Column Alums

Back in the ’90s, in my early newsroom days, the editors would let us cub reporters stray from our beats into a journalistic DMZ dubbed the “Reporter’s Notebook.” This was where we could write in the first-person, hone our voices and basically indemnify the paper from any of our outré opinions.

Such columns were a sanctuary for those of us, like me, who were generalists and fancied ourselves more “writer” than “reporter.” Sigh. Can your career be summed up by a Kinks’ lyric? Here’s mine: “And now we’re back where we started / Here we go ’round again!” I write that with gratitude, which I’m paying forward by injecting the Reporters Notebook ethos into these pages. Why? Because I still believe in alt-weeklies and the pack of lone wolves who howl their truth at the paper moon to make them.

Yokels like myself hesitate to proceed in this regard without first nodding to Santa Rosa’s own Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame, whose column of cultural curios first dropped 90 years ago this month. That was long before the TV series and the tourist attractions that came to bear the same title—also before he hired Norbert Pearlroth, a Polish-born polyglot, as the sole researcher, qua writer, for
the endeavor.

Pearlroth worked 10 hours a day, six days a week scouring the New York Public Library’s Main Reading Room for the bits that comprised the one-panel strip. Ever hear of him?

Believe it or not, Ripley was neither the first nor the last employer to exploit immigrant labor—but he was the first to do it in print and at scale. By the 1940s, the feature boasted 80 million readers worldwide. Pearlroth went largely unknown and underpaid for 52 years—thus spake Wikipedia. When, a couple of decades hence, this column has 80 million readers worldwide, you can bet every word of it was written by me, or at least an algorithm based on me.

By the time he filed his last edition of three-dot journalism, the Chronicle’s Herb Caen wrote 14,133,000 words worth of columns on his loyal Royal typewriter. I wrote this with my thumbs on a phone. I don’t even know how to type Caen’s trio of bullets without incurring the kind of sprain that would end my thumb-wrestling career. It’s bad enough that autocorrect doesn’t know what the duck I’m writing half the time. Worse yet, when I attempt to dictate to the device, Siri just offers to call me an Uber so I can “go home and sleep it off.”

With or without technology, I’ll persist and “write doodads because it’s a doodad kind of town.” That’s a bit I picked up from Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle a quarter-century ago. Dorothy Parker wasn’t in Kansas any more than she was trapped in some Nietzschean eternal recurrence—the film’s title, of course, a reference to the Algonquin Round Table. But here we go ’round again: I can’t help but think this is a fresh start, not just for me but for you, Dear Reader. I’m no pillar of the community, but I make a decent column. Send doodads.

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