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Al Martinez: The bard who sang everyone's songs

That's Al Martinez's desk, the copy boy told me. That's where the guy cut his wrists.

Like most Times readers, I knew about Al Martinez.

Like very few Times readers, I knew Al Martinez.

I was old enough to drive but not old enough to drink when I began to write for the paper, a lamentable thing to the last few reporters who still buffered their workdays with the emollient of booze.

A copy boy – that’s what we called them, and that’s what they were; there were damn few women in that male citadel of yore – pointed reverently to a desk that looked like any other in the newsroom.

That’s Al Martinez’s desk, he told me. That’s where the guy cut his wrists.

In 1973, the acting Filipino consul general, distraught over the Marcos regime, blazed into the Times office to announce he was seeking political asylum. He was shown to Martinez’s desk to tell his story, and there, he took a razor blade to his left wrist and theatrically used his own blood to sign a document defecting from the Philippines, calling Marcos a “new Hitler.”

Al wrote it. He wrote it all; just about everybody’s story found a place in Al’s typewriter: the down and out and the up and coming, the has-beens and the wannabes, the tragically mad and the goofily nutty. Al wove their words and his, like so many threads into a fabric that was the story of Los Angeles.

After hours, when reporters swap the tales that don’t make it into print, and the ones about themselves, he’d hold forth with a martini at hand, having publicly derided the abominations of flavored cocktails. “I do not want a milkshake or a pink daiquiri," he told one waitress. "I would like a vodka martini straight up with an olive."

Al was a generous mentor, helpful to a kid who was just getting her reporter’s feet under her. But I think the moment I moved from kid to "colleague" was at one of those big, genial, after-hours reporter get-togethers, when I ordered a brandy, and warmed it over the candle flame on the table. “Wow,” Al said. “Classy.”

Only Al could take the story of a fat, one-eyed homicide detective who carried LAPD badge No. 1, and make it so enticing that the MGM people made a TV series out of it. Al ended up writing for other TV shows, which made him a glamorous figure in what was then a rather seedy Times newsroom. Al never really seemed like a “fit” in the sleek and chic newsrooms of nowadays; any real newsroom worth the name was decorated with coffee stains and topped-up trash cans and dog-eared dictionaries and rumpled sports coats.

Al could have been the star of his own TV series. He was a combat Marine, a newsman who covered the rough waterfronts of Oakland and the chichi banlieus of L.A., and walked with a “you and whose Army?” saunter. He was a man with the Spanish surname who didn’t speak Spanish. (I found this out the day he asked me how to spell “enchilada.”)

I last saw Al in October, at a birthday party for another former Times stalwart, Bill Boyarsky. Al was using a portable oxygen tank but his gravelly voice, never heard by most of his fans, still had its perpetual sly edge, as if he were about to find something somewhere to laugh about, which he usually did.

But his true voice was the one on paper, the one he used to speak to millions. Though we’ve lost Al, we will never lose that voice.

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

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