The Beat Writer

Who would have thought it started with a love of musicals?

A couple of years ago while tending bar at Keys On Main, a group of friends came in towards the end of the evening on a Thursday night. The room had died. The balance of the guests had left for the evening and I was stuck with these stragglers coming in moments before the show ended. The four of them ordered cocktails and immediately jumped into the standard give-and-take of why Utah liquor laws were deplorable, why wasn’t the club busier and why haven’t they played my song.

The same dirty three questions I answer every week.

Because I hear the same three questions every night, I gave them my same three answers: Utah has a unique approach to selling booze, people leave early during the middle of the week and they’re not playing your song because you didn’t tip. After we had gotten the unpleasantness over, I actually got to talk to them.

In the group, there was a fellow with glasses in particular that made an impression on me. He was thin, had the beginnings of a bad beard over a strong jaw and very inquisitive eyes. Nervous energy poured out of him in everything he did. Whether it was stirring his drink, fidgeting with his cell phone, interrupting conversations or pointing to the pianos, he was equal parts frenetic, engaging and distant. He moved with little difficulty between conversations but hung more on the fringes pointing out errors in other’s comments and peppered his points with a finger extended from his cocktail glass.

If I had to describe him as a prizefighter, he was a Klitschko. Not a straight ahead fighter but one who relies on a deadly jab and meticulous in his manner. Not the most exciting fighter but as efficient and powerful as a diesel engine. A rare bird in the flock of seagulls that usually fly through the club. He was difficult, terse and very personable.

I liked him immediately.

His name was Bill Oram and he had recently been hired at The Salt Lake Tribune as a prep sports writer. We were talking about movies and I mentioned that one of my secret joys was watching My Fair Lady. Considering the more testosterone-driven films that I usually yammer on and on about, finding a fan of Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins and the simple pleasures of listening to something so far removed from the nightly banging of the pianos was refreshing. Don’t get me wrong. I love despicably bad movies and music but there is nothing quite like the classic musicals from the 1960s.

He told me his mother was a music teacher back in Hebo, Oregon and he loved Oklahoma! Bill talked about high school plays and the influence his mother had on his world view. He had a way of putting me on my heels with his knowledge of music and it turned out we had read a lot of the same books. My 13-years on him put more books on my shelf than his but he had the foundation of a solid cannon of literature in him.

He didn’t remind me of a younger version of myself but certainly of somebody I would have like to have known if we were the same age. Nonetheless, that first evening with him was the first steps towards a friendship.

As a matter of professionalism, I rarely make friends at work. I am fortunate to meet a wide variety of interesting people but conflicts in my schedule and need for distance with guests makes it difficult to befriend my customers. There needs to be a level of separation between me and the guests to be good at my job. People that get too close become liabilities as guests. They expect more than they are willing to pay for and ultimately become bad guests. I have a small group of friends that I love pouring for (and I know you know who you are) but for the most part, I like having an invisible Zion curtain giving me the autonomy to do what I need to do behind the bar. In the end, it makes for a rather lonely experience but that’s the profession I have chosen.

So, it is the rare customer that makes it past the vetting process of becoming a pal. Bill visited me at the club many times, enjoyed the show and we talked about any sort of things. Our conversations had no start and no agenda. He was interesting because he had such a wide breath of knowledge and was unafraid to show it. Bill was a very infectious person. Because of him, I actually started following high school sports. I looked for his bylines and began appreciating his ability to carve a sentence. Reading the Trib every morning became less of a habit but a mandatory ritual. I would inhale the sport’s section and make mental notes of what he has written. Some were good, some blah and others brilliant. I’ll let Bill tell you what was what.

The single biggest influence Bill had on me was the introduction to Twitter. On one of his many trips to the club, he glossed over the influence of Twitter and what it meant for him professionally. I couldn’t get past the name Twitter and what a tweet was but one evening while getting ready for work, I signed up for it on my iPhone and nothing has been the same since. @BennyRaskin became my mark on the global interweb. In 140-characters or less, I began babbling about the world on-line, using it to promote the blog and try my hand at comedy. Whereas he tweeted about sports, I took to Twitter to babble about the bar, customers and crack jokes. Some were good, some blah and others brilliant. Follow me and you’ll know what was what.

I think it is significant that my first follower was @oramb.

Hanging with Bill opened up the newspaper world to me. I met his co-workers and became friends with a handful of them. I learned peripherally what the world of journalism meant to Utah and the importance of the work that they provide for the community. Bill was a part of this mechanism and was gracious enough to let me in on whatever insight he had.

That’s what made a phone call from Danyelle White so spectacular. Danyelle was Bill’s boss and she called me out of the blue asking if I would be interested in writing for her. She was the prep sports editor and she needed a stringer to help cover high school sports. I have to imagine it was a two-tiered job offer: one, my blog had enough traction that proved I knew my way around a semi-colon and two, Bill had his hand in it. He’s never confirmed it but I have always been appreciative of his support. Writing for the Tribune has been one of the great pleasures I’ve had since moving to Salt Lake City.

I wouldn’t dare gloss over his CV but 2012 will be a significant year for him. It started with Bill going to London to cover the summer Olympics and ended with an impressive promotion. Bill Oram has been selected to be the new beat writer for the Utah Jazz. With his friend Brian Smith moving to Houston to cover the Astros, Bill joined the ranks of professional writers covering the NBA. Score one for the good guys. The tenacity and grit of Bill’s mind and writing ability will be pushed and tested every day but I can’t think of anyone who is as well-equipped and ready to meet this challenge.

I boycotted the Jazz last season because of the strike shortened season. Who better to bring me back to speed with the NBA than Bill Oram? The Tribune made the right call in promoting Bill and the 2012-13 season will take a more personal turn as I follow both the Jazz and Bill’s journey in becoming the eyes and ears for the community. It will be overwhelming work but he is certainly up for the test.

Befriending people later in life becomes a matter of choice over circumstance. We’re free to interact with those we please and I am certain my friendship with Bill was a solid choice. No matter how much I disagree with him, I always appreciate his candor, honesty and passion. These traits have served him well as both a journalist and a friend. Salt Lake is in for a treat with the impending season and Bill is in for yet another adventure of a lifetime.

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Yes, there will be a SLC PubCast in the near future. He’s pleased as punch with Bill’s promotion.

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