Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NUVO at 25: Hammer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 3:23 PM


I got my job at NUVO on somewhat of a fluke. My friend Scott Hall had been hired as managing editor and Harrison Ullmann had been hired for a part time job, nominally as "editor" but more of an editor emeritus role. Ullmann was in his 60s, a veteran of The Star and his own political tipsheets, and it was thought he'd step aside after a few months and let Scott take the reins, as it were, of the editorial operation.

After just a few months, it became clear to Scott that Harrison had no intention of stepping aside for shit. He was having too good of a time in his new role, gladhanding politicians, getting free overseas trips and getting quoted in The New York Times. Ullmann loved the attention and wasn't going to stop getting it. Scott saw himself as being in a subservient position to Ullmann and wanted no part of it. He decided to step aside and the job came open.

I'd met Ullmann several times and I understood him instinctively. It's hard, after all this passage of time, to adequately describe the man. He was old-school in the most literal sense of the word. He believed in editorial integrity and a strict separation between the ad department and the newsroom. He didn't suffer fools gladly and most of the advertising people he met throughout his life had been fools.

Physically, he was an imposing presence. He was around 6-3 with a shock of white hair that, in his younger days, had been red. He was a happily married man who still had an eye on the ladies. Coming to NUVO gave him the opportunity to be the boss, to call the shots and to avenge all the wrongs that had been committed against him earlier in his career. As a bonus, he got to be around young, attractive women at the office who admired him. Of course he wasn't going to step aside. Nobody really believed that he would, except maybe Scott.

So when Scott gave his two weeks notice, I sprang into action. I wanted that job and I knew how Ullmann worked. He admired persistence and determination — so I called him two and three times a day to lobby him for an interview. Maybe he saw something of himself in me, or maybe that's just conceit on my part. Either way, he didn't discourage my stalking efforts and so I felt pretty good about my chances.

After one fairly short, perfunctory interview with McKinney and Ullmann, I was offered the job and immediately set out to consolidate my position. Scott had been considerate enough to leave right before the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in Austin, Texas, so I got to bond with my coworkers right away on the road. I got to meet Lynda Barry, the famous cartoonist, and unsuccessfully hit on a beautiful woman who worked for South by Southwest.

I attended a seminar about diversity in the newsroom, just like hundreds of similar seminars before and since. I raised my hand and said that I'd worked for years at an African-American newspaper and I knew that there were more than enough talented black writers out there if the newspapers wanted to look hard enough and pay well enough. That landed me in the pages of Editor and Publisher, the journalism trade newspaper, which also didn't hurt me.

I didn't mind that Ullmann wanted to be the big boss. I frankly didn't give a fuck. I just wanted a regular paycheck. He delegated most all of the day-to-day decisions to me while he spent his time at local coffee shops and at home, barking into his vintage Western Electric black telephone. A few times a week, he'd walk into the office and ask how everything was going. The only answer he wanted to hear was "Fine." Easy enough.


Ullmann liked to focus on big-picture stuff. He read The Economist with devotion and used their dry commentary as a template for his own droll columns. He wasn't afraid to piss off readers and, in fact, relished it when he did.

The only time I recall him getting really pissed off was when I altered his copy, which I quickly learned not to do. Another thing that provoked his anger was when writers used euphemisms for curse words, such as "f—-" and "s—-." His point was valid. When you use the letter F followed by three dashes, the only possible intent would be to evoke the word "fuck" in the readers' minds. He saw it as a cowardly act, an affront to his very being.

"Goddamn it," he said, to use two of his favorite introductory words. "I don't want to see F dash-dash-dash ever again. If you want people to think of the word Fuck, write out the word Fuck. Or shit. Don't take the easy way out."

No problem. Henceforth, we used the word "fuck" as often as I thought we could get away with it. Too many "fucks" and the advertisers started to get nervous. Too few and my boss would be mad at me. That was my principal job in those days, to regulate the fucks in the newspaper and to be there when the paper was put together on Tuesday afternoons.

It was 1993, 22 years ago, not the Dark Ages, but the world of newspapering was quite different then. Most importantly, there was no internet in popular use. We had a dial-up connection and a Compuserve account at work, which only I used, and I used it primarily to download pictures of naked women and to read sports scores.

I remember being at a journalism conference at Franklin College circa 1994 and the host asking if anyone had ever used the World Wide Web, which only existed through a browser called Mosaic. Internet Explorer had yet to be rolled out. Only a few people besides me raised their hands.

As I recall, the prevailing sentiment at the conference was most assuredly against technology. There's no way that news could be automated, they said. The reader has too big of an emotional investment in the local newspaper and that bond could never be broken by someone looking at a screen. People wanted to take their newspapers into the bathroom, onto the bus, share it with their friends. They didn't want to stare at the news on a flickering screen.

NUVO, like most newspapers in those days, made most of its money on print advertising. And while the full-page and half-page ads brought in impressive dollars, they also needed a salesperson for those and salespeople cost money. Classified advertising, however, was pure gravy. All you needed to collect them was a phone and a warm body. We also made big money on personal ads. People placed the ads for free and interested parties paid to respond. There was also a 900 number for people to leave messages, and we got a slice of its revenue. When Yahoo Personals started to take hold by about 1997 or so, followed by the approximately 1 billion ways to get laid on the internet, that revenue stream dried up.

Ullmann wanted someone to cover the things he couldn't; namely, what was going on in the minds of 20- and 30-something people. He may have made a rare misjudgment in selecting me to fill that role, but he did and I ran with it.

The more uncomfortably personal I got, or the more radical my positions became, the more he liked it and so I gave him more and more of it. The readers reacted. Many were supportive and many were not. I still got my check either way. I wanted to be a lightning rod of controversy and, to some extent at least, I succeeded.

Back in those days, there were no idiots blogging about nonsense on the internet because nobody had the Internet. I saw an opening. There weren't any clinically fucking insane people in print in Indy in those days, or at least they didn't glorify it if they were.

I decided I would be that clinically insane person. For the next 20 years, I was, and still am, at least to some extent, that fucking crazy person. It made me laugh and kept me from being homeless.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Steve Hammer: Hoosier turned Texan

Posted By on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 11:56 AM

NUVO's Texas poolside news desk - ALL PHOTOS BY STEVE HAMMER
  • All photos by Steve Hammer
  • NUVO's Texas poolside news desk

I. I am officially a Texan.

I received my Texas driver's license in the mail last week, 18 months after leaving Indianapolis. It was my final act in formally renouncing my Hoosier citizenship, if not my allegiance to the state. I waited so long because I could. I didn't really need to drive, a fact that baffled all my Texan acquaintances because most people here think nothing of making a 60-minute commute or 400-mile road trip.

My new home in San Antonio is only 1.5 miles away from my office and sometimes I walk to work. Also, three city bus routes go down Broadway Street in front of my apartment; an unlimited monthly bus pass costs only $35.

A car for me was not a necessity at least until I had saved enough money to comfortably buy one with cash, which I did a few months ago, hence the need for a Texas license. It automatically makes me a registered voter in Texas for the first time too, thanks to the Motor Voter Act President Clinton got passed in the early 1990s.

Another purported freedom available in Texas is the ability to drive on certain highways with no enforced speed limits under 100 mph. I have a 4.6 liter V8 engine in my new car and I get to take advantage of the posted 85 mph limit and then some.

I was afraid this place would be too conservative for me but I have actually met very few Republicans here in the last year and a half. When I do I am taken aback just a bit but simultaneously charmed for its quaintness.

Texas politicians have been cartoon characters for hundreds of years and its no different now. The pilled-out grin of Rick Perry and vacant gaze of George W. Bush are countered by the personal crudeness of Lyndon B. Johnson and the corruption of various Clinton and Obama cabinet members and advisers.

My prediction is that eventually, sooner rather than later, the Ron Paul crowd will join with the millions of liberal Willie Nelson-style Texans and create a true centrist party, neither too liberal nor too conservative.

When that happens, there will be a freak flag flying proudly over the statehouse and the governor's mansion as an aspect of the upcoming populist and socialist transformation in the USA, when new economies will stimulate a gigantic boom for the United States of America, Obamacare is fixed properly, all Americans will be free to marry whomever they love and choose what they do with their bodies.

The nationwide political gridlock is going to be resolved more easily than most people think. The power structure is superficial enough that it won't take too much of a revolution to topple it and that revolution will be achieved the way it should be in a democracy: by the popular vote, the ballot box substituting for any New World Order paranoid fantasies of both the left and right. Just like the Berlin Wall was surprisingly easy to dismantle in 1989, Texas isn't going to remain a conservative stronghold for too much longer.

Even though my governor, Rick Perry, disgraces himself by disrespecting the president — almost to the point of insurrection — my local San Antonio politicians and voters are much more reasonable. Our Mayor Julian Castro has brought progress and economic development to Downtown San Antonio, which resembles Indianapolis in 1972. Mayor Castro is leaving, though; recently confirmed by the Senate, he is the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, something for which he is well qualified as San Antonio has become one of the fastest-growing and prosperous cities in the United States. In joining forces with President Obama, Castro is showing his patriotism and willingness to serve the people. He has the stuff to one day be president himself.

Everything you have ever heard about Texas is true. There truly is no other place like it in the USA. From here, it seems to be the center of the universe: goings-on in the other 49 states are just curiosities from another country. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington can't really tell Texas what it can do in the way Indianapolis is subtly controlled by New York City's capitalist structure.

But I keep up with Indy as best I can, through NUVO and, my friends in town and the Facebook pages of channels 6 and 13.

As much as the sight of Monument Circle under the right conditions can still bring me to tears with love for Indianapolis, I am glad to be in San Antonio and definitely feel like I made the right move in coming to Texas. My coworkers are representative of America: white, Mexican-American, African-American, elderly, young, disabled and LGBT folk all work and are offered opportunity at the company where I work,not just because it's good business and the right thing to do, but also because my job title, compensation and working conditions are negotiated on my behalf by a strong union, my union, the Communications Workers of America.

Union jobs turn lower-class incomes into middle-class incomes. They helped build the prosperity of the 20th century and their dwindling influence coincides with the worst economic times in history, now.


II. Winners never hate and haters never quit.

When it comes to money, I made up some outrageous figures in my final NUVO columns about how much richer I would actually be in coming here. So people in Indianapolis called my bluff and started asking me to be an ATM for them. It was a pretty stupid thing of me to do.

I'm doing a lot better than I was and can legitimately be labeled middle class by any economic standard.

More than that, life is good here and leaving behind my 25-plus years as a writer in the Hoosier State was like unloading a heavy burden.

Moving gives you a clean slate and I feel refreshed and renewed by most everything I do here in San Antonio.

Immediately after I stopped writing for NUVO, I read the comments of pissed-off readers, alcoholic musicians and other detractors just as I had for those many years in Indy.

Luckily for me, I was sitting in my nice new apartment in Texas, watching my bank account grow from zero to something and enjoying myself.


There were a lot of lies and tall tales from my days as a newspaperman and music columnist in the comments online.

The people who've been getting drunk and talking shit on the Internet have been doing so with gusto for nearly 20 years now and my leaving town didn't interrupt that even slightly. These days it seems directed at Abdul mostly. The people talking smack about him on the Internet don't realize they are promoting him every time they say his name.

Meanwhile, he cashes the checks. He's made himself a local folk hero in the past few years and seems to be having a great time, although I disagree with him at least 80 percent of the time. Good for him. I wish him well.

Other media folk such as David Lindquist, Dan Carpenter, Conrad Brunner, Scott Hall and Ruth Holladay were all very kind and generous towards me both in print and life. I had talked smack about the Indy Star for my entire career, but even a lot of their people were nice to me too, such as Amy Bartner, who's just awesome, as is Michelle Pemberton.

You wouldn't believe how exhilarating San Antonio is and how its challenges are just as pressing but very different than those of Indianapolis. It's the home of NBA dynasties, military bases, NSA facilities, manufacturers, entrepreneurs and a shyly hipster culture.

Unlike in Indy, my adventures here are private to myself, my wife and my circle of friends. It's much better that way. We get to go to the symphony, the botanical garden, the Riverwalk, the Alamo and the WNBA games. We shared the city's triumph when LeBron James and Chris Bosh got stomped upon by Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker in the NBA Finals.

San Antonio is very laid back in comparison with Indy for very many obvious reasons ranging from its weather (always hot) and its economy (also hot). About 20 of us who were working for the company in Indy made the move to San Antonio over the past three or four years. We agree the quality of life is higher when you get promoted to the middle class.

My thoughts return to Indianapolis on occasion and all the things I experienced there.

I remember how rough it was for us when we were living at 48th and College and my wife's car kept getting broken into, how crackheads would knock on our door at 11 p.m. asking us for money and how skinny dudes at the bus stop in front of 220 N. Meridian would always ask me for cigarettes.

I almost always say no to homeless people asking me for money, either because I don't have it or because stopping to interact with them would disrupt whatever I'm doing at the moment. I always say "Sorry" as I pass and I really am. Someone who is a better Christian than I am would stop and minister to the needy.

I've been known to hand out bus fare at the bus stop because such requests are usually legitimate at least in some regard. I've slipped a few bucks into the hats of street guitarists, dancers and horn players because they're entertaining everyone for free like public radio does.

I remember an autumn afternoon in particular. We were walking towards her Honda Civic with the goal of getting lunch at the Illinois Street Food Emporium. It was a 10-yard walk from our venerable old wooden door to her car. A man about 6' 3", one of the neighborhood homeless and drug addicted citizens, stood between the car door and me.

He was wearing a white T-shirt that was soaked about midway down with brown stains.

"In Jesus's name, please help me," he said. "I need $15 for a colostomy bag. For the love of God, please help me out. He had a scared look on his face despite the alcohol and/or whatever other controlled substances that were in his bloodstream.

I had no cash and my wife was getting frightened. Just then another car came down the street. Since the man was standing in the middle of 48th Street, the driver had no choice but to stop.

"Ask this guy," I said. "I would like to help you but I don't have any money. Maybe he does."

He knocked on the window of the car that had stopped. My wife was in the driver's seat, keys in the ignition.

"Go," I said. "Drive away now."

Ever since that day, I have been ashamed of my reaction to that man. He was in an hour of obvious distress where he had no good options and an abundance of bad ones. I was hoping the driver of the other car was in a better position to take care of this man who, for whatever else he'd done in his life, was now in a wretched condition.

I believe I let myself down, I let down God and I let down my pride. I escaped the scary situation, but I could have at least called the IMPD non-emergency dispatch and had someone check on his welfare.

I ask for forgiveness for many things in my life and that is one of them.

San Antonio has a huge problem with feral cats and a kitten one day appeared on our stairwell outside, sick and shivering from a horrible abscess on its neck, sepsis starting to kick in after 24 hours or so, about to die a horrible and lonely death.

I called the Alamo Heights Police Department and they dispatched an officer who examined the kitten, drove a few blocks to the station to get a cat carrier, came back and took it to an emergency vet, who saved its life with simple antibiotics. In response to my commendation letter, the chief of police said the cat was being put up for adoption once it recovers and would likely find a good home since it is so sweet and friendly.

I wonder what the moral equivalency is of those two situations. I didn't help the man at 49th and College who was begging for help with a medical condition but who also posed a potential threat to myself and my wife. I did, however, help save the life of a small cat.

I can only hope that my failures will be mitigated by the laws of the universe and the justice meted out by a merciful God "when the seal is broken and the book of life is read," as an old gospel song puts it.


III. Riding the bus in San Antonio.

If there are any of my readers from the 1990s and 2000s still reading NUVO still out there, some of them will remember my uncomfortably personal revelations in print, among them about the relationships I stumbled through as a single professional of the Clinton Era. I met various unstable women and sometimes wrote about my escapades with them. I was a single man in the eyes of the white man's law until May 1, 2013 when the beautiful Katie, my darling Katherine Ariadne, became my lawfully wedded wife at the Bexar County Government Center in San Antonio. We had always considered ourselves married since 2006 anyway, in the eyes of God and ourselves. We'd been calling each other man and wife so long that the ceremony was just a formality.

I am no longer a self-revelatory journalist so my private life is as it should be, private, except to say we are very happy in San Antonio and have delighted in the botanical garden, the symphony, the Riverwalk and all the many joys my new city has to offer.

Instead I offer a few anecdotes about life in San Antonio.

When I first got to town, I lived at an Intown Suites hotel in a shady part of town and rode the bus about six miles to work every day. I rode the IndyGo so many times to work at 220 N. Meridian that I have developed a love for the bus and for public transportation in general.


Sometimes I took notes and transcribed conversations I overheard.

I remember a sweet looking woman of about 25 or so on the phone: "Hi mom, I love you. Listen, I have some good news. I talked to legal aid and they think they can work out a plea. You know how much I don't want to go to jail. Tell Dad I'm not going to go to jail. They were trying to tell me I was disrespecting a public servant. It ain't true. I respect the law. I gotta go Mom, I'm on the bus. I love you. I'm not going to jail. I love you."

Another one I wrote down was "We're not in Arkansas anymore," she said to the man sitting next to her. "So you should know better than to talk to me like that. I'm the one with the job now. So don't call me 'bitch.'"

A different time: "I haven't paid taxes in 15 years," he said, grinning, two gaping holes where his front teeth once were, his shoulder-length hair getting in his eyes. "People lie on their taxes and get caught. I just don't pay them so they leave me alone."

Tweet, Feb. 21, 2013: "Lady next to me on bus has big bag of Popeyes chicken and is reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I would call that a #win for Thursday night plans."


My job is pretty mentally draining and I like to sit and relax during lunch so I usually go to the Subway across the street from the office during my meals break. I've gone there so many times that I've gotten to be pals with the young ladies who work there. Their names are Brenda, Graciela and Ashley and they're all cute as buttons and pretty good sandwich artists, as sandwich artists go. Graciela know exactly how I like my cold-cut combo: lettuce, tomato, brown mustard and jalapeño.

Brenda happened to get me in line the other day and Graciela was telling her how to make my sandwich. Brenda, who looks incredibly like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, asked me in a sarcastic tone if it was okay that she made my sandwich.

I looked at the two of them and smiled.

"Everyone who knows me pretty well knows one thing about me, " I said. "And that's that I love women. So you two ladies can discuss me and my sandwich for several hours and I will just stand here. Talking to you two ladies has been the highlight of my day so far, which has otherwise pretty much sucked. Whichever one of you wants to make the sandwich is fine with me."

They both laughed, appreciating my sincerity.


IV. Basketball and its role in the upcoming socialist revolution.

Indiana returns to me whenever I see a basketball game, on TV and in person, or see highlights of the Pacers on SportsCenter.

In or around 1971, when I was 6 years old, I was introduced to Indiana Pacers basketball through my friends in first grade talking about the heroics of George McGinnis and Mel Daniels. Enthralled, I listened through the static as Joe McConnell called the play-by-play for the American Basketball Association Pacers on AM radio. Eventually I talked my parents into taking us to the State Fair Coliseum to see them play in person. The Coliseum was a dank place that was hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. In previous days, the Coliseum had hosted speeches by President Kennedy, a Beatles concert and thousands of other events. It had a dark side too: a natural gas explosion during an ice-skating show killed dozens of people in 1963 and a plaque honoring their memory. Tickets were under $3 and popcorn and soda was cheap so even a lower-middle-class family like ours could afford to go to games.

It began a lifelong obsession, passion and love for basketball in my life that continues to this second. I have been to at least 1,000 NBA and WNBA games in my life and would be at them all if I could. I love seeing the players finish their warm ups and prepare themselves for tipoff. There is no greater moment of optimism than the kind that comes immediately before the tip. Even the most lopsided of games are tied at the beginning, 0-0. Each person has a legitimate basis on which to say they have not yet been defeated.

That's what keeps me coming back to the sport, no matter how far I stray from it: that sense of anticipation and hope I feel at every basketball game I see.

For the most formative years of my childhood, ages 6 through 9, the Pacers were the most dominant team in the ABA, the outlaw, anything-goes league whose stories are the subject of fascination even today. It was a bootleg league that came along at exactly the right time to exploit the explosion of basketball talent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was true run-and-gun basketball. Final scores like 160-158 weren't that uncommon. It even looked different than NBA basketball. The ABA's trademark red, white and blue ball allowed fans to watch the rotation of each shot attempt in a different way than the pumpkin-colored NBA game ball. The league's very existence was an act of political protest, a middle finger extended by growing cities such as Indianapolis and San Antonio to the establishment that we deserved our own heroes, not the ones forced upon us by the TV networks and New York and Los Angeles hype centers.

It carried over to my adulthood, when the city suffered through losing season after losing season until Larry Brown and Reggie Miller arrived in the late 1980s. When Larry Bird returned home near the end of the century, the legacy of the Pacers franchise was ensured for at least another generation or more.

I still follow the Pacers very closely despite the presence of the Spurs, who have the hearts of the people of San Antonio in a way the Pacers only had when they were ABA champs in the '70s. Thousands greeted the Spurs at the airport in the middle of the night after playoff losses as well as win. The NBA hasn't seen a team with the natural camaraderie and poise as the Spurs in several generations.

But back to the Pacers. We San Antonians were quite puzzled both by the Pacers' near-perfect beginning and near-catastrophic end to the 2013-14 season. People here seem to root for the Pacers, especially when they were playing Miami, but at other times. Both cities have a well-deserved reputation for excellence in the NBA. San Antonio happens to have five more titles than the Pacers but in other ways they are similar franchises.

I'll leave it to the pundits in Indy to opine on the options the Pacers have moving forward, with the exception of the matter of Lance Stephenson.

I called Ron Artest a hero for starting the infamous brawl in Auburn Hills in 2004. I defended his actions both then and now. If I was at work and someone threw a cup of beer on me, as was done to Ron-Ron, I might be pissed off enough to throw a punch myself and I'd hope some of my buddies would join me in the brawl too, if it really came down to it.

But what Stephenson did in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals was a disgrace to the uniform he was wearing and the franchise whose proud traditions he was representing. His blowing in the ear of LeBron, his obvious flagrant 2 in Game Five and his general assholery in nature makes me glad the team unloaded him.

Ron Artest was a working-class hero. Stephenson is a clown. Artest was a warrior; Lance was a chemistry-destroying, stats hog, selfish player who doesn't deserve to wear the same uniform that McGinnis, Miller, Clark Kellogg, Chuck Person and Rik Smits all wore. There seems to be a feeling down here that Larry Bird feels that way too, although if the Pacers re-sign him then I am wrong.


Back to the Spurs for a moment. Their near-perfect performance in the 2014 NBA Finals was, to me, the living proof of the superiority of socialism over capitalism. The Spurs, themselves, seem to be a true collective, unselfish, giving, the definition of working together. The players have varying degrees of talent but all are equally rewarded for their efforts, just as in how a true socialist America greed would be lessened and doors of opportunity would be opened to all.

For the Spurs, pride and swagger comes through mutual accomplishment and clarity of purpose. The 2014 Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat seemed to represent the very worst faces that capitalist society has to offer. Bloated by money and greed, with too much wealth going to too few both on and off the court, they eventually imploded when confronted with true teamwork and an uncommonly selfless attitude, as embodied in the Spurs and, for that matter, the growing progressive movement in Texas.

I am and always will be a diehard WNBA fan and look forward to becoming a season ticket holder in San Antonio next season. My team now is the San Antonio Stars, led by future Hall of Fame guard Becky Hammon and rising young star Kayla McBride out of Notre Dame. The WNBA is not everyone's cup of coffee, I understand, but it most certainly should and eventually will be more popular than it is right now.

Again, the emphasis here is on unselfishness, not ego, money or glory. The women of the WNBA come in all shapes and sizes and, to my viewpoint, seem to have a higher quality of integrity and honor than their millionaire male counterparts.

The not-so-secret fact is that even scrub players on WNBA teams can double or triple their salary by playing overseas during the fall and winter. WNBA pay ranges from $38,000 to $107,000 and superstars can earn more than $500,000 in China, Russia or Israel.

Compared to the NBA, the women are playing for much lower financial stakes but have all the zeal and competitiveness of the men and then some. Long live the WNBA.


V. And in the End, the Bee Gees are better than the Beatles.

If you've made it this far in this Unabomber-length manuscript, you are either a very dedicated reader or a very fast scroller.

After 20 years of producing columns every week on topics chosen only as I sat down at the last minute to write about, I am happier to live in a world where I don't have to do that anymore, where nobody stops me on the street to tell me how much they like or don't like my columns. I greatly prefer anonymity from even the low-grade minor celebrity status I once held in Indy and I enjoy making a stable, union-bargained living wage for a company that demands a lot from me.

My original intent when sitting down to write was to pen a screed about how the Bee Gees, for whose music my wife and I have developed an unexpected affection for while in Texas, are a superior band to the Beatles in nearly every quantifiable way. Their songs launched an empire and are beloved by millions still today.

Screw the Beatles, the Bee Gees are better.

Admitting to a love of the Bee Gees is a dangerous thing to do. They are so unhip that championing them is a bold and revolutionary act. But in a very real sense the brothers Gibb were undercover street poets, voices of the proletariat whether they intended to be or now. Like the Beatles, almost all of their music is positive and life-affirming although, also like the Beatles, some of their songs suck really badly.

They certainly weren't punks, the Bee Gees, their music was far tougher than it let on. No fools were they; in fact until their end they were always one or two steps ahead of their enemies. We all would do well to heed the words and deeds of the Mighty Brothers Gibb.

But that is merely an aside as I finish this communiqué from the tech fields of Texas. I miss Indianapolis and may someday return there to run for mayor. Time is gradually erasing the hardships I had there, both the ones I endured and the ones I caused.

I hope to get back home someday but a friend of mine, also an Indy expat, told me that Indiana is best viewed through the rear view mirror.

Reluctantly, I agreed.

See you guys soon.

Steve Hammer, July 2014

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Letterman born of TV's '70s Hoosier heyday

Posted By on Tue, Apr 8, 2014 at 4:00 AM

  • Courtesy of Hey Paul via Wikimedia

It’s still vaguely disturbing to learn David Letterman is retiring, even though I haven’t watched him regularly in years and the news was regrettably overdue. Letterman has been a constant presence in Indianapolis media for more than 40 years and his leaving also closes of an era of broadcasting that started with his wacky weather forecasts on Channel 13 in the early 1970s and ended with the crazy currents of communication we find ourselves either swimming in or fighting.

Before the days of cheap satellite and broadband transmissions, the big three networks only provided a few hours of programming each day, in the early morning and primetime. The rest was filled with old movies, local sports and hours and hours of live talk shows.

There were discussion shows, fashion roundups and cooking shows as well as variety shows that combined all three of those things, along with singing and dancing. It created a system in which every city in the United States had its own unique superstars who were household names locally but completely unknown outside the 30 to 40-mile range of the station’s antennas.

Letterman was a big star in Indianapolis television but he was by far not the only one. WTTV-Channel 4 had the children’s hosts Cowboy Bob and Janie, who introduced cartoons and Sammy Terry, who hosted a scary movie show. Channel 6 had Howard Caldwell, the news anchor with the most gravitas, solemnly delivering the headlines. Channel 8 had a young reporter, Jane Pauley, who was also clearly headed for big things.

Channel 13 was owned and operated in those days by the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, a radio manufacturer which also owned the AM giant WLW 700 along with TV stations in Cincinnati and Dayton. Much of Channel 13’s programming came from WLWT in Cincinnati, most notably the 90-minute daily Paul Dixon Show.

Dixon was a comedian and host whose roots stretched back to 1940s radio and bawdy burlesque club MCs. For an hour and a half each weekday from 1955 until his death in 1974, Dixon hosted a show impossible to imagine airing now: Lechery and innuendo were Dixon’s trademarks and modern viewers would be enraged by his show unless it was presented as high camp. And high camp it definitely was, but it was also a towering presence for years, popular with housewives and other shut-ins who watched daytime TV in the 1960s.

One regular segment had young females line up as the cameras panned along their legs as Dixon made lewd comments about them. Other times he would host mini-pageants on his show for the young women with the longest legs or shortest hot pants, the winners getting a free groping by Dixon and a 12-inch salami provided by a Cincinnati meat-packing company, handed out with a trademark leering wink.

He was as successful as it was possible to be in Cincinnati, Dayton and Indianapolis, the cities where his show aired. His singing sidekicks moonlighted as regional nightclub acts, they cut records and every celebrity who passed through town with something to promote had to be on his show and kiss his ass to some extent, even Bob Hope.

This is the stuff I grew up watching on summer mornings at my grandmother’s house on Mann Road in Indy on summer mornings as I drank milk and ate peanut-butter sandwiches, marveling at the immense power they wielded, a power difficult to explain in today’s context. Everybody knew their names and respected their authority. Letterman’s later act, with the canned hams and the sarcastic rejoinders to studio audience members, owes more than a little bit to Paul Dixon, the king of Avco Broadcasting.

Letterman graduated from Ball State into this environment and took to it naturally. His work with Channel 13 was flashily and cheerfully subversive. He took all the work he could get, helping out with ABC’s Indy 500 coverage and whatever else was needed.

Letterman at the 1971 Indy 500:

He was tasked with hosting a community affairs show about the Marion County 4-H and turned it into a comedy show. Doing the weather, he would deliver one-liners and non sequiturs seen as outrageously scandalous for the time. Everything he did brought attention to himself and he was as big a presence as one could be in Indianapolis. Still, he was just one of many local media celebrities and was not on the level of Dixon or Sammy Terry in terms of renown.

For a time, he hosted an afternoon radio call-in show on WNTS, a tiny AM station at 1560 on the dial, so far to the right edge of the frequency on analog car radio dials that ads touted it as “next to your glove compartment.” He took calls from listeners, made wisecracks, chatted up visiting entertainers and sports stars and occasionally talked of his desire to move to California, where the action was. He was a star in Indianapolis but only in Indianapolis. The life of a local TV personality was filled with repetition, endlessly reading ad copy on the air and personal appearances at grocery stores and high school dances. The highest level of achievement Letterman could hope for at Channel 13 would be to host a daily variety show that aired on the Dayton and Cincinnati station, like The Bob Braun Show, another live variety show that entertained Ohio and Indiana housewives for 90 minutes every weekday.

There are no contemporary shows quite like the ones Dixon and Braun did, the closest being Jimmy Fallon’s recent revival of a variety format where the host sings and dances as well as interviews guest. They had to have been expensive to produce but were big money makers for them because regional businesses had few other options for advertising.

They aimed to please: Braun had a big band almost the size of Johnny Carson’s and employed several well-dressed and attractive sidekicks who sang Broadway tunes and hits of the day, danced and performed in comedy skits and read commercials for Cincinnati-based potato chip companies and grocery stores.

Dixon and Braun, along with a few others, did their shows for decades, proving you could make a career out of it, but regional stardom had a very low ceiling.

Letterman’s ambition burned through the camera lenses so it was little surprise when he announced he was leaving Indianapolis. There was a great deal of skepticism from the callers into his radio show about his move to Los Angeles. There were too many wannabe celebrities in California anyway, they said, why did Letterman think he would be any different? He didn’t really have an answer, if I recall correctly.

The day came when he left his budding local stardom behind and drove west on I-70 to California, like so many Hoosiers before and since have done, armed with not much more than an ambition to succeed. Channel 13 proudly announced on the news every time he had a small walk-on part on a network variety show or when he appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. By this time, Jane Pauley had also left the Channel 8 anchor Indianapolis for a long career with NBC, first at WMAQ in Chicago and then for the Today show in New York. The live local variety shows that had once reigned stopped being made as other programming became available and tastes changed. All of a sudden, there were no more local media celebrities or at least far fewer of them as radio stations replaced DJs with robots and local shows with syndicated ones.

Letterman got out at the right time, before his career options locally narrowed to the anchor’s desk or the disc jockey booth.

Under Carson’s beneficence, Letterman’s career started to really take off. At some point, he stopped belonging to Indianapolis and became New York’s property. Still, it’s difficult to encapsulate just how much pride his accomplishments brought to Indy in the late 1970s as the city itself struggled with its own aspirations to greatness with a reboot of downtown.

He is the last remaining link to Paul Dixon and Bob Braun and Johnny Carson, literally the last man standing from an era of broadcasting gone for generations now. Even if I haven’t watched him regularly in years, knowing Letterman was still on the air gave me comfort, like knowing the Beatles were still hanging out together and jamming or Tennessee Williams was still sitting in a hotel suite penning overwrought plays.

Letterman was such an innovator in television that it seems he came out of nowhere. But no matter what he did in later years, he always carried a little bit of Channel 13 and Paul Dixon along with him, recognized only by himself and the few remaining people who watched his beginnings in the chaotic world of hippie-era Indianapolis television. He has been one of us so long that it is unlikely, at this late date, he could ever be anything else.

Whenever there’s a mention of that subversive, ambitious time in the 1970s when Indianapolis believed it could dream big and possibly not fail, David Letterman’s name will have to be there as a living embodiment of the city’s successes.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the passing of Bob Carter (aka Sammy Terry)

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 11:00 AM


Modern media only rarely note the deaths of the pioneers of local media, especially in Indianapolis. When Joe Pickett, a radio titan of the 1960s and '70s died recently, the only notice of it in the daily newspaper was an obituary paid for by his family. Other reporters haven't received even that much.

Not so in the case of Bob Carter, better known as WTTV's Sammy Terry, late-night horror movie TV host and icon. On Monday, Facebook feeds and local media websites were full of stories commemorating the incredible life of a man who not only frightened two generations of children but who also helped build Channel 4 into one of the best independent television stations in America.

Anyone of a certain age who lived in Indianapolis knew about Sammy Terry. Every Friday night, he'd appear in a purple cape and heavy white makeup, introducing B-grade horror films with a fiendish laugh, aided by crude special effects. For more than 25 years, he emerged from a prop coffin at the start of each show, conversed with a toy spider dangled from a string and commented upon the movies featured on his show.

In real life, Carter had a master's degree in broadcasting and for a time was in charge of news and sports programming at Channel 4 at a time when the station was one of the most influential and powerful voices in Indiana.

It's difficult to explain to modern audiences just how powerful TV and print outlets were in the era before cable TV and Internet media. From the 1950s until the early 1970s, Indianapolis had exactly four TV stations: Channels 4, 6, 8 and 13. Depending on where you lived in town, you might not even have that many choices.

But if you wanted to watch TV, you watched one of those channels or you didn't watch anything at all. Cable TV didn't arrive in Indianapolis until the late 1970s. If the president was giving a prime-time speech, which presidents back then did much more often, Channel 4 was the only station that was Nixon or Jimmy Carter-free.

Reception of the over-the-air signal varied in quality from neighborhood to neighborhood. Channel 4, for example had its transmitters and studios at 3490 Bluff Road, on the far-Southside, where I grew up. But if you lived in, say, Carmel, you might not even be able to see Channel 4 as anything but a dim screen of static and ghosts.

Because there were so few stations, each had a much larger audience than they do now, in proportion to the population. Unlike other Indy stations, which had much of its day and nighttime programming provided by the big broadcast networks in New York, Channel 4 had to create all of its content locally, augmented by whatever shows it could purchase from syndicators.

So Carter and his colleagues were forced to be creative.

They responded by building a mini-empire based around serving the community. A typical day of programming started at 6 a.m. or so with the national anthem, followed by live talk shows, old movies, syndicated TV shows, news and sports before signing off at midnight or 1 a.m. with another playing of the national anthem.

The station's employees were drafted into becoming on-air personalities. Besides Carter, Bob Glaze, a smart young Hoosier boy who could play a little guitar, was given a cowboy hat and became Cowboy Bob. Channel 4 acquired the rights to airing Indiana Pacers games and achieved giant ratings with them. Its news operation was first-rate as well.

The proliferation of cable TV, along with the extinction of local ownership of stations due to Reagan-era deregulation, killed off the concept of live, local TV dedicated to serving the community as well as making a profit.

Compounding that injury, since stations such as Channel 4 ran on such a shoestring budget, very little of its programming survives. Most of the videotapes with Sammy Terry, Cowboy Bob and the legendary ABA Pacers were erased decades ago, leaving no proof that they ever existed. But they did and their memory lives on.

Mr. Carter was a kind man, appreciative of his audience, fiercely proud of his work and a private man. He deserves great credit for being a key member of a staff that created some of the best independent programming in the nation as well as being arguably the most memorable local TV personality next to David Letterman.

Scientists estimate that radio waves travel at 300,00 kilometers per second, which means that Sammy Terry's shows are still traveling through space, awaiting a resident of a distant planet with the proper equipment to pick up the signal. I hope these beings, whomever they are, appreciate the love and hard work that went into all of the programming of Channel 4's golden days, especially Bob Carter and his TV persona, Sammy Terry.

Rest in peace, Mr. Carter, and thank you for your years of service to the people of Indianapolis.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Goodbye, Indianapolis

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 9:00 AM


After a 23-year association with this newspaper, and 20 years of delivering a weekly column, the time has finally come for me to say goodbye to all of NUVO's readers and the city of Indianapolis, my beloved hometown.

It feels like I've been saying farewell in print for months, because I have been, but I promise it ends this week. I'll be gone as a weekly presence in print but will contribute the occasional article or blog piece to this newspaper.

I'm sitting in our new, sunny living room in the Alamo Heights area of San Antonio, tapping away my last NUVO column on my phone as my wife takes a Saturday afternoon nap. Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 8 is playing.

Back in 1993, when I began writing this column each week, I hoped it would be successful. I wanted certain people to like it, certain people to be apathetic to it and for a certain segment of the population to be completely and utterly outraged by it.

By those standards, if no other, this column has been a staggering success, exceeding my highest expectations.

If I had known in 1993 that the column would run for two decades and terminate due to my moving to Texas after being promoted to a good job with a Fortune 500 company, I'm not sure whether I would have reacted with happiness, terror or disgust.

But here I am, working in a six-floor office building in Texas and signing off in print in Indy. It's been a good run for which I am profoundly thankful. It ends on a good note on the 23rd anniversary of the newspaper you're holding in your hands or seeing on a screen.

My professional career in journalism and writing goes back even further, to the late 1980s, where I worked for the Indianapolis Recorder and the Noblesville Daily Ledger, two very different places culturally. I covered dozens of metro counties council and zoning meetings for the Indianapolis Star and the sadly deceased Indianapolis News, as well as high school sports for the great Associated Press.

It's been a gas. In my 27-year career as a professional staff and freelance journalist, I have spoken with James Brown, Kurt Vonnegut, Yoko Ono, John Updike, George Clinton, Tony Bennett and Elvis Costello. I've breakfasted with Claire Danes and lunched with James Earl Jones and Steve Wilkos.

I've covered hundreds of speeches featuring notable and historical people: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Nelson Mandela (twice), Allen Ginsberg, Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton (5 times), Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Ralph Nader, Gerald R. Ford, George Bush Sr., Dan Rather, John Waters and hundreds more.

I've been to at least 700 Pacers home games at the Coliseum, Market Square Arena and the Fieldhouse. I've seen the legendary players of the ABA Pacers and have been present when Reggie Miller was draining threes. I covered the 2000 NBA Finals and chatted with Shaquille O'Neal and Jesse Jackson in the Lakers' locker room. I hung out with Mark Cuban when Dallas came to town.

I've seen almost every single one of my musical heroes perform in person except John Lennon and Mozart. Prince, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and hundreds more. For years I was paid to go to concerts, which is more fun in theory than reality.

And every week since 1993 I've done this column. I've written it on planes, trains and buses, in hotel rooms and in the back of cars doing 90 mph on the interstate. It's been a constant presence. Most of the time I've enjoyed it but sometimes it's been a drag. It's very cool to have the privilege to say whatever the hell you want in print, but when you're setting the alarm for 5 a.m. Monday to get up and write a piece in less than two hours, it most certainly feels like work.

Unlike most writers I know, I don't keep any of my old stories or clippings, so it's hard to review my columns and choose a favorite. The ones that stand out in my mind are the ones where I either told a story of injustice that needed telling or where I cracked myself up with my comedy.

Several times I've written reviews of vending-machine food in the style of a snooty restaurant critic. For some reason, that makes me laugh. I also have enjoyed the book reviews I've written that ignore the book's content but focuses on its physical properties: the quality of its paper, the strength of its binding, the readability of its font, etc.

I also have enjoyed relating personal stories of my life in Indianapolis. Here's my final one, taken from one of my last days before leaving town.

I was walking down Ohio Street in front of the federal courthouse, minding my own business and listening to Mozart. Something hit me hard, similar to when someone pats you on the back especially hard. Except it wasn't my back, it was my left leg and my foot was pinned underneath the wheel of a motorized wheelchair driven by a 60-year-old white lady with an artificial leg. "Oh my gosh," she said, "Are you okay?" "Not really," I said. My foot felt like it was on fire and I was afraid she'd caused serious damage.

She apologized profusely and I hobbled off. I thought, "Bitch, you may have only one leg but you have two eyes and they both work"! Once I was at my desk, I inspected the damage: A chunk of flesh the size of a JFK half-dollar had been gouged out the side of my foot.

I've never even heard of that happening before. The strangest things always happened to me in Indianapolis.

I'm just about out of room but have a last few thoughts before signing off. I apologize to anyone in my personal life in Indy that I've mistreated in any way. My life hasn't always been as upbeat as it is now and I've burned some friendships along the way. I deeply regret that.

But I don't apologize for standing up for the workers, the underprivileged and the voiceless. I don't apologize for promoting a liberal or socialist agenda. History has and will continue to prove me right on that.

Two of the people most responsible for shaping my attitudes and urging me towards excellence are no longer with us. Harrison Ullmann, NUVO's editor from 1993 to 2000, fought to get me a weekly space in the paper and helped me craft my prose. My mother also shaped my philosophy of standing up for the underdog. She died on Christmas Eve 1999 and Ullmann passed away a few months later. I still miss them but feel their presence in my life.

So instead of being a controversial local columnist and minor local celebrity in Indiana, I am now a hard-working union man in Texas. I'm grateful for the change and the opportunity for a fresh start. It feels good.

My last words as a print columnist are these: Thank you for reading, whether you've supportive of me, vehemently against me or were apathetic. I'm humbled by the opportunity I've had. Thank you Kevin McKinney, thank you Jim Poyser, thank you NUVO. May God continue to protect and bless the great city of Indianapolis, the state of Indiana and everyone who lives there. I'll never forget any of you. Goodbye.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The literary makings of Hammer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 13, 2013 at 4:00 AM

My dad worked at the Rough Notes Publishing Company at 12th and Meridian streets. They produced publications for the real estate and insurance trade.

Upon the piles of scrap paper, my sisters would draw and color, and I would write. I found one of those sheets not too long ago. It described a fishing trip and a walk in the woods at my grandfather's cabin at a pretty lake, Lake Lipsi, in Wisconsin.

Our parents nurtured our family's love of reading and supplied plenty of books. My mom, a Harlequin romance novel fan, knew where to find the cheap used paperbacks. At The Book Rack, located in a tiny strip mall near Shelby Street on the poor, white Southside of my youth, I browsed the unwanted non-fiction paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s: the Warren Commission report, all kinds of Watergate and JFK conspiracy books, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, stuff like that.

I also read Last Exit to Brooklyn and Naked Lunch before I got around to Catcher in the Rye and Sylvia Plath.

At the age of 10 or 11, I read a book written by Don Novello, also known as Father Guido Sarducci from classic Saturday Night Live fame. It was a series of real-life goofy letters written to politicians and large businesses and the responses.

I started writing letters on my IBM Selectric typewriter to many of these same people. "Hello, I am a 12 year old in Indianapolis," I wrote to Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey and dozens of other politicians. I praised them, asked them a policy question and requested a photo or a copy of some report I'd read about in the newspaper.

And packages started arriving in my parents' mailbox, addressed to me. Mrs. Coretta Scott King sent me a handwritten letter. Jailed Nixon aide Bob Haldeman mailed me from the federal prison in Lompoc, Calif., where he was serving time on a Watergate charge.

I started to realize that when you write something and send it to people, most of the time they will reply. They're somewhat surprised that you are reaching out to them.
I kept writing, for small music newspapers in high school, the daily paper at IU, stringer work for the AP, the Star and the Recorder. That opened the door at NUVO for me in 1993.

When I started writing this column 20 years in the past, I was drawing upon what I learned from the books my mom and dad bought me and obtained from libraries. I had grown up during the transformation of my hometown from disrepair to big-league status.

It has been an honor and a privilege. I love Indianapolis and its people and am proud of them.

I have one final column to deliver, next week.

One more column to go, Indianapolis and we each are looking forward to it: It will be NUVO's 23rd anniversary issue and I want my part of it to be really good. We'll see how I go out next week.

That final column will be the first and last from my new permanent residence in the Alamo Heights neighborhood of San Antonio. There is so much beauty, culture and opportunity here. I miss Indianapolis already but am excited about my new home and my new job and its many challenges. All of the skills I have ever learned in my life are being tested here.

I love technical support and fixing things that are broken on networking systems. They're conducting those operations at a very high level at this center. We'll be hustling every minute we're on the clock and any successes we have will be earned. That's what I've wanted all my life and have never had until now.

Loose Ends and Shout-Outs:Attorney Matt Conrad of the GCH law firm in Indianapolis quite literally saved my skin last week. My rental application had hit a snag due to an untrue statement on a credit report. He found the documents to refute those false allegations and made it possible for us to move into our new home on Friday. He genuinely cared about helping. I endorse his law firm fully. A good guy.

The name of Mike Crowder came up on a Facebook conversation I had. Mike was one of my greatest friends growing up in Indianapolis. He became legendary for his ability to find good concert tickets and quality records. He worked at Karma Greenwood, the center of Indy's music community for many years and was a legend there, too.

Josh Lethig, aka Wudearnt of infamous Indy music fame, has been bothering me for a mention. I had planned to tell the story next week of how he threw a speculum into the crowd at an outdoor show at the Monkey's Tale, but I will have to find another story now.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Opinions no cause for regret

Posted By on Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 11:00 AM


This week in 2003, Hammer recalled "The End of an Era," eulogizing Mr. (Fred) Rogers, "just about the last purveyor of moral values in a media saturated with vulgarity," a man who "told people to be nice to their neighbors and that helping someone is a reward in itself."

I'm reporting again from San Antonio, Texas, where I am in the midst of approximately three months of training for my new job. Without going into too much detail, and violating the non-disclosure forms I've signed, it involves analyzing large Internet systems and how and why they break down, then fixing them.

My new colleagues were all superstars in the cities from which they came. I have 20 years of tech support under my belt, most of it with Macintoshes, and I'm working as hard as I can to keep up with this information. I know I'll get there.

I'm still staying at an extended-stay hotel in a room not much bigger than a college dorm room. By the end of this week, we hope to have a lease signed and have a lifetime's worth of possessions transported from Indiana to Texas. It won't feel like home until my wife gets here.

Meanwhile, my prolonged farewell tour for my longtime NUVO readers continues.

I don't really have any kind of profound knowledge to impart. I didn't in 1993 and I don't now. I do, however, know that there are universal truths that remain unchanged. Republicans try and rob you of your real freedoms under the guise of protecting other alleged "rights," such as gun ownership and tax avoidance. When that doesn't work, they steal elections. They did it in 2000 and 2004 and will do it in 2016 if we allow them to do so.

I know that to be a fact. I know also that water is wet, honey is sweet and that Jesus is Lord. Those are about the only facts I know; everything else is opinion and speculation. And if there are folks out there who've consistently read me for 20 years, they know that pretty much all I ever had to offer was opinion and speculation.

That makes it tough when I am asked, as I was by Dave Lindquist in The Star or even by my editor at NUVO, Rebecca Townsend, about my favorite pieces and columns of the 1,000 I've done since 1993.

The trip I made to cover the funeral of Richard Nixon in 1994 was a memorable event. I stood in line for hours and hours to file by the closed casket of our 37th president and spoke with dozens of fellow mourners. Watching President Clinton dedicate the Kennedy-King memorial at 17th and Broadway also was a great memory. And seeing my beloved Indiana Pacers during their great playoff runs of the 1990s also stands out in my memory.

But I suppose I don't conceptualize my writing as anything other than ephemera, things that were relevant at the time they were written but lose their usefulness, if any, after a few weeks. Certainly they are not worth preserving for any purpose other than nostalgia.

I know some journalists who obsessively keep scrapbooks of every story they've written. I admire them for their dedication of purpose but that's just not me. Of the 400 square feet of stuff we will soon be moving from Indy to San Antonio, there isn't a single copy of NUVO or a single clipping of any of my stories.

It would be great to have all those stories at my fingertips and point to my brilliant interviews with Yoko Ono or Tony Bennett or any of the other legendary figures I've been privileged enough to interview.I fear, however, that I'd be buried under a blizzard of interviews with the bass player from Matchbox Twenty or a metal band from the Eastside.

I'm pretty sure that there are thousands of readers out there who've enjoyed my writing over the years. I've heard from many of them over the past month. I appreciate their support. And, to my slight surprise, I'm still hearing from my detractors, people who think that my opinions suck, that I myself am a bad person and I serve no tangible purpose on this earth.

I can dismiss most of them, seeing as they are armchair commentators who use terms like "Obummer" to describe our president or who question any political viewpoint that doesn't square with the propaganda they consume from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Others are disgruntled musicians from a decade ago whose bands sucked. A lot of local musicians, at least when I was covering the local scene, had nothing better to do than drink and get on the Internet to trash anyone who didn't share their viewpoint that they themselves were musical talents on a scale of John Lennon or Kurt Cobain.

I can tell you that their bands sucked then and they would now, if these musicians were sober enough to get off their couches and play again. So do I have any regrets? Hell yeah, I do. Do I have any regrets about speaking my mind? No. I have one set of buttocks and two testicles and those folks are invited to kiss any or all of them.

Almost finished up with this gig; I have a few things left to say before my time here in print is up. Thanks for reading.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Morphing to mainstream

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 10:00 AM


Living in San Antonio is awesome. I'm three weeks out of Indy, undergoing intensive training on various network and diagnostic tools for my new job. Some things are kicking in for me. I really am in Texas, a really beautiful part of it. In a few weeks, I really will be trained on this new job and will then actually have to do it all day, five days a week.

I get all of that. The unknowable parts include almost everything else beyond. The city itself is amazing. It really is as advertised: Friendly people, good food, nice weather, beautiful River Walk, all of that. The job seems very difficult but manageable. I will have lots of help from my 150 peers, team leads and managers.

If you don't know where you are going in a new city, then you are not lost. Any road will take you there. I haven't even scratched the surface of this widely spread-out city but already I have found wonderful new places near my office: old-school diners, a handy snack bar on the college campus next door and lots of shops.

I'm smiling every day, even if I'm more than a little anxious about how it all plays out. Already I feel my beloved hometown fading into the rearview, although I'm not quite through with it yet. After 20 years of writing this weekly column, I have another month to go as I bid an extended farewell to this newspaper and the city of Indianapolis, which I adore so dearly.

My last few weeks in Indy, I walked around on my own personal farewell tour of downtown and the buildings. Some, like the Murat, are old friends; some are newer ones that I grew to love. I see in the skyline of Indy many of my own hopes and aspirations, and some of my own failures and flaws reflected back at me.

I have a special fondness for One Indiana Square, the former Indiana National Bank building at 211 N. Pennsylvania St.

When it was finished in 1970, standing a proud 36 stories, it was the tallest in the city. It remained so for another dozen years, the years in which much of what is great about Indianapolis was built or planned. It's nothing special architecturally, just another rectangular 1960s box of a building, like hundreds around the world.

But its completion was another small step in the rebirth of downtown Indianapolis, which was one of the few cities to do its urban-renewal programs in a smart manner. Downtown Indy is now the engine for a lot of jobs that wouldn't have existed if we'd gotten it wrong in the '70s.

Indianapolis achieved a rate of growth and revitalization that was the envy of the United States. There were a few missteps by city leaders along the way but their choices were solid for the most part.

I'm not exactly sure when things started going wrong, but I track it back to the Stephen Goldsmith and Bart Peterson administrations, when city government's competence turned to arrogance and then to corruption. By the time Greg Ballard became mayor, he'd inherited a system so broken and so desperately lacking leadership that he can rightfully escape blame for whatever happens to the city.

Indianapolis could not now summon the political will and boldness that Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut and local business leaders exhibited in the 1970s. Our politicians right now are in the business of corporate welfare, shoveling taxpayer dollars to our local sports teams and hoping that the money isn't going to be missed.

Help is on the way. The economy is stronger, thanks to President Barack Obama and his economic policies. I'm living proof on how someone can be elevated into the middle-class after years of barely keeping my head above water.

What was great about the president's State of the Union speech last week is that he has finally started pushing a fairly ambitious liberal agenda supported by the majority of Americans. His opponents, formerly known as the majority, are gnashing their teeth because their worst nightmare has come true. He's an unapologetically liberal president, our first since LBJ, and he has more than 50 percent of Americans supporting him.

As I wind down these weekly columns after two decades and who knows how much hate-filled email and online posts about me, the liberal agenda I've espoused for 30 years is now the majority viewpoint. America is heading down a track to socialism that won't easily be stopped as long as there are national elections.

So to the person who wrote online that they couldn't figure out why I hadn't died from a heart attack yet, but wished I would very soon: My EKG looks good. My blood sugar and blood pressure are under control as well. I'm not going anywhere except to the bank to cash my check.

And Obama really is going to do everything you're afraid of. You're welcome.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Tao of Hammer: Know thyself

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2013 at 8:40 AM


Greetings from South Central Texas. I'm writing this from my temporary home in San Antonio, where I began intensive training for my new job last Monday. Everything has gone well so far, knock on wood. The weather has been great, my new coworkers are friendly and helpful and our training instructor is, quite literally, world-class at what he does.

I have this new job due to the fact that President Barack Obama's economic policies have stimulated the economy and freed up capital for well-paying jobs such as the one I have. I'm feeling good about things. Everything is going to be all right.

One of the reasons I accepted this promotion, besides the obvious financial benefits and increased job security, is so that I can finally shed the low-paying and high-stress burden of being Steve Hammer, the crazy liberal local newspaper columnist and resume the role of being Steve Hammer, the helpful coworker, good husband and friend you can count upon.

But I'm not yet rid of the role of crazy liberal writer. I have five or six more pieces to deliver before I bid farewell to the job of weekly columnist. And since I've already been paid for most of them, not only do I have to deliver these columns, I also have to try and do as good a job as possible with them.

Even in Texas, former Indy coworkers who preceded me here have been asking me questions about this column. Will I continue it? Will I miss it? Will I find it difficult to be a liberal Democrat in deeply red Texas?

The answers are no, no and no. It has been an honor and a privilege to write this column every week since 1993. It has also been an albatross around my neck for 20 years. Hunter S. Thompson was wrong about many things, but he was correct when he compared writing for newspapers with being a prostitute and having sex with lots of strangers. It's only fun when you're an amateur, he said.

Old whores don't smile very much, he noted, and neither do old reporters and columnists. I will not miss the weekly grind. I will also not miss being recognized on the streets of Indy, even though I try to make myself as invisible as possible in public. The picture that has accompanied this column for seven years is a depiction of me trying to look as unlike myself as is humanly possible.

And, as longtime readers and personal friends alike will tell you, I clearly do not care what other folks think about my views. I've never claimed to be 100 percent correct in my political or personal philosophy. I've been moderately successful at being a columnist because I am sincere, occasionally outrageous and sometimes humorous.

But the reactions from readers don't affect me one way or another. I've gotten literally thousands of nasty emails and letters from readers and my columns have provoked at least one bomb threat to the NUVO office. I've also gotten as many compliments, so it evens out. As long as my editors a) don't hate my stories enough to make me rewrite them and b) send me a check that clears the bank, whatever else happens doesn't matter that much to me.
Insults don't diminish my sense of self-worth and compliments do not overly inflate it. I have written this column because I am passionate about the things I believe to be true. And for the check. Because Indianapolis media outside of NUVO is generally so bland and generic and devoid of real personality, I have stood out from the rest of the dreary pack.

I am not a prose stylist in the way my friend David Hoppe is a master craftsman of words. Nor do I have the gracefulness of Dan Carpenter of The Indianapolis Star. I have looked at them with admiration because they are almost surgical in the precision with which they assemble their columns. They wield scalpels. I come at my columns holding a chainsaw, baseball bat and sawed-off shotgun. There is room in Indianapolis for both approaches.

Having said all that, when my run with NUVO is over in six weeks, I will feel a small bit of sadness that I won't be able to provoke violent reactions among thousands of tea-bagger conservatives in the Hoosier state. Their hatred fuels me to live a better, more productive life. And the readers who simply think I suck, well, I will miss them too, because for all of my life people have said I suck at what I do and I nevertheless keep pressing on.

Right now, not only do I feel the pressure of learning a new, extremely high-level job, I feel the clock ticking on my career as a newspaper columnist. I have so much yet left to say before I'm done and I've already out of room this week.

As always, thanks for reading. See you next week. God bless.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Thanks to fans and foes

Posted By on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 at 8:00 AM


Since the announcement I was leaving Indianapolis appeared in NUVO and in a story on last week, I've been flooded with emails, text messages and Facebook posts that almost exactly reflect the reaction I've gotten from readers for the past 20 years.

My favorite reaction came from a reader of David Lindquist's very well-done story on me at "This will help the city's ranking." That commenter gets a +1 from me for brevity, accuracy and wit. Another: "Hammer's incoherent ramblings won't be missed." Fair point.

Other commenters, while claiming to despise me, nevertheless brought up stories they didn't like that I'd written 15 years ago. They trashed the music coverage that I stopped doing seven years ago. I haven't written a single story on local music since 2006, but some readers are still pissed off. People have long memories in Indianapolis.

The story by Lindquist meant a lot to me. Dave came to town in 1998 after The Star's previous music writer, Marc Allan, moved on to other assignments. I was prepared to make fun of this new guy Lindquist but had to stop after meeting him and talking to him.

He's exactly what a good journalist should be: dedicated to accuracy, funny and with good intentions toward every assignment. We slogged through dozens and dozens of shows together, many of them at what was then called Deer Creek Music Center. Sometimes the shows were amazing, but most of the time they were average, boring performances by superstars or ex-superstars, interesting only to their most-passionate fans.

People think that getting free tickets to 100 concerts a year is a really cool thing, and it is. But until you've actually dragged yourself out of the house and driven through traffic to attend those 100 shows, you don't realize that it's just another job.

Interviewing James Brown and shaking his hand in 1996 was one of the great experiences of my life. So was watching Prince perform at the Convention Center with Chaka Khan and members of Sly and the Family Stone. Pearl Jam at their peak was an awesome band.

But having to see Fastball, the Black Crowes, Britney Spears and 'N Sync? Not so much. It sure feels like work when you're trying to write a piece on the opening act to 'N Sync or interviewing the bass player from some national jam band.

Lindquist and I put in some hard miles together and the fact that he's still doing it is a testament not only to his skill and dedication but his mental stability. Dealing with musicians gave me a perforated eardrum, mental illness and a substance-abuse problem that took me the better part of a decade to shake.

But I take great exception to the adjective he applied to this column. He called it "left-leaning." I also was angered by a list of "the most liberal reporters in Indianapolis," allegedly put together by members of the Tea Party of Indiana and posted on

I finished in 10th place. TENTH! I feel like my career has been in vain if I only rank as Indy's 10th most-liberal reporter. Friends, not only am I "left-leaning" and "liberal," I'm a straight up socialist with Marxist-Leninist tendencies. Matthew Tully of The Star, who ranked first on that list, never advocated the nationalization of the oil industry. Jim Shella of Channel 8, who also is supposedly more liberal than me, never called for a workers' revolution to topple the George W. Bush regime. I did both of those things.

What would it have taken for me to reach No. 1? Kidnap Patty Hearst? Lead a sit-in at Sen. Dan Coats' office until a Peoples' Commission on Truth and Reconciliation pays reparations to the descendants of slaves and the victims of Reagan-era predatory capitalism?

Man. Do I need to pay membership dues to the Communist Party USA? Will that bump me up the list? Clearly, I have been ineffective so far.

There were also laudatory words for me from at least one of my heroes, Dan Carpenter of The Star, who has been the writer to whom all those aspiring to greatness must be compared. The man is a living legend and an oasis of sanity in our city's media. His kind words sincerely warmed my heart.

But it was the compliments from the people who know me best that really touched me. I received so many words of praise from my co-workers in Indianapolis. Many of them thanked me for being so helpful, so friendly and so positive.

This marks a change in my life, being described as friendly, positive and helpful. I wasn't always that way. But my job downtown, where I started working in 2007, changed that. I showed up to work every day. I almost always played by the company rules. And I tried to help as many people as I could.

My coworkers, all of us proud members of the Communications Workers of America, are folks just like you and me. Some are single moms coming off public assistance and determined to lift themselves and their children out of poverty. Others are older folks who, like me, found themselves in their 40s, jobless and with little hope.

They helped me as much as I helped them. I've got six or seven more columns left before I leave the pages of NUVO for good, but I'm out of time for today. We'll talk more in the coming weeks.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lone Star State lures Steve Hammer

Posted By on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 8:00 AM

The State of Texas Lone Star Flag, courtesy of Paul Orear.
  • The State of Texas Lone Star Flag, courtesy of Paul Orear.

On Jan. 16, I received a phone call and an email I had been looking forward to for months. It was from a hiring manager at the large telecommunications company where I am employed, making me a formal job offer for a senior technical support position that I, and 700 other applicants, had applied for in November.

I accepted the job. As a result, this weekend I will board a plane and arrive in San Antonio, Texas, leaving behind Indianapolis, my beloved hometown, for a few years at minimum.


I've signed so many non-disclosure agreements and deal with so much proprietary information at my job, some which would expose me to civil and even criminal penalties if disclosed. As a result, I'm not sure what I am legally allowed to say other than I will be a high-level technical support analyst in the network operations division of my company and, with overtime, could be looking at as much as a $70,000 a year raise over what I earn now.

I'd turned down two such job offers in the last year. But with President Obama safely re-elected, and the economy picking up steam, accepting the offer and moving to Texas seems like the best move for me and my family at this time.

As a result, after consultation with my NUVO family, I will cease writing this column by the end of March, at which time I hope to return to Indianapolis to celebrate my new life at a party with my friends, family and you, the readers who have meant so much to me over the past 20 years.

Columnists of any kind rarely have a 20-year run in print media. Either they get fired or they take better jobs or they simply get burned out. I am proud of the fact that only a few writers in Indianapolis have equaled my two-decade stint in print — all of them legends.

That degree of longevity puts me, by that measure only, in the same league as Dan Carpenter of The Indianapolis Star, Deb Paul of Indianapolis Monthly and my mentor and hero, the late Tom Keating, whose daily columns in The Star from the 1960s through the 1980s inspired me to become a writer and have my own voice be heard.

When I started doing this column in 1993, there weren't very many unapologetically liberal or progressive voices in the local media of Indianapolis. And there certainly weren't any outrageously provocative figures ready to challenge The Star's conservative coverage or mock the Hoosier State's pompous politicians.

Sometimes my outrageousness cost NUVO readers and, just as importantly for any newspaper, advertisers. It is to Kevin McKinney's credit that, as editor and publisher, he has never once censored any of the nearly 1,000 columns or 3,000 stories I've written for this newspaper.

I still have eight more columns to write for NUVO, so this isn't a goodbye. It's just an announcement of breaking news in my life. I'm very excited to see what challenges San Antonio and my new position have in store for me. Being selected over so many applicants is humbling to me and I'm eager to start my life over in a new state, albeit a very scary and Republican one.

I've watched the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination enough to know how they treat liberals in Texas so I am rightly concerned for my safety. Since I'm no Jack Kennedy, I'm pretty confident that there are no Lee Oswalds laying in wait with the back of my skull visible in their rifle sights.

Prior to my departure from the Indianapolis office of my company, I sent a lengthy email to my coworkers, some of whom are discouraged by working in an ever-changing environment for not a whole lot of money. To answer their most frequently asked question, I told them I don't know why I was picked for this lucrative new job and they weren't.

I concluded the email with this thought, which, despite its excessive capitalization and boldface type, honestly reflects my views, not only about my job but about America — still the greatest country in the world in terms of freedom and opportunity:

"If you play by the rules, act with integrity and show up to work every day, you WILL get a shot at a better life. Whether you make that shot depends on how well you've prepared for it. You are here because you were selected over of hundreds of other applicants who also wanted to work here. The company believes in you; it spent thousands of dollars training you. Your manager believes in you; his or her own job is dependent upon your doing well. Your friends, family and coworkers believe in you; they love you and want you to do well. The only other thing is to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF."

I'll have much more to say in the next eight weeks, but I'll be doing so from San Antonio, Texas, where I'll be busy at my new job and trying to turn the state Democratic.

Until then, as always, thanks for reading and may God bless you all.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Obama fights back

Posted By on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Inauguration Day has always been a holiday for me in a way others celebrate the Super Bowl or another big event. This year was no different. I had the day off work and ate a delicious breakfast before settling in to watch it all on TV.

It was an important day for America, even the 47 percent of the electorate that didn't vote for Barack Hussein Obama in November. It marks the official recognition of the will of the people. Elections have consequences. Obama now has the chance to finish the job he started, with much more fanfare, four years ago.

The ceremonies were moving and the music and speeches were excellent. Most stirring of all was the speech by the president. In terms that should be clear and convincing to all, he outlined a progressive agenda for the nation along the lines he promised during the 2012 campaign.


It was an historic speech, one, which despite its initial mixed reviews by TV pundits, will resonate for many decades after he leaves office in 2017. "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," he said, attempting to draw an end to the era of Ronald Reagan's "you're on your own" policy of governing.

It was a line that many commentators overlooked during their instant analyses, but its importance is difficult to overstate. For more than 30 years, Reagan and his successors have tried to convince Americans that government action is always a problem instead of a solution to any given crisis.

Even Bill Clinton famously declared that the "era of big government is over." Of course, neither Reagan nor Clinton nor any other president in the last 80 years actually believed that line of nonsense. Reagan fought tirelessly to destroy the labor movement through government action. He also used the power of the government to redistribute wealth from the lower and middle economic classes to the richest Americans.

What Obama promised, both in his campaign and his second inaugural address, was to use the power of the presidency to enact laws to right economic wrongs, to level the playing field and give every American the opportunities guaranteed in the Constitution.

When equality is denied to any American, it diminishes our entire nation. So the president quite pointedly included gay and lesbian Americans among those whose rights must be protected. He spoke of the needs of the elderly, who worked their entire lives in good faith under the assumption that Social Security would be around when they needed it.

He addressed the ongoing injustice in our electoral system. No citizen should have to overcome unreasonable obstacles or wait endlessly in line just to vote. That these problems still exist almost a half-century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act is ludicrous. He is correct that these issues must be addressed.

He acknowledged that today's extreme partisan climate is not an excuse for inaction.

"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," he said, in a comment directly aimed at those whose only purpose is to obstruct progress.

After the speech was over, Fox News pundits were in shock at what they saw as a combative tone from Obama. It was only combative in the sense that this president, aided by his loyal vice president, intends to act aggressively to preserve peace abroad and usher in a new prosperity at home.

That prosperity is coming. For some of us, it's almost here. The economy will continue to expand and grow. Politically, the president will use every ounce of political capital to further a progressive, inclusive agenda. He will have successes and he will have failures.

But, and this is what conservatives should fear the most, this president will have the support of a majority of Americans behind him. The coalition that re-elected him last year — young people, Latinos and African-Americans — will back him all the way. There is no home for them in the Republican Party. They are unwelcome in the Tea Party movement, which by this time has been exposed as the ignorant, gun-waving hillbillies they are.

To the extent that the president's speech was a rebuke of the Reagan philosophy, conservative Americans have every right to be alarmed. They have run the show and dictated terms of engagement for far too long.

Obama tried in his first term to accomplish the dismantling of the Reagan-Bush legacy. He achieved this only in part. During the next four years, with the backing of a solid majority of the public, he intends to be more successful.

This is bad news for the conservative movement but great news for America. I'm confident that the president will get it done. There is too much at stake for him to fail.

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