My Trip to Tony in Frogtown, Far From Mad Manhattan

A month ago, I made 50 bucks delivering the Frogtown Times in an inner-city neighborhood in Jesse Ventura country, St. Paul. All journalists should have to deliver a newspaper now and then. It’s humbling. You’re reminded of how little most people actually want your work, how much you’re asking of them in just 15 inches. When I ran into homeowners outside shoveling snow, I found myself almost beseeching them to be able to put the paper on their stoop. Working-class people, blacks.

The cover of the Frogtown Times featured a Hmong couple kissing, for Valentine’s Day, a picture taken by Anthony Schmitz. My old friend Tony started the paper four years ago, edits it, writes most of it, takes all the pictures, sells the ads and delivers much of its 8,000 free circulation, too. He’d probably print it if he was able.

The picture was a coup because Hmong people are traditionally private about showing affection. And it was typical of my friend’s work because he’s so immersed in people’s lives. He emphasizes his poor neighborhood’s strengths, and urges residents to become less passive about city government. So while he covers horrific incidents, like a 74-year-old man being forced out of his house by drug dealers and made to live in his car in the alley, he devotes much more ink to heroes, like the 50-ish woman who took an aluminum baseball bat to the back of a pit bull who was mauling a neighbor. (“Clobbering an animal ran counter to her nature, but Henkes knew what she had to do,” Tony wrote.)

“I started the paper when there was a problem with absentee landlords not paying for garbage removal,” Tony said. “I looked around and I didn’t see anybody with my skills. If I didn’t do it, no one was going to. Some trees have suffered, but it’s been a way of making something out of nothing, which is good.”

I met Tony in 1976 when a bunch of Harvard friends and I went out to Minneapolis to start a weekly that we called, grandly, Metropolis . Tony was a local hire. He had grown up in a small German Catholic community called Waconia, the son of a mechanic, and was many things I wasn’t–thoughtful, soft-spoken, modest, outdoorsy. What we shared was literary life and a highly critical outlook. The differences and the similarities have made us close friends. Often over the years when I’ve struggled with a piece of writing, I go to the top of the story and write, “Dear Tony,” trying to think of how I’d express myself to him.

Tony has the most progressive value system of any journalist I know. No one else I know prints want ads in Hmong. Or uses his journal to shut down crack houses. Or counsels his readers, after a spate of violence, “The world may not be perfectible but that doesn’t excuse us from acting as though it is.”

Now there have been times when my friend’s socialist flat-lander values have struck this striving elitist as a wee bit stifling. I remember visiting some New York media operation with him and Tony wandering out afterward, shaking his head over all the people “strapped to desks.” Hey, they love their desks! Or there is Tony’s line on those who struggle so nobly and ceaselessly to inform us about the latest Clinton scandals– “They’re breathing each other’s gas.” (Now who could he mean?)

The do-goodism of the Frogtown Times is bearable because it’s so laced with dark humor. “Tony’s a real idealist but with this incredible degree of cynicism,” said Cynthia Crossen, a Metropolis veteran who is now a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal . “It’s Garrison Keillor meets David Lynch.”

For instance, a piece Tony printed under the byline of a former crack addict offered the addict’s instructions on how to haul your drugged-out spouse home: “I learned that you get somebody by the belt with their arm around you, and as long as you make sure you hit the wooden parts of the railroad track, you can carry them down.”

I have good reason to write about Tony now because he just published his second novel, Darkest Desire: The Wolf’s Own Tale (Ecco Press). The novel is a blackly revisionist treatment of the Grimm brothers as selfish writers who exploited peasant subjects. Janet Malcolm crossed with the Black Forest. The book has gotten fine reviews. The normally restrained Kirkus Reviews called it “an artful, ironic updating of venerable material, done with zest and great originality.”

The story is a delight. At their campfire one night, the Brothers Grimm are approached by a villain of their tales, Wolf. They panic until the animal speaks to say he means no harm. He says his wolf fellows have ostracized him for desiring the flesh of young children. The Brothers set out to cure Wolf–and of course to get some more material.

My friend’s book was initially rejected because the strong whiff of pedophilia made some editors uncomfortable. Wolf’s desire for young children is never pathologized. No, Tony is too much the Midwestern fatalist to do that. The book sort of honors Wolf’s intoxication with children’s smells and rosy flesh. “I know there’s an aspect of Catholicism here, of which I got a major dose as a child, that there’s something deeply screwed up about everybody, and you can struggle against it but only win by so much,” Tony said.

Now the book is being published here, in Italy, and in Germany. “This is just naughty enough for me,” the Italian publisher said.

When Tony read at St. Paul’s Hungry Mind Bookstore this winter, he faced a problem your average ethereal novelist never would. Employees of the Exstacy House picketed the reading on free-speech grounds. They sell pornography in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, and they were angry because maps of police activity Tony publishes in the Frogtown Times pointed to the store as being the epicenter of prostitution arrests.

After we delivered papers, Tony and I went back to the house he shares with his wife, Patricia Ohmans, and their two daughters and opened some Leinenkugel’s beers. I took the side of the picketers. How could he pressure the Exstacy House to leave town even as he is trying to sell his own perverse view of human nature?

Tony laughed. “It is something of a contradiction.” Then he went on in his usual stubbornly independent fashion.

“As a First Amendment thing, I really don’t care that there’s a porn video store here. But then that’s where prostitutes gravitate, and johns who stop to eyeball women and howl at them. And these men are not capable of discriminating whether a woman is in the prostitution industry or someone’s daughter just going about her life. Prostitutes and johns and dealers are stealing thousands of dollars from the people who read my paper. Poor people’s greatest wealth is in their homes. This is the main thing they’re going to save in their life, and it’s precisely the value that is undermined by prostitution. They’re being screwed. It’s like a secondhand-smoke issue.”

We never reached that degree of engagement back at Metropolis . Our weekly lasted less than a year, foundering on the shoals of overweening ego, ambition and too much money ($350,000 or so). The paper’s smart tone and graphics changed Minneapolis papers forever. “There was nothing we wouldn’t write about, and it made the existing journalism look stodgy,” said co-editor James Gleick, now a celebrated author. But Jim admits he hasn’t looked at the paper for years, and for my part I’d be afraid to. My work was long-winded and self-indulgent. (Rather, more long-winded and self-indulgent.) “If I had to read it now, I’d say, oh what talented but annoying children,” Tony said.

We were the perfect proto-yuppie experiment: in it more for ourselves than to serve others. Most of us soon left Minnesota, with nice-looking clips. We all went on to worthy things. But Tony’s work is just worthier. When I called up my old Metropolis friend Rich Turner, now a writer at Newsweek , to talk about journalistic values, he offered a caustic riff on the varieties of midlife vocation we see around us: “They’re writing for the appreciation of their peers or they’re on some track in the celebrity culture to get on TV or they’re scared of getting fired or they’re on the path to burnout. I’d say those are pretty much the subsets.”

I’d contrast Rich’s deadly list with the ideal Tony has always had for employment: Do something that if you weren’t doing it no one else would.

The issue of the Frogtown Times I delivered had stuff I don’t see anywhere else. A photograph of a glass tube in which a convenience store was selling artificial flowers–to dealers who threw away the flowers to use the tubes as crack pipes. Valentine’s Day advice from a group of local “love doctors,” three area bartenders. (“You want to make sure you don’t drink too much. That’s usually where the problems start,” one essayed.) And throughout the issue, Tony’s quiet voice, urging engagement.

“I’ve earned the right to shoot my mouth off,” he told me as we were delivering papers. “It’s not as if I blew in yesterday. If I want to say something, I say it.”

I think it was just after that that a guy came back to our delivery base, Tony’s old Buick Electra, its trunk propped on a broomstick, and went on a tirade about litter before thrusting the paper back at its editor, publisher, writer, photographer and deliveryman. Tony thanked the man and took it back.

My Trip to Tony in Frogtown, Far From Mad Manhattan