The Rogue Voice


April 01, 2007

Trouble In Paradise

‘New Yawk, it’s supposed to be such a mean place, but nobody’d ever treat me in New Yawk like they do here.’

Anywhere there appears to be too much happiness, you know there’s trouble just around the corner.

Close to Utopia
An out-of-towner sounds off on SLO Town

By Dell Franklin

Some time ago I wrote an article in the New Times about slackers, which was not complimentary to changes happening in SLO county. I re-ceived a response by personal, hand-written letter from a self-proclaimed middle-aged slacker named Frannie. She left me her San Luis Obispo phone number: “Am an artist and actress and native of New York City.” She claimed (like me) to have worked dozens of jobs and had little success in relationships. She currently resided in the low-income, subsidized downtown hotel apartment building above a bar. On the phone, we talked for an hour, Frannie carrying the load. She was not afraid to lay herself bare and ask personal questions.
She was full of opinions and observations. San Luis Obispo folks (she’d been here seven months) were outwardly friendly, always smiled and said hello, but seemed to look through you, like they preferred to move on. She felt the women to be remarkably attractive and fit, so diff-erent from Midwest and East Coast women, but “they’re like those Stepford wives in that movie. I can’t relate to them.”

We agreed to meet at the coffee lounge in Barnes & Noble, her favorite haunt. She informed me she was blonde and voluptuous, which meant plump, and she was, but sweet-looking, and somewhat frazzled and nervous upon our encounter, clenching and unclenching her hands, the fingers of which held several multicolored rings. Scarf. Sweater. Large hoop earrings. Gold headband. Tortoise-shell glasses. Several strings of colorful beads. A beret. The works.
“You don’t have to be nervous around me, Frannie,” I told her. “Slackers have low expectations and much empathy. We’re humans.”
She laughed, and we found the only remaining table in the crowded lounge at mid-day. Several pasty-faced students worked computers as did half a dozen thirtyish women—professionals. She thanked me for coming. Right off she informed me she was having trouble finding friends, and felt like a “fish out of water.” So far she’d made one friend, an American-born Latina with whom she attended dances at Mission Plaza on warm Saturday nights. She had lived in many places: Pitts-burg (great city, but ethnic/clannish—Poles, Slavs, Italians); Seattle (cosmopolitan latte sippers and faux hippies); Eureka / Arcata (always cold and rainy, but her son lives there); and Monterey (she loves it, but the rent for her subsidized apartment skyrocketed and priced her out).
She liked to come to Barnes & Noble early, get a good book, stake out a chair or table, read all day, and observe. She had very little money. Slept in. Could no longer work. Her parents and brothers (one a twin) were disappointed in her slacker lifestyle and had disowned her long ago, not communicating in more than a decade. They’d all made tons of money in business and law and lived in gated Miami communi-ties, their lives following a perfectly planned success program, while hers had been financial poverty and personal disaster. A non-drinker, she always ended up with alcoholic men (slackers), and had to eventually leave them, although, it seemed (throwing her head back and laughing like a bawdy saloon girl) she never had more fun while the romances lasted.
“I know about that,” I told her, explaining how in my bartending days down south I had the best of times with women who nearly destroyed me, and was a nightmare for some very decent ladies of high esteem seeking structure, stability, continuity, a future, a family.
“I KNOW!” The fun guys, they’re not like my brothahs. I was raised by Russian Jews. They hated my two divorces and my non-Jewish boyfriends. I was raised to MAKE something of myself, and when I didn’t, I was a fail-yah, and I no longer existed. If you’re a man, in our family, you’re either going to be a law-yah, a doc-tah, or a business-man, and if you’re a woman, yah marry one of those guys, yah have kids, and the kids do what YOU do. Well, I’m a rebel, I guess. I never wanted the things my family wanted. I wanted to be a portrait painter, and an actress.” She smiled. “And a slacker.”
“Not the easiest road,” I said. We sipped coffee.
“Yeah, I never got it together. I’ve done a lotta small stuff in big cities. Off Broadway, yah know. Here in San Luis, at that little theater in town, I auditioned for a play. A musical. I can sing and dance, I can do comedy and drama. I thought I did pretty well. They told me I did well…but I never got a call. I found out later it’s a small clique, that the people who run the theater always use the same people, like most small towns do.” She shrugged. “Yah know, I was only in one Broadway play, “A View From The Bridge.”
“The Arthur Miller play.”
“Yeah. My mother, may the woman rest in peace, yenta she was, she always said, ‘Frannie, you were in one lousy play. What kind of career is that? What kind of LIFE is that?”
After refills, she relaxed, withdrawing from her large purse photos of portraits she’d done. They were delicate, vibrant, captur-ing mood and character, I noticed that people—especially women—had been glancing at us off and on, several sighing, rolling their eyes. Two slapped their books and papers together and huffed off. New Yorkers, growing up in close quarters, in ethnic first- and second-generation households, tend to talk loud and fast, startling socially conscious suburbanites and country clubbers. My background is similar. I tend to loudly and excitedly express myself, relieving my mind, spilling my heart, like Frannie. Now it was her turn, and I let her go.
She suffers debilitating, monthly anxiety attacks so severe she needs medication. Her son, in his 20s, also suffers from anxiety/depression and is on medication. The doctor in SLO changed her meds arbitrarily and she was very upset. As we talked, she fluffed her hair, turned her rings, and an inner radiance emerged in her soft, kind, tortured face. Her voice grew louder and more strident, more plaintive, and another woman, a table over, lowered her eye glasses to glare at us.
I turned to her, and in a friendly, inviting way asked, “What are you reading?”
She looked away, folded up her book, and left.
Frannie had a daughter she gave away to her ex-husband’s (imposs-ible drug addict) parents at 3, has only a photo, which she showed me, and had not seen her since the giveaway, was still trying to hunt her down, but was low on funds, surviving on disability. I looked around. With the exception of a few absorbed students with computers, we’d pretty much cleared the place out.
“I’m finished with men, I think. Yah know, this is probably the worst place for a person like myself to find friends. I sure appre-ciate my one friend. But how does one find friends here? On computers? Can yah put your name up on a bulletin board at a community center and say, ‘I’m Frannie so and so, I talk too much, I’m a goddam nut, and I’m lookin’ for a friend to have coffee and lunch with and yack it up, or go to a dance?’ Do I put an ad in the paper?” She sipped at her empty coffee. “Yah know, I live a few blocks from the market. I don’t drive. I’m a New Yawkah. I’ve never driven. I’m afraid to drive. So how am I gonna get my groceries back from the market? I’m not gonna bother a cabby cuz I can’t even give him a decent tip for such a puny ride, I’m embarrassed. So I walk to the market and I use a shopping cart to haul my groceries home, and then I push the cart back when I’m done. These people, they gawk at me like I’m a homeless freak. The college kids, they jeer at me, make nasty remarks. New Yawk, it’s supposed to be such a mean place, but nobody’d ever treat me in New Yawk like they do here.” I went and got another refill.
“These people,” she resumed, “they circle around things, yah know. They don’t wanna talk about the real stuff. No controversy please!” she exclaimed.
We laughed. Everybody was gone now. Just Frannie and me. “It’s not easy being a slacker,” I told her. “Especially if you’re off the wall. Not a welcome sight in a sunny paradise where people work over-time to be happy, or at least appear happy. No cynics and malcontents, please!”
“But do yah think they're really happy?",

“Well, compared with other places, yeah, I think it’s close to Utopia, Frannie. These people have the things they want, they have successful careers, families, they’ve achieved a good chunk of the American dream. What’s more, they seem to have arrived at a cultural and spiritual balance to counter too much materialism and self-indulgence. It’s almost Aristotelian, it’s so balanced. So why would they appear any other way in public BUT happy, even if they are disgusting? And boring?”
“Gee yah make it sound so wonderful.”
“Well, anywhere there appears to be too much happiness, you know there’s trouble just around the corner, if that’s any comfort to you.”
At last, after a couple hours, we left, and she walked me to my jalopy, and we hugged. We stood, peering around at the white bread traipsing up and down the main shopping drag, many clinging to cell phones, oblivious to their surroundings, one way or another.
“Frannie,” I said, “living here, you almost stand out like a Black Panther holding a machine gun.”
“I went out with a Black Panther!” she cried, and a couple ladies on high heels scurried out of our range. “I loved him. He went to jail. I lost contact with him, I wonder if he’s alive.”
We lingered. Frannie confessed she hadn’t heard from her Latina friend in over three weeks, which was unusual. She’d left messages on her phone, and never received a call back. Maybe she was busy, huh? Out of town? She said she hoped to hear from me, and that she’d had a wonderful time. She stood waving as I drove off.
I was exhausted upon my departure, and waited a month, but by that time her phone was disconnected and there was no sign of her at the hotel. §

Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at
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    Fish Tales

    I eat one of the donut gems, wash it down with a sip from the cup, roll a smoke, light it, relax deeper into the rock, look out to the glistening sea. All is good. There is no desolation beneath the fury of the sea where all is secretly well.

    Caught in the devil's cleft the Stingray disappears beneath the dark water, a dream fading, receding from wakefulness.

    Illustration by Henry Loiseau

    FISH TALES: High tide

    By Steven Bird

    Good thing about a small boat, you can get in close to the rocks where the best money-fish live, especially cabezon and grassies, you want to work in tight for them.
    The Stingray is a 20-foot Oregon dory, deep, broad beamed, small but comfortable lobster-style wheelhouse, painted white, powered by a four-cylinder Volvo with a Mercury outdrive. It gets the job done OK. (I keep a 10-horse outboard mounted on the transom, just in case.) She carries a 30-gallon live tank that holds 200 pounds of live fish if you pack them to the limit of their comfort zone. Altogether, a good fishing boat–bunk in the fo’c’sle, propane camp stove, and the rest of the gear I need for overnight trips up the Big Sur coast. Been fishing up there more lately, fishing’s better–got to make your money quick these days because they got it closed most of the time. A lot of guys are quitting, getting out of fishing, damn hard to make it the way they’re squeezing us. Far as I can see, and as I’m concerned, this so-called Marine Protective Area thing is nothing but a front, on the one hand a vague totalitarian effort to restrict the use of the ocean to people, telling us we can’t fish here or piss there, illegal to do this, illegal to do that, in the Immemorial Tao Wilderness of the Vast Eternal Sea; on the other, a front for corporate interests posing as environmental groups. The feds have actually given the nearshore waters to these people to “manage”–the rationale given that it “helps to defray the cost of management.” The privatization of our public resources, folks. And everybody’s too busy shopping to notice. The fundamental premise of their “plan”–to “manage” a living system that has always run perfectly (in spite of our best efforts to mess it up)—is a joke. And the idea they’re selling—that somehow fishermen are cause of abundance or lack of abundance of fish, so must be stopped before they wipe out the few remaining fish—is crap. Fishermen, like seabirds, are an outgrowth of abundance. If the number of fish larvae sucked in and cooked in the Diablo reactor in a single month were allowed to reach maturity, they would equal the entire California commercial catch for a year! And they have no plan for confronting the more compelling problems, which are, among other things, pesticide-herbicide runoff of corporate monoculture chemical farming washing into the sea along with all the poisonous lifestyle byproduct of a human population burgeoning out of control, going down drains. Follow the money and it will lead you to the truth. Fishermen are dying for our sins. But politics and cultural trends aren’t the point here, the point being: loss, and the obscure details leading to it. Devil’s in the details.

    So, I start the day with these depressing facts heavy on my mind, but the fishing is good and I’m starting to lighten up. I’m off San Carpoforo setting gear close to the seastack rock about a half-mile offshore. The rock looks like the Devil’s foot–a cloven hoof, big as a house, sticking up out of the ocean, a desolate toe poking through the shining void, while the rest of the Devil dreams, sleeping on the bottom.
    The tide is turning, moving from slack to incoming–currents will increase toward the rock soon, making it dangerous. I can see the cars on the coast highway above the yellow bluffs. The breeze increases with the tide, bounces against the cliffs to lift a squadron of gulls whirling in a shrill burst of tattletale cries. I set my gear on the kelp line near the rock, 21 buoys in three rows of seven; three colors, red, white, yellow; five hooks apiece–they lay gentle, like prayer beads upon the heaving wet bosom of awakening ocean.
    Every haul brings doubles and triples on cabbies and grassies. I have about 120 pounds, a live meatball of brown, black, yellow swarming in the tank. I talk to them in my best Asian accent: “Aaaahhh…yoo so lucky today…yoo get free trip tooo Chinatown…!”
    This would be a good time to quit, but I need the money–just had some major engine work done before this trip and it wiped me out–weather’s been so bad, haven’t been able to fish for the last three weeks, and the quota period ends in two days–got to make hay while the sun shines. The tide is coming in full force now, current coursing toward the seastack. Swell too, ominously growing, humping on the horizon.
    One more set, in close to the rock. I lay out the buoys again–throw the last buoy about 100 feet from the birdshit frosted sea rock. I let the gear soak for about 20 minutes while the swell increases faster than I expected—starting to break against the rock on the seaward side, the spray blasting skyward, spent water clawing down the rock in black rivulets. I start pulling the gear, stacking it away. Sea’s getting rougher every second.
    I’m pulling the last buoy, the one closest to the rock, when without warning the motor quits. I flop the gear on the deck, run to the wheel turn the key…nothing…not even a click. A wave slaps the Stingray toward the angry rock. Shit! Just had this thing worked on…I run to the engine box throw open the hood wiggle some wires…back to the wheel…still nothing. Another wave. I slam my head against the dash while scrambling into the fo’c’sle for the anchor. Too close…fuck…too close to the rock to get enough scope on the anchor line…. I drop the anchor anyway, try to set it into something, all that rock down there…the anchor won’t fuckin’ catch! I run to the outboard kicker wishing I’d started it recently–start pulling like a maniac on the starter rope. After about 20 pulls, drifting toward the rock all the while, the outboard sputters to life–Yes!–for only a moment, then quits. I keep yanking the rope until my arms give out–Evil, spiteful, startless motors of MUTHA–! Fuckin’ motor won’t start.
    Adrift…adrift on these mountains of madness….
    The ponderous, ineffable swell mounts under me as I contemplate from the worst of all spots in the world the inevitable smashing against the rock and my possible death.
    Car windows flash way up on the highway, a hopeful caravan threading its way along the bulging bastard edge of the cruel, anesthetized happytime human spread of–SHIT! Gulls rise without a wing beat over the yellow cliffs– O Mama, let me fly from here, just let me join them up there above the yellow cliffs, drop me gently on that firm highway, they don’t care about me, let me fly, it’s all a mistake. Merciful Mother of all journeying and intrepid sailors, take me home–deliver me from this wicked water, this black rock of bird shit not for humans, cold to humanity, this forlorn place of coursing currents enraged. O ignorance, ignorant me. Fool! Legions of fools! Fool, fool, fucking fool. O prejudiced show! Why do we live to be fooled? Fish fool, why do you fool to live? Why? Motherless Mother Of Imbeciles forgive me my human floppings, my black animosities, prides, fears, contempt, slights, personalities, suspicions, sinister forebodings, unreliable inconsistencies, irrational eccentricity. I rise up on the swell pushing inexorably toward the boiling rock, rising toward a big sky suppressing the barren hope for promise held out like a branch over quicksand. O Cold Heartless Holy Mother of Angelic Desolation, Holy of Holies, preserve me from your blunt raging madness–let me fly now. Now. NOW. I ride the poor Stingray, no pilot now, toward the blue sky. Don’t kill me here, never again to hear the tinkling music of children’s voices in the yellow morning, never to drink wine and eat lasagna, let me be there on a stool with a hamburger, lighting a butt with coffee, let there be rain on red brick walls of flower gardens, I got places to go and poems to write about hearts and not just water and rocks–I want to go where the drama rages unthinking. I want to feel my bare feet caressed by thick rugs. I want to go where there are rumpled beds with women on them. Don’t cry children…. Women and children first! I get the lifejacket on–go up on the swell–30 feet to the furious rock, the void, the flashing jade sea, the white sun, diamond sea, pearl cloud, black water, white gull, the bottomless horrors of the world, my mother’s love, the yellow cliffs, the rock, a girl I know (I see her face in a vision, tragic, beautiful, the tear-streaked face, so kissable, sweet, lovely, like I like). Up, up, void. Let me be void-still.
    Steadfast Void, let me walk from this hopelessness–we are helpless on your apocalyptic waves rising. The sky moved sideways. The blare of a horn? The white gull? A vulture?…So high they go, birds…birdshit, craziest shit, gust of wind, forcible stream of air, vaulting impious trouble leading toward the bleakly bleak cold, black, void-black bird, white bird, black water, white water, black rock, white rock–bird, water, rock-black, white, black, white, black, white, black–come, now, wake up, time to wake up child, come, now, it is the time to wake up–look closely, you are dreaming–come, now, look, it’s a dream–bling–there are countless blings on the ocean surface–the mountain rises. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake Wake Wake Awaken Awaken Awaken
    bling bling bling black bling black black black bling bling black black black black black black black black black black black black M M M M M M M M M M M

    The incontrovertible CRACK of rigid stressed wood forced beyond endurance, rapturous rush of white water, pearl curtain of water, a cold baptism, the crystal cognizant reality of the continuous moment, pink volcanoes of barnacles, purple colonies of mussels amid the jade anemone gardens, the little side stepping crabs, forgive me….
    Somewhere a small bell rings a pure note. The leap thought makes at the synaptic gap.
    I find myself standing in pure light, on the gunnel, in my flip-flops, one hand holding tight to a corner of the wheelhouse roof. The surge pulls the Stingray back away from the rock and up the face of the next gathering wave. We’re going in again and I think the boat might break up on the next bash against the frenzied rock. I am strangely calm, watching the event go down with a keen clarity, a detached scene from somebody else’s life. Rushing, hopeless on the wave, fear has abandoned me. We’re going to hit near the opening to the cleft that forms a calm triangle about 40 feet long, running into the center of the seastack. A stack it is, a pillar. I notice a small patch of level rock just above the surge–O salvation of hospitable level spots–at the moment before full impact, I leap to the level spot, one foot sliding free of a flip-flop to receive a small bleeding cut on the barnacles.
    I clamber up the rock. The Stingray survived the second hit. Still in one piece it drifts back from the rock, pivots until the transom squares with the next wave gathering under its cracked hull–the wave churns toward the cleft with the little white Stingray riding the foaming crest, a headless surfer with no plan and only one direction. Happy entry to safety? A giant boulder looms only inches underwater at the entrance to the cleft. The Stingray drafts deeper than that–the powerful wave blasts it deep into the cleft. The submerged boulder rips a long fracture in the bottom of the hull, tears the outdrive off the transom.

    I’m standing on the lonesome rock, surrounded by ocean, my boat parked inside the narrow fissure as placid as any boat tied safe to the dock in a protected harbor. It’s not too steep around the edge of the fissure and I can get around it. The water in the cleft is deep, can’t see the bottom, but its span is narrow, only a few feet wider than the boat. I leap aboard and get busy–she is taking on water fast through the rip in the bottom. The bilge pump is still working and buys me a little time. I haul in the traitorous anchor, cut it free from its line, gather all the lines on the boat, dock lines, spare lines–there are outcroppings around the fissure, I fasten the lines to them the best I can and manage to truss the Stingray all the way around. It looks like a spider waiting in the center of a web built over the deepest black hole of eternity. First thing I do is grab the dip net and make a sacrifice, dump my fish back—“Yoo get lucky….” Next thing, evacuate the fuel. I siphon it into the plastic gas cans I keep onboard. Boat’s taking water fast, pump’s not keeping up, batteries will drown in a minute and there will be no pump. The lines are taut, singing. I get everything I can off: electronics, toolbox, fishing gear, sleeping bag, propane stove, coffee pot, a red plastic box with the word “EMERGENCY” printed on top, box of crackers, two apples, half a pack of stale donut gems, my sack of tobacco, can of coffee, couple packets of instant cocoa, gallon jug of water, the cell phone. I call Coast Guard on the cell phone, give them my position.
    They know where I am.
    The Stingray is over half filled with water. The seastack vibrates with each wave striking it. I have the stuff gathered on a rock bench, well above the water. A solid litter of bird shit and old dry kelp pad the small shelf. There is enough level ground for me and the stuff. I fill the coffee pot from the water jug, add a couple handfuls of coffee, set it on the propane stove, open the emergency box. The box contains a flare gun, dozen flares, air horn, a whistle, and a plastic aspirin container containing a few aspirins and a joint. Bone dry. I put the joint in my shirt pocket, remove the flare gun with three flares. First, second, third, I fire them straight into the sky where they suspend, lit, burning bright orange, all three, the universally recognized trinity of distress. Or celebration. The coffee is ready. I pour a cup, add a packet of cocoa to it. I lean back against the rock with my cup, light the joint, smoke it while I contemplate the Stingray now sunk to the gunnel tops, a sad clear pool, the steering wheel under water. I sip the mocha, finish the joint. The lines holding the boat can no longer endure the weight, one groans, snaps, leaving more weight for the others to bear. One at a time, at increasing intervals, they break, and the Stingray disappears beneath the dark water, a dream fading, receding from wakefulness.
    I eat one of the donut gems, wash it down with a sip from the cup, roll a smoke, light it, relax deeper into the rock, look out to the glistening sea. All is good. There is no desolation beneath the fury of the sea where all is secretly well. The cool, clean, high-tide breeze courses against my face, the void moves through me. I sit enthroned, my gas cans and fish lines about me, small idiot king of a small kingdom, desirous of nothing. I shake my head and laugh. §

    Steven Bird writes from his home in Morro Bay, where he observes the privatization of federally protected waters and its impact on fishermen.

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    Rogue of the month: Billy Hales

    Photo by Stacey Warde

    "They just do not want a bar around their upscale boutiques. It goes in line with what is happening to San Luis Obispo. It’s easier to drive out local ownership and appeal to national franchises, which have the money."

    Billy Hales:
    A rogue barman sounds off

    By Dell Franklin

    Billy Hales, whose passion for San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast almost rivals his love of bars and the bar life, feels both pain and frustration at having to move his landmark watering hole to a new location. What frustrates and pains him the most is that he did everything possible to keep McCarthy’s on Court Street, beside the new chichi mall that replaced the old parking lot adjacent the government and city hall buildings.
    “I thought that after fiftyfive years of paying our rent on time we’d get some consideration and respect,” he says, sitting in the bar that was dismantled after St. Patrick’s Day and moved a few blocks off the beaten track, to the corner of Marsh and Nipomo, where the Old Country Deli used to stand, across from the Foster’s Freeze.
    “I understand the inevitability of change,” he continues. “I was prepared to absorb the tripling of rent because of earthquake retrofitting of the building, and I let Matt Quaglino, who owns the building, know that. I talked to him and he sort of led me on to think that I had a chance to stay here. I mentioned that in Santa Barbara they built a similar mall off State street, and agreed to leave an old landmark bar called Mel’s, and everything worked out fine. That bar brings business to a mall. I’ve already heard disappointment from people right here that they’re going to miss McCarthy’s.”
    What will they replace it with?
    Who knows? Maybe another high-end shoe store. I also talked to Copeland. They built the mall next door. He seemed enthusiastic about our staying, especially when I told him about Mel’s. He even had some ideas, but he just blew smoke up my ass. They just do not want a bar around their upscale boutiques. It goes in line with what is happening to San Luis Obispo. It’s easier to drive out local ownership and appeal to national franchises, which have the money. Thing is, like I said, we were prepared to pay the money. So it doesn’t make sense.
    How’d you find out about having to leave?
    Well, after fifty-five years of paying our rent on time, and being loyal tenants, and being a big part of the community, instead of giving us a six months heads up, so we could find a new building, I found out on KSBY (the local TV station) that I had 60 days to get out. I got my 60-day notice from KSBY. That’s loyalty for you. We could’ve found a better location in six months.
    Do you feel double-crossed?
    Damn right.
    Where do you go from here?
    Well, we secured our new building, and we have to renovate, and we’re hoping to have it open by June graduation, for the students.
    A huge part of your business is from Cal Poly, right?
    Right. But not so in McCarthy’s. We’ve got a lot of generations of longtime San Luis Obispo townies, a lot of local business people, we've got attornys and government employees from the county buildings around the corner….
    Will they make the trip six blocks away?
    At first I was concerned, but I’ve talked to a lot of them. They say they’ll enjoy the walk. Also, we’ve got a little more parking over there. So I think they’ll come, out of loyalty. They’ve all been traditionally a part of McCarthy’s over the years. We’re moving the entire interior into the new place, so we’ll see. I want to have all of the old crowd. It means something to me personally.
    How’d you get started In the bar business?
    I worked my way through Cal Poly as a bartender at Bull’s Tavern, which I now own, along with three other bars in town. I learned the business from the bottom up. It went hand-in-hand with my education in school. I even wrote my paper on bars in relation to the community….
    What does a bar mean to a community?
    They’ve always, throughout history, been a central meeting place. It used to be a place, in the very old days, for men to meet, and then, later, men to listen to baseball games and boxing matches on radio, and then TV came along, and with it came sports bars. Women started going to bars, and they became places for the opposite sex to meet. For a long time, women weren’t welcome in bars. I think people get lonely, bored, and a good upbeat neighborkood-type bar is a place to seek out company, let down your hair, make friends. Where else can they meet?
    For a long time, people’ve looked down at bars as lowlife haunts. Outcasts. Even outlaws. As a rogue, going against the grain, how do you feel about that?
    Like Joe McCarthy said to me, in his gruff voice (Billy give his best imitation): “Listen, kid, we’re all second-class citizens.”
    What do you think of the swankier, more upscale bars, with entertainment, the kinds of bars where one feels he has to dress a certain way, act a certain way, present a certain image?
    I had one of those bars. They’re too high maintenance, too complicated. Every bar I’ve opened since is a hole-in-the-wall.
    But not a dive.
    No. People can be themselves, that’s all.
    Do you have much trouble, like fights?
    Very little. College kids are pretty well behaved. They don’t want to get eighty-sixed. They adopt a bar, or bars, while they’re in school. I did. I fell in love with bars and bar life when I was a student.
    Is everything bottom line?
    No. Business is business, yes, but there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing people enjoying your bar, wanting to come in, greeting them, making them feel accepted, and at home….
    I tended bar for 25 years. I worked successful, happy, neighborhood bars. I remember, when we were really busy, and everybody was having a great time, it was a thrill, a rush, during a lull, to stand back with your fellow bartender and witness the jubilation and do a shot together, kind of toasting the scene.
    Absolutely. That’s it.
    Do people who run this city understand that? Do they understand the cohesion and camararderie a good pub brings to a community?
    What do they want?
    What’s that?
    You know, Pleasantville. Chichi stuff. More high-end franchise shops, squeezing out the local business owners. I think it’s sad, almost tragic, especially what they’ve done to us. I mean, I’m an optimist. We’ll be OK. I’m looking forward to opening up our new place. We’re taking the bar with us, and the spirit. But you know, Matt Quaglino’s grandfather, he actually signed the first lease with Joe McCarthy, fifty-five years ago. It didn’t have to end up this way. This bar is a gold mine. We pour more Jameson Irish whiskey than any bar in the country! We could’ve been a great addition to this mall, in many ways, both culturally and financially, but they blew it. Maybe there’s a silver lining. In any case, I’m excited about re-opening MoCarthy’s. I’ll get over it. Eventually, who knows, maybe they’ll do the same thing to Bull’s, which is even older than McCarthy’s. I’ll be prepared this time around, I want to keep these old places around, as they are. I’ve seen too much change in San Luis over the years. There were twice as many hole-in-the-wall bars here when I went to school. Things are getting tougher and tougher, financially, to run these places, but I believe in them, and I’m here for the long haul. §

    Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached by email at Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here:
  • Mandy Davis
  • Casimir Pulaski
  • Jim Ruddell
  • Steve Tross
  • Lori Lynn Melton
  • Long John Gallagher

  • Go to the main page for this month's Rogue Voice
  • Read more!

    Washing windows across America: The bigger they are

    Shop owners want me to stay, housewives want my phone number. I have no phone number. I’m a full-time transient.

    Through unknown twists of fate, we have all managed to arrange our lives so that we can sit in a darkened tavern in the middle of the day with a cold beer or two. It’s an indescribable pleasure and perhaps the benchmark of the truly free man.

    Photo Illustration by Stacey Warde

    The bigger they are
    Episode 19

    By Ben Leroux

    In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.

    There’s about five of them over at the bar–local Bastrop, Texas boys.
    Like me, they are indulging in midday libations in the town’s only tavern. We have that in common. Through unknown twists of fate, we have all managed to arrange our lives so that we can sit in a darkened tavern in the middle of the day with a cold beer or two. It’s an indescribable pleasure and perhaps the benchmark of the truly free man. I find that a cold beer for lunch makes a man forget about such tedious matters as shelter, clothing, and his unfulfilled quest for a bowl of authentic Texas chili.
    Who knew how the boys at the bar had worked it out. I’d done it by one day piling my excess belongings onto the driveway of a semi-detached studio apartment in Morro Bay, California, and leaving them behind for the town scavengers. That was three months ago. The actual seed though, had been planted years earlier while watching a feral-looking homeless man clean a store’s windows for twenty dollars. It took him about a half-hour. After he was done he went across the street to a liquor store where he sat in the shade and drank from a paper bag and ate an egg-salad sandwich. He had nowhere to be. He caught me staring at him and gave me the finger. When an eviction notice came a year later, I knew what must be done. That was how I’d ended up here, sitting in a bar in Bastrop, Texas, in the middle of the day.
    The barmaid, shopworn and sexy, brings a fresh Bud to my secluded table. As I pay and tip her, she takes my empty, and smiles apologetically. I know why. Over at the bar, the tone of the conversation has shifted: “I don’t back down from no one. Don’t care how big sumbitch is.”
    “Bigger they are, harder they fall.”
    “At’s right.”
    It’s my cue to drink up. I’ve spooked them boys. They’ll have to wait though until I’m done with the beer.
    The Bastrop boys get louder.
    “Told y’all ‘bout that big ‘ol boy from String Prairie? One thought he could whup me?”
    “You kicked his ass, aint’chya?”
    “Right over there.”
    There’s a weighty pause as the boys at the bar all look to some dangerous corner of the saloon.
    “I don’t care if you Andre the Giant, ain’t nothin’ you can do someone socks you square in the nose.”
    “At’s right. Makes the eyes water up. Cain’t see.”
    “Or kick ‘em in the nuts.”
    “Ain’t nothin’ they can do.”
    “Ain’t nothin’ they can do lookin’ down the barrel of a deer rifle, neither.”
    “At’s right. Not even Andre the Giant.”
    I wanted to finish the beer. I’d spent two dollars on a year’s membership at this saloon and had the card to prove it. That card was now in my wallet along with cards from the Lime Squeeze in Brownwood, Manny’s Sports Bar in Sweetwater, and the Wild Pig Lounge in Copperas Cove.
    As the bravado at the bar rises, the tales get taller. Each one of them boys it seems has beaten to within an inch of his life a man twice his size. A couple have even slain multiple giants simultaneously. They then start brainstorming new and inventive ways of finishing off big guys.
    “It’s like I tol’ my wife. I tol’ y’all she got that job at Walmart didn’t I?”
    “Oh did she? Good”
    “Yeah, well for trainin’, they give her some scenario questions and one of ‘em was sumpn’bout if you was workin’ at night what would yew dew if a robber come in or sump’n-r-other –sump’n like that.”
    “What’d yew teller?”
    “I tol’er hell, run back to sportin’ goods, grab you a propane tank and roll it at ‘im (the robber) then take a rifle and a box of shells off the shelf and blast the tank all to hell. That’ll get rid of the bastard. Don’t care how big he is.”
    “Sure would.”
    “Hell yeah, would.”
    I drain the beer, wave to the tender, nod at the boys at the bar and go outside. My trusty window gear is waiting for me in the shade next to the door. I take it out into the intense sunlight. The two beers take the edge off of shapes and put a languid veneer around the day. It’s a funny way to spend an afternoon.
    I’d hit Bastrop just right. Thirty dollars that morning, two beers in the saloon, and afterwards twenty dollars for a swank new restaurant just opening up. Later, a couple five-and-ten jobs. The merchants are as friendly as they come. It’s a happy little town on the Colorado River with a riverfront park and a bamboo grove along the riverbank. Shop owners want me to stay, housewives want my phone number. I have no phone number. I’m a full-time transient.
    I quit around three, return my things to the Plymouth then walk back through town toward the riverfront park. I catch my reflection in some of the store windows I’d earlier cleaned, and what I see makes me a little self-conscious. I’m a little on the big side.
    Being big isn’t exactly conducive to a life of solitary wandering. It doesn’t help that I tend to pick the most secluded areas of places to sit in. Loners draw enough suspicion as it is. Loners kick up the pack instincts in humans. A large, reserved loner like myself can be an especially disquieting sight to a bar full of locals. A smaller guy looking to earn a couple belt-notches may stare me down over a few beers and start thinking: “That big bastard over there must really think he’s tough shit. I bet I could get a few licks in on that big cocksucker. He ain’t that big.” He may then even mistake my impassive demeanor for smugness, when really I just want to be off to the side, fading into the background.
    At the park, the ground is still a steamy bog drying from a week of rain in this part of Texas. A nice breeze hums through erratically, and cools my noseeum bites. The noseeums are little invisible parasites that live with me in the Plymouth and survive off my flesh. They hitched a ride somewhere around Sweetwater, and I’ve yet to attain the weaponry to destroy them, but their day will soon come.
    Sitting atop a picnic table, I watch the brown, listless Colorado River amble by. Teenagers hang out in the park smoking cigarettes, while squirrels whiz around their legs and run up and down pecan trees, foraging and playing. Now that I’m not in the thick of everyday life, I can sit on a picnic table like this for hours and just watch. Prolonged traveling can do that to you. Live off to the side long enough, and you’ll see the differences between things dissolve into each other, and something as perplexing as “existence” gets distilled into one not-so-perplexing thing as “foraging” and it strikes you that no matter what a thing is, it must start foraging like a savage as soon as it wakes, or it goes under. Squirrels do it in parks. Noseeums do it on the flesh of mammals. Through all the savageness there’s a streak of naïve tenderness, though. And one way to see it is to sit off to the side. Even then, it makes little sense.
    One thing that makes sense though is the Colorado River. That dirty old thing looks full and satisfied.
    I take a hiking trail along its bank, and under a canopy of cottonwoods, come to a calm wading pool where a father and little daughter splash around in the muddy water. I kick off my sandals and descend the bank and go to the other end of the pool. I wade up to my knees and it makes me feel young and I start to think seriously about taking a dip, maybe even swimming out halfway.
    “How come I don’t see anyone swimming?” I ask the father, swishing my hands through the water. “I could go for a swim.”
    When I look up, the man has his daughter pulled tightly into him. He looks at me with trepidation. The girl senses this and wraps her arms around him and recoils from me though I am a good distance away.
    “You kidding?” dad says with a wavy voice, halfway up the bank, dragging his little daughter. “You know how swift that thing is? It’s very dangerous.”
    I watch them get quickly into their shoes, pick up their towels and squish-squash away.
    I wade around alone for a while, looking out across the river. How swift was he talking? I’d swum swift rivers before. He was right, though, the big, slow-looking rivers were the ones you had to be wary of. They were the most deceptively swift. So I just wade, wondering where the fading magic of wading goes as you get older.
    Then I start thinking about water moccasins. Where did water moccasins come in? Louisiana? With every passing day I was getting closer to the swamps of Louisiana. If there were water moccasins in the swamps of Louisiana, what would prevent a family of them from slithering up the brackish channels into southeastern Texas? What about gators?
    I climb out and slip back on my sandals and start wandering around the park, thinking about how that man and his daughter were in such a hurry to get away from me that they didn’t even stop to dry their feet. I must have looked like The Creature From the Black Lagoon to them, coming down the bank in my torn shorts and soiled, raggedy T-shirt. I really needed some new clothes. Maybe some new clothes would help.
    I start thinking that if I got stranded in Bastrop though, I could handle it. I couldn’t say that about the last few towns I’d been through. I could live in Bastrop. Those guys at the bar, well I’d grow on them. After a while they’d see I was no threat and that I wasn’t after their women, their trucks, their jobs, and that I had no alpha-male designs of any kind. I just needed a little space by the river to read my books, and a bar to drink in. I’d even be willing to pound one of them unmerciful just to earn the right to drink in that bar. I decide I’d fit in well in Bastrop.
    At an old concrete basketball court I come upon a wiry young man in brand new hoop garb shooting baskets by himself. According to the unwritten laws of the public basketball court, anyone can walk up and start shooting with him. As an out of town courtesy however, I ask first.
    Without responding, he takes a shot and misses. I retrieve his high-quality leather ball and nail a shot from twelve feet out. I wait for the kid to shag my rebound, but he doesn’t. It’s very discourteous. The laws of the public court dictate he’s now supposed to keep feeding me until I miss. But he just stands, arms folded, making annoyed puffing sounds with his nose and lips, as I keep making shots.
    Unfortunately for him, I’m hot today and hit a succession of jump shots, each time running down my own rebound, working up a sweat and a rhythm in the process. I attempt to strike up a conversation with the young man, but he’s not interested. When finally the ball rolls to a stop at his brand new Nikes, he picks it up, takes it to the other end of the court, unzips a dandy Adidas duffel bag, puts the ball in, and leaves.
    I must have looked like a real bully to that kid. I wonder what he was afraid I might do?

    That evening I go to Bastrop’s newly built theater complex—a mutation of movie theatre, bowling alley, video arcade and Christian family center. It’s not too Christian though to refrain from wringing every last dime it can out of me. Eight dollars for admission, $3.75 for a small soda. Makes it hard to enjoy a show after getting screwed like that, but I give it my best try. The movie is Seabiscuit, starring Toby Mcquire. I slink down into one of the elegant new seats and pull a half-pint of rum out of my pocket and empty it into the soda.
    Playing the part of Mcquire’s rival jockey is real-life jockey Gary Stevens. I remember the kid from childhood in Idaho, having played little league sports with him. As he got older, he stopped coming out for little league. Then one evening I was watching the sports report, and atop a sprinting horse at the racetrack in Boise, was little Gary Stevens. They were doing a story on how he was training to become the new jockey sensation. He looked born for the saddle. Now he was a millionaire and a Hollywood actor living the life. He was living proof that size matters in this world.
    Polishing off my theater cocktail I think, Jesus, I really squandered my size. With a little ambition I could have become a leader of men—a football coach, a politician, army general, captain of industry like Donald Trump. But what can you do when the thought of leading anyone other than yourself gives you a stomachache?
    Seabiscuit was good. If the Christians hadn’t taken me for twelve bucks, I probably would have given it two thumbs up.

    Prolonged traveling also starts to play mind-pranks on you. It laughs at you when you entertain thoughts of staying put in places like Bastrop because it knows you are bent on the next stupid little obsession up the road, like a dirty window or that bowl of chili.
    So while on a back road, looking for the town of San Marcos, I slow at the turnoff for the town of Lockhart. A sign says that it is 10 miles up the road and is the BBQ Capital of Texas. In my mind, I put the barbecue and the chili together, surmising that if Lockhart is the BBQ Capital of Texas, it must also be the mecca of Texas cuisine. I take the turnoff.
    It wasn’t about the chili for me anymore so much as it was the hope that some things in America stayed in place no matter what. You wanted to know you could still find chili in Texas, gold in California, potatoes in Idaho, prostitutes in Las Vegas, gators in Louisiana, etc. You wanted to be reassured that the country wasn’t flushing itself into one commercialized sewer.
    I pull into the first place I see—Dead Man’s Barbecue. Outside the front door of Dead Man’s, a grill the size of a Sherman tank crackles and whistles with marbleized clods of meat and chains of sausage. It looks like the starting point before going in, so I stop and wait. A man soon appears behind the grill. He is a six-foot-ten Sasquatch of a man—hirsute and foolish-looking.
    He starts flopping slabs of flesh around with long metal tongs, tossing pork, ribs, chicken, sausage, and several different kinds of beef around, looking at me over bursts of flames.
    “What can I get you?” he asks.
    “I’m here for chili,” I say. I have to look up at the giant.
    “I handle meat,” he grunts. “Anything else you go inside and ask my wife. She’s the little thing behind the counter. She handles anything that’s not meat. You get your meat here first, then go in for the rest. You do want meat don’t you?”
    I get the impression that bypassing meat at Dead Man’s would be an act of heresy.
    “What is the traditional Texas barbecue?” I ask.
    “This,” says Sasquatch, jabbing the prongs at a glistening veined glob of blackened meat and showing me all blistered sides of it. “Brisket.”
    He saws off three slices and throws them directly onto a tray covered with a sheet of wax paper, and hands me the tray. I don’t take it right away.
    “Well, I …”
    “Here,” he says, looking me over again, perhaps evaluating my shoulder-width, gut capacity, and jaw-strength. “You better take a couple of these too.” He drops two cucumber-sized sausages onto my tray.
    I take it and start to go inside.
    “Wait,” he says. “These too.” He gives me a few ribs. “This should keep you from having to come back.”
    “What about a plate?” I ask.
    “Never mind.”
    I go inside with the piles of meat oozing bloody grease across the waxed paper. I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do for a plate.
    At a small buffet next to the register, I find coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni salad. The little thing behind the register is about six-two and bursting out of her clothes not with fat but with just plain size.
    “You want anything else?” she asks.
    “Where’s your chili?”
    I decide to lay it on the line for her: “Listen,” I say. “Before coming to Texas, I looked some things up. Supposedly you’re known for your high school football, barbecue, and chili, right? Well, the football turned out to be shit. I’ve found barbecue, so where’s the chili? Just let me know if it’s a myth and I’ll give up on the idea, OK?”
    “There’s chillypeppers on the tables if that’s what you mean. Hallapeenyas.”
    She motions toward the dining area, where people sit along wooden picnic tables, eating their food right off of the waxed paper. Atop each table is a jumbo loaf of Wonder bread, a huge jar of pickled jalapeños, a pump-bottle of barbecue sauce, and a roll of paper towels.
    “Forget it,” I say as I pay her. “Being from California I was under the impression that there would be Texas chili in Texas, that’s all.” I start to go out into the dining area, feeling somewhat victimized.
    “You ain’t from California,” she says.
    “I am,” I say. I stop and turn back and face her.
    “But you ain’t growed up there.”
    “I did.”
    “No you ain’t”
    I look down. I look up at her. “How did you know that?”
    “I just could tell. You’re big like you grew up around here somewhere. Bastrop or String Prairie. Am I right?”
    I take my tray over to a corner bench that is off to the side and has a window. I’d already sneaked a peek before sitting down–seen how they do it. No plates. You have to be sneaky. I sit down and start sawing brisket off the waxed paper like I’d been doing it all my life. §

    Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached by email at more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:

  • Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)
  • Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)
  • Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)
  • Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)
  • Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)
  • Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)
  • Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)
  • Directions from Texas (episode 17)
  • A bug you can't see (episode 18)

  • Go to the main page for this month's Rogue Voice
  • Read more!

    City life: New Times

    ‘There is a point where they aren’t holding anyone’s feet to the fire anymore. They are no longer the standard for news.’
    —former New Times investigative reporter, Dan Blackburn

    ‘The once mighty Shredder has been neutered, reduced to bland, babbling pap mixed in with religious feel-good notions about supporting Christian radio stations.’
    —KVEC 920 AM radio talk show host Dave Congalton

    Illustration by Mr. Happy

    Happy news

    Former watchdog New Times puts on a smiley face

    By Stacey Warde and Christina Casci

    The New Times isn’t what it used to be.
    That’s the word on the street and the opinion of journalists who mourn the loss of the formerly formidable alternative newspaper.
    Once respected for putting crooks behind bars and sending shivers up the spines of government officials, the New Times has put on a happy face.
    Cover stories about volunteering and the film festival aren’t as fetching as stories that regularly made New Times the county’s “Best Watchdog.”
    Rarely, do you see cover stories that put embezzlers, or even the county tax assessor’s road raging son in jail.
    The upstart alternative news outlet, founded more than 20 years ago by the late Steve Moss, used to be the standard bearer for good journalism in the county.
    Not any more, according to some observers.
    “There is a point where they aren’t holding anyone’s feet to the fire any more,” said former New Times investigative reporter, Daniel Blackburn. “They are no longer the standard for news.”
    Blackburn should know. He wrote a number of stories that resulted in kudos for the paper, including a story he broke that eventually led to the arrest and conviction of former attorney Bret Cook, a New Times advertiser who went to prison for embezzling nearly half a million dollars from his clients.
    Blackburn also put pressure on the district attorney’s office when he wrote a story about its failure to prosecute Ken Freitas, son of then SLO County tax assessor Frank Freitas and a twice-convicted road rager, who ran through a crosswalk in 2002 in his SUV and killed 17-year-old Sarah Scruggs.
    “Steve was first and foremost a newspaper man,” Blackburn said. “If it was a legitimate story, it went in the paper. ‘Legitimate’ meant that it had community impact, and the facts were right.” Even when it meant riling the status quo or scaring off advertisers.

    Dave Congalton, host of the Dave Congalton show on KVEC 920 AM, has challenged New Times on the air to pursue more enterprising stories—without much result.
    In an interview during the holidays with The Rogue Voice, he complained, “The New Times has gotten bland. Look at the last few covers. A story about the Passion of the Christ and the Nativity–that’s investigative journalism?”
    One of the most glaring examples of change in the quality of New Times since Moss died is the once hard-biting Shredder, created and crafted weekly by Moss, who loved to rankle the high and mighty, people who thought too much of themselves or people who abused their civic powers.
    While Moss kept secret his association with and creative control over the Shredder, it became more apparent who its creator was after Moss died April 23, 2005, at age 56 from complications with epilepsy.
    The Shredder died with him, some say.
    “Name the most influential local newspaper column of the last fifteen years and ‘The Shredder’… wins hands down. No contest. Not even close,” Congalton wrote in his Dec. 6, 2006, blog entry at
    Congalton noted that Moss and close friend Tom Fulks created the column together in the early ‘90s, and it “quickly became the must-read item in town every Thursday. Brilliant writing. Scathing humor. Dead-on political analysis. The Shredder had it all and public officials and businesspeople knew better than to run afoul of New Times, or they’d end up in the column. I was ‘Shredded’ a few times myself, so I know the feeling.”
    But since Moss died, both the Shredder and the paper’s news content have become less interesting, Congalton continued.
    “The once mighty Shredder has been neutered, reduced to bland, babbling pap mixed in with religious feel-good notions about supporting Christian radio stations and the true meaning of Christmas,” Congalton wrote.
    The Christian emphasis emerged soon after Ryan Miller, the youthful and cheerful managing editor of sister publication, the Santa Maria Sun, took charge of the New Times editorial department.
    Miller, an avowed Christian, isn’t known for espousing his beliefs in the workplace, but his religious leanings leaked enough into the paper’s content to provoke the paper’s editorial cartoonist, Russell Hodin, to draw a picture of the New Times logo bearing a cross in the middle.
    Underneath the cross, Hodin wrote: “Steve Moss died for our sins” (see accompanying illustration, which appeared in the Jan. 4, 2007 edition of New Times).
    As for other content in the paper, Congalton added: “New editor Ryan Miller is to journalism what Donny Osmond is to music:” Talented but not very exciting. Nor is he inclined “to maintain the critical watchdog function that has been the backbone of New Times for 20 years.”
    Steven T. Jones, who helped put New Times on the map as a hard-hitting and enterprising news publication, said he also noticed that both the Shredder and paper’s news content have gone soft in the last two years.
    “The Shredder was scrappy, scrappier than the New Times is today. It’s important for papers to be scrappy and take chances,” said Jones, now city editor at the Bay Guardian in San Francisco.
    The New Times was a really important asset to the community at one point, according to Jones, because it took risks that no other publication would take.
    It printed stories that mainstream publications like the Tribune wouldn’t touch.

    Moss struggled with clinical depression and epilepsy. But he was known by most who worked with him as a fearless publisher who would print any story, no matter how controversial or how much it offended advertisers, as long as it was well-written and backed with facts.
    He put his faith and money into his readers by giving them something worth reading. His success with this formula allowed him to later create the Santa Maria Sun.
    Not long after Moss died two years ago this month, readers started complaining about the blandness of New Times.
    “What happened to the New Times?” Blackburn asked, considering the question that readers have been asking. “Steve Moss died. Nobody was in line to take up the editorial flag.”
    When Moss was alive, he fought to make sure the editorial content in his paper met the journalistic standards his readers came to expect: based on truth, written with flair, and spot on accurate.
    After his death, the paper struggled to maintain its hard-edged editorial focus.
    The trouble first became apparent with the Feb. 2, 2006, publication of the cover story, “Meth Made Easy,” written by Moss’s sister, Alice.
    The story informed readers of the prevalence of methamphetamine in SLO County and then proceeded to describe in detail how to make the drug.
    The subsequent uproar over the meth recipe included in New Times’ pages led to angry citizens taking copies of the paper off the racks and dumping them in the garbage. Advertisers threatened to boycott the paper. The ruckus eventually led to the resignation of then newly hired editor Jim Mullin.
    The paper, according to Congalton and Blackburn, lost its credibility and editorial edge, and hasn’t recovered since.
    “It wasn’t the best story, but once it was in, it was imperative to stand behind the story,” Blackburn said. “In journalism, errors are usually fact related, but [General Manager] Bob [Rucker] said that New Times was wrong for running the story at all and that caused a whole new dynamic.”
    That’s not the way to maintain credibility with readers, he said.
    “I’ve never published a paper, but if I were to, and I know Steve would agree with me, I would say sorry you didn’t like this, let’s talk it through. If the advertisers said they were taking their business elsewhere, Steve would have said, ‘OK.’ He would say that a few weeks later, when their sales were down, they would come back.”
    But advertisers will be less likely to come back as fewer readers pick up the paper for its lack of enterprising news content.
    “I know circulation is down, people just are not picking up the paper anymore,” Congalton said.
    Jones added: “For a while, New Times readers really cherished it. I would hear people say, ‘Thank God you’re here digging up stories the Tribune won’t. They were fighting with everybody and that is what an independent paper should be doing.
    “Steve wanted an alternative paper in the classic sense of the word,” Jones continued. “New Times would be an alternative to reading the Tribune. San Luis Obispo needed an alternative voice.”
    Moss brought that alternative voice to SLO and now it’s gone.

    Another reason given for the demise of New Times editorial content, according to Congalton, is that it caters more to its advertisers than to its readers.
    When Moss ran New Times, advertisers couldn’t touch content. His first concern was always with his readers. If readers weren’t surprised or didn’t raise their eyebrows with each new edition of the New Times, then it had failed to pique their interest or give them a reason to come back.
    And without a loyal readership, it would be hard to justify an ad hole in the paper, Moss would say.
    Still, it appears the threat of pulling an ad is enough to keep the softer New Times from taking any risks, and to continue playing it safe, according to Blackburn.
    “Ideally, the newsroom is always separate from the advertising department but that wall has diminished in size or virtually disappeared” at New Times, Blackburn said.
    The tension between the two departments has traditionally been a big part of the journalistic equation, especially with smaller publications. Editors like Moss knew how to keep them separate. When they did mix, he’d say, you didn’t have a credible newspaper but a throwaway shopper full of ads.
    Indeed, the editorial department at New Times doesn’t appear to be flexing its muscle, demanding more control over content, with less interference from the ad-directed business department.
    Additionally, it appears the editorial department at New Times either lacks the experience or the will to take on the harder stories that keep government officials and police agencies on their toes.
    Glen Starkey, a longtime contributor who’s worked under numerous editors for the New Times, admits the paper, under Miller’s editorship, is playing it safe. However, he doesn’t say it’s a bad thing, just that it’s happening and he hopes that it will improve.
    “Our current editor, Ryan, is fairly young and took over right after the meth story,” Starkey said. “I think he wants to do responsible journalism and it may be making him overly safe but it is a matter of time and growth.”
    Hopefully, that time will come soon. The community is best served when newspapers take risks and challenge the competition, noted Blackburn.
    “Competition makes journalism live,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ve got a bunch of Ivory Tower elitists sitting around deciding what you read. You as a reader can make your own decisions about the New Times.
    “The Tribune was forced to be a better paper” when Moss ran New Times, Blackburn added. “The alternative press forced the established press to get hard stories and each paper kept the other doing the best it could do. Right now, the Tribune has nobody to compete with.”
    “Having a strong independent paper is good for the mainstream media,” Jones agreed.
    Mainstream publications “have strong biases in their world view and don’t know or acknowledge it. They are not realistic, not honest,” Jones said. “They focus on serving the interest of those in power–both in the political and business worlds. Worst though, it’s very difficult to pursue new ideas. Anyone with new ideas gets marginalized.”
    Starkey blames reader discontent with New Times on a former employee.
    “I think the reason there are rumors out there is because she started them. She was frustrated because she wanted us to do a lot of investigative pieces but she wasn’t backing her stuff up,” he said. “It all led to the image of the New Times being toothless.”
    Alex Zuniga, art director and co-creator of New Times with Moss, said new editor, Miller, is the paper’s future. “Ryan worked under Steve,” he said. “He has the same philosophies as he did.”
    Miller says he respects the legacy Moss left behind and is working hard to carry on. Moss would say the newspaper “should be like a town square you can hold in your hands,” Miller explained. “It’s easy in theory to keep his legacy going. Steve Moss had a whole set of guidelines for how the paper should be run: Be relevant, be interesting, be fair.
    “He was a genius,” Miller added, “and he was really off the wall. Sometimes he would do what nobody was expecting and piss everyone off. Part of what I keep in mind is that there are stories coming from everywhere. He would just walk outside and trip over stories. Honestly, he’s gone and he poured himself into the paper. His identity was fully wrapped up in it. On some level, knowing he wanted it to be a variety of perspectives makes it something that I’m striving for. I’ve got really big shoes to fill.”
    Starkey and Zuniga agreed that there is always room for change and that no paper is ever 100 percent great all the time.
    Congalton, meanwhile, said he is the new outlet for hard-hitting news, “I’m the new Shredder. I’m not afraid to get in people’s faces.”

    The image of New Times has been too shattered to guarantee the kind of hard-edged alternative SLO County readers came to expect over the years with Moss at the helm, said Blackburn.
    It may never recover, he added. Time will tell.
    “In any public business, perception is as important as reality,” he said. “It is not a matter of what is true. The perception around town is that the paper’s gone soft. You can’t let this go on; it’s your paper!
    “Papers that still put news first are a diminishing breed,” Blackburn continued. “There is an easy way and a hard way to do things, but journalism is never easy to do or read.” §

    Christina Casci is an intern from the Cal Poly school of journalism. She can be reached at Editor Stacey Warde was a managing editor at New Times before starting The Rogue Voice with publisher Dell Franklin. He can be reached at
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    Life in the cage: Time in the hole

    As the cell door electronically opened, I looked inside and saw a buff bald headed Chicano convict, with tattoos all over his neck, throat, face, and body. He looked me up and down, as if I was a fresh piece of steak.

    Where prison’s most wanted go ‘fishing’ (part 1 of 2)

    By Tito David Valdez, Jr.

    Doing time in solitary confinement can either make or break you. It’s the perfect place to find one self. Being detached of all material possessions, responsibilities, the bondage of addictions like sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. One is free to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding—like Buddhist monks.
    Some of the world’s best writings emerged from inside the cage, extending from there like rays of sunshine. Men who found courage, determination, faith, in the face of adversity.
    Or a man can delve deep into fantasy, trying to escape his miserable reality to the point where he loses all sense of what is real and what is not. The hole is meant to break a man’s will, his spirit, his hope.
    My first evening in the hole, I was awakened around 9 p.m. by the voices of several Chicano inmates shouting to each other.
    “Buenos Noches Sleepy. Buenos Noches Droopy. Buenos Noches Goofy. Buenos Noches Shady. Buenos Noches Bashful. Buenos Noches Spanky.”
    I laughed, thinking immediately of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as if I was watching a Disney movie. I’d later find out that this nightly “roll call” was a ritual of men showing solidarity, so that no one felt alone in such trying circumstances.
    I tried to fall asleep, but could not. Tons of memories raced through my mind. Different chicks I boned. Parties I went to, or organized. Chicks I could have boned. Places I should have gone to but was too busy. Driving buzzed, 120 mph in my ‘vette, on the freeway, listening at full blast to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N Roses. What it was like to smoke a joint. And that one chick, who did that special something with her tongue ring…. I had to hit it just to fall asleep. Slept like a baby.

    It was 7:30 a.m. I was awakened again by the voices of Chicano gangsters, the morning roll call.
    “Buenos Dias Sleepy. Buenos Dias Droopy. Buenos Dias Goofy.”
    Officer Rodriquez came by, opened the tray spot of the cell door, handing me my fist state prison breakfast on a plastic tray: coffee cake, grits, milk and toast. It was delicious compared to the slop at the county jail. And it wasn’t bread and water like in the movies.
    I took my morning dump, brushed my teeth with the nasty toothpowder, and found myself with nothing to do. So I stood by the cage door, which had about a thousand small holes in it, the size of a dime, observing what was going on in the dayroom. I saw a nurse delivering pills to inmates. A guard escorting a black inmate to the law library in leg and waist chains.
    After Officer Rodriquez picked up the empty trays, I noticed Chicano inmates in cells across from mine were working out in unison. One guy would run in place, and if he had a cellmate, he would be doing burpees or push ups, and then they would trade off. One inmate, somewhere in the building, was in charge, yelling out:
    “Alright homies, ten burpees, listpo, ready, vamanos!” They exercised together for one hour straight.
    Still drained from hitting it the night before, I didn’t feel motivated to exercise. So I lay down, thought of the past, was hard timing. I began to notice all-too-familiar sounds of the joint. Officers dangling keys, doors loudly clanging shut, loudspeaker systems blaring out instructions and inmates’ names to report to destinations. I suddenly heard a voice, coming from the next cell over, sounded like a white guy.
    “Hey cell 215, it’s your neighbor.”
    “Yeah, what do you want?”
    “I’m Holloway, what’s your name?”
    “Hey, did you eat your butter?”
    “Nah, I threw it away.”
    “I need it man, could you save it for me next time tomorrow?”
    “Yeah, but how do I get it to you?”
    “I’ll send you a line. Look at the bottom of the door.”
    A piece of packaged bologna, attached with a string, swiftly slid under the half-inch crack of my cell door, barely fitting.
    “Do you have any porn in there?” he asked.
    “Porn, how do you get porn in here?”
    “Chicks who are pen pals, they can send in skin flicks.”
    “I just got here man, last night. Do you have any skin flicks I can check out?”
    “Yeah, hold on.”
    He pulled the line back, attached a small envelope to the string, sliding it quickly under my door.
    “Here check this out,” he said.
    With much excitement, I opened the small envelope and pulled out the photo, staring at it, getting an instant boner. A college-aged blonde chick, about 19, spread eagle, naked on a bed, totally amateur photo. It was over a year since I had sex. Couldn’t help but hit it, then take a nap afterwards.
    I was awakened by Officer Brown, a black, dark-skinned guard working third watch, serving dinner at 3:30 p.m.
    “Hey Valdez, you want dinner? Next time, turn your light on in the cell, so I know.” Inmates can refuse meals by not turning on their light if they want to sleep and not be awakened during chow time.
    Dinner came on the same plastic tray, spaghetti and meatballs, with Jell-O. Not Olive Garden quality, for sure—more like school cafeteria food. As I was starting to eat with my state-issued plastic spoon and fork, my neighbor Holloway called me.
    “Hey, Valdez, you eat your Jell-O?”
    “Nah, it’s nasty.”
    “Let me have it, I’ll eat it, tell Officer Brown during tray pick up, to let me have your tray.”
    After eating my meal, minutes later, Officer Brown without hesitation, handed my entire tray to Holloway, through his tray slot, allowing him to scoop off the Jell-O.
    “Hey Holloway, my brotha, don’t be asking me all the time to do this, don’t make a habit out of it,” said Officer Brown.
    “Yo, be looking out,” said Holloway.
    At 4:30 p.m., mail call. Officer Brown passed out mail for all three tiers. I didn’t get any. I slowly slipped into depression, lying on my bunk, thinking about the past, my new wife, my criminal appeal, and my dad, who was frail when I last saw him wheeled out of the courtroom. Pulled out the skin pic again, hit it, and fell asleep.
    Of course, awakened at 9 p.m., for the roll call, by the usual suspects.
    “Buenos Noches Sleepy. Buenos Noches Dopey.”
    At 6 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of four guards, pulling my neighbor Holloway out of his cell, placing him in a holding cage on the first floor. I got my very first look at him. He was not white as I imagined, but African American, dark-skinned, 6-4, lanky, with a huge ‘70s-style Super Fly ‘fro, with white lotion, and what appeared to be butter, all over his face. He didn’t speak like a brotha.
    Officers shook down his cell. Holloway refused to flush his toilet for more than 30 days, so the cell reeked of human waste. I had barely noticed the smell, being de-sensitized to it, after already one year of living with men, in close quarters, where it’s nearly impossible to shit in private. He had old rotten food on his cell door, which was attracting mice.
    “Sarge, this guy is Atascadero material,” said Officer Rodriquez. “He hasn’t showered in 30 days. He doesn’t go to the yard. He writes letters to the President of the United States, scribbles letters with happy faces on them….”
    “Keep him here another thirty days,” said Sgt. Cook, a Caucasian, about 50 years old, with a walrus mustache and beer belly, suspenders holding up his pants. “He might be trying to play his way to the mental hospital. If he keeps it up, he might be for real. Let me know in thirty days.”
    Minutes later, officers escorted Holloway back to his cell.
    “Hey Valdez, can I get your raisins from your sack lunch?”
    “Yeah, send the line.”
    “You like Frank Sinatra, Valdez?”
    “Not really, why?”
    “He is my favorite artist in the world.”
    Holloway started to sing loud, and didn’t stop for hours. The voices of several convicts echoed through the large cellblock.
    “Shut up you J-Cat!” yelled a white guy.
    “Motha fucka punk bitch, you bests not go to the yard, I’ll knock your ass out!” said a black convict.
    “Shut the fuck up mayate, why you singin a white man’s song?” asked a Chicano.
    After watching the Chicanos do their daily workout routine after breakfast, I got motivated, did some push ups and burpees to pass time. I felt a rush of adrenaline, endorphins going to my brain. Felt very alert, happy.
    Officer Rodriguez approached my cell.
    “Valdez, you want to go to canteen?”
    “Yes, for sure, how do I do that?”
    “Fill out this form, you can go thirtyfive dollars. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Delivery is tomorrow.”
    My mouth salivated as I looked at the canteen list. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, M&M’s, Top Ramen soups, potato chips. Deodorant. Real Colgate toothpaste, not tooth powder. I ordered the entire $35 allowed, giving my form to Officer Rodriguez.
    “Valdez, you going to store tomorrow?” asked Holloway.
    “Yes, why?”
    “Can you get me a Hershey Bar. I’ll trade you a skin flick for it.”
    “OK, yeah, no problem.”
    At about noon, Officer Rodriguez, with clipboard in hand, came to the cell asking, “Valdez, you want a shower?”
    “Yes, let me get my things.”
    “You need to roll up your soap and boxers inside your towel, hold it in your hands, then back up to the tray slot, extending your hands out, so I can cuff you up. But first I need to strip you out.”
    “Really, butt naked?”
    “Yeah, OK, let’s go through the motions. Every time you come in and out of the cell, this is procedure; believe me, I don’t want to look at your ass. Alright now, lift up your hands…now your arms…OK, open your mouth so I can see those cavities…OK, I’m not gay now, but drop your boxers for me…lift your nut sack…alright, turn around, lift up your right leg, now your left…wiggle your toes…now bend over, squat, and cough…now put your boxers back on, and back up to the tray slot with your towel….”
    The cage door opened by the touch of a button from an officer in a pod. I was escorted to the showers, walking by a tier of cells, where men with mean mugs stared at me, and was placed inside, by myself. I turned around, backing up to the gate, placing my hands out of the tray slot, as the officer uncuffed me.
    “Do you need a razor?”
    “Yes.” I hadn’t shaved in about a week.
    After a long ten-minute shower, I was cuffed again through the tray slot, and escorted back to my cell, passing by the mean mugs, and having to strip out all over again. Feeling refreshed, I laid back down to relax. I could hear Officer Rodriquez next door.
    “Holloway, you want a shower?”
    “No, I’m alright.” Rodriguez checked off his name on his clipboard.
    At 3:30 p.m., dinner arrived. Officer Brown slid the tray in the slot. It was enchiladas, but didn’t taste like Mexican food, not even Taco Bell quality.
    “Hey Valdez, can I get your taco sauce?”
    “Yeah, slide your line over. Do you have any skin flicks?”
    “Yeah, but it will cost you another candy bar.”
    “No problem, I’ll hook you up when I get my canteen.”
    After the 9 p.m. roll call by Chicanos, I decided to stay awake late. At about 10:30 p.m., after Officer Brown did his count and left for home, I saw several inmates, each with their own mission at hand, push homemade lines from one cell to another. Each line had a message, food attached, skin flicks. It’s called “fishing.”

    It was amazing to see how creative some men are. Creating a bow and arrow with rubber bands and elastic from boxers, shooting lines from one tier to another, a distance of about 100 feet. If anything, fishing was a challenge, a way to pass time.
    After the morning roll call and breakfast, Officer Rodriguez came to the cell.
    “Valdez, do you want to go to the yard?”
    “Yes, for sure.”
    “You know the drill, strip out, then back up to the slot, so I can cuff you.”
    I was escorted to the recreation yard, which was a large rectangular cage, surrounded by high security concrete walls, barbed wire, but placed in a smaller cage.
    “Valdez, you haven’t been classified yet, you will go to the next larger yard after classification, sometime next week.”
    I observed the layout of the larger yard. Blacks were in one section. Mexicans and whites in another place. Chicanos were lined up together, in rows exercising, while two convicts led them like conductors on what to do next. Video surveillance cameras were posted in the upper corner of the fences. A guard with a mini-14 rifle stood in a tower, observing both yards.
    There was no weight-lifting equipment, no handballs, nothing, just bare grey concrete and fences.
    I did some push ups, inhaled the fresh air, and an hour later, it was yard recall. We were all handcuffed by numerous guards and taken to our cells, one by one.
    At 2 p.m., canteen was delivered to my cell by Officer Rodriguez, except not as I expected.
    “Valdez, since you are in AD-SEG, we have to break down your canteen.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Just observe.”
    Officer Rodriguez took my stick deodorant out of the plastic container and placed it in four separate small Dixie cups. Took my Top Ramen soups and opened all ten packages, placing them in a separate paper trash bag. Handed me ten embossed stamped envelopes and two pen fillers to write, throwing away the plastic pen housing.
    “Hey, how can I write letters with just the skinny pen fillers?”
    “You will get used to it.”
    “Why is everything broken down like this?”
    “You convicts can make weapons from even plastic. Why do you think we check you all with the wand? Guys have hidden stuff in their ass or mouth. Anyways Valdez, enjoy your canteen.” Rodriguez went on to the next cell.
    I was looking at all my store, which I placed on my bed. I figured I had to eat the chips quickly, before they went stale. I worried about the mice, which were said to be living next door in Holloway’s cell. The only thing he didn’t break down was my chocolate bars, 15 of them.
    “Hey Valdez, shoot me two candy bars”, said Holloway.
    “Alright, send the line. You got any flicks of brunettes over there with big tits and shaved?”
    “Yeah, I got a hot one, a three-photo layout of the same chick, in a college dormitory. It will cost you another candy bar, though.”
    “No problem, send them now.” I kept my word, sending Holloway the candy bars.
    Later in the night, I wrote my wife a long letter. Then hit it to the photos, and fell asleep like a baby.

    A week later, I received my first letter from my wife, Veronica. She had come to visit me, she said, but was turned away because I had not been classified yet. I was so excited to get mail, that I spent hours writing her a very long response, telling her also to send me some skin flicks of herself.
    I began to work out daily in my cell in solidarity with the other Chicanos. Obtained a few paperback books from the librarian, who made his rounds. I read Stephen King’s “The Stand,” which I enjoyed since it was a very long book. I developed a routine where I had something to look forward to daily. The next meal, the next letter, the next book, the next skin flick from Holloway. The next workout, the next shower, time in the yard….
    Thirty days later, I was called to a classification hearing. Escorted in cuffs, wearing my jumpsuit for the first time, and told to sit in a chair, straddled, where four prison officials sat at a table, like a parole board hearing. An older white man, who looked important, in suit and tie, spoke to me.
    “Valdez, you were in a holding cage where an incident occurred. Did you see anything?”
    “No, I was taking a dump.”
    “Ah, we got a smart ass. We can keep you another thirty days, do you want to change your answer?”
    “I didn’t see anything.”
    “Alright, does the committee agree to keep Valdez another thirty days?”
    “Yes”, said all committee members in unison.
    I dreaded spending another thirty days in this type of environment, but I immediately thought of the movie “Goodfellas”, where Pauly, the Don, expressly made clear, that when dealing with criminals, you “never rat on your friends, you never talk on the phone, and you always keep your mouth shut.”
    Getting out of the hole was tempting, but I didn’t want to be known as a rat. Neither did any other inmate who went to classification that day. Like me, they all got an extra thirty days, pending investigation.
    Upon being escorted back to my cell, Officer Rodriguez had a message for me.
    “Valdez, you are being moved to cell 315, you are getting a cellmate, pack up your shit.”
    “What? Right now?”
    “Yeah, pack all your stuff inside your sheet, then tie it, and be ready in ten minutes.”
    When I got to my cell, I packed my stuff, and waited for Rodriguez to come and get me. Holloway wasn’t too disappointed.
    “Hey Valdez, I can still do business with you, get you some flicks. We can use the toilets; I’ll just wrap the photos in saran wrap, so they don’t get wet, and put them on a sheet, hooking up a sheet which you can flush in the toilet, upstairs.”
    “What, what do you mean?”
    “Your cellie up there can show you how it’s done. We do it all the time. The toilets are all connected on one system, you can even fish using the toilets.”
    “Alright Holloway, I’ll check you later.”
    Rodriquez came and we walked together up the stairs, to the third tier. As the cell door electronically opened, I looked inside and saw a buff bald-headed Chicano convict, with tattoos all over his neck, throat, face, and body. He looked me up and down, as if I was a fresh piece of steak.
    I stepped in, having no choice, feeling fearful. The cell door closed behind me. It dawned on me that if this guy didn’t like me and threw blows, I wouldn’t last too long standing. I’d have nowhere to escape or run.
    He got up from his bunk, exposing his large muscular arms and chest, crossed his arms, and asked me the all too familiar question:
    “Hey ese, where you from?” §

    Next month: Tito gets an education from his new cellie, a powerful Chicano leader known as “Sleepy,” who grooms him for the rigors of prison life.

    Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit Tito can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here:
  • Mischief in the prison chapel
  • Jailhouse pruno
  • A momentary breath of freedom
  • Breakfast Club
  • Trapped
  • Institutialized
  • Evening dayroom
  • Destination ASH
  • Sleepless in Soledad
  • Jailhouse lawyers

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    The stranger on the shore

    I hit the water with a smack. A moment of fear struck me as I realized the surge was sucking me towards the ship. I swam furiously away, certain that at any moment the gigantic propellers would slice me to ribbons.

    The stranger on the shore

    By Dennis Cutshaw

    I didn’t learn a thing at Stanford. Not a damn thing. Even though I had all the advantages. My Dad, a small-town family physician went to Stanford. That made me a…”Legacy” was what they called it. I can barely write a complete sentence.
    When I got to the Farm I joined a fraternity. And I went out for the football team. I never actually played in a game but I was out there, on the practice field, three and a half years, sacrificing my body. The fact I never played still sticks in my craw, some 40-odd years later. Did I mention that? That I never played? Well, I probably will again, for the next four thousand years.
    It took me six years to get out of Stanford. But I did it. You can spend only so much time in the Cellar, drinking coffee, watching the girls, and listening to Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” on the jukebox. I was obsessed with the song—that haunting, lonely clarinet. I played it over and over.
    When Stanford finally released me, sheepskin in hand, I signed on as a “wiper” on a Norwegian freighter, the “ELLEN BAKKE,” headed for the Far East. Those Western Civ courses weren’t much help when I was down on my hands and knees sopping up hot oil from the engine room steel decks. It was 90 degrees down there, and the noise was like a freight train roaring by. But after hours, when we’d eaten our hearty ship’s fare—fresh-baked bread by the Filipino cooks, thick beef stew and potatoes, a slab of apple pie and a mug of coffee—I’d wander up to the forward deck, feel the warm sweep of tropical air wash over me as we beat down into the southern latitudes, and gaze with wonder at the panorama of black thunderheads massed on the horizon, while overhead the stars began to twinkle on like Japanese lanterns.
    “What are you running away from?” It was Ode Reese, a Norwegian seaman, who joined me at the rail.
    “Running away from? What do you mean?” Why did I feel a twinge of fear in my heart?
    Ode sucked on his pipe, his short-brim wool cap perched on his head. He studied me. Ode wanted to be a writer. Was a writer. He had showed me some of his stuff. It was good. When I first boarded the ship he had spotted my satchel of books—Steinbeck, O’Hara, Maugham, Graham Greene—books I never had time to read at Stanford, and asked to borrow a few.
    “Lots of seamen sign on to escape problems at home. How about you?”
    I remembered a 1903 poem by Oliver Makin I had seen on the back of a John Stewart album:

    The earth is a depot / where wingless angels pass the time / waiting for the long ride home.
    Seeing a small child sitting alone in a corner / I said, “You must be anxious to go home.”
    “I am home,” he smiled. “I just come here to / play the games.”

    I wanted to be that small boy again. But I wasn’t there yet—for one thing there was this re-occuring nightmare: I was late for a Stanford final. I couldn’t find the room. When I finally got there I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to read any of the books, or go to any of the classes. I would wake up in a nervous sweat…I never got a Big Game date, either. But why open that can of worms…?
    None of this did I mention to Ode. Especially did I not mention my gridiron flameout; the dislocated finger in spring football practice my junior year when that fullback dragged me ten yards, my left hand locked in a death grip on his pants, twisting my fingers into pretzels, the straw that broke the camel’s back—the day I quit the Stanford football team. Did I mention that? It was only forty-three years ago. But I mentioned none of this to the perceptive Norwegian standing before me. With him I feigned bluster: “I’m not running away from, anything, I’m running to something—adventure!” He looked at me skeptically. Two days later I made a believer out of him.
    It happened on a South Pacific night of shattering beauty. The sun was just disappearing. I stood at the rail and watched silvery flying fish dart out from the bowspray and skim lightly over the waves. Long, even swells rolled in from the south and the ship rose and fell in a peaceful rhythm. Clouds, silhouetted by the dying rays of the sun, burned with violent orange-red hues. I stood by the rail a long time. The world took on a dream-like quality. The darkening warm colors, the sea-mist smell of the air, the hypnotic roll of the deck—all these things triggered my imagination, blinded me with visions of star-washed tropical beaches, shimmering Edens of the mind.
    What made me do it? Was it the ivory-bright moon scudding clear of a ragged cover of clouds? Was it just chance, the moonlight reflecting on a far-off sliver of white? I listened and heard a faint distant rumble of surf. An island! It could not have been more than a mile or two away. It was done in an instant: I had jumped from the “ELLEN.”
    I hit the water with a smack. A moment of fear struck me as I realized the surge was sucking me towards the ship, I swam furiously away, certain that at any moment the gigantic propellers would slice me to ribbons. As quickly as the danger appeared it was over. The ship moved swiftly away and was gone. Strangely, I was not afraid as I lay back in the water and rested. Rather, I would have let out a whoop of joy if I’d had any breath left, such was my feeling of exhilaration. Rhythmic swells rocked me gently. The sea was calm and quiet with no wind. The stars strung out over me, very close. I was surprised to feel no great fear, there was a tenseness coursing through me, however, a kind of energy which made me keenly aware of sensations; the circling movements of my arms and legs in the water, the salt-brine taste of the sea water. The faint rumble of surf which I heard from the deck now sounded much louder.
    I turned and began swimming for that sound, falling into an easy crawl, and frequent resting. Within an hour or so I began approaching the outer reef of the island. I stopped to get my bearings. Before me the sea shook and thundered as soaring, dark combers pounded into the reef. The water was a bubbling, milky froth where it hit the coral shelf. I swam parallel to the reef, searching for an opening. A quarter of a mile away there was a break, a spot where the sea ran free across a submerged table of coral; there were no breakers, just a ragged stretch of eddies and boiling currents where the undersea shelf approached the surface. I moved cautiously onto it, feeling for the first time in perhaps two hours something solid beneath my feet. I made my way across the shelf, swam the still inner lagoon and crawled onto the beach where I slept, quite soundly, the remainder of the night.

    Twenty-nine days later, considerably thinner and several shades tanner, I stepped from my palm-frond hut to survey the beach. I guess I did learn a thing or two at Stanford: My Air Force R.O.T.C. commander, besides instructing us in the correct procedures for saluting, happened to give a lecture one day on how Navy fliers, shot down on South Pacific islands in World War II were able to survive scavenging food and building shelters. I discovered a small spring bubbling up in the rocks behind the beach and around it a kind of white, pulpy root which proved edible. There was also an abundance of bird’s eggs and crabs in the shallow inner lagoon, and when I fashioned a spear from the fallen trunk of a palm tree using a razor-sharp chunk of brain coral, fish became a part of my menu.
    Within a short time after my arrival I had explored practically every square foot of the island. It was quite small. The first day, I crossed it and climbed to the highest point. Leaving the beach I walked easily up a slanted thicket of bushes to higher ground. The island rose several hundred feet to a flat, grassy plain. The plain covered a good four-fifths of the island. It could be crossed in thirty minutes. I walked to the highest point on the island and stood there. A wind ran through the brown grass, flattening it. There was nothing on the sea; no islands, no ships. I stood there for a long time and listened to the wind….
    I spent the mornings fishing in the lagoon and gathering food. Afternoons I would often lie on the grassy hill, watching the clouds drift by. At sunset I liked to sit by the lagoon, when the dying rays of the sun played over the water, and the spectrum of colors shifted into deepening blue-black tints.
    The days became a blur, turning into weeks, months, and then years…I did not become lonely, at least the way I would get lonely back in “civilization.” Speech dropped away. I found that silence was good for me. And listening became very important. I learned to see in ways I had never experienced before. I looked at things with intense one-pointed concentration. The color red fascinated me. I spent hours watching it spread across the sky in crimson streaks. Fish, glittering like scarlet flecks of blood in the lagoon. I would become so engrossed in this that sometimes I felt myself becoming what I was observing. I could not tell whether I was the fish or the man observing the fish.
    I forgot everything; hopes, dreams; I forgot to think about the past or future. I just lived, feeling younger every day. I knew when I was going to die. It was shown to me in a dream. It would be high on the grassy plain where I loved to sit and listen to the wind riffle through the long brown grass.
    When the time came, I walked one last time to the high plain and lay down in the field. A final memory bubbled up. It was some words from a book I’d read a long, long time ago in a comparative religions course I’d taken at Stanford:

    My soul is the image I have of myself as I most perfectly wish myself to be: an old man, very lean, very clear-eyed with an expression of bemused sadness that recognizes life as a tragedy yet finds it amusing and good. My soul is free, homeless, owns nothing and is owned by nobody. All he carries with him is a bedroll, a flute, a notebook and a pen. Though extremely kind, my soul is prepared to defend himself. He is a jack-of-all trades, a musician and a storyteller. When he has traveled many miles he will lie down alone in a high valley and go to sleep.

    —Alan Dienstag from TALES OF A DALAI LAMA

    I laid down in the soft grass and closed my eyes. At once I sense a shimmering presence next to me, a benevolent being, crafted from night winds and stardust and wisdom unimaginable, who has been with me since the beginning of time, and lifts me high into the sky on silent wings. Am I going home? We fly across the ocean at incredible speed. Land approaches. The shore. We cross over a range of wooded mountains and then descend down, down into a huge oval filled with thousands of people: Stanford Stadium! I am there once again!
    It is late in the fourth quarter. Stanford trails USC by four points. Fourteen seconds remain on the clock. I am on the field, a wide receiver, split left. The ball is hiked. I sprint for the end zone. The quarterback unloads a high arcing pass deep into the corner of the end zone. I leap up, an SC corner back hanging all over me. The football smacks into my hands and the referee signals TOUCHDOWN. The crowd erupts. My teammates leap onto me, screaming, lifting me high into the air. As they lower me back down, and my feet touch the ground, suddenly everything disappears. The players, the crowd, even the stadium is gone. I am standing alone in a vast, echoing silence. There is a gentle breath of wind and my ethereal companion materializes at my side.
    “Are you ready to go?” he says.
    “Go where? To heaven?”
    The angel smiles, “Heaven and Stanford are the same…if one has the eyes to see—but first I thought we might stop by the Cellar for a cup of coffee, and one last playing of “Stranger on the Shore.”
    “Yes!” I say, “and tell you what—let’ s both get Big Game dates!”
    Hail, Stanford, hail!

    Editor’s note: This document was discovered on a small uninhabited island 487 miles southwest of Pitcairn Island and forwarded to Stanford. Scientific analyses performed by archaeologist and director of Antiquities, Dr. Warren G. Wonka, determined the “paper” to be made of crushed palm fronds, while the “ink” was octopus ink. The red-colored “STANFORD” at the end of the manuscript was written in human blood.§

    Dennis Cutshaw is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay.
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