Peeling the Onion

Onion Horton says he's everything a white man wants a black man to be

Onion is admitting that some of his thinking may be outdated when Berger walks in, dressed in white shirt, red tie and navy slacks, looking every bit the professional journalist. White, silver-haired and a resident of Jefferson County, Berger is the antithesis of Onion. And he is really, really angry.

Leaning over the table so his face is inches from Onion's, Berger grabs his own tie and lifts the ends into the air as if he's hanging himself, his mouth screwed into a silent snarl. His face crimson with rage and his hand jerking on the end of the tie, he hisses the words "Strangle you!" as a smiling Onion continues talking into the mic, as if none of this was happening. Berger backs away a few steps, but he doesn't back down. "What did you say to her?" Berger demands in a loud whisper. Onion decides it's time for another break.

To Onion, this is just another day. To Berger, it's a disaster; an alderwoman has stiffed him on an interview request. "I could strangle you!" Berger says as music best described as hip New Age goes out over the Web site. "I never get turned down on interviews. Ever. I sweet-talked her. I tried everything. She looked at me like," Berger says, baring his teeth and contorting his face, "like she was going to kill me! She would've eaten me. What did you say to her?" "What did she say I said?" Onion asks, looking bemused. "She said you argued with her about Clarence Thomas and Bojangles," Berger answers.

Onion and his girlfriend, Stephanie Boykin
Jennifer Silverberg
Onion and his girlfriend, Stephanie Boykin
Chuck Norman, owner of WGNU-AM: "He's a racist, absolutely -- no doubt about that. A lot of things [Onion said] made me rather uncomfortable."
Jennifer Silverberg
Chuck Norman, owner of WGNU-AM: "He's a racist, absolutely -- no doubt about that. A lot of things [Onion said] made me rather uncomfortable."

"No, she's full of shit," says the radio host who's never uttered a profanity in his life. It was Tyus who brought up the Supreme Court justice, he notes. He tells Berger to stop arguing. "I'm not arguing," he insists. "I'm a reporter, for chrissakes. Let's play like we've got a real radio station. Can you get that through your head, Horton?" Then he embraces Onion. "Never piss off a future guest," he pleads. "I've been broadcasting 30 years, and nobody's told me no."

"Well, maybe you shouldn't have followed us," Onion says. He smiles as he tells Berger he'll keep saying what he wants to whomever he wants. "It's one of those things where you can't let someone take over your program," he explains.

Berger, who has the intensity of a Les Nessman, rolls his eyes, pulls out a set of headphones and crosses himself as he heads toward the soundboard. He quickly fixes a mic that's been dead all morning -- all it takes is a flick of a switch, but Onion, for all his oratorical ability, is an idiot when it comes to technology. He takes a seat beside Onion and they're back on the air -- er, Internet.

"We had a few problems -- technical problems here at New Black City," Berger purrs into his mic. "Here's a phone call right now."

Onion Horton can't stand on the sidewalk for five minutes without someone calling out his name. Nearly every time the light turns red on Delmar Boulevard outside the New Black City offices, someone says hello while waiting for traffic. Fans range from transit workers to elected officials. "Hey, Onion!" yells Ald. Irving Clay Jr. (D-26th), who's driving a convertible. "Brother Clay!" Onion shoots back with a laugh. "Hey, you're supposed to be at work!"

He's not shy, especially with women. "Pardon me" he says to a stranger waiting for a bus. "Can I have one of your potato chips?" His humble tone is distinctly non-Onion -- who could refuse him? And so the woman holds out her bag, allowing Onion to pluck one himself. "My name is Richard," he says, calling her by name after looking at the sticker on her blouse that says "Hello, my name is Jean." Jean Sykes nods politely, looking somewhat curious as to why this man is sweating in a bus shelter in mid-July while getting his picture taken. Then she finds out who he is. Her face lights up with a huge smile.

"You're Onion Horton?" Sykes exclaims. "My daddy listened to you all the time!" Just then, her bus arrives. She stays put. Sykes says she often listened along with her father. She doesn't know what Onion's doing now, but she's pleased to hear he's on the Internet. "If he's still working, that's all that counts," she says. "We liked his show. He's informative. He speaks the truth on different issues. He's not faking it. He's for real. And it's funny. You might not always agree with him, but he's funny. I'm going to go back to the office and say, 'Guess what? I met Onion Horton.' He's one of my heroes." She tells Onion she's spending the day at a job-training program just a half-block away -- would he come down and talk to everyone? "They would love it," she pleads. Onion gets the address. "I'll stop by before I leave," he promises.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Onion says he can't understand why, but he's grateful. "It's wonderful," he says. "People are just so unbelievably kind. I don't do anything. I just sit there and talk about racism."

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