That's Life: An Obscure Newsletter Is Devoted to Stories That Are Strange but True


HOW MUCH FAT do people have liposuctioned in a year? You missed that story, I’ll bet, in your hurry to get to the business and political news. Did you follow the case of the Oklahoma City man charged with armed robbery who served as his own lawyer? When his alleged victim identified him from the witness stand, he jumped to his feet and shouted, “I should have blown your . . . head off,” and then added, after the briefest of pauses, “if I’d been the one that was there.”

Imagine a newsletter consisting entirely of the stupid stories you read to your spouse over breakfast. It’s here. Even better, it’s free, a labor of demented love on the part of one Chuck Shepherd, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Government and Business Administration.

Read about the man who tried to commit suicide by eating rancid chicken; read about the four Harvard Medical School graduates on a camping trip who set 400 acres of national forest afire because they thought burning used toilet paper would be more ecologically sound than burying it; read about Iraq’s decision to sell tanks to Iran while the two countries were at war.

Welcome to View from the Ledge, now beginning its tenth year. It is, Shepherd says, “a celebration of the submainstream,” and Shepherd has exacting standards. “It’s not available at any price,” he explains. “The only way to get on the mailing list is to send me clippings.” Each issue of View from the Ledge costs Shepherd about $250, mostly for postage, and he returns about $20 a month to people who don’t know the rules and send along a dollar or two with a request for the next issue.

Not just any clippings will do. Nothing from a supermarket tabloid, for example—only stories from legitimate news sources qualify. Shepherd points out, with gravity befitting a dealer in Picassos and Pollocks, that his newsletter is “for the serious collector.” His current mailing list totals about 400, all people who regularly contribute clippings. Shepherd estimates that about 2,000 people have received View from the Ledge at one time or another. “A lot of people are probationary,” he says. “They’ve sent things once or twice, and if they send one or two more, I’ll put them on the permanent list.”

Shepherd began working on View from the Ledge in 1980, mailing the first issue to his friends in January of 1981. It took hold slowly, like a particularly insidious virus. “As late as early 1988,” Shepherd recalls, “only fifty people who weren’t friends or friends of friends were on the mailing list.”At around that point a handful of “alternative" newspapers began running snippets from the newsletter, and Shepherd’s mail increased. Now he has a contract with a mainstream syndicate and a book deal.

Shepherd spends most of his time teaching law and regulation to business students. He is tall and thin, with a deep voice and an authoritative manner. Few of his colleagues know of his pastime, and listening to him happily discourse on legal history, it is hard to picture him publishing a newsletter that proclaims, “You’re only young once, but you can always be immature.”

Shepherd, who is forty-four, is doing nicely at fending off maturity. But he is hardly casual about View from the Ledge. He prepares his oddball newsletter with all the zeal of a crusading editor. “The point,” he says, “is that all the stories are true. I’ve never been much interested in things that are made up. But true stories reveal a lot about society and human nature. It’s amateur anthropology.”

Shepherd interrupts himself, in panic. “Does that sound ridiculously pompous?” One of the regular View from the Ledge features is a collection of celebrity inanities, and Shepherd is afraid of saying something that would be appropriate to his own pages—like the remark from Christopher Atkins, the actor, “It’s nice to be beautiful, but it’s beautiful to be nice.”

Shepherd prefers that stories be “funny or ironic or weird.”And, of course, true. In Shepherd’s hands, a reverence for truth combined with an irreverence for everything else makes for an exceedingly odd mix. “If something is genuinely strange,” he says, “you don’t need to add a thing. You just put in enough information so the reader can admire its authenticity.” Take the marital history of Hal Warden, who divorced his second wife at sixteen. He had married his first wife, Wendy, when he was twelve and she was fourteen. Wendy had won custody of their child by convincing the judge that “Hal was acting like a ten-yearold.”

IN STRUCTURE, View from the Ledge relies more or less on the familiar news categories. Most stories can be pigeonholed as national or international politics, sports, medicine, or business. But the material grouped under those headings is different. Long before Robert Bork’s name was well known, for example, Bork had surfaced in View from the Ledge. “The Civil Rights Act routinely has been interpreted to prohibit sexual ‘harassment’ of employees,” Shepherd wrote in 1985, “but Judge Robert Bork of the US Court of Appeals . . . now reports that his court says only such harassment by heterosexuals and homosexuals is covered—but not that by bisexual employers, who in theory do not ‘discriminate’ among their targets on the basis of gender.”

Business news comes under the heading “The Entrepreneurial Spirit.”Do you know which college to attend to major in “mall management”? That a Japanese firm offers a Dial-a-Flattery service to people with low self-esteem?

Crime gets close coverage too. Shepherd seems especially fond of ineffectual bad guys. One recent item was about a would-be purse snatcher who was warded off by a victim armed with a hot fudge sundae, another about three drug dealers who were arrested after a couple told police they had heard a drug transaction on the intercom in their baby’s bedroom. Police arrived in time to overhear the dealers order a pizza and give their home address. One United Press story ran with the understated headline “THEFT OF ENTIRE HOUSE LEAVES POLICE PUZZLED.” “The white stucco house was discovered missing by termite inspectors who had been sent by the owner to check the structure.”

Shepherd even publishes public-service announcements, of a sort. Want to know where to write to join Cat Lovers Against the Bomb? How about information on the nation’s first canine sperm bank?

In contrast to the tabloids, View from the Ledge doesn’t bother too much with the rich and famous, though a celebrity occasionally scampers across its pages. Brooke Shields once explained why smoking is a bad idea: “Smoking can kill you, and if you’ve been killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” But the characteristic View from the Ledge story is a tiny snippet about unknown people. Themes gradually emerge from this pointillist approach.

Like the rest of us, Shepherd knows that people occasionally leave money to their pets. Unlike the rest of us, he knows that cats receive the most legacies from their owners, with dogs second and birds third. He knows which politicians are elected posthumously and runs an occasional roundup called “Latest Victorious Dead Candidates.” He not only remembers, in detail, the story of the Virginia man who explained that he had shot his mother-inlaw because he mistook her for a raccoon but also knows that deer, dogs, and woodchucks have been blamed for similar attacks.

Shepherd has an odd sense of humor, but he is not campy, not self-consciously cute à la David Letterman.

His favorite stories are not about misfits but about “people who are completely normal — they have things they’re interested in.” They just have one tiny quirk.

Take the maintenance man in Stockholm, for example, who operated a moving sidewalk until he was charged with assault on 632 people. Furious that some people thought walking was faster than his ride, he sped the sidewalk up to more than fifty miles an hour, dashing hapless riders against a nearby wall.

Every day’s mail brings Shepherd similar tales. He gets some two dozen letters daily, from all over the country, many on corporate stationery or with business cards attached. On the day I visited, the best was a newspaper headline: “WIFE’S BODY BURIED IN CALIFORNIA DESSERT.” Clippings come from The New York Times and The Washington Post, from American Cemetery Magazine and The New England Journal of Medicine. “The San Francisco Chronicle is the bible for weird stuff,” Shepherd says, “and the Miami Herald is notorious too.”

Shepherd prefers obscure sources. He is convinced that trade journals contain a treasure trove of eccentrictales, if only he could tap their riches. “I’m always trying to find newsletters that cover things I don’t know anything about. Somebody at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must keep a file on safety violations, for instance. I’d love to find that person.” As if in answer to his hopes, a tax specialist sent Shepherd an accountants’ newsletter containing a sober analysis of Spiro Agnew’s tax quandaries. Agnew, who is repaying to the State of Maryland bribes he was accused of taking while governor, wanted to list the repayments on his California income-tax return as a deductible expense.

EVERY FEW months Shepherd gathers the best sixty or so submissions, tapes them or paraphrases of them to a sheet of cardboard, and runs off several hundred photocopies, which he folds into four-page newsletters. (Shepherd, a lawyer, announced in his first issue, “Copyright information: VFTL stole all this stuff from other people.”) He is editor, publisher, and circulation department, and he can’t even claim he didn’t know what he was getting into. Before coming to the business school, Shepherd spent several years putting out newsletters, one for a group concerned with publicaccess television and one about the Federal Communications Commission.

After nine years and thirty issues of View from the Ledge, Shepherd still feels fresh. “There’s just so much we don’t know,” he says.

Consider Clint Bolin. “Bolin,” Shepherd explains, “is a gentleman from hong Beach, California, who checked out of the rooming house he had occupied for a month, leaving behind box after box filled with rocks and concrete, from floor to ceiling, packed solid except for small passageways from door to bed to bathroom. Investigators found the same thing at the two previous rooming houses where he had stayed.”

Oh, yes: more than 100,000 people had a total of twenty-five tons of fat liposuctioned in 1987. For more vital information, send news clippings to Chuck Shepherd, P.O. Box 57141, Washington, D.C. 20037.

—Edward Dolnick