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For the first time since February 2020, I am in Central Illinois. This is the longest I have gone without being in Central Illinois since I was born at the old Mattoon Memorial Hospital on October 10, 1975, the day before the first-ever episode of “Saturday Night Live.” I was in my hometown of Mattoon yesterday—I ate at the original Burger King—where I saw my childhood home, the old movie theater I used to work at and my cousin Denny. Now that my parents have moved away, there isn’t that much reason to go back to Mattoon anymore, but I still do it every time I can anyway. It is the place of first, from my first job (corn detassling for four bucks an hour) to my first published and bylined article (a movie review of Patriot Games for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette) to my first chocolate ice cream cone (at Gill’s Diner, out by the old drive-in) to my first kiss (Barbara Icenogle, in the parking lot of the Broadway Christian Church). Much of my childhood was spent stricken at the possibility of never getting out of Mattoon. Now it feels like a part of me is always trying to get back.
But most of my time this trip, I’m in Champaign, home of the University of Illinois, where I graduated (barely) with a degree in Journalism in 1997. When I was about to move to college, I was mostly worried about being a Mattoon kid surrounded by all the Chicago suburb students in Champaign; I remember actively trying to flatten my voice to make sure I didn’t have a downstate accent they could make fun of me for. (The Chicago/downstate divide in Illinois has been a solid framework for understanding the blue state/red state split since I was a child.) But now returning to Champaign gives me that same ease of breath, that all right, now I am in a place that I deeply understand, that Mattoon always has. I was in Champaign for four years, but I’ll be here forever.
And the first thing I did on Thursday night was go see an old friend.
I realized, while visiting the Roger Ebert statue outside the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, that it’s sort of remarkable to have known someone, personally, in the real world, and then, in that same lifetime, visiting a statue of them. That’s got to be pretty rare, right? Did people see the Lincoln Memorial and say, “yep, that’s Abe all right?” I know that this is a time of tearing down statues of our flawed idols—though I’m trying to fathom what sort of reckoning would lead to a destruction of Ebert’s statue; maybe if he did steroids?—but it is sort of surreal to see an actual statue of an actual person that you actually knew.
My story about Roger Ebert remains one of the most famous things I’ve ever written, and one I was grateful to make peace with him about before he died. But that story isn’t really about the first time I actually met Ebert. (It’s only alluded to in the original piece.) We had corresponded throughout most of college, as mentioned, after I emailed him to ask him if he had, as had been long rumored, had sex on the editor-in-chief’s desk at the Daily Illini. (He said, alas, that he had not but that he found it “reassuring that professors down there are still teaching their students to ask the tough questions.”) But the first time we actually met was when he took his every-two-years trip to visit with the Daily Illini staff. It was a whole weekend endeavor. Ebert was a distinguished alumni of the University of Illinois—he has a statue, for crissakes—but his true heart was with the DI; we got the bulk of his time. On Friday he would visit the DI office for a couple of hours, telling stories and giving advice on how to plan our careers upon graduation. (His advice—get a job with a suburban Chicago paper, work your way up to the Trib or Sun-Times and then stay there until you retire—was excellent advice until it suddenly, dramatically wasn’t.) On Sunday, he’d visit our editorial board meeting—previously visited by Robert Novak, the “Prince of Darkness”—and weigh in on the topics of the day before heading back north to the city.
But Saturday was the centerpiece. First was an early dinner, almost a late lunch, with the top editors at the DI at Papa Del’s Pizza, which made deep-dish Chicago pizza in a way that all the upstate kids never stopped claiming was the only way anyone should be allowed to eat pizza. It was just eight of us at a table with Roger, drinking beer and eating pizza and shit-talking Gene Siskel. (Who Roger loved, and loved shit-talking even more.) We were there for several hours, drinking and asking questions and sharing stories. It was clear that this was the real reason for Ebert’s trip: To spend as much time as possible with the people who loved the Daily Illini as powerfully as he did. Because I was the film critic of the group—again, we’d been corresponding for a couple years, and you can make a pretty strong argument that Ebert was the reason I gone to Illinois to study journalism in the first place—I got the most Ebert face time, and at one point, he even read one of my reviews out loud to the table, praising the turns of phrase he liked and openly mocking the ones he didn’t. (“You probably shouldn’t write about sex anymore,” he laughed, but since then, I am pretty sure I never have.) I can still recall the dinner with palpable specificity, from the seating arrangement to the waitress who brought out the pizza and pitchers to the college football game that was on the television at the bar. I could not believe I was there, having Roger Ebert make fun of my writing. I was not sure life could possibly get any better.
That night, Ebert hosted a surprise screening at the (now-closed and abandoned) Art Theater in downtown Champaign. Before he went up to introduce the movie, he walked over to me. “You’re going to be very excited with the movie we’re showing,” he said. “It’s your guy.” The movie was Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, a film he’d procured before its release “with the approval of Woody himself.” This was before my own Woody Allen reckoning, back when seeing a new Woody Allen movie felt like Christmas morning. After the film was over, in front of my friends and colleagues and professors and just about everyone in the world whose judgment I most valued, Ebert came back over to me and asked me what I thought of the film. And I was once again not sure life could possibly get any better.
My life did not end up going the direction I thought it would after that screening, or after college, or after any of it. I did not end up becoming a professional film critic, I wouldn’t have a stable professional journalism job for nearly a decade, I would end up foolishly and stupidly starting a feud with Ebert because I was young and stupid and reckless, I would apologize, we would make up, he would end up dying, and now there’s a statue of him next to the AirBNB I’m staying in during my first visit back to Central Illinois in 17 months because of a global pandemic. I took a selfie next to it. It’s a great statue. It does look like him.
Ebert was 53 when he made that trip to Champaign in 1995; I am now 45 and doing the same thing. We end up going in all sorts of different directions, and being lost, and confused, and scared, but we keep moving forward, and making new things, and trying to figure it all out. “Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It's the only thing you can control,” he told me in our very first correspondence. I still think about that every single day. And in the end, we always end up trying to get back home.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Yadier Molina: A Career History in Backup Catchers, MLB.com. This is the sort of baseball dorkery I love. Also, this wasn’t the best week of stuff, so this is kind of a default pick. Gimme a break, it’s August.
It’s OK to Enjoy Your Vaccinated Life, Medium. It is! You totally can! Don’t feel guilty! You did the right thing!
College Football Is the Wild West Now, New York. I don’t mind. It’s not making me watch any less.
Your Six-Weeks-Left Wildcard Rundown, MLB.com. The Cardinals have a better chance than the Mariners, and the Cardinals are a lot worse than the Mariners.
Everyone, Please Look at My Vaccine Card! Medium. [Dana-Carvey-as-George-Michael-voice] It’s my card! I wax it! I polish it! It’s my card!
Internet Nostalgia: David After Dentist, Medium. Yeah, kid: This is real life.
The Thirty: Players Most Likely to Be on Their Same Team in 2028, MLB.com. We do this one every year, and eventually I’m just going to get caught up to, you know, now.
Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Reminiscence” (a word I am already tired of spelling), “The Night House” and “Adventureland.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I lamented the small crowds at Busch.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we did our big Georgia team preview. The next newsletter after this one will be a UGA gameday. (Albeit one in Charlotte.)
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“2021 Illinois Football Preview,” Robert Rosenthal, Illiniboard. I just have to do my annual shoutout to Robert Rosenthal, the last true Illini football believer, who wrote 24,724 words previewing this year’s Illinois football team. He is insane and beautiful.
BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ
“Eating the Dinosaur,” Chuck Klosterman. I know Klosterman is a polarizing author for some people, but I think he’s great—I find him, if this makes sense, resolutely sane in a way I find weirdly comforting, even when I think he’s wrong (or, worse, alarming). He has a new book coming out in February, called The Nineties, but this is still my favorite one. The closing essay about the Unabomber and the Internet knocked me on the floor.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“The Man Who Sold The World,” Nirvana. While we’re discussing the ‘90s, here’s my favorite live performance ever from Nirvana, a band (as I believe I’ve mentioned about 30,000 times) I never did in fact to get see live. There are moments in this song where I can’t catch my breath.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
This morning, I ran with the Illini Run Club, which included the Illinois wrestling team, several readers of this here newsletter and Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman. My AD is faster than your AD.
It’s good to be home. Have a great weekend, all. Go Illini.