Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Second Chances

I have a recurring dream in which I am dawdling at my desk in the newsroom, having been idle for more than a week, showing up stoned and doodling between 8 and noon, then taking two hour lunches, sitting in the park at Lake Elizabeth, then dropping back into the office to show my face before quitting time, a poseur of a genuine fourth-estate worker bee, wondering when my editor would stroll over and fire me.

The dream bears an odd resemblance to dreams others have reported in which they have a final exam or term paper to deliver for a class they have missed for the duration, spending valuable undergraduate time at the beach or trolling the off-campus bars. And I often had a spin-off nightmare in which I was standing before my undergraduates, lecturing on an author whose work I had truly read for the first time the night before, only to be corrected for my obvious shortcomings as a professor by a sorority girl who sat dutifully in the front row with a stack of Cliff's Notes.

Today, after years of recovery work and counseling, I am delighted to report that my self esteem has officially been raised to the level of "low". I don't believe I could have survived my furtive newshound years without the help of Second Chance.

Today, the recovery agency has five locations in the East Bay, but when I was covering Newark for The Argus they had but a tiny house located near city hall on Thornton Avenue. My beat, as assigned by editor Linn Brown, included the entire city of Newark, a small industrial suburb surrounded on three sides by the sprawling bedroom community of Fremont and on its fourth edge by the San Francisco Bay. Fremont residents called Newark the "hole in the doughnut", while Newark officials preferred the notion that their little town was the "pearl in the oyster".

Such was the folklore of the day. When Brown assigned me to cover the Newark Chamber of Commerce, I complained that little happened there that might be newsworthy. He said I was to go and "fly the flag" for The Argus, that I just might pick up scuttlebutt for a story. The Newark Chamber was headed that year by an orthodontist with plenty of jokes to offend women and minorities, and if you didn't laugh when he uttered one, you were asked to drop a dollar in the "joke jar", the proceeds of which financed one of the municipal charities.

Most days, I drove by City Hall and sniffed around the city manager's office for stories. I relied on the manager, a straight-forward albeit heavily self-promotional figure that actually ran the city while elected councilmen and women relied on him to explain what was really happening and how to vote. On Monday nights, I covered the Planning Commission, an appointed board of members who were closely allied with elected council members and were awaiting their turn to ascend to the council when terms ran out for their pals.

Wednesdays I covered the council meetings. I also had the beat to the design review and public safety commissions, where much of the legwork was done to smooth over relations with developers who were broadening the hole-in-the-doughnut's industrial base. Brown told me to produce at least a story a week from each agency, along with feature and human interest pieces I could drum up from the town's mostly blue-collar populace; for instance, a piece on a woman who had collected and rolled the largest ball of rubber bands in the Western Hemisphere, or the barber who built a homemade airplane using a bathtub as the fuselage.

At the western terminus of town lie the Dumbarton Bridge (made famous in the film Harold and Maude). I l1ved across the bridge in Palo Alto, in a house filled with several Stanford brainiacs in their senior years, a massage therapist with a cat named Sat-Nam (Sanskrit for God Almighty), an airline hostess, and the daughter of a family that ran a Chinese restaurant made famous in Sunset Magazine and later busted by the health department after dog carcasses were found in their dumpster.

Hence, I led a double life. By day I toiled (by varying degrees) for The Argus, wearing slacks and buttoned collars and dress shoes, by night I wore my hippie-apocalypse attire of blue-bib coveralls and nothing else. Editor Brown once suggested that we wear ties in the office, so I wrapped one around my forehead. I did keep a loud tie with a pink hula girl on it in my car in case I had to cover a meeting.

By day, I drove from meeting to meeting, chased after police and fire emergencies we heard over the scanner, and drove by the mortuary to round up obituaries. The funeral home owner, a respectable queen who obviously dressed professionally at other times, answered the office door one night in a gold lame jump-suit with the zipper open to his navel.

By night, I drove through the toll plaza to the Dumbarton, paid my fare, and immediately opened the glove box to a stash that changed my amplitude on the way home as I tossed the tie in the back seat, cranked up the radio, and spaced out on the waves and salt bubbles on the bay.

That kind of schizophrenia cannot hold. There was no center. At night I'd play with my housemates, strolling the forested lanes of Palo Alto, buzzing through samurai triple-features at the Varsity Theatre, gobbling up books and records at the shops, finishing up the munchies with a cone of mocha-orange-chip ice cream from Swensens.

On Fridays, we dressed casually at The Argus, unless we had a meeting to cover, and the staff would drive out to Lake Elizabeth for a picnic lunch. Brown would bring a bottle of Cribari, an inexpensive wine known for the photo of its owner--an Italian who held the record for the world's largest nose--on the label. We'd drink hearty, often so heartily that Keith Jones would sit behind his IBM Selectric and laugh away the afternoon, regaling us with stories about Lancaster and the Pennsylvania Dutch. One Friday afternoon, he vomited into the keyboard.

I can't remember how I ended up with the recovery institution beat. But one day, apparently, Brown added it to my responsibilities that had grown to include a regional transit district (BART), the local community college, and the area's congressional seat. But I do remember driving over to the small, rustic house in Newark with its friendly facade and cheery front porch with chairs and empty coffee cans for cigarette butts.

I was greeted by a chipper woman in casual dress who eschewed make-up and a bra in what I had determined was the mid-1970s feminist uniform. But Diane was kind to me despite my judgment, and we sat in the cozy living room of the house, surrounded by oh-so-many posters with cornball recovery jargon on them: Keep It Simple, Let Go and Let God, One Day at a Time. I had no idea about recovery programs and was baffled with their 12 steps or commandments written on what appeared to be window shades that you rolled down from where they were mounted on the walls.

We had a pleasant talk and I learned the ground rules: I could write about anyone there, but could not refer to them by last names, I could not take any photographs, and I could drop in most any time of the day for coffee and conversation. I took them up on it, and I always wrote good things about Second Chance. They, like other social service agencies, were in constant struggle for limited funding, but I became their champion--not so much for their cause, but among all my beats, the women in the agency always treated me with goodwill.

Wherever you went as a journalist, the moment you told anyone that you worked as a reporter, they'd clam up. You'd see an instant shift in their comfort level as they receded into guarded behavior. But at Second Chance, they were delighted when I came over, even if just to camp out for an hour on their couch, hiding out from Brown and the newsroom. It seemed that they knew all about me. If the simple act of hiding out and writing kind things in exchange reflected a gross neglect of journalistic ethics, I was having it.

I had a similar arrangement with the owners of a Szechuan restaurant for which I had penned a glowing review. The family had escaped the Communists and fled to sanctuary in Peru, then moved to the East Bay. It was a colorful tale, told by a slacker, who enjoyed a sumptuous meal every time thereafter when I visited the place.

Toward the end, I was not writing very much for The Argus, borne out if exaggerated a little by my recurring nightmare. I would stockpile feature stories--timeless personality profiles--in the top drawer of my locked desk, and magically produce them whenever Brown suspected I had been a slacker. And I stockpiled my paychecks, too, planning for an escape to teach English in Japan.

A few years ago, having found my own recovery, I sought out Diane and the others at the sprawling new Second Chance offices located in the pearl of the oyster. I told them my news and how grateful I had been for their tush-eating, second-hand couches and coffee.

The argus (argos) in Greek mythology was a monster with multiple sets of eyes who could see everything in its vicinity. Later, in gratitude for the monster's visionary help, the goddess of love Hera put the eyes of the argus into the colorful tail of the peacock.

I was an unreliable source as a journalist in those days. But now I see.


A Cuban In London said...

On the subject of double lives, I thnk most of us have been there. I can relate to your tale, minus the pot, because I, too, had to turn up at work and translate for a bunch of hypocrites whilst at night I would be reading the literature that the government considered 'unsuitable' for us youngsters. I think most modern societies stimulate this kind of double life. great story, as usual. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Yoli said...

Reminds me of the line from Prince's song, "Rasberry Berret"..LOL :"I was doing something close to nothing, but different than the day before..."