Episode 17: Ingredients and the big idea

Closing the distance between fact and meaning
Michael Turbe's "great" day inspired Lane DeGregory to write a story about him. Turbe, who worked as a convenience store clerk in Gulfport, had just heard from his daughter, who wanted to meet him for the first time. [TIMES file]
Michael Turbe's "great" day inspired Lane DeGregory to write a story about him. Turbe, who worked as a convenience store clerk in Gulfport, had just heard from his daughter, who wanted to meet him for the first time. [TIMES file]
Published April 10 2018
Updated February 17

Today’s WriteLane is about what you need to pull together a compelling story.

Read the stories referenced in the podcast below.

The dresser

By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer

Miss St. Petersburg still needs one more outfit, for the finale on swimsuit night. And she needs a strapless bra to wear under her interview dress. And she has to get her nails done. . . . Oh, there’s still so much to do.

So today Brown is taking her shopping. They're going to a little boutique he knows over on MacDill Avenue.

"I have the keys," Miss St. Petersburg calls out, jingling them above her head. "But do you think I need to bring my silver sandals?"

"Yes, and those turquoise pants," Brown answers. "We have to find you a top to wear with those, too. Something contemporary and fun.

"Oh, and you still need some accessories for your walk-on outfit the last night. Rhinestones, I'm thinking. They always show up so well in the lights."

American beauties

Jeffrey Allan Brown has pictures of beauty queens all over his room: Miss Maine 2000 smiling sweetly from the middle of a bookshelf; Miss Kentucky 2000 beaming down from the top. The bookcase doesn’t have any books. Only 8-by-10 photos, most of them signed, all in thick silver frames. Brown has hundreds of photos in albums under his bed. He has 18 displayed around his room, five of Miss St. Petersburg in various outfits and poses. He has photos filling his dresser. Photos sitting on the cabinet where he keeps his videos.

Brown has more than 1,000 videos. He gets three or four every month. He orders them on the Internet sometimes. Mostly, he trades homemade tapes. Tapes of state beauty pageants, Miss America, Miss USA. Tapes dating to 1974.

He started collecting in college, just for fun. He loved seeing the girls _ that's what the pageant people call them _ waltz down the runways, admiring them in their shimmering evening gowns, looking at the stage lights glittering off their tiaras.

Then he got obsessed. He started studying the tapes, like an athlete watches game films. He analyzes how winners wear their hair, whether they wear one-piece swimsuits or two, red lipstick or pink. He memorizes interview questions and answers: What is more detrimental to society, racism or sexism? Could you ever have a serious relationship with someone who has a physical disability? He practices rating the contestants in a green notebook. He compares his scores with the judges'.

He knows his stats, too, as well as any baseball junkie. He can tell you, off the top of his head, that only one Miss America in the past 14 years has been blond, that Texas hasn't had a Miss America in 28 years.

"Florida has only had one Miss America, in 1993," he says.

Brown is 39. He has thick hair, dyed strawberry blond, cropped short and slightly spiked. Tortoise-shell glasses frame his blue eyes and pale lashes. He lives in a three-bedroom house off Dale Mabry with his roommate, Drew, and, for now, Miss St. Petersburg in the spare room.

In pageant parlance, he’s a “dresser,” a Svengali who helps contestants pick out their outfits, practice their performances and rehearse their answers. He pays his bills by waiting tables at First Watch restaurant. Breakfast and lunch. But that’s not his life.

Helping Miss St. Petersburg become Miss Florida, and then Miss America _ this is his life.

The franchise

Miss St. Petersburg is Shauna Pender. She's 23. Her shiny chestnut hair curves over her slender shoulders. Her emerald eyes sparkle under lavender shadow. High cheekbones frame her perfect nose. Full lips frame her perfect teeth.

She's 5 feet 9. The same height as Brown.

Like him, she got into pageants when she was in college. She won Miss Tallahassee her freshman year at Florida State. She paid her way through school with scholarship money she won doing pageants. She majored in theater.

She has held five crowns: Miss Tallahassee 1998, Miss Azalea Florida 2000, Miss West Coast Florida 2001, Miss Panama City 2002 and Miss St. Petersburg, where she was selected over 12 other women.

The past two years, Pender has been first runner-up for Miss Florida. Two years in a row she has had to clap and smile and hug another girl who won the title she wanted. Brown has clapped and smiled in the audience, too. And afterward he has hugged her and promised her next time. Next time.

This year is Pender's last chance to compete for Miss America. She turns 24 in July, and that's the cutoff age for contestants.

Brown invited her to stay with him for a couple of weeks before the pageant so he could help her full time, get her ready. Sort of a beauty pageant boot camp.

Pender had been living in New York, staying with her sister while she takes acting classes and tries out for soap operas. She got a short stint as a physical trainer on All My Children. She played a victim of PMS in a pharmaceutical ad.

Brown needed her closer to him so they could get her wardrobe ready and practice her interview answers and her talent before the stage pageant. Pender sings. She's going to do Before Your Love by American Idol star Kelly Clarkson.

"We've got 42 girls going for Miss Florida," Brown says. "Florida is one of the most competitive states. Miss Florida almost always finishes in the top 10 for Miss America."

This year, Brown says, Pender is ready. "She's got more confidence, more poise," he says. "Going out into the real world has been good for her."

"Allan has helped me so much," Pender says. "He is someone any girl would be happy to have as her ED."

Pender calls Brown her ED. Executive Director. It's a volunteer post.

It's Brown's favorite job.

He put his career on hold to do this.

Shopping, rehearsals and nerves

They get to Material Girls Boutique just after 4 p.m. Pender parks out front. Brown opens the shop door for her.

In the back room, saleswoman Brenda Piccirillo is waiting. A pageant contestant herself, she holds the crown of Miss Central Florida of America. She has pulled out a few outfits and picked out earrings to match. She hugs Brown.

"You look great," Brown tells her. "Have you lost weight?"

Brown doesn't worry about his weight. He eats french fries and pizza and drinks Pepsi. But the next week, the week before the state pageant, he'll go on Slim-Fast. "I don't want the junk food around to tempt Shauna," he says. "It's sort of a sympathy/support thing."

Carole Holsonback is at the boutique, too. She was co-director of this year's Miss St. Petersburg pageant with Brown. She is also helping Pender get ready for the state competition.

Pender, meanwhile, has found the white dress with the lace overlay that Miss Central Florida of America laid out. It has a low bustline and a short skirt in front. In back, a train dips to the floor in a long, flowing V. "Oh my gosh! That's so great! I have to try this on!" Pender squeals.

Brown walks over to inspect. "This is hot," he agrees, turning the hanger. "Loving it."

Brown and Pender met two years ago at the Miss West Coast Florida pageant. He was directing that competition. He spent $2,000 of his savings to put it on.

"A lot of these local pageants are open," Brown says. "You don't have to live there. So girls from anywhere in the state can compete." That's why Pender has been Miss Just About Everywhere.

Brown also judges pageants. The South Florida Fair Queen, Miss University of Central Florida. All his pageant work is unpaid.

"I guess I'm spending about 40 hours a week with Shauna right now. This is the most intense time for us," he says. "All the shopping, the rehearsals, all the nerves."

The dress Pender takes into the dressing room costs $898. She'll have it on for 10 minutes max, while she strolls across the stage.

Sometimes the boutiques give her discounts or let her borrow the dresses. Sometimes Pender's mom or her handlers help pay.

Brown likes to shop for himself, too. But he doesn't look for anything this fancy _ or expensive. "I buy my stuff mostly at Old Navy and Burlington Coat Factory," he says. "I can't afford much better for me.

"But I did splurge and buy myself a nice suit for the Miss Florida pageant. Another pageant director helped me pick it out. It's a wool blend with a long, black jacket. Very contemporary. Very fun."

Brown was a reporter for a small weekly paper in Ohio. He got to cover the Miss Ohio pageant once. But he decided that journalism's hours were too long, the demands too great.

"I needed more free time to help out with the pageants," he says from a cream leather sofa by the dressing room. "That's why I wait tables at a breakfast place. So I can have the afternoons off, to do stuff like this."

Pender emerges from behind the pink curtains, her tanning booth-bronzed shoulders arching above the strapless bodice. White lace loops across her willowy waist and spills down to her defined shins.

"Oh my gosh! I'm in love with this!" she coos, twirling in front of the full-length mirror.

Brown gets off the couch to get a better view. He walks around her, looks her up and down. Pender lifts her long hair, to see what it would look like pinned up with that dress. "You'll need beaded earrings, silver accents. And you'll wear your hair down," Brown says. "It's gorgeous."

"I feel like a diva," Pender says, staring at her reflection.

"I knew you would love it," Brown says. "Now try the blue one."

Just another hobby?

Ask Brown why he does this and he'll look at you and blink. He'll make you feel like that's a totally stupid question. Then he'll laugh.

"There are times I wonder that myself," he'll say. Then he'll pause. Push up his big glasses.

"Some people go fishing or play golf or whatever. This is just another hobby, I guess."

He's not trying to date Pender. "I'm gay," he says. He's only trying to help.

Brown grew up in Toledo, Ohio. He was an only child. Both his parents are dead. He moved to Tampa 11 years ago to find warmer weather.

"When I got here from Ohio, I didn't know anyone," he says. "I started going to the pageants, meeting people.

"We get real close at these things."

Most of Brown's friends are people he has met through pageants. Most are women. They're other judges, directors and volunteers. Mothers of contestants. And, of course, the girls.

Brown has helped dozens over the past decade. The ones who win he calls his "titleholders." He frames their photos and puts them up in his room. He has never had a Miss Florida.

This year he has two shots at the title. Along with Pender he's helping Suzanne Dani'L Metzler. She's 22. She's Miss Pinellas County. She still needs a dress for her talent portion.

"I enjoy seeing how these girls grow from one pageant to the next. I become friends with them. They're like my family," Brown says.

"I feel proud when I see them go on and become successful.

"One titleholder I had is now the lead understudy in The Lion King."

Brown doesn't want to write for newspapers anymore. He might go into politics, he says. Maybe help out on a presidential campaign.

But he can't commit himself to anything for a while. First he has to get through the Miss Florida pageant. Then, he hopes, he'll go to Atlantic City in September to see Miss America.

If Pender gets to go, he'll be there for sure. But he won't get to be her ED. He won't even be able to talk to her before the pageant, go to her floor of the hotel or help her with her hair.

For the Miss America pageant, all the contestants' companions have to be women. For the purity of the girls, you see.

Brown will be in the audience. Each time Pender takes the stage, he'll clap louder than anyone.

And, just like her, his hands will be sweating.

Somebody to Love

By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer

On the day he got the phone call, Michael Turbe went to work early. He locked the room he shares with his parrot and his pit bull and plodded down the sidewalk to the TLC convenience mart, where he works the night shift. The owner greeted him with a how-you-doin’. Normally, Mike would have answered, “Just glad to be here.” And he was. Finally sober after 41 years, he had what he needed to get by: a job, a room, a phone. It was a good enough life.

But on this Wednesday, his answer was different. “Great!” he said, loudly. A grin grew beneath his gray mustache. Behind his bifocals, his blue eyes danced. “Better than great. This is the best day of my life!”

A woman looked up from the beer cooler. A man in the snack aisle turned around. “This morning, my daughter called,” Mike told everyone in the store. “I have a daughter. And she wants to come meet me.”

On the day she made the phone call, Janine Marks, 41, got up early.

She padded downstairs in the dark of her Long Island home, careful not to wake her two kids, and found the Florida number she had been dialing every day for almost a week.

So far, a machine had answered every time. “Hello, you have reached . . .” She couldn’t just leave a message, not about something like this.

Now it was 7 a.m. Wednesday. It took Janine 30 minutes to work up the nerve to dial the number.

“Hello?” answered a deep, gentle voice.

Janine remembers being so startled that it took her a minute to stammer, “Is this Michael Turbe?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“It’s me. I mean, Janine. I’m Anne Kantor’s daughter. I think you’re my father.”

- - -


At work that night, as he rang up six-packs and cigarettes, the word echoed in Mike’s head. Father. He was a father.

He was someone.

Mike always said he wasn’t anyone. Just an old hippie. A sober drunk. “I was a has-been,” he said, “before I ever was.”

In his 59 years he had lived in St. Thomas and Key West, in quaint cottages and homeless shelters. He had been a musician, hitchhiker, roommate, cellmate, painter, bartender, drinking buddy and deckhand.

But he had never been anything nearly as important as a father. He wasn’t sure he was worthy. What did he have to give a grown daughter? He couldn’t even afford to buy the plane ticket so she could come meet him. And what did he have to show her? A small room where the bed is the couch. A corkboard filled with faces from the halfway house. Snapshots of friends’ kids. A corner convenience store in a quiet little waterfront town where everyone knows his name.

He wanted to tell his daughter his story, so she’d know him. But daughters are supposed to be proud of their dads. What if he disappointed her?

She said she’d be in Florida by Father’s Day.

- - -

On the day he met her mother - a Saturday in November 1965 - Mike was playing guitar in her basement. His band, the Orphans, had been hired for her Sweet 16 party. His wheat-colored hair skimmed his shoulders. He was 17.

Anne was petite and slender. Thick raven hair spilled down her back. Her eyes were dark, almost black. “Absolutely beautiful,” Mike said.

He learned she was an artist, a painter and clothing designer who sewed her own creations. She went to another high school and was friends with his bass player. She had promised to make some groovy pants for the guys in the band.

When she saw Mike singing, she fell in love with his voice. “And those blue, blue eyes.”

Mike was Catholic; Anne’s mother had survived the Holocaust. Their parents didn’t approve. So for months, they sneaked around. They even talked about running off and getting married.

After six months they became lovers. It was a spring afternoon, Mike remembers, a school day while his parents were at work. They were both virgins. He used a condom. “But I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Six weeks later, Anne told him she could never see him again. She stopped going to clubs where his band played. She refused to take his calls. Mike was miserable.

“I didn’t know what was wrong,” he said. He lay on his single bed, listening to the Beatles’ first album - over and over. I Saw Her Standing There morphed into Love Me Do, then Misery.

Finally, Anne showed up at a Holiday Inn where his band was opening for Gladys Knight and the Pips. “Please, Anne,” he said, wrapping his arm around her. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

And she did.

- - -

Mike had saved enough money playing with the Orphans to buy two plane tickets to the Bahamas. During the days, he went to look for work while Anne hunted for a cheap apartment. At night in the hotel, they tried on baby names and held each other in the dark. Once, he felt a tiny foot kicking Anne’s swollen belly.

On the day the cops came, they had been out buying silverware. An officer told Mike to come along peacefully, or he would cuff him and drag him in. Anne’s father was waiting at the police station. During the long flight back to New York, no one spoke.

The next day, Anne’s parents sent her to the Louise Wise home for unwed mothers. When the baby was born, Mike was allowed to hold her. He felt her downy hair brush the inside of his elbow, her impossibly small fist close around his finger. His daughter looked up at him.

She had his blue eyes.

Mike and Anne signed the baby away to an adoption agency. Their parents insisted. She would be better off, they said.

All Mike had wanted was gone. He tried suicide by slitting his wrists. His mother committed him as a mental patient at a state hospital. When he got out, he hitchhiked across the country carrying his guitar, a Band-Aid box filled with cigarettes and $2.83. He copped rides, mostly in VW buses, and five days later landed in Haight-Ashbury.

But the summer of love was over. He never saw Anne or his daughter again.

- - -

For the next three decades he drifted around, trying to drink enough cheap beer to fill the hole inside him. He married once; it lasted less than a year. He wanted children, but never had another.

Every time he saw a dark-haired girl with blue eyes, he’d guess her age. Could that be her? He wondered what she was learning in school, what she’d want for her birthday. He wished he could get her a dog.

By the time his daughter would have been 15, Mike had started telling stories - to anyone who would listen. “Sure, I have a daughter. I raised her when she was small, but now she goes to boarding school.” Or, “She lives with her mother.”

He wondered if she ever wondered about him.

Two years ago, after living on the streets, after hitting rock bottom - he had forgotten how many times - Mike stopped drinking and started going to meetings.

He got an efficiency, a job, a parrot, then a dog. A couple of months ago, he got a computer.

And a phone.

- - -

Janine was adopted out of foster care when she was 10 months old, by a couple who lived in Long Island who thought they couldn’t have kids. As soon as they got Janine, the mother got pregnant and Janine grew up with a younger sister.

Janine said she always knew she was adopted. When she was 7, she vowed to track down her birth parents. She didn’t match her family. She needed to know where her blue eyes came from.

When Janine was 20, her adopted mother died of lung cancer, and she started searching for her birth parents. She found Anne through the home for unwed mothers, and Anne told her all about her dad. She wanted to know if he had loved her, if he had wanted to keep her. Anne told her the whole story.

“It must have been very hard on you both,” Janine said.

Anne lives in Manhattan, a half-hour from Janine; they see each other all the time. Anne was at Janine’s wedding, and she was there when both of Janine’s children were born. For 20 years, they tried together to track down Mike.

“We were always five steps behind him. We’d find someone who’d seen him, or a restaurant where he worked, and they’d tell us, ‘Oh, he just moved,’ ” Janine said. She started worrying; maybe he didn’t want to be found.

In mid May, Anne typed Michael Turbe into an address search engine on the Internet. A Florida number flickered onto the screen.

For the first time in years, Mike was sober enough to pay for a land line.

- - -

He sent Janine a CD of his songs, some of the same ones he’d sung to her mother. She sent him photos of her daughter, who is 13, and her 8-year-old son.

After that first call he called her a couple times a day, just to remind himself that she was real.

Anne called Mike too, and they talked and talked. She told Mike she ended up marrying one of his friends; they had had two children together, then divorced. Anne was married again now.

She told Mike, “Janine wants me with her when she meets you. And I want to see you.” They bought tickets to fly to Tampa on Thursday, June 12.

Mike had to tell them he didn’t have room for them to stay with him. So they got a room in an inn across the street from his convenience mart.

He tacked the photo of Janine and her kids beside the cash register, so 700 people each day could see them. He told their story to anyone who asked.

- - -

On the day before they flew to Tampa, Janine and Anne got their hair done. They worried about what to wear, tried to figure out who should walk off the plane first. “I’ve been wanting this since second grade,” Janine told her mom. “But I’m scared.”

Mike cleaned his apartment and washed his old car. He shampooed the upholstery, vacuumed the floors. He bought a Celtic ring for Janine, sterling silver. Then realized he didn’t have enough money for flowers.

“I don’t deserve her,” he said. “Or Anne.”

Then he opened his mail, and found the government stimulus check.

Thanks to Uncle Sam, Mike was able to buy two bouquets.

- - -

The flight to Florida was late because of lightning. Mike paced around the terminal, from the tram to the arrival boards, clutching roses and daisies wrapped in bright tissue paper.

Every time the tram doors opened and a crowd of people poured out, Mike stepped closer to scan the faces. He watched dads pushing strollers, dads tickling toddlers, dads holding little girls’ hands.

He had missed all that. Janine would never sit on his lap. Never call him Daddy. But now he had another chance, he knew, with her kids.

For 41 years, he had thought he was alone. He’d never even worried about life insurance - he had no one to leave money to. Now he had a legacy. Grandchildren, he decided, make you immortal.

At 3:32 the tram doors opened and another group rolled out. Mike stood on his toes. His face lit up and his hand shot into the air.

He hugged Janine first. Tightly, for a long time. When they pulled apart, Anne moved in. Then all three of them were embracing, laughing and crying and holding each other.

When Mike took off his sunglasses, Janine studied her father’s face. “Your grandson looks just like you,” she said. “He has your blue eyes.”

- - -

A new podcast is available each Wednesday morning on the Times’ website, SoundCloud and iTunes. Go here to listen and subscribe for free on the Podcasts app and iTunes. If you like the show, be sure to leave us a review.

Listen to the podcast below: