“Blackwood stopped writing here, unsure how to proceed. Was he writing a column for The Free Weekly (otherwise known as the Freek), his column — called, imaginatively enough, ‘Weekend’ — or a Gratitude or Serenity journal entry, as his therapist had recommended? He had no idea. But like some ancient bard, Homer or someone, he would often start any piece of work with an invocation to the muses — in his case, more and more often. This consisted of a kind of weather report. It would grease the wheels, lubricate the old flow. It was becoming a habit. For a time he considered it a signature Blackwood opening, but it was now becoming a cliché. Still, it served a purpose.
“He remembered tending bar at a West Side soak-hole in New York City, at 68th and Columbus. During the days, that bar, with the unfortunate name of Sparkels, was a lunch spot for actors, grips, and cameramen for two soap operas shot across the street at ABC studios. The local ABC news was shot just down the street as well, and Harry Reasoner was a welcome regular. He would greet Reasoner daily with, ‘How’s World War III coming, Harry?’ To which Reasoner would reply, ‘Be patient.’
“Sparkels would also host print-news writers in the early to late afternoon. Among them was John Elliott from the Voice, who gave Blackwood the enduring advice that ‘the lead is always in the second graph.’ He insisted that it made almost no difference what was in that first paragraph. It would later be cut anyway. When Elliott had his fatal heart attack at the bar one Friday afternoon, his last words, as paramedics carted him out, were, in fact, ‘Tell Morris,’ referring to the city editor at the Voice, ‘the lead is in the second graph.’ Blackwood was never sure if it was a true story, not having been working that day, but it had become a legend among other newspaper men in New York.”
This is an excerpt from the novel I’m working on, and Blackwood is a character not unlike myself. The two anecdotes are true, though the names Elliot and Morris are fiction. It occurred to me to include them here in an act of literary and electronic origami on my desktop when I found myself writing the following:
It is nearly mid-July, midsummer. The revelry of Independence Day is just behind us, its only trace the thermal cumulus clouds to the east like residual billows of gunpowder smoke from the fireworks of three counties. Summer has clamped its Santa Ana signature over the city, and once again I find myself imagining I am some British colonial civil servant, in India possibly, or Formosa in the 19th Century, cursing the day I set foot in this godforsaken outpost. I am wearing a white linen suit jacket over a Wallace Beery undershirt stained with perspiration and tobacco. I am also wearing a Ghurka helmet, and in my fantasy I am swilling a pink gin and tonic while wiping the sweat from my John Bully sideburns. On days like this, I look forward to the sunset, not for the aesthetics but for the relief from feeling overexposed.
There was the weather report again; and by the way, last summer I actually bought myself a white linen jacket and a Ghurka, or lobster-tail pith helmet. I lost them in the ensuing chaos of last fall and winter.
It seems to me that the second weekend in July is the most typical of summer weekends. This is the time when the novelty of “school’s out!” may wear thin, and the sun’s warmth may no longer be as exhilarating and glorious as it seemed last weekend: a promise no more but the threat of relentless heat, boredom, and mosquitoes.
It strikes me that San Diego is something like the Casablanca of global warming, only instead of WWII we have the greenhouse effect. We are situated in a desert coastal city (like Casablanca...same latitude, pretty much), and refugees from all over the world come here fleeing either the winters or worse summers elsewhere. Only instead of waiting for passage to America, we are the destination. It doesn’t get much better than we have it. This too fuels certain fantasies. Like everybody else, I love Bogart and even do a passable impression. “I came here for the waters...I was misinformed.” Of course, we have Warner Hot Springs.
Still, our town can be oppressive enough. I’m thinking of two summers ago in North Park, which may as well have been the Philippines — a tad drier. I don’t know what the homicide rate is here in San Diego for our summers, but it may be a safe bet that we are like everybody else in that the rate likely goes up. A homicide detective I interviewed once told me that he had a solution to that problem, which was, “The city installs air-conditioners for everybody. Every legal residence must be supplied with an air-conditioning unit. It comes out of taxes or whatever. It would still be cheaper.” I never found a major flaw in that general idea. Meanwhile, roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days and be mindful of your surroundings.