Saturday, November 27, 2004

A Lazy Saturday in Old Oakland Town

Time for some Oddz and Endz. Now that there's a fever pitch of interest among the readership concerning the new name of this blog, I have to keep up a rat-tat-tat of posting so that no child is left behind, if that child "comes to the manger," as it were, looking for spiritual sustenance.

Right now top contenders for new name are Porky's VI: The Return of the King and I Am Joe's Liver. But they are still counting votes.

I read Peter Breinig's obit in the Chron today. He was a photographer there when I arrived back in the last century, and I remember him well because he drove very fast, which mattered because in those days Chronicle reporters and photographers rode together on the way to most assignments. Now, I gather, this is far less common, either for reasons of efficient dispatch of scarce resources or because the reporters complained. Peter did drive fast. I recall his asking, when we were on I-5 in the Central Valley, that I look out the window -- and up -- to see if I could spot the small CHP airplane that monitored speeders.

Peter misled me about the balance between vice and virtue at the Chronicle. This was in 1980 when I had just come from Atlanta Magazine, where our relationship with some of our advertisers was as cozy as that of Fox News and Georgie von Bush. I never paid for a vacation during my years at the magazine. It wasn't that someone was stuffing cash in our pockets, which would have been vulgar. It's just that some developer/advertiser always had an empty condo or some airline a free ticket and a hotel room if we required a fresh perspective geographically speaking. We were like every other publication in all places in all times. That is, there were always some holes in our coverage, those holes based on friendship, sympathy or a simple desire to have a place to stay during that long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. I have three words for you, you children who have come to this (my electronic knee) to hear the wisdom.

She Crab Soup.

But my point is that no one is pure. The difference between damnation and paradise is always one of degree. Look for the light; walk toward the light. Or to put it another way, you can't live on automatic pilot.

Any way, right after I joined the Chron I went out on a routine business profile with Peter as my driver/photographer. A guy had started a mail order operation. (It's still around.) I made the talktalk, Peter clicked, and it was all very nice. Then Peter commented on some Seiko watches lying on the subject's desk. They were early LCDs with many features. Our subject said that they were returns and that they couldn't be resold and that we should do him a favor by taking them off his hands since otherwise he would have to throw them away.

Peter said, "Oh no. We would have to pay ... something."

The sum of $25 was mentioned. This seemed wrong to me -- the transaction, not the sum -- but Peter wanted the watch so I acquiesced, as fine a word for "wimped out" as Mr. Webster has on offer. I still have my watch in an old cigar box, as a reminder of my learning curve. Learn I did. What I learned was not that what I had done was unethical -- uh, I had been knowing that -- but that these new Chronicle chums were not always to be looked to as guide or mentor. I never did anything that egregious again, though I never declined a drink from an eager publicist either, understanding that to refuse would have been depriving labor of the opportunity to earn its keep, a chain of compensation starting with the publicist and extending all the way back to the hills of Tennessee where the elixir known as Jack Daniels Black is dipped with golden ladles from shimmering pools in hidden grottos.

I applaud the fact that today, which is in many ways a better day, fewer reporters take fewer drinks from fewer enemies. This is an advance in virtue though not in pleasure. Whether it is an advance in wisdom is not a subject to be covered on a lazy Saturday.


Anonymous said...

Back in the days before agenda ruled and newspapers were construed as one of the helping professions, story was king and each day was an adventure. The Chronicle hired good writers instead of engaging in social experiments or looking for specialists to lacquer the readers’ eyes with their deep knowledge on dull subjects. The goal was to be entertaining, which meant fools on the left were treated with the same merriment as those on the right. The former is now impossible, of course, and it is policy to revile the latter or – better – make them seem absurd. Reporters were paired with photographers – they mostly travel separately these days, I gather – and one always looked forward with a combination of anticipation and dread to see which cameraman you would draw for an assignment. The choice ranged from boorish – there was a former Marine colonel who was apt to tell an interview subject “You can’t say that!” or “That’s the dumbest goddamn thing I ever heard” and bring the session to a close rather sooner than you would have liked – to the numbingly boring shooter able to speak of his affairs in an even monotone from the moment you left until you returned. Peter Breinig, in contrast, was a boon companion on the overnight jobs that required travel -- if the story interested him. He was witty, ironic, caustic, cynical – the perfect combination of knowing smartness. He could be less of a pleasure on the daily jobs. “Let’s go,” he’d snarl, jaw set. A mug shot was all that would be used in most cases and he resented the chauffeuring duties, as he felt a justifiable superiority to what he called “the pencils.” His anger, always at a simmer, came to a boil on these occasions and we shot through the streets of San Francisco at high speed, scattering pedestrians like pigeons. It was surprising what reserves of youthful energy even the elderly could call on as Peter bore down on them in crosswalks. “Look out!” I would cry, and other reporters had their own stories about close calls and nuns in habits sworn at for getting in the way. Sometimes the window would be wound down to deliver these strong oaths, and a few times we were chased by angry drivers. Peter got more adrenaline pumped through the system than anyone I can recall. Under the proprietorship of the miserly Charles de Young Theiriot, cost containment was always uppermost in middle management’s mind. Peter’s piloting skills, obtained for little or nothing because the editors knew what pleasure he took in flying, gave him more interesting assignments than would normally been his lot. He liked flying far more than taking pictures, where journeyman best describes his work, and most people thought he was wasted in newspapers. He built airplanes from scratch, flying them with style and élan, and could tear down and rebuild engines. He liked to mix with café society, was friendly with Herb Caen and fed him items, and was a regular at Enrico’s, the celebrity hangout in North Beach owned by his pal Enrico Banducci, one of the big names of that era. He was also friends with Doc, the fabled marine biologist of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. A touchy, difficult man sometimes, but Peter never bored you.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Actually, I liked all the photographers, the talkers because I would rather listen than talk and the boring ones because no one much liked the boring ones and it made me feel virtuous -- if you define virtue in so pinched and narrow a way. Anything that promoted community I liked, even if it was a community created by necessity and resented by the other communard. Also, with encouragement, the photographers would gossip about other reporters. I look forward to the deaths of all my old Chronicle colleagues, since I have at least one amusing story about each of them....

Anonymous said...

Nor will a blank page be your own legacy.

G Pabst said...

Mr. 'zan,
Oh, don't waste my time with stories of moral degeneracy and the burning/earning of virtue. I was in flipping ADVERTISING!
And the mundane temptations - while not legion - were nonetheless there, but not all that seductive in reality.
Though legends survive.
Oh, yes, they survive. There's a current case of a system of kleptocracy at a couple of large New York shops that has already banished a Production Director to stoney lonesome and caused a major printer to collapse in bankrupcy.
Delicious gossip that launches many a personal "What if I were offered...?"

....J.Michael Robertson said...

It's said of Pabst
He never lapsed
When offered sweet tomfoolery
Yet his wife understood
Were he always good
Why would he give her jewelry?

Anonymous said...

Another reason why I don't keep a gun in the house

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

--Billy Collins