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My Outsider and Insider Experience

When I arrived by bus, with just one suitcase, in Sonoma County at the end of 1975, I felt like an outsider, though my parents had settled there in 1970 and were homesteading near the town of Occidental. I liked being an outsider. I had been one when I lived in Manchester, England in the 1960s and again in Mexico City, the year before I arrived at the bus stop in Cotati. One of the advantages of the outsider, I learned from experience, is that he or she has a certain detachment by virtue of being unaffiliated with an organization or institution and even a nation. Affiliations don’t have to be negative, but they can exert pressures on reporters and writers and can lead to self-censorship. I have done some of that, though I'm not proud of it.

A few years after I arrived in Sonoma, I went to work for the federal government as a census taker, a job that provided credentials and enabled me to go places that were often invisible, and observe people who didn’t want to be observed. Once, for example, I drove down a long dirt road, came upon the ruins of a house and saw a group of farm workers who were camping there and who were heating beans and tortillas over an open fire. When they first saw me they picked up rocks and were about to toss them at me, but I explained that I meant them no harm and we parted amicably. 

I saw the living conditions of migrants long before anyone did an expose about them. I also witnessed the collapse of the apple industry around Sebastopol before it was widely reported because it was “bad news” and local media including The Press Democrat didn’t want to report bad news about local citizens and the local economy. That would be bad for business. What also wasn’t reported in the media in the late 1970s was the whole clandestine world of marijuana, which I first learned about because my father was growing marijuana and keeping his patch a secret from my mother. 

A neighbor showed me his patch and suggested that I write about marijuana, but most growers I met didn’t want to cooperate. They felt that an article about marijuana would lead to police raids and confiscation of their crops. Law enforcement officers, including the sheriff of Mendocino County— didn’t want me to write about it either, because they felt an article would show that at best they confiscated 10% of the total acreage in cannabis. When I wrote and published a story for The San Francisco Examiner about cannabis in and around Willits, local citizens were upset, though the chief of police had been helpful and so had the county sheriff Tom Jondahl. Indeed, Jondahl told me that he received phone calls from law enforcement officers in New York City who confiscated cannabis that was labeled “Made in Mendocino, California.” He had to save face, he told me, and go through the motions of enforcing the law, though he also explained that the people he arrested and sent to jail for cultivation would soon be out of jail, cultivating again and shipping cannabis to New York. 

In those days, about the only Mendocino County official who wanted to tell the truth about cannabis was agricultural commissioner, Ted Erickson, who included the value of cannabis in the annual crop report and got into hot water with the county Board of Supervisors for doing so. I did a story called “California’s Dirty Little Secret,” but could find no publication to print it. In New York in 1980, when I tried to get a book contract to write about cannabis in California, editors at publishing companies told me that marijuana belonged to the 1960s, and was a thing of the past. 

I was undeterred, though I soon discovered that in order to write accurately and fairly about the cannabis scene I had to become part of it. I couldn't trust anyone to tell me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I had to see it for myself. Indeed, I had to become an insider. I turned myself into a marijuana grower and dealer. I grew in the hills east of Willits in an area in which almost everyone cultivated cannabis. More than 75 growers would show up for the annual harvest party, which was off limits to the media. I wrote about it for High Times magazine under the pseudonym, Joe Delicado, and changed the names of real growers and dealers to protect both the innocent and the guilty. Six years in the cannabis trade felt like a long time and I decided that I wanted to get out and go straight. in a manner of speaking. I wanted to go whole hog and become a genuine Sonoma County insider, though for a year or so I was afraid I’d be busted for cannabis before I could make the transition safely. 

I wasn’t arrested. I joined the faculty at Sonoma State University and became a professor, and at the same time wrote for The Press Democrat. For years I even had a regular column about books and authors, which appeared in the Sunday section called “Forum.” As an insider at the university and at the newspaper I saw and heard what went on behind closed doors. I learned what stories the PD editorial board approved of and what stories they disapproved of. I saw, too, that the editorial board favored the old Santa Rosa families who had made money in banking, real estate and development. At Sonoma State I saw what passed for academia, teaching and scholarship and that the old boys network was often as powerful as the meritocracy. Recently, I’ve wanted to go back to being an outsider and to detach myself. 

For a long time, I loved where I lived, and also loved the people who lived and worked here. Then I was bombarded with the message “Love Where You Live.” I saw it in newspaper headlines and read it in newspaper stories. I heard county officials tell me to love Sonoma and to be kind to my neighbors, and, while I'd rather be kind than unkind I know that kindness alone won't solve the problems of homelessness, hunger and environmental destruction. As soon as “Love Where You Live’ became a mantra, I wanted out. Any place that tells its citizens to love it, isn’t a place where I want to live. That kind of insider I don't want to be. I’d rather leave it than be compelled to love it. Indeed, I’m on my way out of Sonoma County, slowly but surely. I’m going someplace else, someplace where I can be an outsider again and look at it with fresh eyes.


  1. jackie raine February 8, 2020

    i have lived in the hills of occidental for fifty years, where was you family place, and where pray tell are you bound for, i too am wondering where next, but haven’t a notion, my mom taught at sonoma state for twenty five years.

  2. Jonah Raskin February 16, 2020

    I am glad I am an outsider someplace!

  3. Elizabeth March 19, 2020

    Your writing is beautiful. Thank you.

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