My editor, Henry Allen, is on vacation.)
Steve Coll, the managing editor, strolls down about 20 minutes later from the main newsroom to express caution to Peggy about a few sentences in "What Would Jesus Drive?"—he wants to minimalize the sacrilege (and phone calls tomorrow) and also not demonize the auto industry. It's really just a matter of changing a few words and not at all objectionable to me. I'm not in love with the story anyhow.
As I'm getting ready to leave, the wires move a bulletin that Herb Ritts, the fashion photographer, has died in Los Angeles. I walk over to the desk and offer to write Style's "Appreciation" column, which is an essay that we do—in addition to the paper's obituary—whenever someone interesting has died. Lynn Medford, an assignment editor, and John Pancake, the arts editor, ask me how long it would take to do it. About two hours to think and report and research, I estimate, and an hour to write about 1,500 words. Maybe less.
Lynn decides that an obituary will suffice for Friday's paper, and I'll write the "Appreciation" tomorrow for Saturday's paper. (If you want to know how famous you are, die around 7 p.m. the day after Christmas, and see what the newspapers do beyond your typical obit.) So I put my coat back on and go to meet Michael, my boyfriend, for dinner and a movie.
On the way, it occurs to me that I'm going to be the one to tell him Herb Ritts died. Michael is a photo editor at Metro Weekly, a gay magazine in Washington. He studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he has told me before that the whole reason he became a photographer was because of a single photo: Madonna, taken by Herb Ritts in 1986. (It's the photo that became the album cover for True Blue. Madonna has a leather jacket sliding off her shoulders and her head is tilted up toward the sky, eyes closed.)
We stay up late looking at Michael's Herb Ritts collection: The big coffee-table books, the magazine spreads, the record album covers. Michael even finds a term paper he wrote about homoerotic photographs. I imagine him as a teenager in the 1980s, succumbing to all this glitz.
While we sleep, the presses run. " Honk if You Love the Auto Show: The New Models Offer Much to Tempt the Purest Heart" is the headline on my piece, running across the bottom of Style.