In June of 1980 I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where I’d been editor of the campus newspaper. That experience convinced me that journalists were a sick breed, and that I ought to be one of them. The sensible career path would’ve been to gather my clips and look for a job at a small-town daily, working long hours for low pay and learning bitterness. Instead, I decided to start an alternative newspaper.
But where? I had put myself through Berkeley on the G.I. Bill, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, which had brought me from Brooklyn to a base near San Francisco. When I left the ship on weekend liberty, I took long drives to explore California. On one such trip I ventured 270 miles north where I discovered Eureka and Arcata, two small cities on opposite ends of shallow Humboldt Bay. Eureka had been settled after the Gold Rush by loggers who’d run their steamboats aground, rigged their engines to drive sawblades, and sliced giant Redwood trees into rot-resistant lumber. Arcata was a college town that attracted students who were inclined to hug any of these ancient trees as might still be standing. The cultural tension between these cities seemed ripe for the alternative paper I envisioned. Moreover, the region was so remote and sparsely populated that I figured it would escape a first strike in the event of nuclear war, which I then feared was a distinct possibility. That I knew little else about this community where I was fixing to commence newspapering wasn’t troublesome. I was 25. What could go wrong?
My partner was a California girl who I’d met at the student paper. She dropped out of Berkeley to join me and invested a $10,000 insurance settlement in the venture. I contributed an equal sum borrowed from my family. We rented the bottom flat of a three-story Victorian home with curved lead windows and a turret and used it as both home and office. In the parlor we set two chairs on either side of a reception desk and installed a typesetting machine and layout table in the dining room to create a production area. By August I was ready to sell ads.
But the day I turned the key to start my first sales trip, a jingle came over the car radio: “Come shop at Friendly Henderson Center!”
The preposterousness of my plan hit me with such sudden force that I let go of the steering wheel.
No matter how friendly folks were in Henderson Center, I couldn’t imagine them buying ads from a guy who would need directions to find them.
I walked back to the flat, head bowed, to say I’d lost my nerve. Words of recrimination and mumbled apologies followed and for a time we avoided each other’s eyes. But gradually we admitted to ourselves that we were charmed by the old house, with its varnished Redwood wainscoting and squeaky hardwood floors. As journalists, we were intrigued by the incongruous dissimilarity of Eureka, where a sickly-sweet chemical odor from the pulp mills sometimes hung over the town, and Arcata with a town square fragranced by ganga except during rare police patrols. The thought of homesteading appealed to us, and we could imagine buying cheap land on a hillside and drawing untainted water from a well or spring as a further hedge against Armageddon. Most importantly, we could put our typesetting machine and layout table to work, doing graphic design, producing newsletters, whatever. That didn’t sit well with my partner, who’d once worked for a typesetting shop and didn’t want to do so again. But she agreed to it as a fallback until we learned more about the area and tried newspapering again.
We created a flyer advertising our services, which I hand-delivered to local merchants and professional offices. Friendly people gave us a try and by dint of hard work and reliability, we soon won repeat business and word of mouth referrals. In September, we were visited by a man so visibly absurd that we should have known better than to buy a half-interest in his newspaper – even before we discovered that he had wooden teeth.
Climbing the 12 concrete steps to our door had winded our potential client who sat to catch his breath. My partner joined me from the production room, and together we regarded him. An orange sash crossed the man’s torso from left shoulder to right hip, before circling his waist. He introduced himself as Rama Bhagwan, explaining that the name and sash honored his spiritual leader, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who had a commune in Oregon. Rama flipped his ponytail side to side and fingered a black beard as he spoke, occasionally sucking in his cheeks. From a hemp shoulder bag, he pulled a tabloid newspaper which he unfolded and spread on the desk, facing us. The banner read North Coast Journal and Barter Bank. Rama said the paper would promote the exchange of value without money, a philosophy inspired by the Bhagwan. He wasn’t satisfied with his current typesetting vendor and wanted a competitive bid.
We slowly turned the pages. The headlines were crooked and set in different types. The pictures were unrelated to the stories they accompanied. The ads had been business cards pasted directly onto the layout sheets. Ink had filled in the fine print, rendering phone numbers illegible. We asked Rama to leave the Journal with us so we could work up two estimates, one for the type, and a second adding in the layout. I think it was my partner who mentioned that we had considered starting our own paper. Rama arched his eyebrows at that and when he returned for the estimates, we began to discuss relaunching the Journal with a different editorial slant, set by me, and a new look, designed by my partner. In late September, we wrote Rama a $1,500 check for half interest in the North Coast Journal and Barter Bank. He would sell ads. I would run editorial. My partner would control design, layout, and production. We would split the proceeds 50-50.
We divided our time between filling our typesetting orders and overhauling the Journal. I wrote stories and took pictures. She created mockups that gave the Journal a sophisticated look. Rama showed up periodically with rough ad copy, promising to issue invoices and collect payments after he had finished selling. Our plan was to publish fortnightly but as we neared the publication date Rama said he needed more time to sell ads. To us, deadlines were sacrosanct, but Rama had a different ethic. The Journal would manifest when it was ready, he said, and we reluctantly held off.
Another fortnight passed and still Rama wasn’t ready to manifest. We grew frantic in mid-November. We were getting married Thanksgiving weekend, and my bride to be had to fly to Sacramento the Saturday before the wedding to help her mother prepare for the ceremony and reception at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. After dropping her at the tiny airport between Eureka and Arcata, I visited Rama’s extended stay motel, found the door to his room unlocked, and entered.
Rama was sitting cross legged on the floor, hunched over in a lazy lotus position. Alongside him a framed picture of the Bhagwan stared up at me and in front of that I saw a pair of dentures crudely carved from a brown hardwood. How had I not noticed earlier? Sucking in his cheeks must have kept them in place. This isn’t cool, Rama protested without getting up, in a voice that sounded whiny with his teeth out. We had to manifest the Journal immediately, I said. My family was flying out from Brooklyn, and I wanted something to show them. Go ahead, go ahead, he waved, but when I asked for money to pay the print bill, he whined and squirmed. He was still trying to sell ads and I’d come over no warning and hadn’t given him time to do billing or collections. I left in disgust rather than punch him out.
First thing Monday, I brought the layout flats to a printer with a highspeed, rotary press. Weeks earlier I had arranged for him to print 10,000 copies of our eight-page tabloid. Now, after canceling our prior print dates, I asked if I could pick up the papers after lunch. I told him about the wedding and that I had to get to Sacramento that night for a tuxedo fitting Tuesday morning. I’m not sure he believed me from the way he eyed my check, but five grey bundles tied in string were waiting when I returned. His shop was 20 miles south of Eureka, on my way to Sacramento. I had no time to distribute the papers and would not backtrack to leave them with Rama. No telling when distribution would manifest. So, I tossed the bundles into the trunk of my trusty Ford Cortina, which had carried me though the Navy, and Berkeley, into this land of timeless forests, and now to the altar.
If you’re wondering why my partner remains silent it’s because responsibility for this misadventure is mine. The move, the newspaper, even marriage had been my ideas. She’d been enthusiastic about the first two but would have preferred an informal living arrangement. I was raised to believe that when you lived with someone, especially your business partner, you got married. She was not hung up on the formalities, but her family thought more like me so she went along on the condition that she keep her name.
Given her foresight in maintaining her separate identity, I’ll simply describe my hypnotic drive south, through a two-lane highway lined with Redwood, then turned east past oak-dotted hillsides, and along a clear lake that seemed close enough to touch, until I sped onto the interstate that cut through California’s dry Central Valley. By sunset, as the lights of the squat Sacramento skyline came into view, I was at peace with the realization that paying to print the Journal had thrown good money after bad. I would say nothing about the paper at the wedding. Better to leave the bundles in the trunk and share them on the drive back to Eureka.
Others might have been crushed by such a series of foolish misjudgments, but I’ve always been possessed of an impulsiveness bordering on the manic. Sometimes my impulses work out. When they don’t I make the best of the mess and emerge somewhat the wiser and relatively unfazed. But I was deeply, deeply ashamed to disappoint my darling yet again. She had adopted my newspaper dream and twice I had led her astray. But my misgivings melted away when I reached her mother’s house and surrendered myself to the loving embrace of our two Mediterranean families.
I can share only scattered images of the next few days of celebration and confine my introductions to the VIP list.
My dad and five siblings had flown out, along with Cuz, my favorite among the many relatives who lived in our Brooklyn neighborhood. Mom came out with her mother, who I called YiaYia Tessie. Until now they’d been two Greeks lost in an Italian family and they were delighted to converse with their future in laws in a language they shared.
My wife’s family was a matriarchy headed by her Yia Yia Dimitra. She ruled a son who never married and still lived with her, and four vivacious daughters, the oldest of whom, Kiki, would become my mother-in-law. The movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” captures the spirit of the event, down to when the bride’s brother pulls the groom aside and jokingly warns him to stay in line. Only it was my future sister-in-law who cornered me in the kitchen and put her lips close to my ear. If I should ever so much as raise my hand, she whispered, I will come for you.
On our wedding day, light filtered through the stained-glass windows to reveal incense clouds rising toward the dome of the church. Every pew was filled as we walked down the aisle, mostly by people I didn’t know. Some of my Navy buddies sat together, not far from a few Irish pals from New York who’d come west for construction job in Silicon Valley. Colleagues from our student paper days filled nearly two pews, giving thumbs up and blowing kisses as we passed, arm in arm, the idea of being given away turning out to be another deal breaker. Cuz and my sister-in-law flanked the fat bearded man in golden vestments who clanged an incense burner we ascended three marble steps to face him. Three times the priest led us around the altar, Cuz walking behind me holding a wreath of white flowers above my head, while sister-in law held an identical Stefana over my bride’s head, being careful not to step on her train. The procession halted after the third orbit had returned us where we had begun. With the altar at his back, the priest blessed us three times with his right hand and clanged the incense burner he held in the other. We must have exchanged rings, but all I can recall is bewilderment because I was never asked “Do you take this woman?” nor did I make any vows. But when we retraced our steps and left the church, we were apparently husband and wife.
In the banquet hall we were applauded by well-dressed people who stood or sat at round tables draped in white. My mother-in-law took charge of introducing me to my new extended new family, starting with old women who has come over with YiaYia Dimitra from the same Greek village, and the few of their husbands who were still alive; middle-aged cousins of her own generation, accompanied by their children, who were my wife’s age and were introduced as her cousins, whether related or not. I quit trying to remember names or relationships, just shook hands, accepted hugs, and smiled when my cheeks were pinched. We made champagne toasts, feasted on lamb, black olives, and feta cheese, cut the cake, then danced in circles, waving white napkins, and ignoring hints that we should stop, until the caterers dispersed us by clearing the tables and rolling them across the dance floor. Designated cousins loaded the presents into cars, along with Cuz, who had passed out drunk. He was laid, face up, atop a pile of presents, arranging his hands on his belly with one of the Cow Lilys from the table arrangements standing straight up. My heart smiled. Yes, I’d been foolish, and more than once. But that had been my ego acting up, and overriding my better judgment, which happened from time to time. But my true self, my sense of duty and purpose, and code of honor, was rooted in these people. I knew what was expected of me.
On the drive back to Eureka I stopped at a roadside diner to show my wife a copy of the Journal. We couldn’t distribute it, I said. We had to bury this embarrassment to save the typesetting shop. I was sure Rama had spent our $1,500 and any money he might have collected for ads, if he’d sold any, and hadn’t just invented orders to string us along. She lifted the paper and leafed through it, wordlessly, before folding it and dropping it on her plate. Too bad, she said with a sad smile. We made it look pretty good for a worthless rag. Monday, I found Rama and told him we were through. He didn’t protest, just asked for the papers. I asked for our money back and that was that.
We thought nothing more of this until shortly before Christmas when Rama poked his head around our door. I hustled him back down to the sidewalk he proposed to sell us his half of the Journal for $250. I laughed, pointing toward Humboldt Bay and Highway 101. Head south, I suggested. He hesitated, read my face, and flipped his ponytail as he showed me his back. I watched him until he was just an orange sash, and when it disappeared I went back inside.
That was the last we saw of Rama, but not of the North Coast Journal. Eight years later, my wife and I founded a community paper with that name. But we soon sold it so I could become a big city journalist. For two decades I wrote about Silicon Valley and met some of the wunderkind whose names we remember and saw most of the Valley’s dreamers and schemers fail, and either take jobs or simply drift away. But the entrepreneurs I found most interesting were those who kept floating ideas. And every once in a great, great while, through persistence and the luck born of experience, they achieved some worldly success, because the ethos of the Valley placed little shame on honest failure.
I only wish that ethic had been what inspired me to quit the big city after 20 years to make a third run at editing a community paper. But I was trying to escape the disintegration of my marriage and outrun my demons. I failed, quickly and ignominiously and this time, in my mid-50s, a nervous breakdown and heart attack nearly killed me. Somehow, I climbed out of my hole. I unwound my marriage of more than 30 years and made amends as best I could with my family, with all my families. I rebooted my career and worked for nearly another decade in Silicon Valley before being put to pasture.
Yet even now, pushing 70, I still imagine that in my zig zag, up and down career I’ve gained some insights into how ordinary people might effect change through joint effort, coordinated through the internet, in pursuit of their shared beliefs. What does that even mean? I’m almost afraid to think, much less profess, what be a flight of fancy. But I believe it. And that’s the curse! Because believing without trying would burden me regret for eternity. Besides, with luck, persistence, and sounder judgment perhaps, as Rama would say, something might manifest.
This is a revised version of a series of posts that first appeared in 2007 on my former blog, MiniMediaGuy. – Tom Abate