DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY
It was twenty years ago today – well, Sunday – that The Sheet published its first issue. The lead story was entitled “Welcome to Peyton Place.” Quite apt.
Original advertisers who are still with us include the Clocktower Cellar, Eric Olson (Mammoth Insurance) and Footloose Sports.
As I look through the inaugural issue, I can’t help but cringe. I was trying too hard.
But there were a few things in there that hit the right note. So I looked at the second issue. And then the third. And the next thing you know, I’d wasted an hour looking over the first month’s worth of issues.
That was when we published an 11” x 17” single-pager (both sides) five days a week.
There is magic to the publishing biz in that a person can wake up one morning, put out a paper, and call himself a newspaper publisher. There’s literally no barrier to entry – not even stupidity.
And the job title confers an air of respectability.
I pre-sold the first ads. That was how I financed it.
Then I wrote it, sold it, delivered it those first six months. I was a mess. Would get done at 3 a.m. and fall asleep to the sound of the printer at Access Art and Business Center knocking out 1,000 copies. I’d sleep with my back to the printer for warmth, and with my face towards the door and window so the light would wake me the next morning to deliver.
I did have a sleeping pad because the floor was filthy.
Brian Knox owned Access. I used his public computer. Russ Reese designed the ads. Al Zamudio and Cleland Hoff took photos. And later Keith Hofer. There was a contributor named Pete Clark, whose nom de plume was the East Side Dirtbag. Many of you know him more familiarly as a doctor. Bob Todd moonlighted under the pen name of “Scarlet B” because Benett Kessler would’ve killed him if she knew he was helping out.
I recall asking Bob to become a partner during a float of the Owens that first summer. He declined and cracked another beer and advised I do the same. He was happy where he was at Sierra Wave. And my future prospects were dubious.
There were several instances where I toyed with partnerships. At one point, I incorporated and handed stock to employees. I was idealistic.
This proved a dumb idea, because I then later had to buy it back.
The publication was a mishmash because I just had to fill space. And I was sleep-deprived and lacked judgment. That’s a dangerous cocktail.
Hmm. A theme of the early days is developing here. Beer, cocktail …
But imperfect as I may have been, I represented a watchdog they [the local movers & shakers] weren’t used to having. And boy, they resented the hell out of me for it.
But literally, within the first few weeks, the watchdog forced ‘em to change the way they operated.
First thing that changed almost immediately: How Council treated its pre-meeting “study sessions.”
From issue #6: “Each agenda includes a little caveat (in parentheses) which says the council has the option of discussing any and all agenda items scheduled to come up that evening. No big deal, right?
Wrong. It was a big deal last December when the new Intrawest dormitory (er, affordable housing mitigation) came before the council for approval. Somehow, Rusty Gregory and Benno Nager were told (by Deep Throat?) to show up and answer questions and give input, but opponents of the dormitory were not. As Ed McMahon to Rusty’s Johnny Carson, Mayor Rick Wood said before the study session, ‘This is our opportunity to hold a public meeting in private.’
He said later he was joking.
It wasn’t funny.
Town Attorney Peter Tracy wasn’t joking when he told me in February that if I wanted to be sure to hear discussion on any item on the agenda, then I ‘better show up at 5’ [for a meeting which officially used to start at 6].
That wasn’t funny either. It was arrogant.
California First Amendment Coalition Lawyer Terry Francke maintains the council’s study sessions have been violating the Brown Act for months … ”
The study sessions were nixed soon thereafter. A victory for Mr. Nobody. It kept me going.
The Town’s refusal to tell the public how much it was spending to defend the Sierra Club’s airport lawsuit soon followed. “Town Attorney Peter Tracy claims the invoices from the town’s San Francisco law firm are privileged and will not be produced, as they pertain to existing litigation.”
To which I replied, “Telling the public how you’re spending its tax dollars has nothing to do with the legal issues being discussed in the lawsuit … the real reason they’re keeping mum is that they don’t want the public to know this is quite possibly a ‘redevelopment’ sequel.”
Six years later, the Town was on the wrong side of a $23 million airport litigation judgment. As of today, we still owe $19 million in principal.
From issue #7: “I obviously haven’t done a good enough job. My goal at the outset was to irritate everyone, but apparently some of you haven’t been irritated, or to be more specific, those who have been irritated don’t feel that others have been irritated enough. And they want those others to share in the experience. They’re good neighbors that way.
A newspaper, in my opinion, should serve as a public forum for debate, because a town that argues with itself is schizophrenic and in need of mental help. Wait. That doesn’t sound right. A town that argues with itself is a town that’s healthy and vibrant. I’m here to help facilitate the argument. And to facilitate the make-up sex when that’s required. Talk about generosity.”
From issue #9: A synopsis of a consultant’s report [The Boyd Report] on Eastern Sierra air service. “In a comparison of Bishop and Mammoth airports, the report found that Bishop ‘with multiple runways and a lower elevation’ holds a clear advantage over Mammoth Yosemite Airport.”
The report suggested Inyo and Mono Counties join forces to decide on a regional airport solution.
It only took two decades and tens of millions of dollars for people to heed this fairly simple advice.
From issue #10: “A Reason to Ride the Bus”
“Yesterday, I celebrated the Memorial Day holiday by doing some light reading from the Natural Resource Conservation and Open Space plan prepared for the town in September, 2000.
What I found particularly startling was reference to a 1974 study by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. It found that concentrations of pollutants were ten times greater at 8,000-feet versus 5,000-feet, because the air is thinner and less capable of absorbing emissions. In addition, internal combustion engines are also less efficient at higher altitudes.
What this means is that 10,000 cars at 8,000-feet produce the same pollutants as 100,000 cars at 5,000-feet.
The report states, “Since the principal air quality problems in Mammoth Lakes is associated with the large influx of visitors, it may be anticipated that exhaust from heavy vehicular traffic coupled with natural temperature inversions … may cause another air quality problem – increased levels of ozone and other pollutants from vehicular exhaust.
Already, said the report, damage to the Jeffrey Pines in the San Joaquin gorge is evident. The Jeffreys are sensitive to ozone exposure.
The great irony is that most people who come here engage in recreational activity dependent upon good air quality. So yes, in regards to tourism, there can definitely be too much of a good thing.”
From issue #11. An editorial titled “Classifieds.” The more things change …
2BR, 2BA. Most windows, some screens, occasional water pressure. Equipped with vacuum cleaner, toilet brush and several light bulbs. $2,500/month through Oct. $3,300/month for one-year lease.
CUTE SINGLEWIDE. Waterbed. Mirrors on ceiling. Disco ball. Veritable hottie magnet! $1,000.
STUDIO. Lean-to. Southern exposure. Natural light. Level sleeping area. Good drainage. Pets OK. Fully furnished with mosquito nets, animal traps and like-new hibachi. 650.
ROOM FOR RENT in Crowley. 6’ x 8’. Large enough for queen-size bed! Only $550/month plus minor chores: dog-walking, lawnmowing, some butlering.
ROOMMATE WANTED. Large cardboard box. Next to Vons dumpster. $275/month. Apply within.
TENT SITES AVAILABLE. Large frontward. Communal atmosphere. No dogs. Hose privileges between 7-8 a.m. $425/month.
From issue #12: “I’m at Dawn Vereuck’s Memorial Day weekend barbecue when a fellow guest has a little too much to drink and boots in the beer tub. End of party.”
From issue #14: A poem for my grandfather.
He lay on his death bed
While I sat in a chair beside him.
I asked if he had any regrets.
I saw him prepare to respond.
He took three or four breaths.
Then he removed the mask.
He died a week later
He never sued anyone over it
He was not naive
He lived through the Depression
He spent half his career working for a
He knew people lied about things
He knew life was unfair
Half his generation died
in the war.
Whereas he lived long enough
And was lucky enough
To be lied to for 87 years
And a quote from Celine: “Here we are, alone again. It’s all so slow, so heavy, so sad … I’ll be old soon. Then at last it will be over. So many people have come into my room. They’ve talked. They haven’t said much. They’ve gone away. They’ve grown old, wretched, sluggish, each in some corner of the world.”
From issue #15: “Wanted Butter, Got Margarine”
This was a small-town classic regarding the Mammoth Planning Commission’s micromanaging of what color the old Blondie’s Restaurant should be painted.
“Last week, color swaths were painted on the building for Planning Commissioners Neil McCarroll and Elizabeth Tenney to select from. McCarroll and Town Associate Planner Craig Olson thought the color Blondie’s owner Liz McKenzie had chosen, ‘Butter,’ was fine. Tenney dissented and said the color needed ‘more hue.’
Exasperated, McKenzie said ‘Then come with me down to Alpine Paint and tell me what it has to be.’
According to Alpine Paint employees, the following conversation, or a facsimile thereof, took place inside the store.
John (Alpine employee): So who picks the colors?
Tenney: The Planning Commission.
John: How many are there on the Commission?
John: Where are the other four?
Tenney: They’re not here.
When I asked the gentleman at the counter yesterday what Tenney may have meant when she requested a color with more hue, he replied, ‘When people start saying stuff like that, it’s hard to know if they know what they’re talking about.’
McKenzie: I wish I hadn’t painted the building at all.”
Preview of coming attractions … Ray Doblick railing about the Parcel tax measure (Issue #7) for the schools. “It’s taxation without representation. You’re gonna allow 3,600 voters, many of whom don’t own property, to impose a tax upon 10,000 property owners. What kind of civics lesson is that?”
Well now, we allow six or seven large businesses to impose taxes (via the TBID) upon hundreds of thousands of people, including every single local resident.
When you look back at anything, there’s a tendency to view it as inevitable. That of course one persevered. But when you’re in the middle of it, that’s never how it feels.
There was so much luck involved.
There was a call a few months in to a friend in Hailey, Idaho. I told her I needed a writer. So she gave the phone to the guy sitting next to her. Mike McKenna. My first employee. Then a groomsman at my wedding.
At the 2nd year anniversary party, Mike and I tended bar at the Clocktower – donating our tips to the high school sports program.
Nils Davis, a graphic designer, was there. We got to talking. The next thing you know, he redesigns the paper, which I turn into a weekly because I had a child due in two months.
I had to figure out a way to do it differently and the guy just … appeared.
His redesign largely remains in place to this day.
I’ve had people approach me from time to time since, telling me I need to freshen up the look.
But I still like it just the way it is.
What was so gratifying from the start was how accepting people were. And supportive. And participatory.
And the job gave me access. The friendships with Dave McCoy and Andrea Lawrence wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
Nor would I have ever met Ron Casey.
I miss Skip Harvey and Bea Beyer, too.
One never quite appreciates the beauty of life in a small town until there is trial and stress and misfortune.
And then one’s friends and colleagues and neighbors remind you of why you live here versus somewhere else.
In the aftermath of the Round Fire, I wrote the following: “We all have our moments when we wonder what the hell we’re doing, why we’re doing it, why we’re doing it here … and then something like this happens and it all becomes perfectly clear. My takeaway from this event is not in mourning all the relics of my past that have burned up, but in celebrating the present and future of the land and the people whom I love so much.”
In the scheme of things, 20 years is a mere blip. I had a great-great grandfather, Henry Guy Carleton, who published a newspaper in Newport, New Hampshire for more than 40 years – illustrating that masochism runs in the family.
Never mind the masochistic challenge of operating a business in this town.
Sinatra had it wrong. Much harder to make it in Mammoth than New York.
I have been blessed in having two Business Managers in Pamela Stayden and June Simpkins who are patient and diligent and ethical and wise. They have kept me on the rails.
Children also provide great focus.
The Sheet and Lakanuki are planning a small get-together to jointly celebrate our respective 20th anniversaries (Lakanuki opened for business on May 16, 2003).
All are welcome to swing by Lakanuki on Friday evening, May 12 for a libation and a bit of nostalgia.