This blog post is about my chance meeting with a guy named Tommy Flynn. But also be sure and check out my Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about domestic violence in the NFL. You can read it here.
September 9, 2014
(WILLIMANTIC, Ct) Over the summer my alma mater Eastern Connecticut State University hired me to teach a writing class with just one student. Classes were to be held on Saturdays at 8:30 a.m.
The campus is ten hours from my Virginia home. The distance required me to drive up on Fridays and spend the night in a home furnished by the college. I wondered if it was worth the trouble for one student.
On June 28th I arrived early for the first class and waited in a third-floor classroom in an empty building on the deserted campus. At 8:31 I wondered if my student was a no-show. Then the door opened and in walked a young man in cargo shorts, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. He had some facial scruff to go along with a coffee cup in one hand and a notebook in the other. He introduced himself as Tommy Flynn.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he said. “It took longer than I expected to get out of New York.”
“You drove here from New York?”
“Yeah, I live on Long Island. I got up at 4:30 to get here on time.”
Curious, I spent the next hour interviewing him. Here’s some of what I learned.
Tommy Flynn, 24, grew up on Long Island, where he played lacrosse in high school. The opportunity to play lacrosse in college drew him to Eastern. And it’s the only thing that kept him there. In that respect he was like a lot of college athletes I’ve met.
After four years of college he still needed a few classes to graduate. But he left Eastern in 2012 to pursue an opportunity to play lacrosse in Australia. While living in Australia he also went snowboarding in New Zeeland and traveled to Southeast Asia. Eventually, he ended up back in New York, working as a bartender in midtown at a pub called The Australian. It caters to Australians.
“Why did you take this class?” I asked.
“I like to write and I heard you write for Sports Illustrated.”
“What have you written?”
“I kept a journal of my travels. I have a video journal, too.”
“What kinds of things have you videoed?”
“Stuff like me landing on a beach in Thailand. That was a trip.”
“Why did you keep a journal?”
“I figured ten years down the road it would be good to look back.”
I reached into my bag and removed a chapter I’d just finished writing for Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. I told Tommy that a while back Young had hired me to help him write his life history.
Then I explained that about six years ago I started helping individuals write their life histories. It’s like creating a journal where none exists. For example, my last book – MY NAME USED TO BE MUHAMMAD – is a memoir I wrote for Tito Momen, an Islamic fundamentalist who was imprisoned after converting to Christianity in the Middle East.
But whether writing for a famous retired football player or for someone persecuted for his religion, the biggest challenge is faulty memory. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Schacter has written a fascinating book called The Seven Sins of Memory. It makes clear that even a healthy memory is an unreliable aid for autobiography.
With the Steve Young chapter in hand, I faced Tommy. “I’m going to read you something no one else has seen.”
He leaned forward, propping his chin on his hands.
As I read I’d stop and explain writing techniques, the use of dialogue, and how I gathered certain pieces of information to compensate for faulty memory.
Tommy loved the chapter. “I felt like I was in the huddle with him,” he said.
Then I told Tommy I wanted him to make me feel like I was behind the bar with him at The Australian. His assignment for the class was to produce a series of journal entries about his experience as a bartender in New York City.
I asked him if he had served anybody famous. He told me that a couple weeks earlier he had served Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox.
And he said a week after that The Australian hosted an NBA Draft after party for Donte Exum, who was selected fifth overall by the Utah Jazz.
I told him that a good bartender has to possess some of the same qualities as a good journalist, such as the ability to listen, keep confidences, and resist judgment.
Five days later Tommy emailed me journal entries about Murdoch and Exum. I edited them and sent them back with a bunch of queries. For our next class I told Tommy it didn’t make sense for both of us to drive all the way to the northeast corner of Connecticut. Instead, we met at the New York Public Library. Then I had him show me The Australian. Then we held class in Bryant Park. On a warm, muggy Saturday morning we sat at a small circular table amidst dozens of people sipping coffee, texting, and reading the paper.
One of the things I wanted to teach Tommy was something most people struggle with when it comes to writing – the concept of show-don’t-tell. As I discussed this with him a woman passed by. I asked Tommy to describe her. “Gorgeous,” he said.
But that doesn’t tell a reader anything. Describe her. Like this – wavy, dirty blond hair; dark black sunglasses; a gold bracelet on her wrist; long, tanned legs elevated by three-inch sued pumps. Her hips sway with each stride.
Then I pointed to the homeless man near us and told Tommy to try again. This time he said – Large black man, sitting on two black garbage bags stuffed with clothing, his head stooped forward, his eyes shut. Cracked fingers. Bags under his eyes. He has on a thick sweatshirt.
That’s what I’m talking about. You have to write that way. Be visual.
For the rest of the summer Tommy rewrote his journal entries each week and send them to me. I’d edit, suggest revisions, and send them back. Then we’d meet in different locations and discuss the various elements of writing.
Here are cut-down versions of his entries on Murdoch and Exum:
June 13, 2014. The World Cup is underway and today Australia faced Chile in the opening round. Australia had no chance. But that didn’t stop the Aussies in New York from partying as if their home country was on the verge of winning the cup. Even before the match started over two hundred people jammed the bar, downing meat pies, sausage rolls and James Boag’s Premium Lager, a popular beer from the little island of Tasmania.
Most of the crowd was under forty. Patrons painted their bodies green. Blow-up kangaroos were everywhere. But one man looked out of place. He wore a long-sleeve blue Polo over a collared, white button-down shirt. He took a seat opposite me and I immediately noticed the reflection on his shiny gold watch. I’d never seen such a fancy wristwatch.
I wanted to spark up a conversation. But he was reserved and his eyes were on the flat screen television. He sat opposite me for the entire game, rooting on Australia. After the match he handed me his black Amex card. It bore a corporate name. As I closed his tab and swiped his card, my boss Annie approached and whispered in my ear: “Do you know who that man is?”
I was speechless. Rupert Murdoch as in the guy who owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and all that? Yeah, that Rupert Murdoch. I’d been serving him for two hours and had no idea.
He flashed a polite smile when I returned the card. In my mind I replayed the previous two hours. He was so polite, so unassuming. He was the best-dressed guy in the joint. But he was at home amongst his countrymen. He didn’t act rich or important.
I thought about the World Cup. Not many other events can bring together people from all walks of life just because they are from the same country.
June 26, 2014. I arrived at work expecting an ordinary Thursday night – a busy happy hour and a handful of parties in one of our designated areas. But in the briefing – the meeting we hold before each shift – the manager pointed out that the NBA Draft was taking place in the city and we were hosting an after party sponsored by Red Bull for Donte Exum, the only Australian player entering the league.
All I knew about Exum was that he was an 18-year-old, 6’6” guard who could shoot the lights out. A few hours into the shift he was selected fifth overall by the Utah Jazz. I fully expected to see him arrive with an entourage of guys and provocatively dressed women. Boy, was I wrong. Exum showed up with his parents and extended family. The only women in his party were immediate family and relatives. His “entourage” consisted of children, including his 6-year old cousin, who stole the night by dancing and singing along to every song the DJ played.
Exum never touched alcohol, even though he was offered by a number of people. He was only interested in celebrating with his family in a friendly environment. I left stunned at how mature and impressive he was. He made a fan out of me. The Utah Jazz got a good kid.
Needless to say, I’m grateful to ESCU for giving me the opportunity to teach one student. Tommy Flynn is set to graduate and he has a story to tell.