Snowbird was drunk and in a strip joint. Again.
Warm El Niño weather had left the WSMV-Channel 4 weatherbird with little to do all winter, and he had sunk into a depression that worried his friend Myron the Rat. Snowbird often went through a down time when hot weather arrived, but this was worse. The Bird was drinking hard and acting rude.
“Watch this,” he slurred to Myron, who was beside him at the table at Déjà Vu. “Hey, lady with the big headlights!” he shouted, his nasal voice piercing the chunka-chunka beat of the music. Several strippers turned around. Snowbird poked Myron in the arm and emitted a wheezing laugh, his bill gaping open and his webbed feet dangling obscenely in front of his chair. Sometimes Myron wondered how Woozy, the Bird’s wife, put up with him.
“They’re making a freakin’ fortune off of me,” Snowbird complained. “And then they make up those dolls and give them away. I’m a freakin’ punch line.”
Myron glanced up as a group of noisy frat boys from MTSU poured into the room and squeezed around the table beside the Bird and the rat.
Snowbird didn’t seem to notice. In full self-pitying mode, he began to sound a familiar theme. “That hot-headed Demetria doesn’t even like me,” he moaned. Myron had heard it all beforeSnowbird was constantly carrying on about hallway snubs, non-invites to parties, and the sneer on Demetria’s face whenever she gave away Snowbird dolls on the air.
One of the MTSU boys tipped his chair back and eyed Snowbird. He turned back to his tablemates. “This here penguin is sayin’ bad things about Demetria,” he announced.
“Demetria?” one of the others said, perking up. “Is she goan be dancin’ here tonight?”
“Naw, dumb ass. This li’l fuzzy guy is trash-talkin’ her.”
“Demetria? Now there’s somebody worth fightin’ for!” one of the other brothers declaimed, standing up so fast his chair flipped over.
The frat boy lunged at Snowbird in an attempt to grab him around his penguin neck. The Bird squirted out the door to the parking lot, pursued by the defenders of Demetria’s honor.
As the frat boys fell over one another in hot pursuit, they caught the crowd’s attention. A rumoran incorrect oneraced through the crowd that Demetria herself had walked into the club and had been rudely pawed by a drunken customer. Yet more fights broke out in the parking lot.
Apparently confused about the Chicago-bred anchor’s region of origin, a frat boy decked out in a Rebel cap brayed, “We’ve got a right to defend Southern womanhood.”
Somebody dialed 911, and scanners in newsrooms all over the city picked up a story far too juicy to pass up: a riot in progress at a strip joint.
Myron stumbled out from under the table and headed for the door. Several police cars had arrived, their blue lights casting an eerie glare. Several injured frat boys lay sprawled on the ground. News crews wandered about, looking for witnesses to interview.
Snowbird was gone.
Meanwhile, the First Annual West Meade Candlelite Tour of Historic Ranch Homes was under way. Metro Council member Eric Crafton, eager for any publicity that didn’t involve a Wal-Mart store or a recall petition, had concocted the tour as a fundraiser for the newly formed “West Meade Historic District,” which was also his idea.
“Recall election, my butt,” Crafton told one of his supporters at the corner of Davidson Road and Brownlee Drive, where a lot of khaki-clad white people were lining up to buy tickets. “What everybody is concerned about is property values, and having a historic district increases property values. The problem is that historic districts are usually located in old, shitty parts of town.”
Documents filed with the National Register of Historic Places indicate that Crafton was attempting to persuade the Register that ranch houses are “the most American, distinctive, and beloved form of housing in the U.S. of A.” To put together the proposal, Crafton had turned for advice to Council member Mansfield Douglas III, who had experience with historical zoning.
“I don’t kerstion all the whys and wherefores of why you are preparing this particular proposal at this particular point in time,” Douglas had sagely noted. “But I kerstion whether this particular proposal will be taken under the wing of the National Register at this particular point in time.”
Crafton had warmly thanked Douglas for his help and busied himself writing the brochure for the home tour.
“The Johnson home at 1765 Brownlee, built in 1966, is an example of the Ranch Transitional style,” Crafton wrote, only dimly aware that no such style exists. “It features a living room-dining room combination, with an extremely shiny gold chandelier over the dining room table.
“The kitchen boasts original linoleum tile floors and Formica countertops in eye-catching colors. The spacious master bedroom, measuring a full 10 by 12 feet, is joined by a bath with pink fixtures.”
Crafton had been stumped about what else to say, so he turned to the next house.
“The Willis residence, 7895 Sparta, was built in 1962.” Then Crafton wracked his brain. “John F. Kennedy was in the White House,” he wrote, proud of linking the house with a genuine historical figure. “The home features a living room-dining room combination with eight-foot ceilings, with an extremely shiny gold chandelier over the dining room table. It has three bedrooms and one-and-one-half baths, both of which have the original yellow-and-pink tile floors and matching fixtures.” Crafton recalled from reading other home-tour brochures that architectural terms were usually sprinkled throughout. He thought for a minute. “The soffit finials and newel balustrades are original,” he wrote.
He decided that he was going to have to start throwing in information about the residents. (You could do that in West Meade without any of that embarrassing stuff from other historic neighborhoods, where two guys live in the same exquisitely decorated house and the questions just hang in the air.)
“The next house on the tour is the Snowbird residence, 6665 Clematis,” he wrote. “The home, which has a living room-dining room combination with a spacious eight-foot ceiling, is owned by the weather penguin and his lovely wife, artist Elizabeth ‘Woozy’ Snowbird, who is famous for smearing paint on canvas using her flippers.”
Crafton had bluffed his way through the other six houses on the tour, and a stack of the brochures rested beside the registration desk. He was reserving several copies to give to reporters, but none had shown up.
“I can’t believe I go to all this trouble and not even a freakin’ photographer,” he fumed. “What do we have to do to get some coverage?”
Channel 4 news director Al Tompkins couldn’t believe what he had just heardscanner reports of a riot at a strip joint involving one of his anchors. He ran down the hall, almost plowing headlong into Kalodimos running from the other direction.
“I was not at that strip joint!” she shouted.
“You were on the air until a half-hour ago!” Tompkins shouted back. “There’s no way you could have been at a strip joint!”
“Well, it’s on the scanner that I was!” The news business had taught Kalodimos the fearful lesson that mundane reality rarely has anything to do with juicy first reports.
She fumbled in the pocket of her jacket, fished out a half-dozen pieces of nicotine gum, and stoked them into her mouth. The wad in her jaw made her look like a journeyman relief pitcher. “Thish really pishes me oof,” she said, her dark eyes flashing.
Pissed-off anchors made Tompkins jittery.
“D.K., nobody but an idiot would believe you were anywhere near a place like that,” he said.
“Hey, Al,” somebody yelled from across the newsroom. “Brad Schmitt from The Tennessean is on Line 1. He wants to know why Demetria was dancing at Déjà Vu.”
When the story broke, most of The Tennessean’s reporters had been involved in a Gannett-mandated sensitivity-training session at which high-paid consultants were using “innovative interpersonal approaches to teach how to relate to those who are differently abled, differently pigmented, or differently oriented.” For the first time in the memory of anyone at the newspaper, a decision on a breaking news story had landed on the desk of editor Frank Sutherland.
Nothing could have annoyed Sutherland more. He had just spent three hours composing the lede for his wine column (“Wines from Chile may not be at the top of your shopping list, but if you love meat loaf, perhaps you should reconsider”), when a newsroom intern, a young woman improbably named Knight Stivender, knocked on his door.
“Damn it, now I’ve lost the thread,” he fumed. “What?”
“Uh, Frank, I think a riot has broken out at Déjà Vu. It sounds like Demetria Kalodimos may have been performing there for Amateur Night.”
“This is Tuesday. Amateur Night is Thursday,” Sutherland said absently.
There was an awkward pause. Then he caught himself and said, “Why don’t you go over there and check it out? And tell Schmitt to call Tompkins for a quote.”
At Déjà Vu, it took Stivender only a few minutes to discover that nobody had actually seen Kalodimos at the strip club. But there had been a riot involving a Channel 4 employeeSnowbird.
Stivender interviewed Fidelita the Cuban Firecracker about what she had seen. This was good, Stivender thought; the editors always liked positive portrayals of Hispanics.
“I was concluding my Statue of Liberty dance, and so I was sort of blinded by the green lights,” Fidelita said. “But I saw this little guy from the TV. At first, all I saw was his big spooky eyes, so I thought it was Harry Chapman, but it was Snowbird. I saw him run for the door with a bunch of big guys after him.”
Stivender flipped open her cell phone and called the City Desk. “Demetria wasn’t here,” she reported. “It looks like a riot involving that weather penguin, Snowbird.”
“No shit?” said Frank Gibson, who was back from becoming more sensitive and was working the desk. “Isn’t that an entertaining little coincidence? We just heard that some home-tour people found the body of a female penguin at Snowbird’s house in West Meade.”
Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron stood in front of the Snowbird residence, waiting for the camera-men to turn their lights on. Then he began: “About an hour ago, a busload of people on a home tour discovered the stabbed body of a black-and-white female penguin, tentatively identified as Mrs. Elizabeth “Woozy” Snowbird, who we understand is a resident of this address. An autopsy will be conducted within a few days.”
“Don, any suspects?”
“It’s too early to speculate. We would like to question her husband, who we understand was involved earlier tonight in an incident at the Déjà Vu club on Demonbreun. He is a black-and-white male, about 3 foot 3, last seen wearing a stocking cap and scarf. Let me emphasize that he is not a suspect at this time.”
Eric Crafton’s face grew paler as shocked First Annual West Meade Candlelite Tour of Historic Ranch Homes-goers gawked out their bus windows at the crime-scene tape and the red stains on the sidewalk surrounding the penguin-shaped chalk outline.
“Well, Councilman,” somebody said, slapping him on the back. “You said you were going to change the way the city thinks about West Meade. I think this just about does it.”
For the rest of the week, The Tennessean owned the story. Channel 4 was reluctant to give air time to the sordid activities of its own employee, and the other television stations were treading lightly because they hated to cover news regarding competitors.
The Nashville Scene, meanwhile, assigned the story to investigative reporter Willy Stern. But The Tennessean, per Gannett’s strategy of covering celebrity antics with a fervor previously reserved for world wars, was going nuts.
“ ‘Woozy’ Snowbird found stabbed to death,” blared the headline on Wednesday morning’s front page, with the subhead, “Weather-penguin husband disappears after strip-club riot.”
In a photograph of the crime scene, careful observers could find Crafton’s ashen face among the crowd. The story, featuring coverage of both the murder and the riot, incorporated Stivender’s interviews with Myron the Rat, Fidelita the Cuban Firecracker, and Don Aaron.
“Where is Snowbird?” was the Day 2 front page headline, complete with an old publicity shot of Snowbird, Bill Hall, and Myron. The story detailed the theories about why the bird had disappeared: Was he a killer who had created the riot as a diversion? Was he the victim of foul play? Was he a scared penguin on the run from unknown enemies?
Confirming Kalodimos’ worst fears, Brad Schmitt was quick to note in his column that one of the causes of the riot was the mistaken belief that she was a Déjà Vu customeror a performer. He reported that in the wake of the incidents, the club was hiring Demetria look-alikes.
Knight Stivender revisited the crime scene and wrote a prose postcard that ran as a sidebar to the front-page coverage: “The crime-scene tape was gone, but the blood and chalk outlines were still faintly visible on the front walk, surrounded by hundreds of bouquets and written messages, many from well-wishers who were deeply moved by Woozy’s death.” She did not mention that, three days earlier, virtually none of the mourners had known Woozy Snowbird from Daisy Duck.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got into the act, sending former Tennessean staffer Mark “Milo” Ippolito to the MTSU campus in hopes of interviewing some of the fraternity members who had started the riot. A zealous security officer chased Ippolito into an Ag Studies barn, where he was terrified by cows before being escorted off campus. Having failed to interview anyone actually connected with the case, he wrote an exposé titled “Gestapo Tactics in the ’Boro.”
Day 3, with Snowbird still missing, brought coverage of Woozy’s funeral, with Nashville’s art, media, and political communities well represented. Mayor Phil Bredesen delivered the eulogy, saying, “Andrea and I had many chances to talk with and work with Woozy over the years, and her memory, like her artwork, will live in our hearts and spirits forever.”
Brenda Lee performed a song she had written for the occasion, “Woozy, Your Light Still Shines,” and announced that proceeds from the sale of her soon-to-be-released recording of the song would go to the newly established “Woozy Foundation for AIDS and Crippled Animals.”
After the funeral, Gov. Don Sundquist paused before a group of reporters and frowned. “I think it’s a shame that this guy from Antarctica can’t be found,” he said.
There were two stories on the front page of the next morning’s paper. Predictably, one was headlined “Woozy, Your Light Still Shines” and included a phone number readers could call to hear Brenda Lee warbling. The other was headlined “Was it a slur?” and dealt with what the paper called “The seldom-examined issue of the Antarctican American population in Nashville.” That article featured press secretary Beth Fortune’s denial that the governor had intended a slur against penguins, but columnist Tim Chavez was troubled by what he called Sundquist’s “disturbing pattern of utterances.”
“The fact is,” Chavez wrote, “most Antarctican Americans are hardworking, family-oriented creatures whose parents or grandparents came to Nashville via drifting ice floe. Most of them are settled in the Nolensville Road area, and they add to the rich tapestry of town, eating raw fish and jauntily waving their flippers at passersby.”
“Jeez, we can’t even walk for falling over these damn things,” Tompkins said, kicking at one of the many bags full of Snowbird dolls returned in protest by viewers wanting no part of the fugitive penguin.
Two weeks after Snowbird’s disappearance, the station was still in a siege mentality. Tompkins decided what he really needed was a beer.
A few minutes before air time for her “Scene at Five” newscast, Kalodimos was sitting at her desk reviewing copy when, all of a sudden, the sound of webbed feet in the hallway caught her attention. Snowbird darted in and closed the door.
“D.K., you’ve got to help me,” he pleaded.
“What the hell!?” Kalodimos screamed, dropping a sheaf of papers and grabbing for her nicotine gum.
“Shhhh!” Snowbird implored. “I don’t know who else to turn to. Bill Hall is out of town, Myron won’t return my calls. I’ve got to explain to somebody that...”
Kalodimos composed herself. “Look, I’ll talk to you after the newscast. I’m on the air in five minutes.”
Leaving the bird where he sat, she walked down the hall to the bathroom to check her makeup. As she looked in the mirror, she heard the doorknob rattle.
“Out in a minute!” Kalodimos called. But when she turned the knob and pushed, the door didn’t budge. It was as if a chair had been wedged under the knob.
Meanwhile, on the set, the studio technician pointed his camera at the anchor desk. But it didn’t register with him when Snowbird, instead of Kalodimos, stepped up and took a seat. The techie had done this a million times before. The control room played the newscast’s theme music, and the broadcast was under way.
At that moment, Tompkins was seated in the bar at J. Alexander’s on White Bridge Road, taking his first long draw on a Heineken. He was interrupted mid-swallow by a loud whoop from the bartender. “Christ, Al!” he said, turning up the volume on the bar TV. “Are you guys so ratings-hungry you’ve got a penguin anchoring your news?”
The spray of beer from Tompkins’ mouth drenched two nearby couples.
Snowbird looked into the camera for a moment, seeming to gather his thoughts; then he said the words that would be endlessly recalled and replayed over the next few days, instantly becoming part of local legend: “I’m a transvestite. I’ve got a drinking problem. I like strippers. None of that makes me much different from a lot of people who bring you news on TVwhatever image they try to sell you.”
Tompkins couldn’t believe his ears. His station had spent a fortune building its “4 the Family” image, and here Snowbird was, tearing it all down on live TV. In desperation, Tompkins thought, “They’re going to send me wherever they sent Alan Griggs.”
“I’ve got problems,” Snowbird went on. “I know I need help. But I didn’t kill Woozy...” The penguin paused dramatically. “Because I am Woozy. I’ve been wearing women’s clothes for years. I’m the Neal Cargile of West Meade!” Tompkins felt dizzy.
“I dressed as a female and painted my canvases because that’s part of who I was,” Snowbird went on. “Now I have grown beyond thatit was time to say goodbye to Woozy. That side of me is no more. Now I am totally...Snowbird!”
Channel 4 staffers gathered around the monitors in the newsroom, so engrossed that nobody heard the desperate pounding from the women’s bathroom down the hall.
Phone lines hummed all over the city. The Channel 5 promotions department was debating whether to announce that NewsHound was also a hard-drinking, stripper-consorting cross-dresser. Willy Stern was calculating that this new development would add at least three weeks’ more work to his story. At The Tennessean, Frank Sutherland was pondering whether a Chablis or a Chardonnay would make a better accompaniment to a plate of steamed Tennessee River mussels.
Snowbird paused, letting it sink in that Woozy, who had been the object of a public orgasm of grief, was an utter fabrication. “If the people who run Channel 4 are wondering what happened to that life-size replica of me that used to be in the lobby, I suggest they check the slab at the medical examiner’s office,” he said.
At that moment, state medical examiner Dr. Charles Harlan was lifting a scalpel to begin his autopsy on Woozy Snowbird. Harlan noted with puzzlement that the dried blood on the corpse looked suspiciously like tomato sauce, and the initial incision in the chest produced only cotton-like stuffing. They didn’t cover penguin autopsies in his pathology training, but, Harlan thought, this didn’t seem right.
“For once, what you are seeing on a television news program is real,” Snowbird continued. He made a sweeping gesture with his flipper; maybe that’s why he didn’t see Dan Miller sneaking onto the set. “Life is good!” he shouted. “Live your life!”
The bird’s words ended in a squawk as Miller tackled him from behind, knocking him onto the floor. Tompkins, who had sped up the hill from the bar, and Kalodimos, who had finally broken down the bathroom door, ran onto the set. It took all three of them to wrestle the penguin, but Miller finally tucked the bird under his arm, looked directly into the camera, and intoned unflappably, “Now here’s Rudy Kalis with ‘NASCAR Notes.’ ” The control room technicians cut to the taped segment, titled “The Importance of Exhaust Pipes, Part 3.”
There were a few days of fallout from what became known as “The Snowbird Affair.”
A spokespenguin for the Antarctican American community told Tim Chavez it was “grossly insensitive” that the police and medical examiner couldn’t tell a stuffed penguin from a dead penguin, and called for Harlan to apologize.
“Milo” Ippolito entered therapy to deal with recurring nightmares of menacing cows.
The Tennessean’s Laura Frank wrote a lengthy story implying that sexual confusion in penguins could be a result of exposure to Oak Ridge nuclear waste.
Channel 4 officials denied that they had fired Snowbird and were in high-level negotiations with at-loose-ends radio personality Carl P. Mayfield to take over its snow-closing reports. Rumored title: “P. in the Snow.”
But the last word came from veteran WTVF-Channel 5 reporter Larry “Street Talk” Brinton:
“Snowbird, 38, the self-confessed transvestite con-penguin and Channel Fo’ news employee, was spotted recently entering the Betty Ford Clinic in California. So’ces say that as the West Meade weatherbird entered the clinic, he said, quote, ‘Life is good. Live your life.’
“And that’s Street Talk.”
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