A number of years ago, I was persuaded by a guileful siren with designs on the music biz to share my lowly downtown apartment for “a couple of days” with the great but virtually unknown jazz balladeer Earl Coleman. Why a singer of near-legendary stature among critics would choose to bunk in a hovel with a semi-professional writer of limited prosperity should have made me suspicious. But here was a chance to spend time with a survivor of the swing-bop wars and the man who had recorded “Dark Shadows” with Charlie Parker and Tour de Force with Sonny Rollins.
Predictably his fortunes in San Diego proved dismal. In two guest appearances with guitarist Bill Hollman, one at City College and one at Chuck’s Steak House, the response was cordial but hardly monumental. From that point, Coleman worked a monthlong engagement in my apartment. The manipulator who had encouraged him to come here from New York abandoned him, and a combination of inertia and forlorn nostalgia set in. His time was spent lying in bed listening to Nat Cole and Dexter Gordon, amid the bric-a-brac of old newspapers, record jackets, clothes, and other emblems of squalor, staring at the ceiling and citing a common fallacy (“I thought writers made a lot of money”).
With little else to do, he spun long, fascinating semi-soliloquies about Bird, Lady Day, Sarah Vaughan, Eckstine, Cole, Jefferson, Bing Crosby, George Wein, club owners, record producers, drug addiction, and racism in the music business, all detailed with the pugnacity and authority of a punch-drunk participant.
But Earl grew tired of eating wienies and rice and watching Beaver with me, so he wired his girlfriend for fare home. As I deposited him at the Greyhound depot, we tentatively agreed to collaborate on a biography, an exciting prospect aborted when discriminating thieves pilfered my tape collection.
I never heard from Earl again, but in the last couple of years, he has released a new album and has had an old Riverside set reissued.
An occasional mention in New York journals attests to his continued activity. Sadly, the proposed biography remains the big one that got away.
His name: Peter Graham, the former operator of the San Diego Sports Arena. The local media ripped him from one end to the other during his outspoken 14 years in San Diego. The media seemed to be angry with him when he turned the arena around after long-time local favorite Bob Breitbard failed. One local writer even tried to blame Graham for the loss of the NBA Rockets, forgetting that Peter wasn’t even around when Breitbard sold the Rockets to Houston. Graham was wrongly blamed for everything from the loss of the Republican convention and the Gulls hockey team to the departure of the NBA Clippers, with no credit given for his bringing the NBA Final Four tournament and two hockey teams to the city, bringing back the NBA in 1978, financing the Ali-Norton fight here, and making financial concessions to the SDSU Aztecs and the struggling Sockers.
Graham is a man who likes his scotch, tells the truth, and refuses to cater to the press. He is brash, arrogant, opinionated, and loyal to his employees, as he proved when he retained Les Land after Land publicly criticized him. In the end, Graham’s own fellows on the Graymont Corporation board fired him. Perhaps they couldn’t stand the heat of the media and caved in with a gutless display of disloyalty. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to write but never did.
When I heard that Hunter S. Thompson would be coming to San Diego in January of 1988 for a Super Bowl Eve lecture, I resolved to write a story about his visit. My plan was to follow the celebrated gonzo journalist around town and chronicle his adventures in a rambling, first-person narrative not unlike his own Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But since Thompson had made it clear to the promoter that he didn’t want any reporters tagging along, the only way I could get my story was to go undercover.
So I did. Passing myself off as the promoter’s assistant, I picked up Thompson at the airport, and for the next three days — and nights — I was his constant companion. He was every bit as outrageous as I had expected him to be, trashing his hotel room, throwing temper tantrums in restaurants, doing drugs, drugs, and more drugs. But he was also a troubled man, a lonely man, and we had some pretty deep and personal conversations. He literally cried on my shoulder about how his girlfriend wasn’t returning his phone calls, about how hard it was to live up to his image, about how he hated speaking engagements and could only overcome his shyness by getting real fucked up.
The closer we became, the more ashamed I was about my deception. Hunter never would have opened up this way to a reporter; he was clearly going through some rough times, and he desperately needed someone to sound off to. For whatever reason, he trusted me, and I could not, in good conscience, betray that trust. So I never wrote the story.
Late one summer afternoon in Ocean Beach I was headed toward the sand with my beach chair when a well-dressed man in his 60s hailed me to stop. He said, pointing, “Is that the Pacific Ocean there?”
I looked him over. Not a drunk. Good haircut, neat, retiree slacks and sport shirt. He was standing next to a dirty Ford Falcon, and sitting on the driver’s side was a woman who looked like a peasant girl from Mexico. She was wearing a washed-out calico shift, and her hair was braided in a thick, black rope. She was looking at me with an uncertain smile.
I said it was the Pacific Ocean.
“You sure?” he said, tilting his head toward me, eager for sincerity.