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Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg
Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg
ISBN: 0817310274
Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg
In this collection of more than 60 of his published articles from the New York Times and elsewhere, Bragg relates stories that made headlines everywhere, such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the Susan Smith murder/kidnapping scandal, but he also tells stories of people who live beneath the media's radar, such a graveyard worker in charge of keeping the plots of the poor in shape, and a poor woman faced with a dilemma when the land her house sits on suddenly becomes worth a lot of money.
—from the publisher's website
Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg
Program Air Date: October 15, 2000

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Rick Bragg, when was the first time you liked story telling?
Mr. RICK BRAGG, AUTHOR, "SOMEBODY TOLD ME: THE NEWSPAPER STORIES OF RICK BRAGG": I think I liked it as soon as I was old enough to know what it was. My uncles and grandfather on my daddy's side could tell you a story and make you see it. I've said before, you--they could make your hear the change rattling in the deputy's pocket as he chased you, you know, down an--down an alley or through the woods. They just had a--they had a gift for it. They could tell a story. And I knew how to--I knew how to listen to one and how to love one. It took me a long time to learn how to tell one.
LAMB: When did you--do you remember when you started telling stories?
Mr. BRAGG: I started--I--I never was--I never was--when--when the--when the men of the family would get together and the--and the women of the family would get together, you mostly listened. Because the stories were just too good. You didn't want to jump in and tell your own. It just wasted time. When I went and worked for the newspapers, I--it was a long time, three or four years, before I realized that you could tell a story in the newspaper kind of like they told them on the front porch. Took a good while to figure that out. I was probably in my early 20s before I figured out you could do that.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
Mr. BRAGG: Grew up in the foothills of northeastern Alabama, foothills of the Appalachians.
LAMB: Was it a town?
Mr. BRAGG: You couldn't say that. It was a--it was a place. We lived in two or three places over the years, but always in the foothills of the Appalachians and always out in the country, always one of the prettiest places on Earth.
LAMB: Who's one of the biggest characters you remember from those early years?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, there were a lot of them. My Uncle Jimbo on my momma's side is the one who won the $20 bet eating a bologna sandwich while sitting on a dead mule. He's hard to beat. There was a one-legged man named Tillison who served up ice cream and was always kind and--and always had something to say, you know, to--to the kids. Nice folks. Snoots McFall ran a store not far from where we were at. E.L. Green--E.L. don't talk much, but when he does, he's got something to say. Nice--nice people.
LAMB: How long did you live in that area?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, I left Alabama for the first time when I was 29, so I...
LAMB: For the first time?
Mr. BRAGG: For the first time. And I--I went to Panama City, Florida, to get my feet wet in the Gulf of Mexico. And I, you know, went over to Georgia, but, I mean, to live, I left to go work for the St. Pete Times when I was 29.
LAMB: Born in 1959.
Mr. BRAGG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Wasn't all that long ago.
Mr. BRAGG: No. Well, there--there wasn't any real reason to leave. I--I liked it there. I still--still do.
LAMB: What'd you like about it?
Mr. BRAGG: I think I just feel at home there. My brothers and my mom are still there. All my kinfolk still live about five miles apart in the same place that--that they grew up.
LAMB: Did you go to college?
Mr. BRAGG: Went to college for about seven, eight, nine months.
LAMB: Where?
Mr. BRAGG: Jacksonville State University, which is in my hometown. Well, that's the closest town to where I grew up in Jacksonville, Alabama. And then when I was 32, I went to Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship, so that was quite a distance.
LAMB: When was the first time you--you knew you could write a story?
Mr. BRAGG: I could--I knew I could--could--I--I was a sportswriter to start with, so we did a lot of work in the little press boxes on Friday nights under the lights, and it was fun. You know, you told a story. You told a story about something that was real important to people that night. And I think that was when--I think that's when I figured it out. I--I don't think I--I knew I could tell good stories about--about people outside sports until I was probably in my mid-20s. I'm a late bloomer.
LAMB: This is a book of your newspaper articles, The Birmingham News and the St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times. And there's a picture on the cover of this. Who's in that picture?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, that's my better side. That's me from behind. I'm in Haiti. And we're covering the walk-in invasion, the occupation I guess you could say, that US troops had to prepare for the return of President Aristide. And I'm not up on that concrete block because I thought I deserved to be on a pedestal. I was trying to get high enough up to where I could talk to those soldiers behind the wall.
LAMB: Did they talk to you?
Mr. BRAGG: A little bit. Couldn't hear what they were saying. The helicopters were too loud.
LAMB: Who's the young man there?
Mr. BRAGG: He is one of the--the young men who the military police and the soldiers had been abusing all day. They wanted to demonstrate. They wanted to welcome the US troops there because they saw them as--as--as saviors. But that day, a young man very much like that one there got clubbed to death in the head just for--just for being there.
LAMB: I think I counted 64 articles. I don't know if my number's right on this. Where did you get the idea? This is actually--you had a very successful book, "All Over But The Shoutin'." How--how many of those sold? Do you remember?
Mr. BRAGG: I don't remember, but it was--climbed up on the Best Seller List for a few weeks. We were happy about that.
LAMB: Who published that?
Mr. BRAGG: That was Random House Pantheon.
LAMB: Thi--this one is published by Alabama?
Mr. BRAGG: Mm-hmm. University of Alabama Press. It's ha--hard to get a--one of the big publishing houses, I think, to--to look at a collection of stories, especially from someone like me. I'm not particularly famous, and--and it's--it's hard to get them to do that. And--and I was grateful. The university presses, several university presses were interested. And it just seemed to make sense to do it at the University of Alabama.
LAMB: Who's the dinner stealer?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, the serial diner. Yeah. Probably one of the best stories I've ever--not--not best--one of the best stories I've ever reported. I don't know how well I wrote it, but it was a--he--his lawyer is a genuine--genuine good guy. And she tipped me off to him and warned me that he didn't like to answer questions. He just didn't like to answer questions. And he got--he was prone to be surly and just clam up, so I didn't ask him any. I just went in and looked at him through the screen. And I think we were at Rikers. No, the county holding facility at--at--in downtown New York. And I just said, `So how's the food in here?' and he talked for--I think it was an hour straight. He told me his whole life story, and I never had to ask a question.
LAMB: What is his story?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, he--he doesn't have a lot on the outside. He--he didn't have a--he had had a sad and tough upbringing and a sad and tough life. And some time back, he hit on a plan for survival, which was to--to eat his way into prison. And the way he does it is he goes to a nice restaurant, orders a good meal--steak or lobster or ribs. He is partial to ribs. So am I. And he--he has a nice drink and has some desert, and--and then he just refuses to pay. And he sits there and waits while the police come and get him. And they put him in. He--he goes to jail for a few weeks or a few months. When he gets out, he does it all over again. And he's got it down to a science.
LAMB: But what do the--what do the police say about all this?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, his lawyer said, `Maybe we should try to get the fellow some treatment of some kind, instead of just socking him back in the pokey every time he does this.' And instead, I think they just start making the sentences a little stiffer and a little stiffer.
LAMB: What--what's the fanciest restaurant he ever went to?
Mr. BRAGG: I'm not sure. There was a--there were--there were some midtown Manhattan restaurants that were...
LAMB: What does he look like?
Mr. BRAGG: He is a fairly good-sized fellow. He is--he was very nice to me while we were talking, but he--he definitely likes his food, and I understand that. And he--I asked him when we were all done what they were going to have for--for--for lunch that day, and he knew. He knew what was coming up. I think it was pork chops. It might have been fried chicken. But he--he knew.
LAMB: Do you remember his name?
Mr. BRAGG: Gangaram Mayes, and it's been spelled 63 different ways.
LAMB: But where's he from?
Mr. BRAGG: Ghana. And he--he was one of the--I've never had--as sad as it was--it was one of those stories that made people sad and it made them smile at the same time. And it did me, too. It--it--it was just one of those stories that fell right in the middle, and you really would feel guilty sometimes chuckling about it because the truth is, he didn't have anything to look forward to outside prison except eating. And, of course, there's days, some days, I think like that, too.
LAMB: But did--did you hear of anybody else ever doing anything like this?
Mr. BRAGG: No, it's--no, believe me. This was the--this was the--one of the first.
LAMB: How long has he done it?
Mr. BRAGG: I think he'd been doing it for years.
LAMB: Going into a restaurant, ordering food and getting arrested?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah. He's not violent. He--he just--he just goes in. He sits and he eats. He--he--he dresses well. I think the lead of the story was that in--in his best borrowed clothes. And he dresses, not--not certainly not--not--not to, you know, high Manhattan style, but he dresses reasonably well, so they let him in. And he--and they don't ask if he can pay up front. They just assume he can. And he--he eats really well. He--he liked swordfish. He liked--he liked--one--he like an Indian buffet particularly, and--and it closed. I--I hope he didn't have anything to do with that. But he might have.
LAMB: What's the story about the Chitlin Drive-In?
Mr. BRAGG: That's one of those stories that--that--that made the book that--I was real enthusiastic when I pitched it to the national desk, and then it occurred to me about halfway through the story that I had about half a good story and then about half of one that probably wasn't. The book was done thematically, so it wasn't my--my favorite stories. It was just the ones that fit into the different themes that--that we settled on. I guess if I--if I had to do over again, I would probably just pick the 60 of--of the stories that I liked the most. It's probably about 50 of those in there, and then the rest of them are some that fit themes. Like, for instance, there was, you know, a chapter on Susan Smith, a chapter on--on prisons, a chapter on just people in trouble.
LAMB: But is there actually a drive-in, though, where you can buy chitlins?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, yeah. Well, there was. It shut down, too. I'm the kiss of death when it comes to a lot of these things, but the--yeah. A restauranteur in Atlanta who had a--a--a good--a string of good sit-down meat-and-threes, fried chicken, barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans--you know, good stuff, stuff that kept me alive--probably kept me too much alive. But he thought that he would do that from a drive-through. So he bought an old, I think, Checkers drive-through hamburger stand and started selling corn bread and barbecued chicken. And--and it made me very happy because it was five blocks from my house.

The problem was I was riding by one day and I smelled this unmistakable smell. You grow up out in the country, you--there are three smells you always know. One is cracklings, you know, which is the rendered pork fat, you know, that they put in corn bread and--and greens and things. You know that smell. It smells real good. And then there's--there's the--just the stockyard smell that you al--never quite get away from. But then there's the chitlins smell, when people are cooking chitlins, and they smell terrible. And they--they probably taste--they taste better than they smell. I'll give them that much. And I thought, `If that really is chitlins, I think believe we've got ourselves a newspaper story here,' and it was. He was selling chitlins through the drive-through--through window. Closed down before I left Atlanta.
LAMB: What was your first newspaper job?
Mr. BRAGG: Very fi--well, high school really. I worked for the Selgae, which was Eagles spelled back--backward, at Jacksonville High School. Newspaper, I was the sports editor there, and I loved it. I didn't really think that I would be able to turn that into a job. Most people where I--I came from didn't go to college, and I really didn't have any plans to. I wasn't exactly a nose-to-the-grindstone student. And when I got out of high school, I went back doing pick-and-shovel work for my Uncle Ed and got a little--got a little lonely. And I thought, `Well, you know, I need to go to college at least a little bit.' So I--there were a few other things that prompted it, too. But I took one course at Jacksonville State University, went to work for the college newspaper.

And while I was there, I got hired by the Jacksonville Alabama News, a small weekly in town, as a sportswriter and--best thing that ever happened to me. Eas--if--if it hadn't happened, I probably wasn't going to get hired by--you just don't get hired by even the smallest papers in this country anymore unless you have some journalism training or you have some college. And sports editor at a small daily, the--the Daily Home in Talladega, Alabama, saw me in a press box, knew he could get me cheap, hired me. I worked there a year. Went to The Anniston Alabama Star as a sportswriter. I had a ball. Covered Bear Bryant, Richard Petty. Had about as much fun as you can have.
LAMB: Before we find out the rest, there's a Bear Bryant story in here.
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, yes, sir. Mm-hmm. Had to be.
LAMB: The--the--the one thing that popped out of the story was that 365 people were named after him?
Mr. BRAGG: Mm-hmm. Bear or Bryant or Paul or--you know.
LAMB: Who is he, for those who don't follow the story?
Mr. BRAGG: He is--he is--well, in Alabama, he--he walked on water. He was the--the sainted football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, the--the winningest Division--Division A football coach anywhere in any--I think Paterno is--is close or is--might have already, but never in Alabama. In Alabama, he'll always be something more than a football coach. And--and--and as people said in the story, he gave the state something to be proud of in an era when it did not have a lot to be proud of.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He...
LAMB: How'd he treat you?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, he had a room full of clamoring sportswriters, of which I was the youngest and the--probably...
LAMB: How old were you?
Mr. BRAGG: I was probably 19, 20, 21. I was the youngest and easily the dumbest, but he was nice enough to me. You know, he didn't--I can't say he spent a whole lot of time on me, but he was nice when I did bump into him every now and then.
LAMB: Why--why do you say you were the dumbest?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, because I--I was--I was easily the youngest, usually, because most of the sports--Alabama sportswriters are--I--I think, are very good because they get to write about some of the best sports in the country. Always have. Their newspapers put a lot of resources into the departments. So they can hire good people and they get good people. I love to pick up an Alabama sports page, no matter where I'm at, and--and read it. There's always something--there's a read. And they write with real imagination and detail. It was good for me. And I was just younger and trying to figure out what--what I was doing. And, you know, stumbling in there at that age, scared to death, with these, you know, gruff old veterans who are kind of my heroes, always kind of have been because they--they--they knew what they were doing.
LAMB: Were--were you with The Birmingham News then?
Mr. BRAGG: I worked at the Bir--I was not a sportswriter at The Birmingham News.
LAMB: How long were you there?
Mr. BRAGG: I was--I was in Birmingham about three years. I can't hold a job real well, so I kind of go from place to place.
LAMB: When did you move to St. Petersburg?
Mr. BRAGG: That was about '89, I--I think. About '89.
LAMB: Why did you make that move?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, a lot of things. One--I guess the main one was that St. Pete had this reputation as one of the finest newspapers in the country.
LAMB: Times?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah, the St. Pete Times. And--and--and that reputation was absolutely deserved, and just--you know, those of us who worked in midsized papers around the country always looked at St. Pete as this mecca. And--and I--when they offered me a job, I didn't take it at first. I--I--I actually tried to go home for a lot of personal reasons, go back to Alabama. But I took it the second time they of--made the offer. And--and it was one of the best--again, one of the best things that ever happened.
LAMB: When did you break out of the sports and go into the feature writing?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, that was--that was back when I was still in--in Anniston at The Anniston Alabama Star, which is one of the--again, I've been lucky. That was one of the best small newspapers in the country. I've had incredible luck at landing in these places. And--and I--I was in the--the sports department there, and the managing editor at the time, Chris Waddell, told me that I could already write a feature story, so why don't I come on over and try to learn how to write some news stories? I'm still trying on that. But I moved over, and the first story I wrote was about--I'll never forget it. It was about deer hunters who had killed each other in the woods in Alabama. There had been an incredible string of--of fatalities. And they ran it on the front page, big old spread. And I remember thinking, `God, this is easy.' I was dead wrong about that.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. BRAGG: It's a hard job. It's--it's--it's just a hard job. It's--it's one of those things that you do because you--you know, they--at first, they tell you--I was talking with a good friend of mine yesterday on the phone. And she said, `Just think, they give us a pencil and a piece of paper and tell us to go run around and write stuff down.' And that just--that's just--seems like too good to be true. But it's harder than that, and it gets--gets harder.
LAMB: Angola prison. You've got some stories about that. Where is it?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, it is in the middle of nowhere. It is in a bend of the Mississippi River, about halfway up the state of Louisiana, away from the--away from the bayous, more up in the piney woods part of the state.
LAMB: State prison?
Mr. BRAGG: State prison, the largest, I think--largest state prison in the country. Doesn't--you don't have people serving two, three years in Angola. It's a--I think 70 percent, 75 percent of the people are doing life. And in Louisiana, life means life.
LAMB: What's Ro--Rodeo Day?
Mr. BRAGG: Closest thing to the Roman Colosseum we probably have anymore. Twice--two Sundays a--a--a year in the fall, the inmates at Angola prison put on a prison rodeo, where they ride bucking horses and ride bulls and take part in some absolutely bizarre contests, like one where they turn a--a mean wild bull loose in the--the arena with a poker chip taped to its forehead. And the--the inmates, who are just on foot, have to run in and knock the poker chip to the ground, and whoever grabs it wins that event. Have one called convict poker, where they get the bull in the chute about from me to you from this table where these four inmates sit ostensibly playing poker. And they draw lots, I think, to see which inmate has to sit with his back to the bull chute. That would be the loser. And then they give the bull a jolt in a private place with a cattle prod and open the chute, and the bull comes out. And it's pretty spectacular.
LAMB: Have you been there?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: You watched it?
Mr. BRAGG: I--I covered it. Yeah. I--I--I covered it. It--I--I've rarely in this whole life seen anything quite like it.
LAMB: Townspeople come?
Mr. BRAGG: They line up for miles.
LAMB: Cost them any money to get in?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah.
LAMB: Who gets the money?
Mr. BRAGG: I think the state does. The inmates get to draw a certain amount of--of--you know, they--they get cash prizes. Not very much. They get cash prizes for it. And--but they do it for reasons that don't have anything to do with money. They do it because you're in prison, you're in prison for life. As one of the cowboys told me, he said, `I begged for a bull.' You know, for a few seconds, just a few seconds, he gets to--to hear cheers and hear these people gasp. And they're for him. You know, they're for him.
LAMB: Even though he might have murdered somebody?
Mr. BRAGG: He--well, he did murder somebody, the fellow in the--the lead of our story did. He killed a man in Wallkill, New York. No, he's from Wallkill, New York, but he came to Louisiana and killed a man. And that's how he wound up in the Angola prison rodeo.
LAMB: Do they volunteer for this?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah, yeah. They--they volunteer. And the warden there, Burl Cain, said that it takes three things to make a good prison, I think he said. He said is good food, two is good--good praying and the other is good playing, and the rodeo is good playing. And they have a--a--they have--they have a ball. They do not--they--they--they--they do not intend to get anybody hurt. And, you know, there are ambulances standing by and there are professional rodeo cowboys to help pull these things away, but it's rough.
LAMB: Anybody ever hurt been seriously?
Mr. BRAGG: I think there have been bones broken, certainly, and collarbones and--and...
LAMB: Nobody killed?
Mr. BRAGG: No, sir. No.
LAMB: Go back to that--that--they're sitting at the table, the bull is prodded, and is it the last person out that...
Mr. BRAGG: The last person who can still hold his seat and not run wins. It's--it's a nerve.
LAMB: What did it look like when you were there?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, the--the bull--the bull came out and got a little confused, like he didn't know quite what to do. So he took a look at the people at the table, and--and he--he stopped a minute. And it--it was almost as though he was thinking, `Well, what do I want to do here? Do I really want to run over those fellows or not?' and then he decided he did. And he just took a jump, and he landed in the table, on top of the table. The table collapsed. I think all three--no, all four inmates definitely bailed out, and I think they called it a draw.
LAMB: Any groups protest this?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, sure, o--over the years. But when you get right down to it, it's just a rodeo, but with a little lagniappe, little something extra.
LAMB: Who's Hayes Williams?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, that's--that's--that's one of the tragic stories I've covered. Hayes--Hayes went to prison a long time ago for taking--when he was a young--a young man--he was an old man when I talked to him--who had--the state of Louisiana had said he had taken part in a killing that he probably didn't take part in. And after a quarter-century or more, they--they let him go. He had been in Angola, agitating for change. He--for--for all that time. He was kind of a hero at Angola. He had helped transform the prison from its bad old days, when they called it a slaughterhouse, to today, where it's much better. And he--he was a--a--a quiet, thoughtful, tough man who had spent most of his life in--in--in prison. And when he got out, when he finally got out, didn't know how to live, didn't know how to live free.
LAMB: How did it--it affect him?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, the first day, he--he couldn't go out of his house. He--he put his hand on the doorknob and then just froze and then backed up away from it. Wasn't used to doors that locked from the inside. He was terrified that he would do something that would make them send him back to prison and even more terrified that he'd do something, I think, that would make people laugh at him. He'd walk down the street--a--a friend of mine told me that he was walking down the street with Hayes once and Hayes walked a long way down the street with a wadded-up sandwich wrapper in his hands because he didn't recognize the new garbage cans. He didn't recog--he didn't know what they were because they looked a lot different. And he finally figured out a plan t--so that he could walk around the neighborhood without fear of--he was afraid some woman would look out the window and scream, `Rape.' He was afraid he'd do something that the police would conceive as a crime and he would have to go back to prison. So he--he would carry a--a relative's baby in his arms when he would walk around the neighborhood because he figured that nobody would accuse him of anything if he was carrying a child.
LAMB: Where does he live now?
Mr. BRAGG: He's dead now. He died in a domestic dispute. He was shot.
LAMB: How do you find these stories?
Mr. BRAGG: That one had been written by very good reporters all over Louisiana. It had been written by some real good people. And, you know, you--you read them, maybe along the wires. Sometimes they just come in a three- or four-week-old newspaper, and you finally get a chance to go do them. I'd love to say that I had some real nose for--for finding these things. I just don't think I really do. I think--I think we just--we just find them. You know, we--we--we--we recycle them, you know. I don't think I've got any real skill at that. I just--I just know that when we do find them, I really enjoy doing them.
LAMB: How long did you live in St. Petersburg, Florida?
Mr. BRAGG: When I first went to work there, I lived in Clearwater and...
LAMB: Well, how long did you--how long were you at the St. Pete Times?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, I was at the St. Pete Times about--I was the Miami bureau chief for them for a while, so I was--I was in St. Pete about three and a half years, three years. One of those years was as a--I got the Nieman Fellowship, so it was a good time.
LAMB: So seven months of college, and then The New York Times. How often does that happen?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, I'm sure after having me around, it probably won't ever happen again. They--I don't know. I--I--I think that The Times has got such a mix of people. Sooner or later, it had to happen. There had to be somebody like me come in there. I still wonder sometimes, you know, how it happened.
LAMB: Who hired you?
Mr. BRAGG: Max Frankel and Joe Lelyveld hired me.
LAMB: Max Frankel is gone. Joe Lelyveld is still there.
Mr. BRAGG: Right. Lelyveld is there. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What year?
Mr. BRAGG: That would have been '94.
LAMB: Did they ever tell you why they wanted you?
Mr. BRAGG: They said they liked my writing, which was--you like to hear, you know, if you think you're one of those guys, you know? And they said they liked the writing. It sure wasn't my poise. At the interview--they give you these little metal badges that you--that proclaim you a visitor to The New York Times and I was so nervous, I was bending it in my fingers. And we were in a tiny room and about the same distance I am from you, and here are Max Frankel and Joe Lelyveld, these--you know, two of the most powerful men in--in journalism, smartest men in journalism proven. And as I was bucking this thing in my hands, it shot straight up into the air, came down, I reached and got it. And a few minutes later, I dropped it again. So it wasn't that I was particularly cool or suave at any point during the interview. I'm glad they--I'm tickled they wanted me.
LAMB: What year again?
Mr. BRAGG: It would have been about '94.
LAMB: And--and what was their reaction when you flipped the little...
Mr. BRAGG: Well, I think they were trying real hard to be nice to me 'cause they knew I was scared to death. And I think finally basically--I think it was Lelyveld--I'm not sure who it was, but I think finally they just said, you know--they made kind of like, you know, it's OK. Just let it--you know--let it--yeah, I could have been smoother.
LAMB: When did they tell you you had the job?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, it was a very bizarre time. They--they made me the offer soon after that. And I had another offer from the Los Angeles Times, so--and the Los Angeles Times didn't scare me as much as The New York Times did. New York Times terrified me. I don't mean any--I mean--I mean, deep in my guts it scared me to death. And the LA Times, you know, was--was known as a--as a writer's paper. And so I took the Los Angeles Times offer and turned down The New York Times. I worked at the Los Angeles Times three weeks, two days, four hours and 27 minutes--I know because I had my parking card--and--and left. They--they didn't keep their promises, I thought. So I left the LA Times and--and went to The New York Times. I asked them if they'd take me.
LAMB: What was their promise they didn't keep?
Mr. BRAGG: They had--had--they had said that I would work some on the--on the LA Times magazine, that I would do a lot of page one takeouts and that kind of thing. And I showed up and I was a general assignment reporter on the metro desk. So I ain't real smart, but I'm smart enough to know that was wrong. So I--I--I tried to stick with it for a few weeks, but it kind of hurt my country pride. In the end, everyone there, they made good on it and we worked it out, but I was--you know, sometimes things just go bad. And if you start your first two or three weeks at a newspaper with--with bad feelings, you might ought to move on out if you can. And so I called The New York Times and asked if they would take me and they did. Best--and again, that's just luck.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, I live now--I live in Miami. But that's about to change. I'm the Miami bureau chief.
LAMB: What are you going to do next?
Mr. BRAGG: I'm going to start--I hope go back to--to what I really like to do. I'm going to roam around the country, do some good narratives, stories like some of those in the book. My beat will be to--to do that, also to pay attention to--to people in trouble. I'll probably write a lot about prisons. I'm sure I will. That's part of the--the arrangement. And--and I'm going to live in New Orleans. And--and hopefully I'll have the time to do the kind of things that I've always wanted to do.
LAMB: What's the shantytown story?
Mr. BRAGG: That was one of the first stories I did in Miami. Miami back in the early '90s had a--a--a very visible homeless population in the downtown. And they lived under the interstates. And it was not just a few people drifting back and forth. People made homes there. They didn't build--necessarily build houses. Although some did, built little shacks. And other places in Miami. But with the roof of the interstate overhead, the homeless made kind of their own little society there with its--their own rules. And I just went and interviewed them.
LAMB: Did you tell them who you were?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, sure. Sure.
LAMB: Who did you write the article for?
Mr. BRAGG: St. Pete. It was for St. Pete.
LAMB: Did you spend a lot of time with them?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah, I spent a couple, three days under there off and on. And probably parts of another two or three days. You know, really sad, tragic stories.
LAMB: Wh--what kind of people were they?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, you had--you had quite a--you had quite a few people who could tell you, you know, they were just a few paychecks short of making rent, you know? There were--you know, there were some people there that--that enjoyed and had found a home in that--that world.
LAMB: Were they bright?
Mr. BRAGG: Some of them were.
LAMB: Were they--how about the age?
Mr. BRAGG: Everything from--everything from--from like teen-age girls to 50-, 60-year-old men.
LAMB: Different races?
Mr. BRAGG: Most--mostly--mostly black folks, some Hispanics. You know, Vietnam vet who had--had--had problems. He'd wake up screaming, scaring people to death. But he'd go every day and wait in the work pool for work. He just never made enough money to not be homeless. And then there was--some people had--had mastered it. One man sold used clothing to the homeless. And he had a little, like, you know, little bundle of--of clothes that he--he sold. Others kind of seemed content in it. You know, they had pets.
LAMB: How do you--how do you put them at ease?
Mr. BRAGG: I don't think you ever--I think that's how--I think for me, at least, I think--the--the interview process, you want it to be--you want people to be at ease and you want to talk to them when they're in their living room or outside their refrigerator box. But I think it's real hard. I think that when you walk up with a notebook and you invade that space, it's always a little perverted the--you know. I came up there wearing a pair of khaki pants and a button-down shirt, or a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. And finally I figured out. And I--you know, I had very little in common. You can't--you can't pretend you do. And you just try to put people at ease, you know, and--and--and--and get the most you can from them. I--I go talk to people in the Deep South. I've got everything in common with them. And I go talk to people in the inner city, and I've got everything in common with them, you know? My--you know, I grew up, you know, very poor. My mom picked cotton for a living. So, you know, I've got a lot in common with those folks. But I never been without a home before.
LAMB: Mom still alive?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, sure. Absolutely. She's hard as nails.
LAMB: What about your dad?
Mr. BRAGG: My dad passed away a long time ago when I was in my--my teens.
LAMB: Brothers and sisters?
Mr. BRAGG: I've got a brother Sam, who is one of the best people I know, and a little brother Mark, who's--he's an adventurer, but he's--we love him.
LAMB: How old is he?
Mr. BRAGG: He's younger than me. He's 37. Sam's--we're three years apart. Sam's my older brother. And he's the typical older brother, you know...
LAMB: Brothers go to college?
Mr. BRAGG: No.
LAMB: What--what do they all think? Do they--do they have any sense of Rick Bragg, New York Times reporter? Does it matter to them?
Mr. BRAGG: I don't--I don't think it really matters that much. And I think they're proud of me, you know. I think that's the only real thing that enters into it. I think they're proud of me.
LAMB: Do they read you?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah. My brothers, not so much as my mom, you know. My mom doesn't read everything, but she--I--I tend to--instead of her like going through the paper every day and reading me. I tend to send her things that I know she'll like, you know, stories that aren't heartbreaking.
LAMB: What does she do now and how old is she?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, she's--Mom's--Mom's in her mid-60s and she--she lives in--on the Nesbit Lake Road outside Jacksonville, Alabama. And she cans tomatoes and she makes jelly and she makes quilts and she takes care of my brothers still in a lot of ways and looks after them. And she--she plants a lot of flowers.
LAMB: Who do you think has a better life? Does your mother or somebody that's gone to make tremendous amounts of money and live in a fancy suburb?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, I think it all depends on your peace of mind.
LAMB: Does she have peace of mind?
Mr. BRAGG: We're--we're not quite there yet, but we're trying to get it. You know, there just ain't no way to hammer it out and make it perfect. I figured that out a long time ago. You can buy--you can buy everything in the world, you know, for them, but it's--it's not going to be perfect without the peace of mind. So I think it's hard to say. I think my--I think my mom wants nothing anymore complicated than it is right now. She enjoys the flowers and she enjoys the--the, you know, feeding her dogs, which are always strays that just show up. She reads the Bible. She--I know for a fact she's proud of me, but I think she'd be just as proud of me if I were my brother Sam and I had, you know, been married for 25 years to the same person and I'd had a child who--raised that child there, where she could see--see it and, you know, talk to it. And she would have been just as proud of me if I had worked in the cotton mill or if I'd rode a tractor or if I'd been a body and fender man. My dad did some body and fender. She'd have been just as proud of me. Absolutely.
LAMB: "All Over But The Shoutin'," what year did that come out?
Mr. BRAGG: It came out in nin--in '96, I think, '96, '97.
LAMB: Why did you write that?
Mr. BRAGG: I wrote it for her. She had made a tremendous number of sacrifices for me. She--she really did drag me up and down a million miles of cotton field. She would put us--the children--small children on the sack and we'd ride that sack. That was our baby-sitter. You know, we were toddlers. And we'd fall off and get back on. She'd stop and pick us back up, put us on there. And, you know, she took in ironing, took in laundry. She scrubbed floors. She did everything. You know, so that I'd have two pairs of blue jeans instead of one. So, you know, I wrote it for her.
LAMB: Who is or was Oseola McCarty?
Mr. BRAGG: Oseola McCarthy was one of the--one of the--one of those stories that you write and you're just--you're just so proud you wrote it. She was an 86-year-old washer woman from--from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who, as she saw her own death approaching, she--she donated the money that she'd made from washing other people's clothes for a lifetime to the University of Southern Mississippi. And when people asked her, `Well, why did you give it to the University of Southern Mississippi?' And she said, `Well, baby, it's there. It's here.'
LAMB: How much money?
Mr. BRAGG: One fifty thousands dollars and...
LAMB: And she made this...
Mr. BRAGG: Washing and ironing clothes over--she started doing it when she was a teen-ager. I guess you'd make that much if you do it for 60 years.
LAMB: What was the reaction in the community?
Mr. BRAGG: Just amazement, just--just, you know--I really believe this, that having her in that town, having her in that state made it--just made it better. Just made--you know, just made it better. Just added something to it, some--some--some decency.
LAMB: What race?
Mr. BRAGG: She's black.
LAMB: And who did she give it to? I mean, is there a certain--did she--I think I remember you saying something only black kids could...
Mr. BRAGG: That was what she first did and then they just decided later that, you know, it didn't really matter what color people were, they just needed it. If they needed it, then they got it. And...
LAMB: Is it an endowment kind of thing or...
Mr. BRAGG: It's an endowment. It has grown. Other people have added to it and it has grown. It will probably help people go to college at the University of Southern Mississippi for a very, very long time. She said--she told me--she said, `I just want'--she said--I'll never forget--`I just want the children not to have to work as hard as I did.' And I interviewed her, and I'm convinced--you know, I interviewed her and sat and just--I--she did not enjoy talking. And she did not enjoy being interviewed at first. And I really did have to--you know, I really did have to work hard to get her to talk to me at all. But the things she said were just, you know, she didn't waste her breath and she didn't waste her words. And the things she said just made you just--you know, just made you glow.
LAMB: Did you use a tape recorder?
Mr. BRAGG: No, I didn't need one for Oseola, you know, I...
LAMB: Do you ever use one?
Mr. BRAGG: I used one two or three times in my career. Usually I try to just use a notebook. I think people look at the tape recorder and get kind of squirrelly, you know? Usually just try to use a notebook if I can.
LAMB: Who were the Hicks babies?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, man. That was--they--was that the Siamese twin babies? Yeah. That was the--the--it's--it's been so long, I forgot their last name. But they--they were joined at the chest--or abdomen, I think.
LAMB: No, that was--the Hicks babies were the black market people.
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, oh, oh, yeah, the black market babies were...
LAMB: Out of--out of Georgia, Hinesville, Georgia.
Mr. BRAGG: Right, right, right. The--the--the black market babies were sold by a physician in a small town up in the north Georgia mountains to people who needed a child and couldn't have one. And this was--this was years ago back in the '60s--'50s and '60s. And the doctor, Dr. Hicks, would--would--he performed abortions when they were not legal at the time. The townspeople really respected him. He would heal them. And he would--you know, I talked to one man who said `I'd be dead now if Dr. Hicks wasn't around.' So he had this kind of insulation of people in the town who--who--who really liked him--loved him. But one of his side businesses was selling babies. A young woman would come to him pregnant and he would say, `Well, you know, if you carry it to term, we can--we can--we can sell this baby.' And they would sell them for a few hundred dollars or a few thousand to--people would drive all the way down from Ohio to get a--get a child. Word just got out if you wanted a baby.
LAMB: But you said that--that Jane Bazio went back to try to find her original mother.
Mr. BRAGG: Right.
LAMB: Did she ever find her?
Mr. BRAGG: She found a woman that--that very well could have been. The woman had already died.
LAMB: Now, Dr. Hicks died in '72?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah. Dr. Hicks passed away and took a lot of secrets with him. So Jane Bazio was kind enough to talk to me and kind of talked me through her search for her own mom. And she found a woman who looked very much like her. She's told me that she would like to--that she'd liked to walk the town, just looking for someone with her color eyes, you know? And she finally found--finally found a woman who could have been--could have been. But she had already died.
LAMB: That was a New York Times story.
Mr. BRAGG: Right.
LAMB: Did your life change as far as people's reaction to your stories once you went to The New York Times?
Mr. BRAGG: I think they just got--I think they reached more people. And certainly, they landed with a louder sound. Sometimes a thud. But...
LAMB: Which one of your stories since you've been there has had the most impact?
Mr. BRAGG: It's hard to say.
LAMB: Or maybe not just one, but I mean, give us some examples.
Mr. BRAGG: Well, we--I was proud of the stories we did out of Haiti during the--they left me there for a few months. And I was proud of the stories that we did there because they called attention to the terrible atrocities. But our reporters who'd been there before had already been doing those and had been doing a much better job than I did. I just happened to be there helping out at the time. And I was very proud that I was. I was really proud that I got to do that. I think they--if nothing else, they certainly called attention to--to--to, you know, the killing and might have--I guess in just a--a--a pure--whether or not they did any good or not, that--that--that would be it. Sometimes--I did a piece recently on some Haitian children who--this was during the Elian crisis--some Haitian children, who, their mamas were going to be sent back to Haiti because they had come over illegally. So they were going--the children had been born here, so they were legal citizens. The--the--their mamas were not. And they were going to--their mama had to make a decision: Do I keep this child with me and take it to Haiti, where there is disease and danger, or do I just leave it here? A hard choice to make, I think, for most people.
LAMB: A lot of your stories are about black folks.
Mr. BRAGG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: How do they react to a white man interviewing them?
Mr. BRAGG: I don't--I don't...
LAMB: See any difference, see any change?
Mr. BRAGG: I don't really th--I--I'm sure that--that there are times when it's--when it's a factor of some kind, but I--most of the time not. Not really.
LAMB: You said that racism is a kind of recreation sport in east Texas. You made that comment in the book.
Mr. BRAGG: Mm-hmm. The--the--there's kind of a--there is kind of--I wrote in--in a section of the book that I keep thinking that one of these days I'm not going to have to write about race anymore--race as a--as a confrontation.
LAMB: Right.
Mr. BRAGG: And every time you think that, you find out just how dead wrong you are. You know, ev--somebody does something monumentally stupid and cruel, and the next thing you know you're on a plane.
LAMB: What's the story about Bill Simpson, the seven-foot-tall...
Mr. BRAGG: Big Bill.
LAMB: ...gentleman that moved into federal housing and--Is it Vidor (pronounced Vidoor)? Is that your...
Mr. BRAGG: It's Vidor (pronounced Vider).
LAMB: Vidor.
Mr. BRAGG: Vidor, Texas. Bill--oftentimes, you know, when you write about people who--have the prettiest phrase I ever heard for it--the strongest phrase I ever heard was if they live on the smile of extinction. And these people live on the smile of extinction. And Bill lived on the smile of extinction. He was the last black man in Vidor, Texas, of an attempt to integrate the town that had had heavy Klan activity forever outside Beaumont, Texas, in east Texas. And the town needed to integrate a housing development, housing project for--to get--I'm not sure if it was a--I think it was for federal funding. So they made a nice offer to several black families. And all of them were run off except Bill. He was this massive man, one of those gentle giant people that the children loved.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
Mr. BRAGG: Oh, I--I spent a good bit of time with him.
LAMB: Seven feet tall?
Mr. BRAGG: Huge. Seven feet tall and--and wide. But not a--not a dangerous man. He had--he had knee--leg trouble and--and he was just--he sat--we sat in the dark because he didn't want to turn the light on. And we sat in the dark and we talked and talked and talked and...
LAMB: How did you take notes?
Mr. BRAGG: Badly, you know.
LAMB: Where is he now?
Mr. BRAGG: He's in--Bill died in a robbery attempt when he moved out of Vidor.
LAMB: He attempted the robbery?
Mr. BRAGG: No, no, no. He was--he was killed. A man was trying to rob him. And I don't think that was part of his life. I mean, he was just was--it was not long after he left. You know, that's what I mean. You know, I think we--when the story is done, it's a nice neat pat sometimes ending to--to, you know, to a life. It seems that way anyway. And then, you know, two weeks later or two years later or 15 years later, you find out that, you know, just--something just breaks your heart.
LAMB: Do you have a family, by the way? Are you married?
Mr. BRAGG: No. I--I was marry once, and I--I came within striking distance of marriage again recently. But she came to her senses. And I'm beginning to think that I just might not be qualified for it. Just might not be--just might not be--I'm not qualified for a lot of things. And marriage might--might be one of them.
LAMB: What's the story about the pig farm and the golf course?
Mr. BRAGG: That's--that's one of the--one of the real highlights of being back in Miami. We heard about it. You know, and again, we get it off the Associated Press story or we see a local story and we go up and then we put the poor people through the interview process all over again. And--and we--Paul Thompson and--drove up with a friend of mine--photographer friend of mine--and we--we met Paul. I'll never forget, turning in that driveway, and that smell that I remember because, you know, we had--had hogs when I was a kid. That smell would just--it hit you--I think I said in the story--like a punch in the nose. And it--it was awful. And--but that wasn't the problem.

The--the--the problem was that, you know, the golf course, a very fancy nice golf course had moved in next door to the hog farm. The hog farm was there first as he pointed out. And--and he liked to play country music for his pigs. He thought that it soothed them. And it--he'd heard somewhere that cows gave better milk and that even human babies were better behaved if there was a nice music. I wasn't--I'm not quite sure how he made that rationalization to the Dixie Chicks singing about wide open spaces or, you know, or--or--or Conway Twitty or George Jones singing--I don't remember what George was singing but he was singing it in the way George sings. And--I like George a lot. But anyway, they--this whole thing, the smell and the music and the pigs grunting around, and you look just across this little narrow road in the Florida scrub, and here's this fellow, you know, trying to draw a beat on a ball this big with an iron stick. It must have been real hard. And--and they were at war, the golf club and--and the--the pig farmer. And--and--and Mr. Thompson told me, he said, you know, `Didn't they--didn't they read the sign when they built that golf course? It said pig farm, not rose garden.' And I think they've actually worked out their differences since then.
LAMB: Did money...
Mr. BRAGG: I don't know if money did or not. I just think they kind of came to--I think he turned the music down a little bit. And I think they're serving pork chops in their dining hall.
LAMB: Elvis?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah. You're a Southerner and you don't get to write about Elvis, you've done something terribly wrong.
LAMB: And you did this for The New York Times in '97?
Mr. BRAGG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Had you been to Memphis before you did this story?
Mr. BRAGG: I'd been to Memphis a couple times and I always wanted to go back. Memphis is one of those Southern cities that you--you want to drift to if you can. Every now and then an assignment comes down the pipe at The New York Times that just--you see it and you just bust out laughing. You just can't believe that, you know, for all the Ramada Inns that you set in writing about the most recent atrocity, every now and then the editor says, `How about going over to Memphis and writing us something about the--the--the Elvis reunion?' I think this was an anniversary of his death. And, you know, you don't have to think real hard about that. It was fun.
LAMB: What did you find? What kind of people were Elvis...
Mr. BRAGG: That's when I--that was the day that two things happened to me that I--I--I--two real--I--I love that word Epiphany. I just can't pronounce it. But I had two that day. And the first was that the people who went to that anniversary by the--by the tens of thousands, or more, were not particularly impressed by Elvis impersonators in big white jump suits or things like that. They loved his music. And they--and they loved his persona. And they loved him before he ever did Vegas. And they were very tired of being made fun of. And they were very tired of people making jokes about them, calling them unsophisticated and...
LAMB: Five hundred clubs around the world?
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah. And they were very weary of that. And these were smart, nice folks. But they were real--they were real people. I mean, they had--they had a variety of jobs. And they just loved his music. And if you sit and listen to it real well, it's hard not to like it. And my Aunt Jo was a huge Elvis fan. And it just--that was the first time I think I ever really realized that--how they smarted under, you know, the smart people making fun of them.
LAMB: What what did you think of Graceland?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, it--it was big enough and it was--you know, they--Elvis sure seemed to know how to--well, he knew how to decorate a lot. But the other Epiphany I came to is that--I wrote this thing up thinking it might go on the front page. And instead it was bumped off the front page in The New York Times by a story about French seaweed. And that's when I really understood where I worked, you know?
LAMB: Other than George Cornwallace, not any politics in this thing?
Mr. BRAGG: I'm not a real--I'm no kind of political reporter--we've got so many good ones at our place who are so good at what they do and understand it and understand the spin. And they're smarter than the spin. And they really serve the readers because they're smarter than the spin. And I--I--we got people like that all over the place. I just ain't one of them. I'm just not--I'm really not any good at it.
LAMB: What's your favorite assignment? When the call comes in, or when do you know that this is going to be your best and most fun thing to do?
Mr. BRAGG: You want it to be--you want it to be something that matters. You want it to be, for instance, when Governor Wallace passed away, I knew where to go to find the people to talk about his--the people who loved him and the people who hated him. You want it to be--you want it to matter, I guess, when you--when you go. And it can be funny or it can be sad, but you want it to matter.
LAMB: University of Alabama publishes this, 64 columns by Rick Bragg. He's on his way to New Orleans as he continues to write for The New York Times. "Somebody Told Me," the title of this book. Thank you very much.
Mr. BRAGG: Thank you, sir.

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