Q&A: Donnell Alexander

EHRP journalist Donnell Alexander answers questions about his personal essay Down and out in Portland.

Q: Other than “stealing train” what are some tricks you’ve had to employ when you were down to nothing?

A: The most important trick was making use of the showers at the gym. An inability to hold one’s funk can bring social ostracism, which leads to not being invited over for dinners, which leads to… actual, street-level homelessness.

Also important when you are in a space that lacks WiFi is negotiating the public library computer situation. It’s unfortunate that in most major cities this resource has been commandeered by the chronically smelly homeless and psychologically-challenged unfortunates. On a Saturday afternoon in the main Portland library, a blond patron who was clearly in need of meds called me a “fucking nigger” at the top of his lungs, after I had roughly shushed him. (There are no YouTube videos that hilarious). I’d been editing a story on deadline and was about to send it to my editor in Brooklyn. I was well on my way to physically removing the kid—far, far more roughly than I shushed him—when security took over the task.

The bigger trick in such a situation is maintaining composure; post kerfuffle, all the eyes in the room had to be shut out, that article had to be edited and sent. In the present news media scene, excuses for tardiness are being tolerated less than ever.

Q: Tell me more about writing 1,500 words for $20. Was this the only gig you could find? Were you afraid to turn down the job because it might lead to other opportunities, or was the $20 really that important?

A: Super-interesting story: I’d written a piece concerning gentrification in Portland for a site that promised to pay $200. When the story didn’t conform to the site’s expectations, my editor refused to run it. So, I went looking for another outlet, primarily because I found the story culturally significant.

Another editor came upon my draft a month or so later, liked it, but said he couldn’t offer a fee. I couldn’t allow the site to use my work because I’m part of the Content Creators Coalition and the Stop Working for Free Facebook group. So, I told him to give me something, anything, and he cut me a check for a little under $20. The upside is that the piece eventually got me a gig with a non-profit site that paid $1200.

As much as writer impoverishment is an issue, I’m far more disturbed by all of the important reporting that’s not being done. As I’ve been poor before, revisiting it periodically is no skin off my back. Journalism’s substance, however, has been done irreparable harm… I’ve seen the best minds of my time re-Tweeting total crap for the sake of job security.

Q: When you were at your lowest, did you ever consider taking drastic actions that you might have regretted later? Was there a time when you wanted to give up writing altogether?

A: In terms of “drastic measures,” I don’t even know what that means; my entire career has been one of those. (The go-to hard-times anthem that plays in my head is a song called “Bank”; The chorus: “Whatchu think, man? Time to rob a bank.”)

If you are asking if I considered breaking any laws more serious than riding public transit without paying, I’d say… absolutely! While my girlfriend and I were in the thick of it, a well-meaning friend presented me with a big-ass bag of rock cocaine, and for a solid minute I thought about putting it on the market. My personal struggle very nearly had me selling out a morality based on eye-witness evidence of the hell crack rocks have done to my people. But for real? The main reason I didn’t peddle those rocks is my girlfriend. She threatened to break up with me if I even started to put those pebbles in my pocket.

Where quitting the scribe game is concerned… dude, my friends and colleagues will tell you that my drive comes from knowing I’m a wildly important star writer. I must be, goes the reasoning, because there’s not a damn thing else in the world that I can do even adequately.

Q: Why did you — and others — remain journalists? What kept you writing even when it wasn’t paying the bills?

A: So many peers are doing PR or have unofficially retired or gotten into the burgeoning cannabis trade. As I said, my sense of belonging in this profession is foundational. What’s more, I’ve been doing work that underscores that belief. In addition to the talk at Cornell that I mentioned in the Salon essay, I have been watching the world react favorably to the content I have in the hit film No-No: A Dockumentary. Last year’s talk at the Smithsonian went over really well. And, most convincingly, consumers of cultural content tell me that things I made way, way back still resonate with them.

The poverty that’s been visited upon me feels like a cosmic blunder that will be rectified, eventually. The mothers of my children feel otherwise.


Joel Kendrick is the Assistant Editor for EHRP. Follow On Twitter @JoelKendrick.