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2013 Keating Competition

First Place:

Keeping rhythm

Disc jockey wrestles with changing industry after 30 years in music

By Michael Auslen, Indiana University

 

By mile 25, runners drag their feet, plodding down Meridian Street. One foot in front of the other.

 

A few yards off the side of the road, Dennis Dye dances, pointing both index fingers up in the air to Leo Sayer’s 1974 song “Long Tall Glasses,” one of his favorites to play.

 

“Dennis Dye. Dennis Dye, the DJ guy,” he says when he introduces himself to strangers.

 

From behind his Denon mixer, four JBL speakers and two bass amps, he’s the soundtrack of this leg of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon: the last push to the finish line 11 blocks away.

 

“You just gotta play stuff that’ll keep ‘em running, keep ‘em pumped up,” he says. “Maybe I can keep ‘em standing up ‘til they get to the finish.”

 

Queen, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Psy, Leo Sayer. His repertoire spans generations, right up to the most recent hits. Every 10 minutes or so, he plays “What Does the Fox Say?” a song by Norwegian band Ylvis that topped the charts in the last month.

 

“This is one of the hot songs right now,” he says.

 

With his audience constantly changing as new runners make it to his spot just off the sidewalk in front of the Scottish Rite Cathedral on Saturday, he says he can get away with playing the same songs over and over again.

 

“Get ready for the Fox again,” he says, watching two women run past his station. “I bet  these girls are gonna react to it.”

 

Keeping up with changing taste is one of many on a long list of challenges Dennis, a 30-year veteran of the music industry, faces. Today, he says, anyone with an iPod and a couple of speakers can claim to be a DJ, and he finds himself trying to attract clients in new ways and remain relevant to every age group.

 

“You really gotta mix it up. A lot of young guys mess that up,” he says. “You’re only as good as your last job.”

 

* * *

 

At 63, Dennis doesn’t much resemble the auburn-haired man pictured on his website and promotional materials.

“I’m getting older, graying,” he says. “I’ll be 64 in April, but I don’t feel 64. The music doesn’t throw me.”

 

Dressed in a baggy, gray Indianapolis Colts sweatshirt, a blue Colts hat and black sweatpants, Dennis dances, trying to excite the weary runners and walkers. Shrugging his shoulders up and down with the music, he points to individual racers, inviting them to interact if just for the moment they’re passing his table.

 

One woman counters his gray-mustachioed smile with a thumbs-up. “Good music,” she mouths.

 

He sees himself as a dying breed in his industry. When he started in the business, he took records and a set of turntables – a “coffin,” they called it – with him to every gig. In 2013, he can do it all off a laptop computer, although he still uses his mixer from time to time.

 

At the marathon, a stack of CDs and a mixer with two disc drives let him play songs back to back. One’s always loaded with the themes from the Olympics and “Chariots of Fire.”

 

“I hate dead air,” he says.

 

Dennis calls himself a musician. He played his way through high school and college and into the ’80s. He’s played on stages and airwaves and the side of the road. At the marathon, his table is up off the sidewalk so people won’t drunkenly fiddle with his equipment.

“Some people were born to run, other people were born to play music,” he says. “I guess I’m the second one.”

 

He’s been DJing since high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., and on the radio since his college days at the University of Tennessee. In 1979, he made his way up to Indianapolis, and in the ’80s, his band, Dennis Dye and the Sneakers, played supper clubs around the city.

He, three other men and two women wore tuxedos, cocktail dresses and sneakers on stage.

 

“We were one of the top club bands in Indianapolis for a few years there,” he says. “Back then, I had six people to worry about. This is better. All I have to worry about is Dennis.”

 

But worrying about Dennis is no easy task.

 

“To make a living out of it, to make enough, you’re spending as much time booking yourself as doing it,” he says. “I’ve probably seen it drop because I’m still trying to figure out today’s young bride. How is she doing things?”

 

He’s got a website and a Facebook page, although only 10 people have liked it, but his business was built with a marketing strategy that’s no longer relevant. He can’t secure the wedding contracts that make up half of his business through bridal shows and postcards in the mail anymore.

 

Last year, he got almost no business from the 2,000 cards he sent to soon-to-be brides.

 

“How do you get in the mind of a 20-year-old woman who’s getting married?” he wonders. “As reluctant as I am to get involved with Facebook and Twittering, if I’m going to continue to be successful at this, I’ve got to figure out how to do that.”

 

For each of his clients – he’s often booked six months out or longer – he likes to sit down and talk about the kind of entertainment they want, the kind of audience he’ll have. At the marathon, his focus is on songs that will pump runners up and make them dance. But at a wedding or class reunion, he knows people will want songs that are meaningful as well as fun.

 

“I’m tired of doing things over stupid wires and the Internet,” he says. “I want to sit down and have coffee and shake your hand.”

Younger DJs, often his competition, frustrate him. So do families who treat entertainment as a last resort for their weddings. It doesn’t take a DJ to push play on an iPod and let the music go, he says.

 

“You get what you pay for,” he says. “There’s an old saying, you’ve got to dance with the one that brung you.”

* * *

Three hours into the marathon, almost everyone passing Dennis walks.

 

“Come on, group, pick it up a little bit!” he yells over his music.

 

Three women pass wearing purple T-shirts and pink tutus. A group of men and women in fluorescent green shirts that read “Positive for Peggy” run by. A few hours ago, Dennis saw his lawyer.

 

“I tried to butter him up,” Dennis says. “I said, ‘You want to hear a request, just let me know.’”

 

At 11:15, a race organizer tells Dennis he’s going to have to shut down early, around noon. Some sort of graduation ceremony is supposed to take place in the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and Dennis’s music might be too loud.

 

“Who schedules a graduation on a Saturday in November?” he asks.

 

Within 15 minutes, she’s back, telling him the problem’s been resolved, and he can stay until 1:30. The visitors inside are enjoying the music.

 

“Everyone was talking about how great it was,” she tells him.

 

“That’s what you want to hear,” he says, turning his speakers away from the building and cranking up the volume.

 

Dennis doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. He’s thinking he might like Florida – good weather and lots of audiences that like older music – or he might go back to radio DJing, although he’s worried satellite radio has encroached enough on local stations that there won’t be many jobs.

 

For now, he’s sticking with his DJ business, and today that means blasting Ylvis and Queen and Leo Sayer.

“This is my kind of crowd,” Dennis says, looking out over Meridian Street. “Whoever’s coming by, if they don’t like what I’m playing, they move on by.”

 

 

 

 

 

Second Place:

By Evan Hoopfer

 

The special today is 50 cent wings and $5.50 pulled pork sliders.

 

Two men are sitting at the bar. They’re dining on buffalo wings while watching the first quarter of Penn State versus Illinois. They’re done with their meal, and hand their credit cards to the man behind the counter.

 

The bartender isn’t sure of how to use the machine.

 

“Sorry guys, I’m learning everyday,” Darryl Loyd, the owner of 36 East Pub and Grill says.

 

“It’s no problem man,” one customer responds.

 

Darryl conquers the machine, and gives the customers their receipts. He gives one of them a soda to go. They leave out the door to his right. Now he’s the only one in the pub.

 

He’s trying a new endeavor. The former math teacher, house flipper and 25-year marine veteran is trying his hand in the restaurant business.

 

In this line of work, he needs thick skin. His place just opened up, on Sept. 19 of this year, in a building that had five restaurants fail before he bought it.

 

“I’m a black man who opened up an Irish pub,” Darryl laughed. “You have to have thick skin for that.”

 

***

 

He has awards. But he doesn’t know where they are.

 

“They’re somewhere in Memphis,” he said, waving in the southern direction.

 

He values his military awards, but he has left that part of his life behind.

 

“It was my job,” he said. “It’s not who I am.”

 

During his 25 years of being a marine, he achieved Master Sergeant ranking. There are nine rankings, and he made it to the second highest. The highest was Master Gunnery Sergeant – something he didn’t want.

 

“My exit strategy didn’t allow for that,” he said. “I knew when I wanted to be out.”

 

He said he has an exit strategy for everything. For the restaurant, his timetable is 15 months to see significant progress before he tries something else.

 

His military background gives him another edge of something didn’t have. Something the previous five restaurants that failed didn’t have.

“I don’t get mad,” he said. “When I get mad, that’s the end of the road.”

 

Even when he fired employees for stealing from his restaurant, he didn’t get mad.

“It’s probably a flaw,” he added.

 

During his time in the military, he had conversations that he has now in civilian life. Politics, religion, race, the usual talking points. But people can’t handle those conversations well now.

 

“It’s hard to have a conversation now,” he said. “People don’t respect each other’s point of views.”

When he was 17, his parents gave him permission to enter the military. His dad was in the navy, and his two older brothers were Vietnam veterans.

 

Now, Darryl is 42. Or so he said at first.

 

“I took four years off for good behavior,” he laughed. “I’m actually 46.”

 

His barber, William Hogg, has seen restaurants come and go. He thinks Darryl has a better chance of making it then the pizza place, the steak place and the other restaurants before him.

 

“I really believe Darryl has brought a new twist to it,” he said of the Irish pub.

 

Plus, his attention to detail is exceptional, William said. The doors were ready to open for business, but the sign hadn’t come in yet. Darryl refused to open up the doors until the sign came in.

 

“He wanted people to know where they were eating,” William said.

 

Darryl has never married or had kids. He didn’t want to drag a family around the country every three years.

“Maybe that’s my excuse,” he said. “Or maybe I just didn’t meet her.”

 

***

 

The one thing he did have was Laura. When she died, that was the worst one.

 

Six of Darryl’s brothers and sisters have died in the last six years.

 

“Natural causes,” he said.

 

Heart attacks, cancer and other illnesses have taken his family. Darryl, the 11th of 12 siblings, said it’s tough.

“It’s a lot of death in a short amount of time,” he said.

 

But the toughest one was Laura.

 

She was the oldest. The one Darryl looked up to most. The one that always helped him out with new business ideas.

She was in the hospital for a few months, and then passed away about a month and a half ago. Darryl doesn’t remember the exact day.

“I just kinda blocked it out,” he said.

 

His loss coincided with his latest gain, the opening of his restaurant. He got to talk about his newest career with Laura before she passed, when she was in the hospital bed.

 

The passing made him tougher. He credited all the death in his family to his mental strength. That coupled with his military experience made him stronger, ready to endure the challenges of opening a new business in a building “that some people have a jinx on it,” he said.

But Laura? That just hurt.

 

“You know, I’ve been through death so many times,” he stops. His eyes welled up. He put his hand over his mouth, and looked down at the ground.

 

“But that was tough.”

 

***

 

It’s still just Darryl in his restaurant. Bottles of Bacardi, Malibu, Jack Daniels, Maker’s 46, Jim Bean, Red Stag and a hundred other liquors are behind him.

 

The Penn State/Illinois game is still on, the volume much too loud for there to be one person in the building. If there were more people, the TV could just be part of the chattering drone. But the empty chairs and tables echo the noise even louder.

 

While he’s waiting for customers, he enjoys some of his own buffalo wings. In the military, he used to operate a door gun on a helicopter. Now he operates the fountain gun, refilling his glass with Coca Cola.

 

He looks to his right often, towards the open door where nobody is coming in.

 

“Mentally things don’t bother me the way they did for most people,” he says. He has the military to thank for that.

For some of his business ideas, he has Laura to thank. But he’s still waiting for the next chapter of his life to fulfill.

He keeps looking to his right.

 

 

 

 

 

Third Place:

By Jessica Contrera

 

Maybe if he hadn’t seen them zipping up the plastic body bag. Maybe if the killer had been brought to justice. Maybe if he hadn’t heard the voicemail – the one with his son screaming “Why me? Why me?” – then maybe, James Duncan wouldn’t be so angry.

 

 But here he was, in the emergency room of the VA Medical Center, drunk off Jim Beam again, and saying to the nurse:

“I want a lethal injection.”

 

* * *

 

James is one of about 50 veterans living in the Indianapolis Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program.

 

Located on N. Pennsylvania Street across from the American Legion Mall, the domiciliary is one of the only places in the city where homeless men who have served in the military can go for help they say “actually works.” Most have problems far beyond not having a place to sleep. Alcoholism, drug abuse and mental disorders are the norm.

 

But in a way, they’re the lucky ones. Twelve percent of all homeless people in Indiana – 743 men and women at the last count – are veterans, according to the state’s Housing and Community Development Authority.

 

James, who served eight years in the Army in his early 20s, found his way into the Domiciliary after his cry for help in the emergency room last April.

 

In a few weeks, he’ll be released into the world he has spent seven months escaping. It’s only because of the help of those in the Domiciliary, he says, that he’ll be leaving alive.

 

* * *

 

2008 was already a bad year for James Duncan’s family. Both of his parents had died, one in January, one in July. The third phone call came in September. The 24th, a Tuesday, at 1:30 a.m., to be exact, because he remembers it as if it was yesterday.

 

“Michael’s been shot. Michael’s been shot, he’s dead, he’s dead,” James’ ex-wife was saying on the phone. Their third child. Only 25 years old. In a blur he followed her directions to the corner of 38thStreet and Whittier Place, not far from his home in Lawrence.

 

The scene was crammed with people – his family, the police, partygoers who had just stepped out of the house that Michael was in minutes before he died. No one would let James past the yellow caution tape that roped off half the block.

 

But he could still see his son, lying on his side in the grass, a denim jacket opened enough to expose a t-shirt soaked in blood. Michael had been shot seven times.

 

Later James would find out that Michael had bragged to friends about having $1,080 from selling designer purses that day. The money was in his pocket. Then there was a fight between Michael and one of the friends, something about a girl, or a car, or something, it didn’t really matter, James said.

 

Michael stormed out of the party, furious. The friend he had been fighting with called someone else to come “settle” the dispute. He mentioned that Michael had more than $1,000 in his jeans.

 

Michael made it only a few blocks before a car came racing around the corner and screeched to a stop. The man who the friend had called stepped out, pointed his 9 millimeter handgun at James’s stomach and shot. He took the money and drove off.

 

Michael made two calls as he was dying. One to his girlfriend, one to his mom, who didn’t pick up. His words were punctuated with moans and screams.

 

“Momma, I been shot, they were my friends, why me? Why me?”

 

The police found out who the killer was, but never found him. A few months later, the man was killed in a car accident.

To James, it didn’t fix a thing.

 

* * *

 

Whisky didn’t help much either, but in the years after Michaels death, it was all James had. Sometimes he drank more than half a gallon every day.

 

Jim Beam, or the cheap stuff, as long as it burned, he drank it. The sting was soothing, as if it could burn away what he was feeling inside.

“Being a father I tried to fix all his problems and here’s a problem, I can’t fix. Nobody can fix,” he said.

 

Sleep would take away the pain at times. James would dream that Michael was calling him to wish him a happy Father’s Day or remind him about his birthday. Sometimes he would hear Michael’s laugh – the one that coukd make his whole chubby body jiggle – and then, James would be awake. He would crawled out of bed and open another bottle.

 

Eventually, James lost his job. Then his apartment. He stayed with friends and family members until they got too fed up. His beat-up Chevy Malibu became his home.

 

On April 3rd of this year, he spent the morning drunk on the Falls Creek hiking trail, the voicemail running through his mind for what must have been the thousandth time. It was too much.

 

He drove his car to the house of his second son.

 

“Don’t you need this anymore?” his son asked.

 

“Don’t you worry about me,” James said.

 

For 10 miles he walked, not sure where to go.

 

He passed Grace Memorial Missionary Baptist church, where he used to take Michael every Sunday. He passed parks where Michael used to play outside. Once the boy brought home 14 frogs and named every one of them.

 

All James wanted was to be with Michael again.

 

That’s when he saw the hospital he had been going to ever since he was discharged from the Army in the 80s. They would do it for him, he thought.

 

He asked for the lethal injection three times before they gave him the medicine that would calm him enough to sleep. Again, he dreamed of Michael.

 

* * *

 

After three weeks on the mental health floor, James was transferred to the Domiciliary, a four-floor building that was once a YMCA. A laminated sheet of paper at the front door read: “This building is drug and alcohol free.”

 

He hoped he wouldn’t have to worry about that again.

 

Another sign, this one in the small cafeteria read: “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help.”

That part was even harder than not having whiskey.

 

But eventually, James said, he realized that accepting and talking about what he had been through was the only way to get better. He made friends, set goals with his social worker and attended AA meetings. Last month, he got a job in the linen room of the VA Medical Center. He works four day a week, eight hours a day. He never drinks.

 

The Domiciliary staff has decided that soon James will be ready to move on. They’ve found a place for him to live at Washington Pointe Apartments, where his rent will only cost him 30 percent of his VA wages.

 

Next weekend, he’ll use the money he has made so far to buy a bed for this new place.

 

James knows he’ll have dreams about Michael in that bed. He knows that the Kroger down the road sells whiskey. He knows that his anger could come back. 

 

“But really, I’m not so worried anymore,” he says. “Each day is a day for recovery. And I’m not ready to die.”

 

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