A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

                                         (Above: Eliza and me, circa 1995)

How do I sum up 30 years in 550 words? I can't, of course. But 30 years ago today I wrote my first column, and they've been the happiest years of my life.
In 1985 I was hired by the Oakland Tribune to be its gossip columnist. Only one problem: I hate gossip. So I decided to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, instead.
My editors weren't happy, but the readers seemed to like it, so what could they do? It was the smartest move I ever made.
I've spent the last three decades years hanging out with some of the nicest people in the world, like Joseph Charles, the Berkeley Waving Man, who got up every morning, donned his trademark yellow construction worker's gloves, and waved to the cars passing by his home on the corner of Oregon and Martin Luther King, calling, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"
And Marion Martin, who celebrated her 100th birthday by writing, illustrating and publishing her first book, a collection of stories she told her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (She published her second book a year later.) They all adored her, and one of them confided her secret to me: "She'd pull each one of us aside and say, 'You're my favorite; don't tell the others.'"
I had the privilege of being present when Melvin Ayers of Albany was reunited after 40 years with a little French girl named Francoise - whom he and his twin brother, Alvin, had befriended during World War II when their Army unit liberated her town of Somme Py - and introduced her to all his buddies at All Star Donuts at El Cerrito Plaza, where he had coffee every morning.
I interviewed Buffalo Bob and his sidekick, Howdy Doody. And Morris the Cat. And Miss Manners. And Molly Ivins. And MacNeil and Lehrer.
I wrote about magical places like Children's Fairyland, an oasis of calm in the middle of downtown Oakland. And the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, which helps hard-of-hearing toddlers lead normal lives. And Senior Center Without Walls, which, with a simple phone call, breaks down the isolation that many homebound old people find themselves trapped in. And, of course, Island Cat Resources and Adoption, a selfless group of volunteers who have rescued hundreds of homeless cats and kittens, including my two girls, Pepe and Sally.
I've had the pleasure of working with wonderful colleagues, whom E.B. White must have been thinking of when he wrote in Charlotte's Web, "It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."
So what was my favorite story? Easy: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II regiment that fought so bravely, it was awarded more medals, man-for-man, than any other military unit in American history – all this while many of their families were imprisoned behind barbed wire in American concentration camps.
And my favorite quote? Josie Little, the grandmother of Jill Pervere, winner of the 2001 Piedmont High School Bird Calling Contest. "It was a perfect call, and she's a perfect child," said Little. "But what else would you expect a grandmother to say?"
Don't get me wrong: This is no farewell. They'll have to carry me out first.
Thanks, everyone. It's been a blast.

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