Open Mic: Remembering the Californian, Gerald Haslam (1937- 2021)

He was the first real Californian that I met and got to know, back in the day when I didn’t realize how vast California is and the variety of Californians. 

As an ex-New Yorker who thought of New York as the center of the world, I was surprised that New York didn’t figure in Haslam’s universe. He didn’t care to be published by a New York publishing company, and he didn’t live for a review in a New York newspaper. He was content to be a Californian, his books known, read and appreciated by other Californians.

Haslam was definitely of the West, or as one might say, West of the West. For decades, we taught together at Sonoma State University, swam in the pool on campus, attended conferences together and gathered at Haslam’s home in Penngrove, where he lived with his wife and near-constant companion, Jan.

A loner and a joiner, one of a kind and a team player, Haslam knew more about the Great Central Valley and beyond than anyone in the world. He made it his business to know what was happening from Bakersfield, where he was born, to San Francisco, where he went to college, and to Sonoma County, which he grew to love.

There wasn’t an area of California life he didn’t know about, whether it was dance palaces in Bakersfield, the future of farming in the Golden State or Merle Haggard’s music, which he wrote about in his classic, Workin’ Man’s Blues, which he co-authored with his daughter Alexandra.

Haslam probably introduced more people, through his anthologies, to the literature of California than anyone else in his generation. He also preserved, in his short stories, ways of life that no longer exist in places like Oildale, where his dad worked in the oil fields. An only child, he cobbled together a tribe of ancestors who belonged to diverse ethnic groups. One of his early books was titled The Wages of Sin, which I suspect was ironic. He paid me a compliment when he told me, “You’re a closet Catholic.” We agreed that California was, if nothing else, a land of hope. No one was more hopeful than Haslam, who made room in his life and his home for an ex-New Yorker like me trying to find a place in the Golden State.

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