The Grape Proxy

In the late ‘70s I returned to politics after a hiatus in foreign press journalism. While away from America I naively setup my jungle pup tent thinking within these encampments I would write ‘the truth’ and turn the tables on injustice. The prevailing pressing need to keep the Penngrove, California chicken farm in feed and fodder, meant I had to find a real job, or even maybe a career?

 

After working under the C.E.T.A (Comprehensive Employment Training Act), federal program as a Public Information Specialist for the County of Sonoma, California, I moved along to the largest daily newspaper in Northern California, The Press Democrat.

 

Yet, while under the training whip of Sonoma County’s premier glad hander, Richard McGlinchey I learned the craft of political and official public smoozing – a basic to migrating from protesting radical to fundraiser for Jerry Brown. No one was more adept at slathering a room of elected officials, or a single secretary, than Rich Mc. His uncanny ability to sit on a desk while casually swinging his leg in a brace (WWII war injury) telling a story wooed the dragons at the gates, and their lords. Not a single time in his employ did I see him rejected by any one of his prey. The man was actually not lame in any regard.

 

My partner in C.E.T.A crime was handsome, raspy radio-voiced, soon to be one-lung Rob Deignan. Rob smoked and had to have one lung removed. In my company in the TV station’s production booth, he puffed away on about five packs of Marlboros per

 

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. We disseminated press releases, covered the board of supervisors and other boards (but not the courts), and produced a community TV show of some San Francisco Bay notoriety. Rob was handsome, debonair, and my production visuals (look) were based on early morning 35 mm slides I took while birding. Sonoma County is classic ole California in some parts – bucolic views with bright blue skies and pure puffy white clouds in the shape of prancing horses and lines of dancing elephant choruses. Jungian and appealing.

 

C.E.T.A. required within its bureaucracy of Federal funding troughs (feeding into the county coffers) my job define a specific socially redeeming focus.

 

Rich Mc decided because of my get it done now personality and the fact I had briefly done a stint in the county’s mental health department (as a therapist and left) I should handle feature articles about women. My photo ops (I had been trained by AP to shoot and report coups) with a catchy storyline were to be seated in one particular theme. The overriding goal was to produce a showcase of stories where women performing non-traditional roles while in the employment of the county. It was in reality a legal parity program, a leftover from the Feds attempt to bring civil rights equality into the workplace. Federal Title whatever legislated quotas had to be met. Women working in maintenance, heavy equipment, roads, parks, and other macho work situations needed public recognition so the Fed money flow would continue while telling the lies how successful was the Civil Rights Act.

 

I had no problem interviewing dikes on cats (caterpillars) or burly ‘women’ with backs stronger than Sierra mules. These ‘ladies’ picked up and moved 50-pound bags of cement as hod carriers with a smile and a wink. The ‘girls’ liked me. I am petite, pretty (modesty is not my thing), and dressed in the latest non-feminist styles.

 

Standing attired in a Halston knock-off dress wearing real English riding boots to keep mud and yuck off Hanes nude-colored sheer nylons (held up by a lacy stringy garter belt) all I had to do was bend over, in a graceful way. Showing a patch of honky thigh peaking out over a nylon meant answers would ooze like honey from a hive. In addition, in an even cowgirls get the blues way, I am practical and kind of ‘ranchy’ and asked questions of some relevancy.

 

My mother, as I grew up, was the only female executive at Basalt Rock Company (due to familial connections). I spent time in quarries and around heavy equipment on Saturdays as we wheeled around Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties looking at job sites in her Buick ragtop.

 

I additionally, via my newfound smooch abilities learned at the kneecap of the master Rich McGlinchey, was not known as one more politico gadfly. Rich impressed me, and I endeared him, the elected board supervisors of the county, and those working to elect Jerry Brown.

 

My feature articles about women driving trucks and other guy jobs focused on women of color – Hispanics, Blacks, Asian, or some combination thereof. This insight earned civic NGO applause and even articles in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner about me doing by job. We call this in the hyperbole of PR – spin-off. In most regards, what I was doing was acting as a performer for a US govt. proxy govt., known as County of Sonoma, California.

 

 

Rich, Rob and I parted company as the one-year grant ended. Yet, Rich fixed my next employment – I started, after a couple of dumb tests, at The Press Democrat newspaper, four times my C.E.T.A. salary.

 

After my slide PR/PR job with the county working in a daily environment of endless deadlines, the roar of the three-story presses as large as a half city block while gaining entry to a bombproof building produced an instant death to any lingering ideas about being a romantic journalist activist fighting the good fight.

 

Latin America had cooked me up with graphic horrors yet the disappointment of being inside the contrived workings of a family run newspaper finished off any illusions about saving the world by telling the truth. Sticking a programmed plastic credit entry card into a slot at the employee’s heavy steel door, at street level, I proceeded to learn another part of the world of telling it the way, it is not.

 

Paper management and bookkeeping knew exactly when I left and returned, what floor I took on which elevator with cameras watching me, and others, smooching labor union computer typesetters and paste-up artists for a better headline, page design location, or participating in the latest betting pool.

 

Sitting at an advertising account executive’s desk attempting to understand their immediate need to publish some crock about a business they wanted to tie up with a regular contract of linage (ads) became the norm.

 

My vision of translating what I endured in Central America to American soil was smacked down via drunken mean editors and too many lunch hours shooting pool. Here in the darkness of the pool bar (directly across the street from the paper), while the boys knocked back Coors, I sipped away on Canadian Club Whiskey Sours and the revolutionary within pouted. The guys became my champions, teasers, and enabling protectors. They had written or designed for the paper so long printer’s ink crud under their nails was permanently tattooed. Yet, they maintained an aura of innocence, if not semi-stoned, that I needed to believe we might yet produce something on the lines of a Pulitzer.

 

A newspaper only has a history because it keeps a library along with awards and trophies behind glass in the public lobby. Otherwise, its wholistic entire intent is operating in the here and now drowning in current events. My fellow pool shooting buddies provided a heritage, a living legacy as a witty countermand to the latest double truck ad appearing weeks after an ad men signed up this new account based on my prior published story about the customer (usually on the third page).

 

What drives the news hole is advertising from want ads, display ads, and Sunday supplements. Booked ad linage determines what story is deleted, until another issue, or what truth telling story permanently dies on the cutting floor. Editors are humanoids forced to wax and wane writers with, “Love the story, guy (we are guy even when gal), yet no room, today, maybe tomorrow, or next week. Now, get your cutie ass out on the street, and get some grueling news and forget this philosophical meaningful bullshit.” Sounds like a movie script, because it is.

 

Editors, then, were protected from any sexual harassment suits because most of them were closet gays. Besides, of the three females tied to the newsroom, I was the only straight one. Everyone knew they were gay; no one used the info against them for story gain or personal bullshit greedy agendas. Mutual respect was a given, because editors actually were the wordsmiths. We were the news junkies.

 

For the times I heard, “Sex, mayhem, and corruption, but not of our advertisers or publisher, sell newspapers, LD.” I could have packed the newsroom and the floor of executive offices with this directive. In the news non-fame game, everyone gets a handle, not just a by-line. My handle was LD. I believe it had a sexual connotation but ignored the adorable provocation. I preferred the operating definition, Little Dynamo. It was cartoon-like, and probably cartoons of me acting out as LD circulated within the five unions operating inside the paper. Gossip is the handmaiden of newspapers from the guy on the loading dock to the owner of the news source. Dicey tidbits are the coal firing the engine of news, and function as therapy for crazed people working constantly on deadlines.

 

The Press Democrat publishes a morning and evening edition, every day, every week, and most holidazes, 362 days per year. The newsroom only closed down during a 24-hour cycle if we had a bomb scare. During the 70s, these were regular insertions into the daily grinding madness. Dutiful employees filed out into the parking lot to wait out the dogs sniffing through the building. The likes of me, and mine, headed for the pool hall.

 

Once the dogs found nothing (at least this is what we were told) we stampeded back into our stalls. Pressure and shitty attitudes would rise like 110 degree heat waves off the Mojave, as we settled down to satisfy the god of our lives – rolling the presses on time. The memory of the excitement of hearing the press startup still gives me a chill blain. The fact I am semi-deaf from them (and too many rock ‘n roll concerts) is a reminder how blissful is the sound of team nut job accomplishments. Once the presses begin to roll, it takes about ten minutes for the first finished papers to slide out on rollers to be hand stacked and bundled for the delivery onto the truck loading docks. From our minds and creativity, twice a day, we produced a whole damn newspaper, full broadsheet, many sections, always unique, but in many ways, the same.

 

There is a failsafe button (yes it is big and red) up on the second tier of the press to push to stop the entire meta-machine from spitting out papers. A designated union guy has the power to push the lethal button along with an executive suit. We frantically read our stories and ad copy as the presses roll looking to make sure we had not made some awful error, either not selling our lies carefully enough, or a mega-typo. Even with blue-line proofs, unacceptable stuff would magically appear on newsprint.

 

One morning edition, sitting down in the zoo (ad design) waiting to look at logos, I was reading the full back page ad, first section, for The Whitehouse from fresh papers dropped off by a copy boy. The Whitehouse was not where POTUS lived. It was a department store on Fourth Street, in downtown Santa Rosa, selling housewares, and rags (clothes) for over a century. I was competitive consumer shopping its ads looking for towels for the sauna at the farm. Then it popped out like a white glove in a mound of black soot, “Designer Shits, 2 for $15.99”. As I laughed my way across and down the rest of the full-page ad, it appeared the classy Whitehouse was selling all kind of shits.

 

I got up, picked up the phone on Bruce Keith’s drawing board while pointing dramatically to the ad. Buzzing the union guy’s wall phone by the big red button, no one picked up. You cannot hear anything near the roar of the presses and why the guys wore ear protectors the size of mixing bowls. Then, I tried the executive suit’s extension. It was busy, as usual.

 

Together, Bruce and I bolted through the ad department pushing possible ad buying customers out of our frantic way to get to the elevator to go up to the second floor. The paper was built to make sure you had to go through configurations of hallways with management’s ability to lock out one union from another. How it passed fire inspection is another story.

 

Laying shoe and high heel rubber down we flung ourselves out of the elevator onto the second floor. We jetted pass huge computer typesetting machines and rows of paste-up tables (now emptied of employees since the presses were running). We raced side by side until getting to a metal door with a small plate on it reading, “Presses”. There was a light above the door and if lit red and spinning you were not supposed to cross the threshold. It shaded our faces with its redness. Bruce yanked the door and it did not move. We banged and pounded on the door feeling the vibrations of the press cranking up as it went to full ROP, run of press.

 

Frustrated and exhausted, we tried one more thing. Bruce stood on a metal chair and lit his yellow colored Bic to a fire sensor. He singed his fingers, yet eventually the alarms went off and overhead water sprinklers spewed. Standing soaked in our undies and boxers, we felt the presses back down eventually coming to a full stop.

 

The next day, Bruce and I sat in the executive offices. We were dressed for a funeral, ours. A well-healed woman older than Moses came and escorted us into the owner’s private conference room. Up here on the fourth floor with broad windows, you could see to the west the grapes growing and the valley oaks swaying. Sitting with our sweaty hands ringing, chewing Certs to disguise our boozy breath, the bigga boss entered the room. He unbuttoned his suit jacket and sat down directly across from us with his back to the vineyards and his barrel chest facing our doom.

 

“Thank you”, were his first words. Bruce and I looked at each, perplexed.

 

Mr. Finely, heir to the Finely publishing empire went on, “Without your quick action our family owned and family read paper would have sold shit to the tune of 300,000 readers. I and the whole family at The Press Democrat would like to do something to show our gratitude. What do you have in mind?”

 

Bruce and I conferenced with whispered voices and came to nearly an instant answer.

 

“Mr. Finley, thank you for noticing our good intentions. We are sorry if the water made a mess. Bonnie and I really did not know what else to do. We have two requests. First, we think the person in control of the red button should wear some kind of communication device independent of the phone system. Second, we would like a brand new pool table and set of cues for the bar across the street, and maybe some better lights over the table,” stated Bruce with a shaky voice.

 

“Ms. Davis, do you concur with Mr. Keith as to his requests, or do you have something to add”, Mr. Finely intuitively asked in a not so kind voice. Maybe he knew my rep to always add one more spice to the pot.

 

In my normal little Napa Valley girl voice I offered, “Sir, I do have a request. Might there be some way a nursery or pre-school could be built somewhere in the building so employees had a place to leave their kids when on shift?”

 

The brushy Irisher eyebrows went up, “I did not know you had children, Ms. Davis.”

 

“No sir, I do not. But a lot of people devote their lives to getting out the Press Democrat spending large sums of their incomes to have their pre-school kids tended to while they work” (the cartoon balloon coming out of my head replaced work with slaved).

 

“Well, we will look into the possibility. In the meantime, look for a new pool table and a memo regarding how to better stop the presses without soaking the typesetting and paste-up room. My assistant will show to the elevator, yet here is something extra for each of you, personally from the family.”

 

With this final comment, he handed us each an envelope while looking into our deer in the headlights eyes. Neither Bruce nor I were brazen enough to rip open our envelopes in front of Mr. Finley. Once in the moving elevator, going down, we opened our envelopes embossed with the paper’s new ID. Inside each was not a letter that we were axed. Instead were twenty crisp $100 dollar bills. During those gasoline scarcity days, this was a tax-free gift of major value.

 

I went onto to do the first pitch film The Press Democrat used to generate national ad linage from big time ad agencies in New York City. It was a visual sugary story with soaring bird’s eye views of vineyards, kids playing baseball, people eating grilled chicken, Fourth of July parade watchers, and more Americana kitsch, but with a simple concept. The original music was Tuscany sounding to match the vineyards. Words or voice over did not appear until the final seconds of the film letting the music lead the viewer along a journey over Sonoma County. Overlaid on a crystal-clear close-up of ripe gorgeous grapes swinging in a slight breeze on luscious vines appeared, “The Press Democrat family invites you to share in our harvest,” while at the same time a perfectly enunciated voice, a buddy of mine, Pete Coyote, tied the bow on the elegant package.

 

The film, a prototype, generated millions of dollars of newly mined national linage for the paper, and won some new awards for the institution run by the Finely family. I was headhunted by an agency to be their first female creative director. I left behind the news world, skipped into a universe of greater lies, and similar to illustration copy points.

 

See, bro, I told you my creative writings are a stream of conscious fourth step.

 

 

Epilogue:

 

The Press Democrat was purchased by the NY Times. Bruce was left alone to man the zoo. A politician (cum backroom operative) I campaigned for while at the paper, Doug Bosco, a couple of years ago along with an unnamed cartel purchased the paper from the NY Times.

 

Today, I follow the paper on Fedbook. It has not really changed its winning formula. The news remains local homespun rather than global graphic horror, and visually beautiful more than the actuality sprawl of California’s geography of nowhere. If read with detail one will see a headline and positive article (with photo op) about a local business. Within weeks, one will further notice the business is now a regular advertiser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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