NOTE: This is the beginning of a novel that I began writing a few years ago and didn't finish. In fact, I hardly got started. It stops suddenly after eight pages. Anybody care to pick up where I left off? "Interactive fiction!" Why the hell not?
"The wild god of this world is sometimes merciful
to those that ask for mercy; seldom to the arrogant."
Nobody hitchhikes any more, not unless they have a death wish. We’re told that hitchhiking used to be as American as hopping freight cars, something else no one does any more.
It’s a new world, and it’s been a long time coming: way back in 1978, Bob Dylan told an interviewer that he wouldn’t consider hitchhiking even then, although he had famously hitchhiked from Minnesota to New York when he was about 20 years old. “Too many drugs out there now,” I think he said.
Already, as early as 1978.
I sometimes get nostalgic for this America that I never saw or knew, (call it second-hand nostalgia) the America in which Jack Kerouac could thumb and freight-hop his way from one coast to the other without having to worry about any threat more sinister than a railroad bull looking to toss him off the Midnight Ghost from Los Angeles to San Francisco, (yes, I know that this has been exaggerated—he did most of his actual traveling either in friends’ cars or on Greyhound buses, but what the hell, it makes a good story), the America of Route 66 and its less-storied sister two-lanes, which ran right through the middle of otherwise-sleepy towns where you could get a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake for 85¢.
The advent of the interstate highway system ended all of that. The Eisenhower years are traditionally depicted as a time of stagnation, but in that sense they were revolutionary: they killed off Kerouac’s “great American night” and replaced it with a homogenized network of coast-to-coast asphalt on which you can go for a thousand miles in any direction and hardly have a sense of where you are outside of the state name heading the red-white-and-blue sign by the road that reads “70,” “8,” “95” or whatever.
Hitchhikers? You’ll still see them haunting the occasional on-ramp about once every conjunction of Jupiter and Mars, but nobody in his or her right mind would give them more than a glance while accelerating into the right lane past the “Speed Limit 55” sign which everyone also ignores. Too many drugs out there. Not to mention guns, knives and wannabe space aliens waiting to hijack your car for a side-trip to the Planet Mongo.
These problems didn’t exist, or barely existed, when my father, James Donahy, hitchhiked from Los Angeles to El Centro in 1940.
The Great Depression was lingering. America’s entry into World War II wouldn’t come along to finally end the massive unemployment for another year and a half. My father knew how to drive a truck and someone had offered him work driving lettuce out of the Imperial Valley. He quit a job as a security guard at a Long Beach oil refinery to take the truck-driving job in El Centro because it promised to pay better. But he didn’t have much money in his pocket and he wasn’t sure whether the new job was going to work out or not, so to save a couple of dollars he hitchhiked out to the desert rather than taking a bus.
But as it happened, the truck driving job worked out well, so well that he stayed in Imperial County for three years. He got married there, (he’d already been married and divorced once) to a woman whose family was from Long Beach, the place he had left to come to the desert. Having Long Beach in common was in fact what started their first conversation at the Centinela Café. It was a Saturday night, and I like to imagine that Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were blowing out of the jukebox. (Another boring romantic, that’s me.)
My father and his second wife, whose name I think was Betty (my mother was his third wife) moved into a house in Holtville, about 15 miles east of El Centro.
Betty died in childbirth, as my father’s story went, and the child lived only a few hours. Her family back in Long Beach wanted to have her body returned to the coast for burial there. The baby, who didn’t live long enough to be named, was buried right there in Holtville. My father moved on.
Almost four decades later, I went to El Centro to take my first real job. Call it a coincidence if you like. I didn’t hitchhike there, I drove—in a 1973 Plymouth Scamp, to be exact.
But modes of transportation aside, the Imperial Valley is a place where my family has gone to burn a lot of karma.
Later I found out that Herm Syktich wasn’t exactly home-grown either. He was a transplant too, in his case from Pomona. The official story from the Syktich family was that he’d come to the Imperial Valley for his health. He had asthma and they thought the dry air of the low desert would be good for him. That, and real estate was cheap there—very cheap, for the obvious reason that nobody in his right mind who wasn’t born in Imperial County would want to live there, not with those 115-degree summers—so the house in Holtville where the Syktiches lived had been a bargain. (Syktich is a Ukrainian name,if anyone cares.)
But I suspected that there was more to it than that. Pomona is in Los Angeles County, and Los Angeles is a big place. Herm’s incessant letters-to-the-editor couldn’t have been attracting much attention there. But in Imperial County, a sparsely-populated farm area with lots of churches, Herm and his alternately neo-Marxist and neo-atheist broadsides would get listened to, if not necessarily welcomed. Pissing people off, after all, beats the heck out of being ignored.
How I came to close my father’s circle is simple enough. When I got out of college the country was in a recession, (again) so jobs weren’t that easy to get generally, and to make matters worse, I had majored in journalism, chiefly as a sop to my father, who was worried that I wasn’t “learning a trade.” I’d wanted to major in history; in fact I did pursue a history major, but after witnessing not only my father but both of my parents wringing their hands over the generally-accepted “uselessness” of a liberal arts degree, I added journalism as a second major. Yes, it came under the College of Professional Studies, so I suppose in a sense it passed for “learning a trade,” but journalism is a field in which it’s notoriously hard to find work, (and once you do find it, the next thing you discover is that the pay is a joke) so I didn’t just walk out of Cal State Northridge’s front door on graduation day and find a job waiting for me. No, to my parents’ continued consternation (and continued hand-wringing) I lived on at home for a time after graduation, working at odd jobs and trolling for that first break in the news business.
It was a while in coming. In fact after a few months I began to think that maybe, despite my father’s misgivings about liberal arts as a career, I ought to go back to Northridge, get my M.A. in history. After that perhaps I could at least teach somewhere.
But then, when I’d been stocking shelves and mopping floors in a 7-11 store in Los Angeles for about six months, on the graveyard shift no less, a man walked into the store at 4:00 one morning for a pack of cigarettes. He stopped long enough to have a cup of coffee and I, grateful for a chance to put the mop down, chatted with him for a few minutes as he sipped and smoked.
His name was Tom Bergland. He had just driven most of the night to get back from Santa Cruz, where he’d gone to attend a funeral. He was a reporter for L.A. Press Service, an independent news organization that served subscriber newspapers in the county. Naturally I mentioned that I’d just graduated from Northridge with a journalism major, and we talked about that for a while.
He came back about a week later and asked me if I were ready to go to work.
I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. He said LAPS had just lost two reporters and he needed to replace them quickly. He’d decided to offer me a shot at a real job. He said he believed in giving young people a chance, and he gave me a test which, if I passed it, would convince him that I could be placed on a news beat.
The test: he pointed to an office building across the street and told me that if I could find out who owned that building, that would prove that I knew how to dig for information, which he said is the most important thing any reporter does. He’d put me to work if I could find out who owned that building. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I did.
Not sure whether I was getting the break of my life or whether I was having my leg pulled by a loony, I drove out to the L.A. County Administration Center, found the hall of records and learned that the building in question was owned by a large insurance firm based in Indiana. I called Bergland and gave him this information and he told me to meet him at the press room at city hall the next morning. He was going to put me to work, he said, covering the Los Angeles City Council.
I could hardly sleep that night. Six months out of college and I was going to work for a news service, covering the L.A. City Council, no less! Either I was “on my way” or there was some very big catch to this that he wasn’t telling me about.
Of course there was, and I should have thought to ask, but when you’re 22 you don’t think to ask about such things, or at least I didn’t.
The catch was, of course, the money. L.A. Press Service was a shoestring operation that didn’t even have its own office space. Its reporters worked out of the press rooms of the public buildings where they worked: the city and county buildings and the county courthouse. LAPS used desks and telephones that were furnished by local government for the media’s use, and often had to jockey for space and facilities with the more-mainstream people from the L.A. Times and other papers, not to mention the TV news crews, when something flashy enough to attract local television’s interest came up.
As a newcomer I would be paid 60 cents per column inch for everything I published in the subscriber newspapers. I soon found out that, with long hours and hard work, I could expect to make $300 or $400 a month, and that would be a good month.
Still, I quit the 7-11 store where I was working and accepted a berth with Bergland’s little organization.
My parents were in despair of course, utterly convinced by this latest folly of mine that I would never move out of their back bedroom and get a “real” job. I tried to explain to them that, even though L.A. Press Service wouldn’t be paying me much, this was an opportunity to get some hands-on experience which could lead to a regular, salaried job later on.
It was a tough sell, to my father especially, who had lived through the Depression in his youth and even now, decades later, still subscribed to the belief that it was unreasonable of anyone to feel that they should be allowed to “pick and choose” their employment. In 1934 you were grateful to have a job, any kind of job, and that was that. He saw no reason to think that things should be any different now. That I would give up a guaranteed $3.25 an hour to go chasing after something that promised only so much for what I could sell seemed crazy to him. So I took a second job, working weekends as a swing-shift security guard in a tuna cannery in San Pedro. This served two purposes: it added a little extra change to what I was bringing home from my work at the L.A. Press Service, and it convinced my father of my seriousness: if I was willing to work seven days a week so I could be a reporter five days a week, well, that impressed him.
The city press room saw a lot of people come and go during the course of an average week, but there were some regular “fixtures” there besides myself. A couple of times a week either Tom Bergland or Katie Cusic from LAPS would come by to check up on how things were going—they both handled client relations as well as reporting, and their time was as much filled with selling the service and getting the bills out as it was with actually covering news—but for the most part I spent my time with Leslie Sirota, who covered city government for the Los Angeles Times, and Juan Fontes, who covered it for the San Gabriel Valley News.
Within fifteen seconds of meeting her, I decided that Leslie Ann Sirota was beyond any doubt the most beautiful woman upon whom I had ever laid eyes. About three years my senior, she had already spent considerable time “in the trenches,” a fact made obvious in turn by the fact that she was, at age 25, already a reporter for the biggest newspaper on the west coast. In fact, I learned as I talked with her, that from age 13 on she had never wanted to be anything except a reporter. She’d gone to U.C.L.A. and had done an internship at the Washington Post during the summer of her senior year. After graduating, she’d taken a job on a tiny twice-weekly in Huntington Beach called the Huntington Beachcomber. A dumb move? Not at all—on a newspaper that small, one tends to become an editor very quickly, in fact, sometimes one becomes an editor upon walking through the door. Leslie became the Beachcomber’s editor in less than two years. Subsequently, when the Los Angeles Times was looking for someone to cover local government in Orange County, Leslie caught their attention and, at 24, she was hired. A year later they had her covering L.A. city government. She was a blue-eyed brunette, and I’ve always been a sucker for blue-eyed brunettes. She was Polish-Jewish by descent; her parents had been in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II. They had both died by the time she was 18. She didn’t put a lot of effort into dressing well—she was too wrapped up in her work, I always supposed—but she had a good figure and an engaging smile and what with that thick brown hair and those blue eyes, I spent the best part of the year I worked for LAPS hopelessly in love with her. She was usually too busy to even talk to me, though, and I spent whole days sitting at my desk in that press room contemplating the back of her neck and grinding my teeth.
But although I would moon and moan at length over Leslie Sirota in the months to come, it was Juan Fontes who ultimately proved the wild card which would result in the closing of my father’s circle by bringing me to El Centro.
Juan was in his thirties and had been in the business for ten years. He was originally from San Diego. In my early days of covering the council, he gave me pointers on everything from when was the best time to catch the city clerk in her office to cleaning my typewriter (yes, we still used typewriters in those days—mine was a Smith-Imperial Classic 12 portable, and no, L.A. Press Service didn’t provide me with it, I brought it from home.) Soon Juan and were hanging out together. We would sometimes go jogging during his lunch hour (there was a locker room in the basement where we could change and shower) and once in a while after work we would slip off to a nearby tavern for a beer or two, although my tight budget didn’t allow for too-frequent bar drinking. It was during one of these beer-drinking sessions after a day at city hall that Juan raised the question of where I was planning to go from LAPS.
“After all, sooner or later you want a job where you ain’t being paid so-many peanuts per column inch, right?”
“Well, yeah, of course,” I replied. “But I don’t think the Times is going to look at me just yet, or the Valley News either.”
“I had my first newspaper job down in the Imperial Valley, in El Centro,” he said. “You ever think about going down there?”
“Are you out of your mind?” I asked him. “The DESERT? There’s nothing down there but lettuce. And doesn’t it get up to something like 20,000 degrees in the summer there?”
“Right on both counts, and precisely my point. See, because it’s such an undesirable place, nobody wants to stay there for very long. So the daily paper down there has a turnover problem. People come and go. If you get your resume on file there, you might have a chance at getting a job. I know it’s not much of a place, but it would be a step up from this. At least you’d be working on a daily paper. And you’d have a by-line—LAPS don’t give nobody a by-line, your stories just say ‘L.A. Press Service’ at the top. Nobody’s outside city hall’s getting to know who you are, and people getting to know who you are is half the game.”
He had a point.
Still. “The Imperial Valley?” I cringed.
“Well, just think about it. If you at least want to send a resume down there, I can tell you who to send it to. The managing editor’s name is Henry Birnbaum. He’s been there for about 10 or 11 years. He was sort of ‘exiled’ from the paper’s parent organization, the Springfield, Illinois Tribune. That’s where he’s from, Springfield. But about ten years ago the Tribune decided they had too many assistant managing editors running around, and Henry got transferred all the way out here. The Trib actually owns a chain of papers down there in the desert. They have papers in Indio, Blythe, and Needles besides the one in El Centro. Henry’s a case. He used to give me a bad time about my long hair. He called it my ‘Buster Brown’ haircut. I couldn’t convince him that that was the style then. Henry still lives in the 1950s. But he’s really into the business. His father was an editor, and Henry has ‘printer’s ink in his blood,’ as the old saying goes.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just think about it. I’ll even give Henry a call if you like.”
From here, my protagonist was to have gone down to the Imperial Valley and gotten involved in the investigation of a ten-year-old murder case involving the killing of two FBI agents by a local young crazy whose trigger-point turns out to have been Herm Syktich's political ravings in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper. But this was as far as I got. I fear this book will never be written, and I spent 25 years thinking about writing it, because the story would have been based on true events.
Anybody out there care to make a suggestion as to what should have happened next?