Through some fluke of coincidence I just happen to be the same age, 67 this week, as the newspaper I have worked for the past ten years, the nationally distributed but locally marginalized Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Yes, it was ten years ago I started covering the activities of the local courts, the first week of January, 2009. But before we open the wine and cut the cake, let us ask the guest of honor, the birthday boy, as it were, what, if anything, has he learned after a full round decade on the crime beat?
Well, dear readers, faithful fans and sour critics alike, let me begin with some background music in the form of my motives for coming here in the first place.
First off, I had been shown the AVA in various places during my travels over the years, and whether it was in Minneapolis, Denver, Albuquerque, Portland or Missoula, it was always in the hands of some pretty sharp cookies. So I often wondered if I could somehow ever go out to Boonville and write for such an impressive broadsheet. And then, in the fall of 2008 when it looked like the jig was up, with the economy teetering so precariously, and my own financial position rendered untenable, I decided it was now or never, and launched my fat ass westward-ho to the mythical Mendoland to see if I measured up to the AVA’s journalistic standards.
It had been quite a while since I had last seen the AVA, and couldn’t remember exactly where it was located. As I got closer – say from Eugene to Garberville, the more people I met who had never heard of it. In fact, I’d been working at the Woodrose Café in Garberville for a month or more and nobody seemed to know about it (come to find out it had been banned from Garberville), when I finally found it on the counter at Redway Liquors a couple of miles up the road.
I came to Ukiah at Christmastime, and had to go to Fort Bragg because the Ukiah City rules forbade anyone staying at the Buddy Eller homeless shelter who was not a county resident. Having got myself established at the Hospitality House over the holidays, I went to work that first week of the New Year at the Ten Mile Court, Judge Jonathan Lehan presiding.
In those days the District Attorney was Meredith Lintott, and the policy for busting people in the pot business was arbitrary and indiscriminate. To DA Lintott, anyone who smoked weed was as guilty as the growers, and great herds of trimmers were rounded up and charged with cultivation and possession for sale – often as not, the growers who were making all the money were never even indicted. But the first thing I learned was that there was a certain demographic in the county (Ms. Lintott being a prime example) who absolutely loathed the paper I was working for and, therefore, dismissed me out of hand. Needless perhaps to say, I felt this was unfair.
Indeed, in years gone by I had snickered over some of the deliciously amusing misadventures of local politicians and business people, as they were delineated (not to say caricatured) in the AVA, and thought, “My God, these people are truly awful!” and, “It’s about time someone had the nerve to publish a paper that doesn’t let ‘em get away with such shenanigans!”
But when I finally met the very same people in person I must say I was shocked to find they were ten times worse than they had been tricked out to be. In many cases these people sought me out soon after they learned who I was and came to me with the notion that I should set the record straight for them. Invariably, when I advised them to write their letters to the editor, and speak up for themselves, they used to cite the old saw, “Never argue with somebody who buys ink by the barrel” — meaning, of course, Bruce Anderson, who would win the debate because the cost of printer’s ink would bankrupt a common citizen. Right.
What it all boiled down to in all these cases was not only had the offending story been all too true, but the other aspect – that an inimical opinion had been printed – left them viciously resentful because, in truth, they were too incompetent to write a convincing rejoinder.
What these characters seemed to expect from me was the kind of reporting that I had been trying all my career to get away from, the staid stuff of the mainstream media, too sedate and overly cautious of offending potential advertisers, to ever get to the bottom of any story, and bring to light the tawdry motives of the people in question. They – these locals I’m talking about – wanted to hide behind the limitations of “professional” journalism (the fastidious avoidance of ever calling a spade a spade, as it were, because of connotations the well-connected might find offensive) to get away with what essentially is the reason for most of the world’s ills: Cupidity and Incompetence in high office. And they expected me to intercede with my employers on their behalf. By now, I hope they’ve learned I’m not their man.
The next lesson I learned was that petty tyrants in power who had had their political noses tweaked by the AVA were by and large, ubiquitous, and any time one of them left office he or she was replaced by a kind of clone; that is to say, an equally incompetent and grasping ass was all that was available to fill the void.
There is a danger here, as I say this, of my coming in the perfect ass myself, of pretending to be the high-minded model of ability and morality. I therefore hasten to pluck my forelock and hang my head in modesty, if not humility. I have made a great many foolish and embarrassing blunders over the past ten years – not to mention the rest of my life – and my editors and fact-checkers have not quite caught them all. So I’m not claiming any moral high ground, much less boasting up my competence. I fully realize I could be replaced as easily as anyone else, and I fear it would probably be for the better if I were. But until my replacement appears, I will simply muddle on in my own way, the best I can.
Another thing I’ve learned over the years in Mendoland is that, all things being equal, and all parties being equally imperfect – which is to say all too human – that loyalty is the prime trait anyone expects of his or her underlings. Anything else – except extreme cases of embezzlement (a form of disloyalty) – can be, if not forgiven, at least overlooked. Therefore, I’ve learned to “model myself on the dog,” as Rabelais would say, a nobler beast than any man or woman I ever met.
Also, I’ve learned that Mendocino County, for all its shortcomings – due to the faults of its inhabitants, nothing intrinsically wrong with the land itself – is a far better place to live than many – indeed, all – of the other places I’ve lived, such as Southern California and the Rocky Mountains, both of which are full to overflowing with conservatives of the most condescending and supercilious kind, and that even the worst people here in Mendoland are a cut above your average New Yorker, Georgian, Utahan, Montanan, Minnesotan, Coloradoan, Oregonian, and Canadian – especially the Boonvillians, they’re the best ever!
And that’s the final lesson I’ve learned so far: Regionalism is a kind of patriotism that outranks nationalism; and that’s why I’ve come to think of Mendoland as a kind of God’s County, but in the secular sense, more of a Gaia’s County!
Now then – uncork the Scharffenberger, and bumpers all around!