My amusing life, maybe

We got tickets to see Don Reed at the Berkeley Marsh. The name of the show is “East 14th,” and every Oakland citizen should know a little something about that street, which is an important highway through the part of Oakland where black lives matter less than they should. People grow up there; Don Reed, a hugely successful African-American writer and performer, grew up there.

His father was a pimp; his mother was an addict. And yet his show is filled with love and humor. He sees East 14th for what it is: Home.

Somewhere in Oakland

(East 14th is now officially called International Boulevard, one of those civic attempts to make flatlands streets seem more classy. I note that 6th Avenue in New York City officially became Avenue of the Americas in 1945, but that didn’t take either).

The show started at seven, and we were there in plenty of time. Left to my devices, I would (and occasionally have) showed up way early, even before the doors opened. Tracy hates that, but I have been known to pout if we leave late. Or “late,” as Tracy might say.

We got there at quarter of. The place was busier than usual for a Marsh Sunday show, which is a good thing. We had paid for our seats online. The person who was supposed to be at the ticket desk was somewhere else, but the Marsh often features one person doing the job of three, so I didn’t fret. We were paying customers; we were secure in our virtue.

It was festival seating, which is always such  a pain. I found some vacant seats and inched over the assembled knees to get to them. I sat down, and the woman next to me said, “those seats are taken.” She wasn’t particularly friendly; you might even say that her voice dripped with disdain. But I rise to these occasions. I thought, but did not say, that polite people use a sweater or a scarf to mark a  taken seat.

I stood up and looked around. “Trace, we could get those two seats.” I pointed. We scrunched our way back across the hazardous thighs. We entered the other row. “These seats are taken too,” said another woman. She was even less friendly than the first.

I rose to the occasion once again. I’m almost like a saint. “Oh,” I said cheerfully. I had a smile in my voice. I am not bothered by the trivial things in life. I am a spiritual being having a human experience. Unmarked chairs? I laugh at the rudeness of people.

“All the seats in this row are taken,” the less friendly woman said, although none of them were marked either. “You’ll have to go upstairs.” OK, fine. We found the stairs (behind a sign marked “Do Not Enter”) and went up. Every seat up there was taken —I mean, really taken, occupied by human bodies. Hey, I thought, we bought tickets; how can there not be seats for us? We walked around the balcony; no seats. I thought to myself: “Well, this blows.”

We were walking back down the stairs when a woman leaned over the rail. “You the people looking for seats?” We were. We went back up; she had found some folding chairs leaning against the wall. We took those and sat in the corner; the stage was an at extreme right angle to us. We were able to see a lot of Don Reed’s right ear.

We waited. We smiled to indicate that we did not mind being in the worst seats in the house even though we had bought tickets and gotten there early, dammit. Nothing was going to distract  us from our theatrical enjoyment. A voice came over the loudspeaker:

“Thank  you, and welcome back to the second act of East 14th!”

The second act? The second act? What?

Then it all clicked into place. We had gotten the time wrong. The ticket desk was unoccupied because it was the second act. The people downstairs had been unfriendly because we were apparently trying to move up and poach some worthy citizen’s seat. Maybe you can change seats halfway through a baseball game, but in a small, crowded theater, it’s just rude. And the woman who took pity on us was being extraordinarily kind despite our clear willful deviation from social norms.

I was grateful, however, that I had not given the unfriendly woman my lecture about the right way to save seats. I was even more grateful that I did not, at any time, say out loud: “Hey, we bought our damn tickets! A little respect here!”

I wanted to run downstairs and apologize to both unfriendly ladies, but the show had started. Don Reed was talking in an amusing manner. He was starting in the middle, it being the second act and all, but maybe we could pick it up. After a minute, I leaned over to Tracy and said:

“We’ve seen this.”


I showed Tracy a draft of the above. She read it, thought about it, and said, “you could include an amusing squabble.”  We did indeed have a squabble, less than amusing, in which I noted mildly that it was all her fault. She protested, so in the middle of all this (perceived) humiliation, we were hissing at each other all the way out of the theater.

That’s OK; we’re both single children raised by parents who believed that we were golden entities destined to achieve, well, something good — and decent and kind and earth-shattering. Two results of that: (1) We are used to getting our own way, and (2) we came to rely on our own judgment about what was smart or appropriate or important. So we bicker. People who know us understand. Out friend Rachel once said, “we just enjoy watching you guys.” So, right: Think of it as a comedy routine. Which, upon reflection, it often is.

But still: I was interested that she was mining our personal life for things that might sex up the story a little bit. Conflict! People like conflict! So let’s do some self-intrusion; let’s be our own paparazzi. Of course, that’s what I’ve been doing for 45 years, and I always thought it was a creepy way to make a living. I hadn’t realized that my wife had developed the same habit. We really are doing this blog together.

Adair Lara , another practitioner of my-life-is-fodder journalism, had a great take on this. She wrote about her father a lot, and she was often asked how he was doing. “That was fine; I appreciated the interest. But when they started talking about their fathers, I knew I’d done my job.”

Processing family data is universal; that’s why people write about it, because universal = good. On the other hand, I think maybe it’s gotten out of hand. I read the four new columnists currently rotating on the back page of the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle — my former space — and I think: Could you maybe sometimes talk about something other than your families?

But here I am, writing about making mistakes and feeling shame and, potentially, about a little personal (you’d think) marriage dynamics. There’s nothing like internal contradictions to sex up a blog.


Elsewhere in Oakland


Photography by Tracy Johnston

General usefulness by Michelle Mizera


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.

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.

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