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Faces in the Crowd

A misty morning in the Canyon. Fog spills over the mountains, down the slopes and through the passes, enribboning the oak trees in strands of silver. A dog barks on a far slope. Dawn comes muted and mysterious to the Santa Monicas.

It’s a morning made for autumn.

I have awakened early in a silent house. My word processor faces out a window toward a light that spreads like soft pastels through my workroom. Shadows touch a far wall. The whole world is a still-life.

I had come awake in darkness burdened by a problem most writers wish they had. How does one introduce a new column? I mean, how does one introduce a new column that isn’t a new column, which is to say a new column that has been running for almost five years?

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You seem confused. It’s this way:

I began writing essays once a week for the Westside Section of The Times in January, 1984. Nine months later, the column expanded to twice a week in the Valley Edition.

Once a week in the Westside, twice a week in the Valley. That adds up to three for those who slept through math.

Good but not good enough. A larger audience was out there beyond the Valley and beyond the Westside. Life does not stop at the borders of Burbank and Culver City.

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But the rest of L.A. was beyond reach of my assignment. They were faces in a distant crowd.

I felt like a man standing in the rain, looking in on a party.

“You have a combined circulation in your two sections larger than most newspapers,” my wife said to me one day. “What more do you want?”

“I want it all.”

I began to lobby. Well, no. First I began to write. The way to an editor’s heart, I have learned, is through my word processor. I built my essays like a mother raises babies, with an attention to detail far beyond normal requirements.

Then I began to lobby. What I wanted was a full-run column three days a week in Metro. I wanted to write about all of L.A., not just parts of it.

Success requires persistence in pursuit of a goal. Swallow denial and seek again. Career survival is relative. I’d rather be eaten by lions than never approach the watering hole.

I begged, wheedled and cajoled. Years of marriage have made me an expert at it. I haven’t had to take out the garbage since 1973.

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At first the editors said no and ignored me . . . and then one day, zap, they said yes.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. I met the new executive editor. He said, “An interesting idea” and “Maybe we’ll give it a try” and “Why do you want to write a column?”

No one had ever asked me that before.

I said, “Well . . . " and “Hmmm . . . " and “The thing is . . . " and finally I said, “That’s an interesting question,” and never answered it.

Who knows why? L.A. sprawls before us like a kingdom in Disneyland, funny and strange and sad and terrifying, rich in the untapped potential of a thousand and one columns, waiting for a guy like me to amble along.

So I’m here.

“What are you doing up?”

Dawn had burned through the fog, touching with diagonals of sunlight those who awakened with sleep in their eyes.

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I looked up. My wife stood in the doorway.

“I can’t figure out how to start my ‘born-again’ journalist column,” I said.

She stretched and yawned. “Just say good morning and tell them who you are and what you do. You want coffee?”

She left the room. I sat staring at the empty doorway. What a brilliant idea.

Twice I had begun columns that expounded on the parameters of my new beat. Twice I had droned on about the issues I would cover and the people I would write about. The people in Pomona and Bellflower and Azusa and other bastions of Free World thought.

Especially Bellflower.

It’s a family joke. “Keep rattling cages,” my wife likes to say, “and someday you’ll have that little hardware store in Bellflower you’ve always wanted.”

Twice I began those first-column columns and twice I blinked them into cosmic oblivion. My wife was right. Keep it simple.

I looked out the window. The last strands of mist had melted against the mountains. The heat of the day was coming. Los Angeles was stirring to life.

I turned back to my word processor to follow a good woman’s advice. Simple indeed.

Good morning. My name is Martinez. I write.


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