Florida Woman Bites Camel – The New Yorker

It’s said that when James Thurber, as a young newspaper reporter, was told by an editor that his story’s first paragraph, what newspaper people might refer to as his lede, suffered from wordiness, he handed in a rewrite whose opening paragraph was, in its entirety, “Dead.”

There followed a second paragraph: “That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4pm in front of Riley’s saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.”

Like that editor, I admire those short, punchy ledes often employed by crime reporters, my longtime favorite being what Edna Buchanan wrote in the Miami Herald about an ex-con who became violent in the Church’s fried-chicken line and was shot dead by a security guard: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

But I also admire the ambition of those long ledes which you sometimes see in the obituaries that appear in the New York Times—ledes whose first sentence manages to stuff the highlights of an entire lifetime in a clause between the decedent’s name and the fact that he has expired. For instance: “Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90.”

You might say that I’m a collector of ledes. I assume that’s why my friend James Edmunds, who lives in New Iberia, Louisiana, sent me an article that appeared in the Advocate of Baton Rouge on September 23, 2019. If the function of a lede is to engage the reader, this article’s lede seemed to me remarkably effective. Here it is:

A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600 pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.

Notice how the reader is drawn in with a single unpunctuated sentence that starts slowly and gradually becomes an express train that whistles right by the local stops without providing an opportunity to get off. A veterinarian is summoned to administer antibiotics to a camel—pretty routine stuff so far. Yes, the camel lives behind a truck stop, which is an unusual domicile for a camel but probably not unprecedented. It wasn’t that long ago that gas stations along highways like Route 66 lured travellers with roadside zoos that were advertised by signs like “See Albino Raccoon” or “Live Two-Headed Goat.” And this takes place in Louisiana, where animal stories that might be considered unusual elsewhere are commonplace. In 2007, when Louisiana finally banned cockfighting, the last state to do so, a state senator from Opelousas fought to exempt a less lethal version of the sport he called chicken boxing. Louisiana once tried to eat its way out of an environmental crisis caused by the nutria, an invasive rodent that devours marshland, by encouraging some of the state’s celebrated chefs to invent tempting nutria dishes with names like Ragondin à l’Orange.

And then we come to the woman who bit the camel’s genitalia and is talking to law officers, perhaps claiming self-defense as a way to wiggle out of a cruelty-to-animals charge. Identifying her as a “Florida woman,” as I interpret it, suggests that we’re dealing here with what Newfoundlanders would call a come-from-away and New Yorkers would call an out-of-towner. The tantalizing implication is that a local woman would have known that you could give a truck-stop camel an infection requiring antibiotics by biting its genitalia.

While the veterinarian was caring for the camel, was anyone attending to that Florida woman? She had, after all, been sat on by a six-hundred-pound camel, an experience that has to be at least uncomfortable and probably injurious. A reader has to wonder if she had some broken bones or some cracked ribs or at least a nasty taste in her mouth.

And we still have the deaf dog to deal with. The Florida woman and her husband (presumably a Florida man) may have tried to call him back (“Here, Fido! Here, Fido! Come out of the camel’s enclosure, Fido”) even though they knew that, because of his deafness, they might as well have been singing the F.S.U. fight song, or whatever Florida people do when things don’t seem to be going their way.

As I see it, the Florida woman and the Florida man have no choice but to enter the enclosure. The Florida woman is still shouting at the deaf dog to follow her out. Her husband has tried to calm her down by saying things like “Hush, Florida woman, or that camel is going to lose his temper and take it in his mind to sit on someone.” The camel has, in fact, been getting a bit riled. He has decided to sit on the Florida woman, but, in his excitement, he fails to do so in a way that evolution has taught him to sit on an enemy without exposing his genitalia to retaliation.

At that point, as if a shutter had clicked, it becomes a tableau vivant—one that I have carried in my mind ever since. The Florida man looks alarmed. The dog looks puzzled. The camel looks pained—even more pained than camels normally look. All we see of the Florida woman is her legs extending from underneath the camel. Talk about engaging the reader! I was so engaged that I felt no need to read the rest of the story. The lede is sufficient. It’s now in my collection. ♦