North Coast Journal


Get a life; get a phone

by George Ringwald

It sits there on my desk a silent but intimidating monitor of my every move, its one red eye and one green staring at me dispassionately.

This is my new answering machine. Stupid name, stupid machine. It isn't capable of answering anything. And to think that 10 months ago I didn't even have a telephone.

I'd gone 10 years without one and got along just fine, thank you, despite the taunts of secretly envious friends.

"Get a life," they would tell me. "Get a computer, get a television, get a phone, for God's sake!"

I had a life. What I didn't have was a telephone, or any of those other demons of modern technology.

Oh, it was an annoyance at times - like in the beginning when the checkout person at the supermarket would look at the bank check I'd handed over for 40 bucks worth of groceries and then frown in disbelief when I said I couldn't give a telephone number because I didn't have a telephone. The manager would be called to check my ID, and all the customers behind me were starting to fidget and eyeing me with undisguised hostility.

So I took to winging it. They'd ask for my telephone number and I'd invent a plausible sounding one.

A son who once came along on a shopping trip told me sotto voce, "You can't do that." He was in training to be a lawyer at the time, and probably had visions of having to defend the old man on a perjury rap.

"Butt out," I told him politely. I knew that check wasn't going to bounce, and if a telephone number was enough to make that checker happy, who was I to unmake her day?

Things went along swimmingly until last spring when the North Coast Journal decided to vacate its office in Eureka's Old Town. That was within walking distance for me when I had copy to deliver and close enough for them to get me if it was an urgent matter. It rarely was. But then they moved to Arcata, and I realized I'd have to break down and get on the information superhighway.

The fellow at Pacific Bell who took my order for the telephone was suitably impressed when he learned of my long holdout. And how many phones did I want, he asked. Whaddaya mean, how many? One, of course. He laughed, said he knew people with teenagers in the house who had to have four or five telephones.

I wasn't planning to get either, I told him - teenagers or telephones. Wasn't going to get a television either. Ha, ha, he laughed - another year or two and he'd bet I'd have one on each wall of the house.

Ha, ha, yourself, I said. No way.

But today, seeing that I now have this blinkety-blink answering machine, he might chide me a bit, say that he could see the turning of the tide.

He'd have a point, I suppose, because I am now also in with the fast-lane crowd. Left the serenity of Eureka and Humboldt County for the madness of Riverside and Southern California. On leave from the North Coast to write a book on the history of The Press-Enterprise, the company where, back in 1948, I started in the newspaper game. (I don't like to call it journalism and I regard the term "media" with the same abhorrence I do "answering machines" and "word processors." You may process sausage, but not words.)

We didn't have answering machines back then. And not all that many telephones either in the old office of the Press and Enterprise newspapers. In fact, there was a cluster of us reporters at four desks in a center island of the old news room who shared one telephone. It was a constant up-and-down hassle to get the thing when you needed, so one of our more imaginative colleagues got the maintenance man to install the "horn pole." An iron pipe was bolted to the floor in the center of our cluster of desks, with a long swivel arm at the top, and the telephone affixed to one end of it. The only hazard was that you'd have to duck if the "horn" had to be swiveled over your head to another reporter.

We didn't have many freeways four decades ago either - they were just coming into style. But they certainly have them here now - all over the place - and if you're in the outside or fast lane, you'd better be doing at least 70 miles an hour if you don't want to get run down.

I avoid them as much as possible, but I did happen onto one the other day. I'm happily zipping along at the legal speed limit of 55 in the slow lane, when I note a CHP black-and-white in the middle lane. He was doing maybe 60, and guys (and gals) were cruising by him on the outside lane at their customary 70-75 mph without getting a rise out of the cop.

But then highway speeders may be the least of his worries these days. Almost every day my copy of the friendly Press-Enterprise brings me half a dozen stories of crime and violence on the local not-so-friendly scene.

On the day I'm writing this, there was a report of a shootout in neighboring San Bernardino between CHP officers and a couple of car thieves; the good guys won out. Another story told of a jailhouse confession that could lead to the death penalty for two San Diego-area gang members accused of killing two teenagers last February in Banning, a city in the San Gorgonio Pass.

Another shooting incident, on the campus of San Jacinto College, not too far from Banning, led to the arrest of a man on suspicion of attempted murder. And in Riverside a 15-year-old gang member was reported in critical condition after being stabbed in the back "multiple times" by members of a rival gang.

This is not the Riverside County that I remember from covering the

police beat for the Riverside Press and Enterprise newspapers in the late 1940s and '50s.

Good grief, they have more violent crime here now in one day than I can remember in a month. (Of course, Riverside, the county seat, had barely reached a population of 50,000 back then, and today it's four times that.)

When I think about the gang scene in Humboldt County, of which we wrote in the North Coast Journal in March 1994, why, it's almost pastoral compared to what they have here. A concerned Riverside Police Department reports the number of local gang members up from 1,600 in 1991 to about 4,000 today. Still, that's small potatoes, I guess, compared to what they must have in Los Angeles, just 50 miles to the west. It's all relative.

One of the pleasant surprises on arriving here in early November was tofind the air so clean, the sky so blue. What happened to their infamous smog,I wondered.

Not to worry. It's still around, but in new forms. Recently I read that smog levels this past summer were at a 40-year low. But about the same time I also read that Southern California smog is now so bad the "it pours chemicals into mountain streams, contributing to pollution in the region's drinking water ..."

A more recent report is that the fight against smog will shift now to the more worrisome airborne particles of soot and dust.

(I'm wondering if those are the same kind of particles that we breathed from the old "smudge pots" orange growers would fire up in their groves when winter temperatures dripped below freezing? I don't remember much concern

about carcinogens back then. All we knew was that it was hell on white shirts, which were the only kind men wore, and collars were black by the time we got to work.)

"The Riverside area," I read in the Press-Enterprise, "is one of the four spots in California where more people inhale unhealthful doses of particles than anywhere else in the state, according to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency."

The only solution I see is not to inhale, but who in the world's going to teach us how to do that?

As if this weren't enough to fret about, the killer bees are on their way here. They first turned up in Riverside County in October, near Blythe at the eastern edge of the county, at a state prison. (Suggests another version of cruel and unusual punishment.) I understand that these Africanized honey bees are due in Riverside this summer. I figure that with any luck they'll all be wiped out by the summer smog.

People here, though, don't seem too worried about any of this. Near as I can tell, they're more intent on just getting somewhere fast on the freeways. Ironically, the freeways all too often, from what I read, are tied up by miles of backed-up traffic thanks to an accident up ahead, usually caused by some driver trying to get somewhere too fast.

Probably trying to order a pizza on his car phone.

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