It was right about this time 18 years ago that my boss at NUVO asked me to start thinking about writing a weekly column to run alongside his own, much more analytical column. His only instruction was to try and keep up with his intensity and integrity.
A long time has passed since then; my former boss is dead, and over the years I've damaged or forsaken almost every relationship I've had, with the exceptions of those held with God, my wife and the readers of this weekly column.
If Dr. Frankenstein could somehow bring these 936 columns to life, the monster would be old enough to register for the draft, vote, smoke, buy pornography, consent to sex and be held liable to debtors. Incidentally, that's pretty much all I've done since 1993 myself.
Even back then, just about every column I wrote invited protests and disparaging remarks about my politics, my religion, my taste in music and women, my opinions on American history and, of course, my personal appearance.
I've pissed off conservatives, moderates, liberals and even Marxists, many of whom mocked me for being fat as well as ideologically offensive.
Printing a five-year-old picture of me taken at my heaviest, during the unhappiest and most stressful time of my life hasn't helped, admittedly. And it also doesn't help that I look like a hostage or prisoner in every picture that's ever been taken of me. But I've been called fat enough times that it doesn't really sting.
The early days of doing this column were great. My boss, Harrison Ullmann, encouraged me to open my veins, pour my soul into my writing — it was at his urging that I wrote about every intense event in my life, including various sexual exploits over the years.
When I drank too many shots of Crown Royal and puked into the urinal at the Patio one night, he told me to write about it. I'd come into the office having read or heard some outrageous viewpoint that maybe 2 percent of our readers would agree with. Ullmann would persuade me to write an explosively charged piece in favor of it, knowing that letters (not yet emails) and phone calls would come pouring in.
There really wasn't anything he considered to be off-limits. Years of experience at other newspapers had taught me to self-censor curse words, as in "f---" and "s---." He issued an order to stop that practice immediately. "If someone uses the word 'fuck,' then print the word 'fuck,' goddamn it," he said.
I've written these columns while waiting in line at Richard Nixon's funeral, while lying in a hospital bed, while under the influence, on sheets of airline stationery and squares of cocktail napkins and during various emotional, financial and physical crises. Now I type from my tattered blue chair, happily, with my family around me.
But I've always tried to keep my former boss's guidelines of candor, provocativeness, humor and bluntness in mind as I write. My failures are my own and no one else's.
I'm a much more balanced, happy, sober and gray person than I was in 1993. I unilaterally stopped writing about sexual matters long ago, to readers' relief, I'm sure. And I don't drink anymore, which means I'm not puking in interesting places around the city.
But I still think that Harrison Ullmann's instructions, as vague as they were, were dead-on. My heroes have always been the same. I know not to trust a rich Republican who promises to help the poor while fattening the pockets of his or her rich capitalist friends. I know that the system always tries to screw the little guy.
When I started this column, I don't think Indianapolis was used to reading some loudmouth talk shit in print, but now there are tens of thousands of people doing it on the Internet and nobody seems to care.
And if the management of NUVO ever tells me they're tired of me, I'd probably be doing the same thing on a blog for free instead of a generous biweekly check. I can't stop loving this city, the people who live and work in it, the ones that struggle to get by, the morbidly obese twentysomethings with furious, bitter glares.
I have been and probably always will be all of those things to some extent; the wonder to me is that I've gotten to express my feelings, as crazy as they may have been, to so many people for so long. I'm thankful to everyone who's helped, harmed, praised, cursed, hugged or punched me since 1993.
And I'm sorry to everyone I've hurt, lied to, disappointed or misled during that period.
I'm most thankful to this newspaper for not yet giving up on me and, most of all, to the readers I never intend to let down. I hope the next 18 years of writing are as interesting as the last have been.