Then, in a pawn shop in New Mexico…

A couple of weeks ago, I challenged myself to come up with a story I’ve never told before. I’ve written about 7.2 million published words (I know, right?), and probably a quarter of them were devoted to telling mostly true stories of my childhood, my family life, my adventures, and my encounters with animals large and small. So is it possible that I’ve told all my stories? Must I only mine the future?

First of all, there are many stories I’ve never told, and never will tell. Most of what went on in 1971, for instance — that’s never going to see the light of day. And that time with the Xerox machine and the disused sauna and a large stuffed muffin — forget it. Although, caution: Stuffed muffins are flammable.

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Another story you won’t be hearing

So I found one:

The year was 1979. I was the editor of New West magazine, based in Beverly Hills. New West was owned by Rupert Murdoch, but he didn’t care about it. He’d bought it by accident when he acquired New York magazine.

Later he confessed to me that he’d once bought an airline by mistake.

Anyway, Rupert left me alone. I could do what I wanted, as long as it wasn’t obscene or libelous — unless “obscene or libelous” caused a notable circulation spike. I had fabulous editors; I had great writers; I had a few ideas. In 1979, the magazine was nominated for four National Magazine Awards. That was a very big deal back then; it was sort of like winning an Oscar.

And I won one. The story was “Hell on the Wheels” by Moira Johnston, about defects in Firestone tires. Within three months of publication, Moira was testifying before Congress, her shredded tire by her side. The editor of the piece was my beloved executive editor Rosalie Muller Wright. But, hey, I was there too, waving my hands in an encouraging manner. And my name was on the citation.

The winners were announced at a gala lunchtime event at the Plaza Hotel. The industry was there. I shook hands with many masthead names and a few demigods. “David Halberstam, why yes, of course I know who you are…”.  Sadly, I did not get to go on stage to accept the award. Joe Armstrong, the New York-based publisher, decided to take the credit. Not that I’m bitter. My one and only chance to…oh hell. It was really Rosalie’s award anyway.

But then Joe handed me the Ellie.

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David Remnick fondles his many Ellies

The Ellie is the Alexander Calder-designed stabile (as opposed to a mobile) that is given to each winner. Calder didn’t call it anything; someone else thought it resembled an elephant and named it. It was a heavy bit of hardware, and it had pointy ends. My first thought, as I was standing there hefting it in the swirl of people in the huge loud room, was that it would be a perfect instrument for murder. I may have been looking at Joe Armstrong at the time.

An hour later, after we’d made a call to the home office and shared the love, me and Ellie hopped into a cab and rode downtown. Ellie rested on my lap; I kept stroking her curves.  I got out at 80 University Place and rode the struggling elevator up the fifth floor. I carried the award through the newsroom, and people applauded, just like in the movies.

I was at the Village Voice,  which was the place in New York where I felt most at home. I sat near M. Mark and Karen Durbin, two of my favorite women, and I loosened my tie and told the story three or four times. I was in the part of journalism I loved, the big ugly room with the congenial pals and the droll remarks and the casual insults. Word-drunk people deep in their addiction.

I hauled the Ellie around all night. It sat on a coffee table and a regular table and a bureau and, eventually, on the floor. I loved my Ellie.

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New York, center of everything

I had to give it up the next day. Publisher Swift Lockhart needed to show it to advertisers as he sought a little prestige business. (I know it seems like I had three publishers, but, you know, long story. Long boring story). I saw it again in his office. I posed for pictures with it.

Then it disappeared.

I figured Swift stole it. I think he thought we didn’t deserve it. He didn’t care for us much, although he was as smiley and glad-handy as a guy can be. He was from Mad Men-era Madison Avenue, where geniality in the face of pretty much anything was the norm. He had secret demons, I was sure.

I learned later that he thought I’d stolen it. I wish.

Twenty-two years later, I was killing time in Santa Fe and I entered a small pawn shop on a side street near the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. I was mostly looking for deep shade, and the shop was dark and cool. In the back room, I found a leather-bound trunk about the size of a dishwasher. More from curiosity then for any real reason, I asked the proprietor…you’re not believing this, are you? It would be a great story, but it never happened. Life is filled with disappointments.

I never did see Ellie again. The magazine got bought, the staff scattered, I moved to San Francisco and got another job. But it was a great afternoon.

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I just couldn’t be happier

_______

This is another story, but it’s more in the way of a cautionary tale.  The years was 2015. I was meeting my friend Mary in San Francisco. We were going to have dinner at Dobbs Ferry and then see the Pop-Up Magazine, as conceived by the energetic people at California Sunday Magazine, which is the closest thing to New West since New West.

There was traffic. There is always traffic from the East Bay to the city, and I had allowed for it, but not enough time. I shoulda taken BART, but I didn’t, which is too bad because it’s going to fall apart within a decade. Have you noticed that public transportation systems all over the country are breaking at more or less that same time? The DC Metro is going to have to close for nine months or more, and BART is basically the same system.  Was I saying something?

So the traffic was bad, and NPR was boring, and I began fretting about Mary, sitting in that restaurant nursing a white wine and fending off strangers. I did not want to text her, because I am a slow texter and I did not want take my eyes off the road. Ah, but Siri! She’s always giving, giving, giving. “Text Mary,” I said,  and summed my current plight.

Finally I got to the restaurant. “Did you get my text?” I asked her. “I got your text,” she said. She showed me her phone. I have preserved the text in all its glory.

“Yes well I’m in San Francisco anyway I think the best thing for out party right now if you have 247 Republican Kevin.”

Would you not worry about a friend who sent you that text? Would you not be concerned about cognitive impairment? Indeed. So here’s the lesson: Never text with Siri when the radio’s on.

______________

One more brief thing. I’ve seen a lot of theater this winter, and the hands- down winner is “The Heir Apparent” at the Aurora Theater. Farce is so hard to do well; it requires a deep commitment to silliness.  When that happens, though, the results can be hysterical. The actors are all splendid (I mention in particular Katie Rubin), and the script by David Ives is wonderfully anarchic.  Closes May 22; tickets available.

 

Photography (except for the Ellies) by Tracy Johnston

Explanations for the simple-minded by Michelle Mizera

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35 thoughts on “Then, in a pawn shop in New Mexico…

  1. How do you do it, another great bunch of stories. I’m sitting in a film production office, the closest I can get to an old newsroom, laughing out loud, looks from my coworkers. Shouldn’t I be working. Thanks

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  2. Still chuckling about your using Siri while driving with the radio on. Wonderful story of the times. Future thought: if we mix distracted driving with distracted robot texting, imagine the fun we’ll have with the self-driving vehicle when Apple comes out with a Siri-controlled car.

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  3. Only problem I had with your story is that there are no side streets near the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts. It’s up on Museum Hill at the top of Camino Lejo. And an adobe jewel box it is. Ellie would probably be in a back room somewhere in Old Town, Albuquerque.

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  4. BOOO! BOOO! Damn, Jon, couldn’t you lie, just a little? You had me hooked up to the suitcase bit and then KAPLOOEY! My dreams were smashed. A cheap but appealing writer’s trick. And please…if you can’t give us a happy ending at least use CORRECT ENGLISH. You’re as bad as those uneducated, overpaid athletes when you say “me and Ellie hopped into the cab”. Where’s that Editor when you need him or her?

    Your Admirer, Donald Lowrey

    >

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          1. Wow! Who says the media are unresponsive?

            On another note, for selfish reasons I actually prefer you in this venue, although I’m sure your bankbook doesn’t. (There’s a reference that dates me.) First the Chron started dicking around (a techical term) with its columnists, then it put you behind a paywall. So I regretfully lost touch with the only reason I had, no longer living in the Bay Area, to pay for a subscription. Yes, you might have been worth it alone, but you weren’t the one pocketing the dinero. Anyway, it’s great to get back to reading you and, by God, if someday you decide to start charging a modest fee, I for one will pony up.

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  5. The Chron should be ashamed for allowing you to get away, & should be begging you to come back– under your own terms. And we should be paying the Chron only half as much for our subscriptions now, the bastards. Make that one-third as much.

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      1. That is horrible. Really. What’s almost more horrible is they seem to think that a soccer mom would be a good substitute….

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        1. Horrible or not, that’s the way of the media world, especially when the job isn’t reporting hard news or sports. I put in 40 years as a journalist, writer and editor, with a few years in government and good-deeds PR early on. Most of it was in magazines and newspapers, in just about every type of print publication there was. I did some hard news, but mostly toiled in the vast amorphous area called “features”, which is everything but news and sports. The content creators — folks like Jon and me — toiled away in a deadline-crazy pressure cooker along with a gang of similar souls — writers, editors, photographers, designers, etc. — whose egos needed constant prodding and coddling. If you were any good in your chosen area of endeavour, you soon got promoted out of your level of competence into being a supervisor (albeit usually with little training or experience in managing people). Being an editor in charge of an entire publication, or even a part of one, is a godawful scary job. It equates to trying to herd everything from pussycats to lions with nothing more than a pica stick as a tool. Journalists never seem to get enough feedback, which is why there are so many awards. It’s journalists rewarding other journalists with “attaboy” honors, because reader feedback usually is negative, and publishers and those types on the business side only care about circulation and ad revenue, not whether your latest article or column or photo or layout design was well received by the readers/subscribers. If the publisher and his/her minions decided it was time for you to go, for whatever business reasons they chose to cite, your time was up. Jon Carroll was the primary reason I subscribed to the Chronicle. Much like Herb Caen before him, his columns spoke to me about what it means to be alive and in California today. In sports parlance, I viewed Jon as a “franchise writer,” just as Herb Caen was. It’s quite telling that the Chronicle hasn’t found a replacement.

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          1. Yeah, that’s pretty much the thing. Turnover is fierce at the paper just now, and job slashes are common. The remaining copy editors do the work of four or five humans. And reporters are on call essentially 24/7, no matter what their area of expertise is. Let’s put the education writer on thje dead whale, in addition to grinding out the long articles of analysis and covering of breaking news in 80m zillion school districts. And so forth.

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  6. This is exactly the column I used to love in the Chron and now have to love online. Well done, Jon!

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  7. My own little story about New West mag… A lovely couple, family friends of my dad, lived in Penngrove when I was a boy. Although I had no idea at the time, their taste in Mid-Century Modern was, in hindsight, apparently impeccable. Eames lounges and Jacobsen Egg and Grand Prix chairs were all over when we paid a visit.

    Me? I was far more interested in if they had any cools trucks left in their grown son’s toybox.

    While my parents subscribed to National Geographic, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Donovans would gift us with boxes of back issues of The New Yorker, Sunset, and our very own Jon Carroll’s New West. So it was that I found cool, general interest writing intended for adults. (What all the kids today call long form).

    The article from all of the boxes of newly old magazines that still leaves an impression today was from the January 1981 edition of New West: “Beware the Banzai Runners. Freeway Outlaws: out of the night at 200 mph” (thank you Interwebs!)

    What 12yr old boy wouldn’t be seized by the idea of street racing Lolas or souped up Cadillac DeVilles with 900 hp airplane engines in them racing on I-15 at 3 am?

    Jon- was that you, or was that after your stint at New West?

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    1. if it was January, that was me. We did a couple of articles on street racing, actually, and one of them became a movie. It would be good if I remembered the name of the name of the movie.

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