Thursday, October 10, 2013

Feature writing - Two Examples

Meet the man who cleans Bloomington's only strip club

POSTED AT 12:33 AM ON SEP. 23, 2013

Inside the only strip joint in the city, the scuffed, charcoal-faded runway is a shared stage. Jerimy Koch trudges to the end of the stage and works his way back.

Except for Koch, 35, it’s not a dance pole he’s grasping, but a mop.

The black lights remain on even as the surrounding overhead lights buzz around the club. The freshly mopped surface glimmers in the red and violet hues.

The women usually walk in quietly throughout the afternoon before the club opens at 3 p.m., before they undergo the transformation into their onstage personas — the dancers who get dressed to get naked.

But when the dance poles are unattended, the runway is silent and the VIP room is vacant — both areas void of the usual sounds of clicking heels and pulsating dance anthems — someone has to tend to whatever is left behind from the night before, tidying up, scrubbing and mopping.

Koch is that guy.

Sometimes in the back room, Koch will discover blood from the occasional fight or stale vomit. On the rare occasion, the more intimate of bodily fluids will turn up.

“You can never really tell,” he says, “it’s usually dried anyway.”

* * *

As the only strip club in the area, Koch says as he wipes down the bar counter, the venue attracts “a little bit of everybody.”

He talks about the men who hurl dollar bills onto the stage, lusting for more skin.

“Some guys, they’ll make it rain,” Koch says. “With the way the economy is, most guys can’t make it rain anymore.”

However, 13 years is a long time to be cleaning bathrooms and back rooms at a strip club.

By day, he boasts a mop and broom, but when the sun goes down and the customers flood in, Koch can be found behind the bar. He mostly loves the job because of the people he encounters and admits he wants out of the cleaning gig.

Every two weeks or so, when he’s the only one at the club cleaning, he holds auditions for the women who apply to be dancers.

Koch does the run-through with the new girls, explains the dos and don’ts and how in Indiana, it is state law that the women cover their nipples.

Above the desk where he sits in the office, a poster of a grinning blonde girl is taped to the wall.

“Do not hire!” is scribbled across the bottom of the printout in pen. “Underage!”

Before Koch met his girlfriend, who serves drinks at the club, he’d spend a few nights a year after Friday shifts watching strip sets and sipping his usual Crown Royal Whisky and Coke.

“You gotta do that every now and then,” Koch says.

Nowadays, he says, the power of the naked bodies has mostly diminished.

“Desensitized is a good way to put it,” he says.

When he cleans at the strip club, he has his routine down to a science. Koch works at the club Monday through Friday, often serving as the closing bartender the nights before he has to wake up, go back to the club and scrub the place down.

He’s at the club by 12:30 p.m. or so and cleans well into the afternoon.

The job never used to bother him, but things are different now, he says.

Between bartending and cleaning, it’s not uncommon for Koch to settle into bed around 6 a.m. Then he wakes up and pushes restart.

“I would ultimately love to find someone else to do it,” he says.

It’s not a change in venue he’s looking for — at least not yet. Koch says he just wants to ditch the cleaning supplies.

A tattoo stretching shoulder to shoulder on his back reads “stand and be true,” a reference from one of his favorite Stephen King series, “The Dark Tower.”

Ask him where he sees himself in 20 years, and he’ll tell you about his aspirations of opening his own bar. But for now, Koch says it’s especially difficult to obtain a liquor license because they are issued in the county on a per capita basis. The question, he says, is whether or not to remain in Bloomington.

Sometimes, he thinks back to when he was 18 and in a Navy ROTC program in high school.

“I always say if I could go back, I would,” he says.

During his cleaning shifts, vendors show up now and then, boasting cigarette cartons and bottles of liquor by the box-full. Koch signs for all of it, and the vendors all know him by name.

“How’s it goin’, brother?” Koch asks.

“Same old bullshit,” the man replies. “We’ve got an easy one today — case of booze, bottles of Jack.”

The tasks tend to vary depending on the day and how much fun club patrons had the night before.

Clorox fumes trail the tired custodian as he trudges from one end of the club to the other — cleaning bathrooms, scrubbing walls, washing the windows and changing the automatic cinnamon aerosol freshener that’s perched atop the VIP room sign.

Koch doesn’t say much. He tries to keep his mind focused only on the cleaning. Nothing else, he says.

He always saves the runway for last, right before the club opens for the evening.

As Koch continues to circle around the club, an industrial broom and dustpan are his close companions. He packs away his cleaning supplies with the exception of his mop.

It’s the end of his time cleaning the joint, so he plunges his mop into the yellow bin of cleaning solution one last time and steps onto the runway — where the dancers typically have dominion. But for now, the stage is his.

After Koch finishes mopping the runway, he retires the rest of his trusty cleaning supplies to join the broom and dustpan in storage. He slugs over to the bar and reaches for the light panel.

Click, click, click, click.   

As he flips down each switch, the club, section by section, returns to its natural dark state.

“It’s a give-and-take kind of business,” Koch says. “You gotta be willing to give a little to get what you get. Cleaning’s not glamorous, but you have to do it.”

The newly cleaned runway shines under the warm glow of the black lights, and the heel impressions disappear in the darkness.

Follow reporter Michael Majchrowicz on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

'The good death'
Shelter employees fighting for animals as euthanasia decreases, adoption increases

POSTED AT 12:57 AM ON FEB. 20, 2013

If Roxy didn’t pass the temperament test, she would die.

At three years old, the ginger colored pit bull mix weighed 60 pounds and had too much energy. That’s why her owners returned her to the City of Bloomington Animal Shelter. They couldn’t handle her.

It was late summer 2009, and the shelter was packed. It was a period when employees didn’t have the time or the resources to rehabilitate dogs like Roxy.

Kennel staffer Emily Herr tried anyway.

For the last 10 years, the shelter has worked to reduce the euthanasia rate, and its efforts worked. But every day they are still forced to make difficult decisions about which animals to spare and which to kill. In jeans and sneakers, Herr has spent her days caring for outcast animals in waiting. Her colorful tattoos peek out from her shirt sleeves as she checks them in and lets them go.

When Herr thinks about tough decisions, she thinks back to Roxy.

It was Herr’s second year on the job, and the then 26-year-old had already established herself as a softie. She favors the difficult cases, the animals that need saving. When Roxy’s owners said she was too aggressive, Herr knew the dog probably wouldn’t leave the shelter alive. Euthanasia was almost inevitable.

So Herr took Roxy home.

It was only temporary. Fostering the dog for a couple days might just buy the time Roxy needed to learn to be adoptable.

For three days, Herr tried to train Roxy. Herr overfed her, a tactic called free feeding, and overloaded Roxy with toys — both attempts to desensitize the dog. The two played fetch with tennis balls, and Roxy romped outside with Herr’s three other dogs.

At night, Roxy even slept in Herr’s bed.

The dog made herself at home. Roxy had proved to Herr that she deserved to live, that someone would want to adopt her.

They returned to the shelter for Roxy’s first temperament test, a series of trials that would determine whether the dog was well behaved enough for the adoption floor.

Would she growl at food? Would she growl at strangers? Would she attack other dogs? Would she pose a danger to her new owners?

Roxy had to prove herself.

* * *
The City of Bloomington Animal Shelter is a place where the specter of death lingers daily, but it’s still full of life.

Dogs are always barking, cats are always meowing and unwanted animals are always scuffling through the front door. Employees clean kennels, walk dogs, pamper cats, vaccinate the sick and feed the hungry. They give every animal that comes through the door a name and engage them in one-sided conversation. They fall in love.

And then, sometimes, they have to kill them anyway.

Illness, overcrowding and bad behavior make euthanasia a necessity, one used for safety and health control.

“There’s no time period where we say, ‘you’ve had so many days,’” Herr said. “We don’t do that here.”

Unless they exhibit dangerous behavior or regress in some way, the animals can stay. Sometimes otherwise friendly animals deteriorate while they’re at the shelter, developing bad habits and destructive behavior, a result of living between concrete blocks and constantly competing for attention. The animals interact with staffers and volunteers, but the shelter isn’t meant to be a permanent home.

Shelter animals don’t have a shelf life anymore, but they used to.

Herr remembers a day during her first year at the shelter in 2008 when they euthanized 27 cats and 10 dogs.

“We were just packed to the gills and we didn’t have any choice, you know?” she said.

Options. That’s what Shelter Director Laurie Ringquist didn’t have when she assumed the director position in 2003 and what Herr longer for during her first years at the shelter. They wanted choices – to rehabilitate, to foster, to treat and to train.

In the last decade, the shelter has cut its euthanasia rates by two-thirds, increased its adoptions significantly and decreased its intake numbers. Since Ringquist’s first year as director, the shelter has undergone a complete structural overhaul, rooted in promoting community interaction. The goal is to save more, kill less.

They educated the public on spay and neuter practices to reduce unwanted reproduction and solicited foster families to care for newborn kittens or sick dogs until they were healthy enough for adoption. They sought collaboration with organizations like Canine Companions to buy time for temperamental, untrained dogs to learn manners.

Euthanasia is still an undesirable alternative if the shelter’s preventative efforts don’t measure up. And sometimes they don’t.

Ringquist said the shelter does so many adoptions now that many in the community think they are a no-kill shelter. But Herr knows others make assumptions about her job and intentions when they discover the shelter euthanizes animals.

“It’s called the ‘pound’ and ‘kill shelter.’ Frankly those are just offensive terms to use because we love animals. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. We’re not just here to kill animals,” Herr said. “If there’s a dangerous animal we don’t want that responsibility of putting it out in public and giving it another opportunity to hurt someone. We love animals, but we have to put people first.”

Herr has been working at the Animal Shelter for five years.

She attended the Alexandria School of Scientific Therapeutics in her early twenties and got the shelter job soon after. She married around the same time. Growing up in Columbus, Ind., Herr’s family would often foster animals with ailments.

She’s always had a fondness for shelter animals, but most people who choose to work at the shelter do. Her decision was pretty easy. Veterinarian offices were too sterile, she said, and pets taken there are already loved. Shelter animals are rejects.

“I could be in the field with injured animals and animals that I really felt like I could help,” she said. “Working here was like kind of taking it to a different level, accommodating animals that needed someone.”

To keep each other sane, the kennel staffers rotate shelter duties throughout the week: animal check-in, adoption consultation, temperament test and clinical, the euthanasia shift.

Herr recalls the first time she was assigned to clinical. It was only her third week on the job.

She cried the entire time.

That night, Herr went home and drank an entire bottle of wine.

* * *
Roxy failed.

After guarding her food and protecting her toys during her first temperament test, the dog just needed more time. Or so went Herr’s theory. She wasn’t ready to give up on sweet Roxy, who slept in her bed and played with her dogs.

Herr took Roxy back home for three more days of free feeding and socialization.

During that time, the three-year-old stopped guarding her food, toys and tennis balls.
She wasn’t growling at Herr or nipping at the other animals of the house.

They returned to the shelter for round two.

Herr cupped Roxy’s face in her hands, and the dog looked into her eyes without snarling. When the kennel staffer pinched her paws and legs, Roxy seemed unfazed. Herr chased the dog around the room, and she bounded playfully.

But there was something about the shelter’s concrete floors and chain link fences that changed Roxy’s disposition.

When Roxy’s beloved tennis balls were brought out, the dog guarded them. Herr cringed. A bowl was placed in front of Roxy, and she bit the prosthetic hand Herr used to slide it away. The kennel staffer’s heart sank. Roxy passed the next segment just barely, the animal introduction test, where Herr brought another dog into the room to record the three-year-old’s reaction.

But Herr knew it was over. A third chance wasn’t plausible. She’d have to be put down.
Herr left work that night without Roxy. In a kennel, in the dark, surrounded by dogs and cats with tarnished pasts and uncertain futures, Roxy waited.

In another dark room across town, a restless Herr lay awake.

She could save Roxy, adopt her and bring her back home. She and her husband had the room. But she never intended to adopt Roxy, and they wanted children one day. Could Roxy handle a curious baby?

Herr woke the next morning and came to work. She walked past staring eyes and drooling tongues behind chain link fences until she reached Roxy’s kennel. Clipped to her paperwork, which hung on the fence, was a colored clothespin. It meant she was in line to be euthanized.

Herr asked if she could be the one to kill her foster dog.

She owed it to her.

 * * *
In Ancient Greek, euthanasia means “good death.” But for employees like Herr, it’s hard to find the good in killing the animals she cares for.

“I always try to keep that in mind and provide, which sounds horrible, but provide the best death that I can for that animal,” she said.

Herr has a ritual.

She tries to give cats wet food and plenty of attention before injecting them. She takes the dogs outside to romp around the yard. Herr likes to hold the animals when she euthanizes them. It’s not their fault, and she wants their last moments to be filled with compassion. Her face is the last they’ll ever see.

Sometimes Herr sedates the restless animals before intravenously injecting them with Fatal-Plus, the drug used to put them down. It’s a lethal dosage of Pentobarbital
Sodium, the same drug used to control seizures, and works within seconds.

No matter their disposition, she does her job tenderly.

“I like to give them a little TLC before,” Herr said.

Through checking in the castaway pets and naming the ones who were never owned, Herr gets attached.

“We name them because they have to have a name, but we bond with them if we choose to,” she said.

She and her husband have six shelter animals, three dogs – Rosie, Elvis and Halpert – and three cats – Ducky, Junior and Mona.

One member of their feline brood, Ducky, is from the Bloomington shelter. Ducky came in as a one-pound kitten with a detached eye. Ducky was on her way to clinical, but Herr convinced her boss to let her take the kitten home.

“And now I have a fat, one-eyed cat,” she said. “And I’m really glad I brought her home, but you just can’t keep that pattern up. You’d become a hoarder.”

* * *
Herr neglected some of her regular duties that day. She wanted enough time to give Roxy her full attention.

Herr felt like she had let her down. The least she could do was give Roxy a good death. Herr served the dog a main course of whatever canned dog food was in the donation supply and topped it off with a rawhide bone dessert.

It was August 2009, and the sun shone down as Herr and Roxy romped in the backyard at the animal shelter. For an hour, they played fetch with a tennis ball as a breeze blew over them.

Food and a tennis ball were all Roxy had once she was relinquished to the shelter. That’s why Herr thinks she was always so protective of them. In the final hours of her life, Roxy didn’t have to guard them from anyone.

There was no owner to rescue her, no saving grace to keep Roxy alive. There was just Herr, the dog’s gentle, unrelenting advocate who for the past week tried to save the three-year-old’s life.

Now she had to kill her.

If only she’d had more time. If only the shelter had programs to help the pit bull mix.
Sobbing, Herr stroked Roxy’s ginger fur and injected the dog with Fatal-Plus.

Roxy stopped breathing within seconds.

* * *
Roxy was a turning point for Herr. In the years since, she hasn’t had to perform a euthanasia that was quite as difficult.

She still questions whether she made the right decision, letting Roxy die. She wants to do more for temperamental dogs like Roxy, be proactive instead of reactive. Now she can.

In appearance alone, Herr is a new woman.

On a Monday afternoon in late November 2012, Herr wore a layered sweater and button-up shirt where her usual t-shirt would have been. Stylish gold flats replaced her sneakers. Her nails were painted, her hair was loose and she seemed comfortable sitting cross-legged in her leather desk chair.

The professional feel of her outfit and computer competed with the dog toys scattered across the floor. Clumps of dog hair clung to her pants, and the door to her office was barred by a doggie gate.

Herr was caught between her past and her present.

In the beginning of November, she was promoted to outreach coordinator at the animal shelter. Now she organizes off-site adoption events, assists with social media and hosts the shelter’s weekly television show. She doesn’t clean kennels or temperament test animals anymore. She doesn’t have to euthanize them, either.

On this particular afternoon, between answering emails and posting photos to the shelter’s Facebook page, Herr was socializing Porter, a playful chocolate Labrador and pit bull mix who had spent the majority of his six-month life outside or in a kennel.

Herr was teaching Porter not to beg, guard his food or nip at strangers. It isn’t in her new job description, but she can’t be away from the animals. She decided to write it in.

Herr no longer administers the good death. Instead, she works to prevent it. But little reminders jolt her back to the reality of the shelter and the potential fate of the animals who inhabit it.

The blue euthanasia folder. The colored kennel clips. The familiar sounds of loud barks and quiet purrs that creep into her office.

Herr still checks the euthanasia list. She knows the animals she has a soft spot for are being euthanized on the other side of the wall. Each week she chooses one that’s struggling and makes them her project.

She hopes that by sharing a little of herself with dogs like Porter – the scared ones, the injured ones, the ones least likely to be adopted – she can begin to reverse the process she helped facilitate for so long.

“Enrichment is my thing,” Herr said. “I like the underdogs, as you could say."


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