Peeling the Onion

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

Onion Horton, on the air.
Onion Horton, on the air. PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG

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click to enlarge Onion and his girlfriend, Stephanie Boykin - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
Onion and his girlfriend, Stephanie Boykin

On the air or on the Internet, Onion takes this very seriously. As New Black City's main attraction, he routinely stretches his 8 a.m.-noon shift well past 1 p.m. Today he's got Jim Berger stationed at City Hall to bring the action to however many listeners are out there. Berger, a retired stockbroker who's dabbled in radio since college, calls in a few minutes after Tyus hangs up to report that there are seven picketers on the sidewalk, six whites and one black -- they are apparently concerned on redistricting's effect on Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th), a white incumbent whose ward also would move as a result of the plan. Onion does some quick math in his head. "That's 86 percent white and 14 percent black," he notes. "That's about the same makeup as the state of Missouri."

The redistricting fiasco dominates Onion's observances this morning -- and they are mostly observances, because there aren't many callers to help him out. He assures whoever may be listening that he has the highest respect for Tyus, whom he considers the best-informed alderman. "I love her," he says. "She's my favorite, I think." As for himself, well, that's not important. "I don't care what people think about me," he says. "I really don't." The topic darkens. He's ready to leave all this behind. He'll be retired for real in another two years, tops, he vows, noting that the life expectancy of a black man in America is 69 years. "I've used up most of that," he says. "I'm getting ready to die. I need one of those $1,500 plots, prepaid." This is classic Onion, a man who bounces from subject to subject, making it all up as he goes along and cinching his points with facts, figures and statistics he pulls from newspapers, books and television news shows.

After a 10-minute break to fetch a Vess orange soda, he's back on, talking about a poll in USA Today in which a majority of white people surveyed said blacks are better off than whites ("They're either fools or racists") and a deadbeat dad who is facing jail if he fathers another child ("I think, sooner or later, you need to lock these guys up.") Berger is soon back on the line with a silky, classic radio voice that comes through perfectly on the cell phone. The meeting just ended, he's got it all on tape and now he's pushing toward Tyus to land an interview. While negotiating the throng of paid journalists, Berger chides Onion for not letting him say more when he called earlier from outside City Hall. "I called in, and you made me the token white caller and then wouldn't let me talk," he complains. Onion answers with a question, which he answers himself. "How long have you known me?" he asks. "Two more days will be a week. If you've known me a week, you know if you wait until someone lets you talk, you'll never talk."

Once Berger reaches Tyus, the plan is to hand the phone over to her so Onion can conduct the interview himself. Onion has a pretty good idea of what's coming. "The alderwoman and I had some pretty harsh words this morning, so she may not want to talk to me," he says when Berger tells him he's just waiting for Tyus to finish with the Post-Dispatch. Any minute now. A bit of dead air. Then the drone of a recorded voice: "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again."

"Let me go to the fabulous Onion stack here," Onion says as he sorts through clippings from the three morning newspapers. But the pickings are slim. He's already talked about deadbeat daddies and the newspaper poll, so the topic turns to himself. "Nobody ever cared about my free speech," he declares. "Every station I left, it was because of what I said. When we talk about free speech in this country, it's free speech for white people. Because some people didn't like the subject matter, we were kicked off here, onto the Internet."

As is often the case, Onion is the only black man working this morning at, although his girlfriend, Stephanie Boykin, who is 31 years younger than Onion, helps out for awhile behind the mic -- Onion says he's training her to be his replacement. Mike Clayton wanders in and out, as does his son Wesley, a computer whiz who makes sure the gear works properly. Clayton, the man who provided the computer equipment, is somewhat of an on-air foil for Onion. He's a white pro-life Republican, a self-described conservative who decries Waco and supports school vouchers. The topic turns to Bush's faith-based initiative, and Clayton grows sarcastic at Onion's relentless pessimism. "Let's just go out and set up a government that violates everyone's rights," he suggests. "We've already got that," Onion fires back. Louis Farrakhan won't get any government money, he says, and that's a function of his Black Muslim politics -- who knows how many politically connected white ministers will get government checks? Clayton thinks he's got Onion cornered. Plenty of politically active black ministers get tax-exempt status for their organizations, he declares. So do white ones, Onion counters, ticking off the names: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham. "There's no area of American life where black people have more freedom than white people," Onion says, and Clayton is forced to agree.

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.

"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."

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