Investigative journalism is alive and well, though thriving much more nationally and in big cities than locally and in small towns.
What seems to be to be mostly gone for good is the feature profile: the story about the aging ballerina, the softball tournament for gay seniors, the professional poker player, the career stand-up comic who only plays places like Eau Claire, Wis. and Minot, N.D., the Chicago canoe maker, the baseball “superfan.”
I’ve written about all those sorts of folks, and in the reporting discovered (and in the writing I hope I taught) something really, really important about humanity.
The other day I was rummaging through my old clips looking for something, and I ran across a handwritten letter on stationery sent to me by Ernest E. Casper, “Maker of Men’s Hair Pieces Individually Designed.”
I profiled Ernie back in 2003 for the Chicago Tribune. My buddy Tony put me onto him—met him at the local Y and thought he’d make a good story.
This was the lead:
“Chicago Tonight” news anchor Phil Ponce has a hairpiece, but nobody knows it.
As a matter of fact, Ponce doesn’t know it.
That’s because Ponce’s partial—a clump of curly black hair—is sitting in Ernest E. Casper’s Hair Replacement shop on North Cicero Avenue. Casper plans to make an unannounced and uninvited visit to WTTW’s studios to show Ponce how to fill a thin patch Casper has spotted on the back of his head.
After a full morning of listening to this man walk me step-by-step through a half-century in the hairpiece biz and everything he’d learned along the way, I took him to lunch. At one point, he interrupted himself to ask me with true awe, “How do you listen to a guy talk for hours and hours on end?”
Caught off guard, I replied, “Ernie, it’s exhausting. But go on.”
That lunch produced this passage:
In his own hairpiece, the 75-year-old Casper looks about 55, and a little like the late Sonny Bono; without it, he looks like a smallish Robert Duvall. And he doesn’t tape it on, so he’s always in and out of it—so much so that he loses hairpieces often (a waiter at a restaurant recently chased Casper to the cash register, holding the thing as one would hold a dead squirrel).
I wound up organizing the story under the title “How to sell a hairpiece.” The last step was, “Believe you’re helping mankind.” And Ernie really did. He sincerely believed hairpieces made men more confident, and thus more successful and happier.
Not that the business was perfect:
The hairpiece industry is like a bad hairpiece: The closer you look at it, the worse it looks.
Once painstakingly sewn in Casper’s shop, his hairpieces now come from Hong Kong. Casper has never been there to see who does this work and he says he doesn’t know how much the tiers make, but he estimates a good piece takes some 80 hours to make. So the wages can’t be much; then again, they weren’t much two decades ago, when Casper had a back room full of Polish immigrants tying the rugs with tiny needles.
If the economics of the hairpiece business cut into his corporate responsibility, Casper tries to make it up in personal humanity. He tells of making a free hairpiece for a 12-year-old boy who had cancer, which turned out to be terminal. “But he looked so beautiful in that hairpiece,” Casper says with great emotion.
The piece concluded with Casper happily remembering when he was king:
At the moment, he’s hoping to resurrect his business to its zenith in the golden 1970s, when he landed most of those now-fading stars, when he had a couple of dozen employees tying, washing and cutting hairpieces in and a lobby full of customers learning how to wear them.
“You couldn’t touch me,” he says, beaming as he recalls those heady days.
Meet me back here tomorrow when I share Ernie’s reaction to my story, which made me happy at the time, but leaves me a little sad today.