Monday, March 28, 2011

A Loomis Fargo heist movie? Please make it so

The latest issue of GQ magazine has an interview with the great Danny McBride, star of locally-made cult classic "The Foot Fist Way" and HBO's "Eastbound and Down," co-star of the new movie "Your Highness," and graduate of the N.C. School of the Arts.

The interview's not online far as I can tell, but one quote near the end made me really happy. The interviewer asked McBride what he might do next:

"He mentions a movie he and (writing partner) Jody Hill wrote a year after 'The Foot Fist Way,' based on a 1997 robbery of a bank in Charlotte, North Carolina. 'These rednecks robbed Loomis Fargo for over $17 million,' McBride says. 'And they would have gotten away with it, except they stayed in the town they were living in. They literally moved from trailers into the richest neighborhoods in town, lived like kings, bought their wives t-- jobs. Jody wants to make it like a southern 'Godfather.'"

The Loomis Fargo heist is the craziest story I've ever covered, and the one that felt the most like a movie. If you're not familiar with it, this Wikipedia article has the basics, although as always with Wikipedia, buyer beware on some of the facts. If that tweaks your interest, my former colleague Jeff Diamant wrote a great book about the whole thing.

The memory that stands out the most for me came when the suspects were first hauled into court. One of them was the man who was supposedly hired to kill David Ghantt, the Loomis Fargo employee who actually stole the money. When the guy walked by me I noticed something strange about him, but I couldn't quite believe my eyes. At a break I went up to one of the marshals.

"Um, could you check something for me?" I said.

"What is it?"

"I think that tall guy had a tattoo on his neck of a Klansman riding a horse."

"Aw, come on."

He went into the holding area to check. He came back out with both eyebrows as high as they could go.

"You're right," he said. "God almighty."

That would be some amazing movie.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March Madness picks

Somehow I forgot to take today off -- an unforgivable mistake on my part. But we do have TVs around the newsroom. And driving around uptown this morning, I saw a couple of fans in Michigan gear wandering around. They're in the right place.

By the way, there's a post from a couple days back on how we'll know when your team is in town... still time to drop in a comment.

After all that, I have to subject you to my picks. If you want to see them in bracket form, they're in the Observer's bracket contest (my username is "tomlinson"). But here's a list, by region, with a few comments. Asterisks = upsets.

Ohio St. over San Antonio
George Mason over Villanova
West Va. over Clemson
Kentucky over Princeton
Marquette over Xavier*
Syracuse over Indiana St.
UGA over Washington* -- Look, I went to UGA. You have to ride with your guys at least one round.
UNC over Long Island

Ohio St. over George Mason
Kentucky over West Va.
Syracuse over Marquette
UNC over UGA -- a rematch of the 1983 regional final, which UGA won after Sam Perkins admitted he didn't know which conference the Dawgs were in. I doubt that'll happen this time. And if it does, it won't matter.

Ohio St. over Kentucky
Syracuse over UNC -- this was the hardest pick in the tournament. Carolina has come so far, and on talent alone they're Final Four-ready. But sometimes they fall into a mass coma on court... they were down double digits in every ACC tournament game, and never got close to coming back against Duke. Three straight big wins seems too much for them at this point.

Ohio St. over Syracuse and into the Final Four.

Duke over Hampton
Tennessee over Michigan*
Arizona over Memphis
Texas over Oakland
Missouri over Cincinnati*
UConn over Bucknell
Temple over Penn St.
San Diego St. over N. Colorado

Duke over UT
Arizona over Texas*
UConn over Missouri
San Diego St. over Temple

Duke over Arizona
San Diego St. over UConn

San Diego St. over Duke and on to the Final Four* -- They're not much fun to watch, but San Diego State is REALLY good. They lost just twice all year, both times to BYU, and then they killed the Cougars in the Mountain West final. They can grind even a good team into dust. Duke is a good team, and with Kyrie Irving they might be great. If he's at full strength, Duke could easily win the whole thing. But I think it ends for the Blue Devils here.

Kansas over Boston U.
Illinois over UNLV*
Vandy over Richmond
Louisville over Morehead St.
Georgetown over VCU
Purdue over St. Peter's
FSU over Texas A&M*
Notre Dame over Akron -- the Gerry Faust bowl!

Kansas over Illinois
Louisville over Vandy
Purdue over Georgetown
Notre Dame over FSU

Louisville over Kansas* -- Kansas always breaks my brackets. Might as well get rid of them now.
Purdue over Notre Dame*

Purdue over Louisville and on to the Final Four.
Pitt over UNC-Asheville
Old Dominion over Butler*
Utah St. over Kansas St.*
Belmont over Wisconsin* -- yeah, going a little crazy on the upsets here. But Belmont lost just four times this year -- twice to Tennessee, once to Vandy and once to Lipscomb. And Lipscomb doesn't really count. There is a Lipscomb in all our lives, just waiting to trip us up.
St. John's over Gonzaga
BYU over Wofford -- although if Wofford wins, alum Jerry Richardson might be giddy enough to broker a deal between NFL players and owners. Yeah, probably not.
Michigan St. over UCLA*
Florida over UC-Santa Barbara

Pitt over ODU
Utah St. over Belmont
St. John's over BYU*
Florida over Michigan St.

Pitt over Utah St.
St. John's over Florida*

Pitt over St. John's and on to the Final Four.

Ohio St. over San Diego St.
Pitt over Purdue

Ohio St. over Pitt, 71-67, for the title.

So that's 16 upsets overall, but just one real sleeper in the Sweet 16 (Utah State). Two #1 seeds, a #2 and a #3 in the Final Four. Not as risky as I'd like. And surely not as wise as your picks. Tell me where I went wrong.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How do we know your team's in town?

Long Island University is the Blackbirds. I had no idea. Hampton's the Pirates, and if you follow March Madness, you might remember their big upset over Iowa State back in 2001, which led to the wonderful image of their coach impersonating a dead bug. But other than that, I don't know much.

So here's the question, for fans of the eight schools playing here in the NCAA regionals this weekend: How will we know your team's in town?

Here are the teams coming to Charlotte, by the way -- I'm going to put them in alphabetical order to eliminate any bias: Georgia, Duke, Hampton, Long Island, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington.

OK, see, I'm biased already.

Georgia is my team. I went to school there. I left several million brain cells scattered around campus. I still daydream about going back and becoming a perpetual grad student. These are my people.

Here's how you know Dawg fans are in town:

-- ABC stores suddenly low on Jim Beam; CVS stores suddenly low on BC powders.

-- Hotel-lobby debates about whether Herschel Walker could play college basketball (yes), and how many points he would score (164 a game).

-- Lots of body-painting going on... but not as erotic as it sounds.

Now then... both Duke and North Carolina are also headed this way. I could say that you know Duke fans are in town when the parking lot is full of Jersey plates. I could say that you know Carolina fans are in town when you see people counting the Jersey plates in the parking lot. But I would never say such things, because I know you Blue Devil and Tar Heel fans will step up.

(Of course, it's possible that you might actually say something about the other team, rather than your own. There's no way we can stop that. But of course none of you would do such a thing. Hint. Hint.)

But we're looking to hear from all of you. Michigan, Tennessee, Washington, Hampton: What should we look for from y'all? And you Long Island Blackbirds... is anybody coming? Because we need to talk. Clearly, the Long Island Expressway would be a much cooler name.

Have at it in the comments...

It just so happens that MY team is in town, so I'll go first.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Last call for Queens workshop

Just a reminder, y'all, that my workshop "A Writer's Life: Building a Career as a Professional Writer" begins Saturday at Queens University. It's a two-part class -- half on Saturday and the other half March 12.

We'll be talking about the essentials of turning pro, how to figure out what to write about, how to sharpen your writing, how to get noticed, and 25 ways (at least!) to make a living with words.

If all that sounds good to you, here's where you can sign up.

Here's one last video that Queens produced for the workshop... this was in front of one of those green screens where you can project anything as a backdrop, and it looks like they went with the '70s talk-show motif. Next time I'm going to ask for flying dragons.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Two cops, two lives, two endings

Charlie Walker’s 30 years on the job ended at a visitation. He met up with some buddies. They all waited in line two-and-a-half hours at First Baptist Church. Then he was at the front of the line, standing across from Fred Thornton’s widow.

This is Charlie Walker, somebody told her. This is his last day.

He dreaded what those words might do to her.

Two cops, two careers. One ended just the way you’d want it to. The other ended the way you hope it never does.

A couple of Sundays ago, I wrote a story about Charlie. He spent the last 15 years of his career as a police officer at The Square, one of the last in town who still walked the beat. He got to know millionaire bankers and barefooted homeless women. He treated people with respect. On his last day at The Square, dozens of friends showed up to send him off.

Last Friday, Thornton died when a flash-bang grenade – part of his gear as a member of the SWAT team – exploded in his garage. Police say it was an accident. Thornton was due to retire this summer. He injured his knee last year, and instead of running out the clock at his desk, he rehabbed so he could go back to SWAT. At his funeral Tuesday, hundreds of officers mourned.

Walker remembers working with Thornton once, years ago. Police had spotted a robbery suspect. Thornton arrived from one direction, Walker from the other. They caught the guy and found the loot.

Besides that, all Walker knew about Thornton was his good reputation. But he has spent the last few days thinking about Thornton a lot.

“I felt guilty that I made it,” Walker says. “It’s not always your training or everything like that. It’s a crapshoot sometimes… Forget all the times over 30 years that I know about, when I knew I might be in danger. How many occasions were there that I didn’t know about? How many times was it close to being bad and I never saw it coming?”

Online, the stories about Walker and Thornton had some grumbling in the comments. A few folks griped about Walker drawing a pension even though he retired at 52. Others said Thornton’s service cost too much money. In these times, the complaints are understandable. People worry over every dollar.

But police work is different. Every day might bring a simple traffic stop that goes south, or a domestic dispute that blows up, or a career criminal who decides he doesn’t want to go to jail anymore. Now multiply that by thousands of days.

Cops aren’t gods. Former Charlotte officer Marcus Jackson pleaded guilty back in December to sexually assaulting women while on duty. And even good cops make mistakes that get magnified when you carry handcuffs and a gun.

The goal is to do a good job and make it to 30 years. Charlie Walker made it. Fred Thornton got so close.

Walker’s last day on the street was Feb. 11, but he had a couple weeks of desk work. Monday was his official last day. He finished his shift and went to the visitation. And he ended up in front of Thornton’s wife, Linda.

He thought she might break down.

She looked at him.

Thank you for all your years of service, she said.

And the long procession moved on.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

How R.E.M. changed my life

I'm not sure that writing 1,500 words about R.E.M. is in my official job description... then again, they recorded their first two full-length albums at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, so there's a bit of a local angle. But the main reason is, this just started coming out, so here it is.

I did not come from a land of musical adventure.

At home my mom and dad listened to country. It was the best kind of country -- Hank, George Jones, Loretta Lynn -- but back then that's what the country stations played. At some point I drifted over to the pop station, and for a while I taped Casey Kasem's Top 40 every week and wrote down the charts in a notebook. By high school my tastes had broadened a little -- I liked the Molly Hatchet the potheads played at the ball park across from my house, and the R&B I heard at dances and parties. There was one party, at a condo complex with a pond, where ducks came waddling through the living room while "Let It Whip" thumped on the stereo. I'll always associate "Let It Whip" with ducks.

But all that music was in the middle of the mainstream -- even if kids didn't like all of it, they knew about all of it. I went to a summer program before my senior year of high school; at a dance the first night, they played "Rock Lobster." All the kids from Atlanta knew it by heart. I'd never heard it, or anything like it.

The day I arrived at the University of Georgia, in 1982, somebody was blasting Atlanta Rhythm Section from speakers in a dorm window. There was a guy everybody called The Nuge because he worshiped Ted Nugent. Most days you could hear somebody playing Rick James or the Police or Ronnie Milsap -- the same stuff I heard back home.

But then I started seeing fliers on telephone poles for bands with names like Love Tractor. I'd never heard of ANY of these bands. I wondered if the posters were some kind of prank -- we'd get there for the show, and the seniors would come out and laugh at us. "Love Tractor?" they'd say. "You thought that was a REAL band?"

I made some friends right away, and we went to football games and stayed up late drinking beer and eating popcorn. But I didn't feel comfortable on that big campus. Not handsome enough, not smart enough, most definitely not cool enough.

I had a bizarre roommate, a junior named Matt. The legend was that he had never changed his bedsheet in three years on campus. You could see the outline of his body on the sheet. We called it the Shroud of Matt. He would have loud fights with his girlfriend, and louder makeup sex. I stayed out of my dorm room as much as possible.

But one day when I was there, he put a record on the turntable. It had been out only a couple of weeks. He said "Listen to this," and handed me the sleeve.

This is what I heard:

It sounded even weirder than "Rock Lobster." The recording felt homemade. The guitar line careened like a wagon about to run into the ditch. And that singer... I couldn't make out the words, but it didn't matter. There were five songs on the album, all dark and murky and incomprehensible. Which was perfect, because my life felt dark and murky and incomprehensible. This band I had never heard of was saying what I never knew I needed to hear.

They were a local band. Back home, "local band" meant some guys who played at the talent show once they learned "Free Bird." But these four guys wrote their own stuff. They were right there in Athens among us. We saw Michael Stipe, the singer, at the Gyro Wrap downtown. We saw Bill Berry, the drummer, and Mike Mills, the bass player, in a guitar shop. I took a leak next to Pete Buck, the guitarist, at a Jason and the Scorchers show.

They played a free concert on campus and a couple of thousand people showed up. But when I went home for Christmas, no one had heard of them. They were still listening to Molly Hatchet and "Let It Whip."

For the first time in my life, I was on the front edge of something cool. R.E.M. was playing clubs all over the country by that point, and picking up fans a roomful at a time, but they were still this little musical cult. And I belonged.

That spring, they put out their first full-length album, "Murmur." Rolling Stone reviewed it -- Rolling Stone? Reviewing our guys? -- and gave it four out of five stars. A re-recording of their first single, "Radio Free Europe," made the Billboard pop chart. And driving home on break, a couple of months later, I flipped to a Savannah rock station -- the kind of station that played Skynyrd and Styx -- and they were playing R.E.M. on the radio.

That summer, staying up late one night, I saw the video on MTV.

It was the most bittersweet feeling. I was thrilled for my guys. But I knew they weren't really mine anymore.

I can track those years by R.E.M. records. My sophomore year, clearer and happier -- that was "Reckoning." A lost summer in Jacksonville -- "Fables of the Reconstruction." A road trip, the tape deck cranked up as loud as it would go -- that's "Lifes Rich Pageant."

But by then we didn't see them around town as much. They still lived in Athens, and sometimes they'd play there under a fake name -- one gig I remember, they were Hornets Attack Victor Mature. But word spreads fast in a college town, and Hornets Attack Victor Mature packed the club.

By the time I left school and got my first newspaper job, everybody knew about R.E.M. "The One I Love" was a hit single, "Losing My Religion" was an even bigger hit, Rolling Stone called them the best band in the world, they went from clubs to theaters to arenas. They made lots of money. Bill Berry had a brain aneurysm onstage and later retired. The other three played on.

I don't buy the new R.E.M. record the first day it comes out anymore. The last couple I've only listened to a little. They've changed and I've changed. In one sense, music is just a business transaction -- play me something I like, I'll drop some money in the hat. But if you really love a certain band you know it's more than that. Every new song feels like a letter from a friend. If the song doesn't move you, you wonder if you should keep trying, or just move on. But you keep hoping -- at least I keep hoping -- for that moment that reminds you why you reached out in the first place.

R.E.M. has a new album coming out next week. You can hear it streamed on NPR Tuesday. I like what I've heard. I'm going to buy it, let it roll around in my head awhile. I don't expect it to hit me the way that first record hit me almost 30 years ago. But one thing R.E.M. taught me is to keep reaching out, hoping for that connection, because you can't predict where it'll come from.

I'm still not cool. But every so often, mostly because of this incredible job, I'll end up knowing about a great band or a moving film or a gifted young writer before most other people find out. There's no longer that bittersweet feeling, though. I want them all to find the right kind of fame, to make a good living and then some, because when you get to do the work that makes you happy, it adds beauty to the world.

Now I live right down the road from the studio where R.E.M. recorded "Murmur" and "Reckoning." Lately I've started to feel dark and murky and incomprehensible again, and so I've been listening to a lot of that early R.E.M., and remembering how that murkiness can bring forth something cool and beautiful. That's part of the power of music. Another part is that a great record can sell millions, but it can still feel like a secret among you and your friends. Or between you and your bizarre roommate. Or just between you and the music.