Reporters and prostitutes

What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?

Answer: When a pimp asks a prostitute to do two jobs, she gets paid double. When an editor asks a reporter to do two jobs, she gets paid the same.

OK, so I write lousy jokes. It seemed funnier Saturday night, drinking a Red Stripe and walking around a former brothel across the street from the Memphis train station.

SPJ’s traveling workshop, the Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, stopped last weekend in Tennessee’s largest city – which is not only bigger than Nashville but also (I was surprised to learn) Boston, Seattle, and Denver.

I was one of four Scripps “facilitators.” Alas, everything we facilitated in two days was undone in two hours by a 60-year-old bar owner named Russell George.

What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?

Answer: More people want to tour a whorehouse than a newsroom.

That’s one reason George is still sole proprietor of Earnestine and Hazel’s after 20 years. Opened in the 1930s as a sundries shop by two sisters named Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones, the women changed their business plan in the 1950s, creating a lunch counter on the first floor and renting out the small rooms on the second floor – by the hour, no questions asked.

It was a madame-less brothel for four decades, until George bought the boarded-up brick building in 1993 and reopened the downstairs as a bar-and-burger joint. He correctly reckoned people would buy more beer if they could stroll through the decrepit rooms where the prostitutes once put out.

That’s an enticing tale for out-of-town journalists. So while many Scripps attendees headed to Beale Street to drink Budweiser out of plastic cups and watch other tourists drink Miller High Life out of plastic cups, six of us walked a mile to Earnestine and Hazel’s…

Lakeland Ledger reporter Ryan Little, StateImpact Florida reporter John O’Connor, Nashville’s City Paper editor Steve Cavendish, and freelancers Gideon Grudo and Brandon Ballenger.

What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?

Answer: The working conditions are about the same, but the prostitute makes her own hours.

When we pushed open the rusty front door, a couple was sitting at a rickety round table with splintered edges and another was sitting at the scuffed bar, which had three different kinds of stools. George wasn’t busy, so he asked if we wanted a tour.

A narrow wooden staircase in the back of the building was worn with such deep grooves that my feet never fell flat on any particular step. The walls had so many gaping holes and cracks, you could almost set your beer bottle down in a few of them.

The tiny rooms, some just a little larger than a walk-in closet, were oddly decorated. None had beds. But there were randomly placed lamps, sans shades, with red or blue bulbs. A white piano and black cafe table filled one room. A broken pinball machine was shoved in the corner of another.

The room at the end of the hall held a small bar, where we found one old guy drinking. That’s him in the photo above, with George amusingly trying to tidy up behind the bar. Cleaning that place seemed not only futile but foolish.

You don’t polish antique silverware or firearms because that lessens their value. Earnestine & Hazel’s is no different.


What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?

Answer: A prostitute can afford a newspaper, but a reporter can’t afford a prostitute.

George invited us into his office, a sanctuary he insisted few ever see. Being journalists, we were skeptical: Maybe he tells everyone this. Still, we were completely charmed. George can weave quite a yarn with his slurry drawl, but because I was a tad tipsy, I can’t accurately quote him, except for one exchange that stuck with me…

After peppering him with questions, we went downstairs for one of George’s famous Soul Burgers, which have been touted by Esquire and CNN.

But when one arrived at our table, George came back and conceded, “It’s just a glorified Krystal burger.” Earlier, he told us there’s nothing special about his Soul Burger – which is, weirdly, why he thinks it’s so exalted…

“It don’t have no lettuce or tomato, because in the restaurant business, you can’t waste nothin’, and that shit don’t keep. So there’s just pickles and grilled onions and cheese on it. Hell, maybe it’s the name Soul Burger that does it. I dunno.”

George talks about his celebrity customers with the same no-hype slur. He has jaundiced, wavy photos of James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Norah Jones, and Orlando Bloom hung askew in dollar-store frames, and he tells small tales as he points to each – like how Sean Penn can drink anyone under the table, and how Robert Duvall danced with one of his friends.

If he’s serious about anything, it’s the ghosts. George insists the building is haunted. The jukebox mysteriously turns on and off, he says. Of course, that could just be the electrical wiring, if it’s as ancient and untended as the rest of the place.


What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?

Answer: At Earnestine and Hazel’s, nothing.

As I peeked inside those tiny rooms on the second floor, I wondered if an entrepreneur like Russell George will one day do the same with a newspaper building – open a bar where the printing press was once bolted down and shove pianos and pinball machines into the editors’ offices and reporters’ cubicles.

On my lowest days, it seems our profession is following the fate of Earnestine and Hazel’s brothel.

But maybe we can learn something from Russell George, a once-divorced ex-musician and avid fisherman who admits he lost his 1950s Cadillac to gambling debts and dumped a girlfriend because she “messed with my tackle box.”

George slowly grew into a national success even though Earnestine and Hazel’s is more than a mile from the famed Beale Street bar scene. He draws hipsters, celebrities, young people, old journalists, and the most racially diverse customer base I saw in my time in Memphis – specifically because he refuses to change.

He knows the cachet of his club is in its stubborn anachronism and his easy ability to repeat the story with no hyperbole and lots of honesty. He knows his burgers wouldn’t be special if he tried to make them special. He knows no one believes his ghosts stories, but he also knows they’ll keep drinking if he tells them.

At the Scripps Leadership Institute earlier that same day, we were teaching journalists the opposite: Master all the latest tech on top of all the work you already do, follow all the latest trends on social media, see where the masses are moving and follow them.

I teach this myself. And it’s the right advice for the moment. But I wonder if journalists have lost what Russell George has preserved for prostitutes. I’m beginning to believe hyper-local journalism shouldn’t be defined just by geography but also by attitude.

I decided right there at Earnestine and Hazel’s to start my own hyper-local newspaper someday soon. And I’ll ask Russell George to be my “facilitator.”

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