Words & Photographs by Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille.com | march29.2022
Huntington was where I first landed in West Virginia. It was my initial encounter with the Mountain State, as I came to learn the place liked to call itself. Called so by West Virginians who wished a happier brand than gap-toothed hillbillies and the burlesque of inbred families.
The year was 1980. I was a year out of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I came to the attention of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, part of the then-omnivorous Gannett newspaper chain. One of the chain’s biggest catches was the Cincinnati Enquirer, where I’d interned for some months my senior year. Hadn’t done a half-bad job, apparently. My clips and references must have read well.
I got a call for an interview one day on the wall phone of my parents’ Ohio kitchen. At that moment, I really needed a job in the sweet spot of my English major. I was a distracted, somewhat distraught, waiter who’d just been busted back to busboy by the white-gloved martinet who ran the middling Cincinnati restaurant where I toiled. I desperately needed my life back on track.
I had graduated Miami and gone straight to Ireland, you see. Jetting off on an ill-advised international love affair (it was actually a triangle). It began in the newsroom of Miami’s student paper where I was feature editor, in the cornfield-wrapped hills of Oxford, Ohio. It began with a first stop in Paris, city of dreams for all English majors and not a few others.
I exited America aiming for a Grand Tour, landing in a lively group house in suburban Dublin (source of my Bad Irish Accent Impersonation to this day). I scored a waiter’s job at Rudi’s, a restaurant run by Irish Canadians on Upper Grange Gorman Street, a short stroll from Trinity College and the actual Book of Kells. After some colorful months, it all fell apart. It’s complicated.
I am writing now about those overseas days and nights in what I call ‘a sorta memoir.‘ Stories I’ve never told, some of which will surprise and maybe shock. It’s part of a travelogue that delves into tales of becoming seriously, deeply undone. Stay tuned for the manuscript’s release by free subscribing to WestVirginiaVille’s newsletter. PS: Years ago, I released an eliptical, probably too literary, song, about those knotty Irish days, called “Saint Stephen’s Dream.”
Shell-shocked, back home at my parent’s house in the north Cincinnati suburbs, I trudge to the ringing telephone one day. It’s a Huntington Herald-Dispatch editor offering an interview in a place I’d never been, in a town whose name I’d never heard. In a state I’d never been. I piloted my car three hours south-eastward alongside the serpentine Ohio River. Expecting coal miners in ragged overalls, cheeks smeared with coal dust, boots gallumphing through the Huntington streets.
I found, instead, a life. The H-D had a bustling, well-run newsroom, overseen by a thoughtful editor, Don Hatfield, and serious line editors. The newsroom housed a bright, youngish crew of newshounds and wannabe writers like me, glad to land a job that paid you to write stories. It was a good place to be a cub reporter. I started on evening cops beat, traditional training ground for baby journalists. Twice on shift, you had to dial through the Tri-State ‘cops list.’ More than 50 cop shops, sheriff’s departments, and state police detachments in three states. (Best exchange: “Anything going on?” Dispatcher: “It’s quiet as a bag of ice …”)
The H-D was also, oddly and refreshingly, maybe the most mixed newsroom in West Virginia, then or now. At one point in the 1980s, we had an almost equal balance of cityside Black and white reporters — in a state, in a country, that still can’t get its act together mainlining people of color into media inner sanctums. (A shout-out in 2022 to Crystal Good’s “BLACK BY GOD: The West Virginian,” whose exemplary work is seen elsewhere in this issue and which has taken matters into its own hands.)
I lasted seven years at the H-D. Moved on to the county government beat. At one point, I convinced the paper to let me go on special assignment for three months, during which I worked undercover as a volunteer at Huntington State Hospital. (I had experience on Dickensian back wards). Wrote a massive, probably too-long, 7-day series on mental hospitals and the care of folks experiencing mental illness across West Virginia.
This was an era when ‘de-institutionalization‘ dropped many a wounded soul onto Mountain State streets. It was a well-meaning effort to spring them from the psychic harm of ill-staffed, closed-off wards, but the streets weren’t quite ready with the necessary support. Talk about ‘it’s complicated …’
I got accused in print by a state mental health official of being a “a reporter in a Trojan Horse.” Perhaps. But I was trying to investigate some truths and wanted a first-hand look. My diaries of working the wards were the series’ most popular part. I was also working through some things and trying to pay it forward. (More about that in the memoir.) The series won some awards, but more importantly caught the eye of the Charleston Gazette’s legendary editor, Don Marsh. A few years later, his recollection of it would lead me to hiring on at the Gazette, the sweet spot where I landed for the rest of my journalism career. And what a blessing that was.
It all gets more complicated. (What does Thesaurus.com list as synonyms of that word I’ve now used overmuch? Convoluted. Difficult. Byzantine. And my favorite: Daedalian.) I built a a good life in Huntington, with good friends and doing good work. I lived in a former wealthy person’s servant’s cottage a stone’s throw from Ritter Park. Later, I moved ‘out Wayne,’ to live a rich, friend-filled life with the woman who would later become my sweet wife.
I wrote endless H-D stories about the undeveloped ‘Superblock.’ That’s where the current thriving heart of Huntington — Pullman Square — now blooms, with all the popcorning growth seen on streets all around it. Back in the day, it was a barren field, bisected by a straight-shot, dusty road. Horny, bored teenagers cruised in cars and pickups weekend nights. Back and forth. Round and round.
Still undomesticated and undisciplined at heart, Daedalian dreams churning my breast and probably reading too much Rimbaud and inhaling too much weed, I left Huntington behind. Exited my relationship (badly and with world-class chutzpah). Quit the H-D. Turned my bank account into Thomas Cook Traveler’s Checks. Ended up back in Paris, and then parked my backpack and a cheap Chinese traveling guitar in the former volcanic heartland of France. Appropriately enough, for the personal volcanism to follow. That, too, you can read about in the fictionalized non-fiction to come. That, too, ended badly. Think Icarus, without the plumage.
So it’s 2022, and there’s so much water under the bridge it’s a wonder it hasn’t been washed away. It’s a good thing Marsh (out in the Gazette newsroom, we all called him just ‘Marsh’) remembered my mental health care series. Him hiring me — as a feature editor and writer, after I finally nailed down the direction of my newspaper life — determined the course of a generally happy, fortunate career. For years, though, I avoided downtown Huntington. Too many ghosts, recalling for me decisions I made that blew up spectacularly. “Don’t look back,” Satchel Paige liked to say. “Something may be gaining on you …”
These days, I find myself avoiding other ghosts, ones left behind in downtown Charleston. My back-end years there also grew convoluted. Difficult. Byzantine. I am letting them settle. Perhaps because of those convolutions, I much prefer to walk the surprisingly vibrant streets and burgeoning shop-and-hangout culture of Huntington WV, circa 2022.
You may find me on a sunny day, or even a rainy one, pecking at my laptop in the open-porch seating of Sip Downtown Brassiere, a wine and whisky bar. I recently spent way too much on a glass of Amarone red Italian wine, one of the best in my life. So, I had to have another to make sure. (It’s part of my personal wine philosophy — when I drink wine, which is not that often — to sip grapes grown in the hill country of the place my father was born.) That there even exists a ‘wine and whiskey brassiere‘ in Huntington a short stroll from the old Superblock wasteland remains a marvel to this aging media mutt.
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When I’m not on the ground exploring the charms of Huntington’s renaissance, you may find me in the sky. The fifth-floor rooftop cigar bar which La Fontaine’s blossomed into being last year is quite the place. I stayed at an arty hotel in the heart of Chicago a couple years back with a rooftop bar. La Fontaine’s is just as good.
Better, even. That’s because of the cognitive dissonance of puffing a good cigar from Honduras or Nicaragua, trying to resist the charms of a Smoked Manhattan, and nibbling the joint’s tasty cheese, pickles, olives, crackers and fig-jam board — while in Huntington fecking West Virginia. If you’ll excuse my French.
You could ask my Cigar Compatriot, Doug Minnerly (channeling Gandalf in the photo-string above, and whose writing is featured in this issue), if I’m telling the truth. Andrew, the manager, who delivers the four-alarm smoking version of a Manhattan, called us “regs” the other day. The first step is we Dougs admitting we have a cigar-in-the-sky problem in Huntington …
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE.com | March 30, 2022 ISSUE
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1) Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down’: What are you going to do when your complicated family just won’t leave you behind? A personal tale from beyond the grave. | by Doug Minnerly
2) West Virginia Hero’s Life Screens at FestivALL 2022 : Dave Evans lost both legs below the knees in a Vietnam War ambush. What happened next is the stuff of a legendary life told in the new documentary “The Wake Up Call.”
3) Many Fights, One Big Fight: A new book chronicles the history to stay the course of Local 1199, and the longing for fairness within an often heartless industry. | by Eric Neudel
4) Barriers to Mental Health Care for Black West Virginians: Black West Virginians are at a significant disadvantage when dealing with mental health issues. A reprint of a BLACK BY GOD piece by Haadiza Ogwude
5) ‘First Streets in West Virginia:’ A photo-essay on how much the streets of Huntington have changed since the author first stepped onto them in 1980. As well as him. | by Douglas John Imbrogno
6) ‘A Tragedy Full of Joy’: The Complicated American Dream of West Virginia’s Jerry West: Pondering Jerry West life after encountering the star’s 2011 memoir “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.” | Reprint of a John W. Miller essay from Moundsville.org
7) ‘Ukraine Update: ‘Day 34 of Russia’s Cowardly Invasion of Ukraine’: A former West Virginia residents latest posts on Vladimir Putin’s attempted mugging of Ukraine, where two of his daughters live. | by Michael Willard