I thought maybe I had wasted my time with that Colin piece, but a few days later I heard from the new managing editor. Not only does he want it, he wants it doubled (at least) in length and padded out with all sorts of lovely graphics. I put out a three-line whip to friends and relatives, and we now have scads and scads of lovely color photos, in England, Scotland, Martha’s Vineyard…and in Wilmington, because the Flahertys kept albums and scrapbooks. Must pull these all together in a week or so.
This means I can be expansive about such key plot points as the Kelvin Wiley exoneration. I had to hunt for hours to find the story in the Reader because Colin, and others, always cite the story as being from 1992, when actually that’s when the conviction was overturned. Kelvin, black bodybuilder, was in Soledad on a four-year rap, having been accused of beating his white, blonde, crystal-smoking girlfriend within an inch of her life. Called Revenge in Encinitas, it ran in the October 17, 1991 issue, and is a classic tale of investigative journalism and blessed exoneration. If you Google “Kelvin Wiley” and “San Diego Reader” together you’ll get links to legal websites, to the Union-Tribune, and to the LA Times, all of whom credit the Reader and Colin for freeing an innocent man from prison. You will not, however, find a link to the Reader, nor will you search successfully for it in the Reader archive. I gather this is because it wasn’t a cover story (so not retyped and proofed for the archive), and meanwhile the PDF in the Reader’s archive is too fuzzy to scan in with optical character recognition. And thus the famous story itself is lost to history—or was, almost. I’ve salvaged it in screenshots and will give you the nickel tour.
But now I must introduce Colin in the flesh. I met him just a month or two before the Wiley piece. We were at a late-summer backyard party in North Park with mutual friends Neal and Kate, and various other Colin connections from the Reader, the SD Business Journal, San Diego Magazine, and the UPI wire-service agency. The guest of honor, the evening’s attraction, was Karen Wilkening. That’s a name to reckon with. Karen Wilkening, the so-called Rolodex Madam—our San Diego equivalent to “Mayflower Madam” Sydney Biddle Barrows! Karen was not in the Social Register but she was a classy lady all the same, and a popular local celebrity, with a number of speaking engagements. (The Reader, appropriately enough, shows a picture of her talking to the Libertarian Club.) Karen was too good to waste on one feature article. The Reader spun out “Karen Wilkening: My Story” over two cover features
Colin must have imagined me some kind of visiting bluenose, because he kept asking me if I was surprised or appalled at finding myself in a backyard soirée with Karen Wilkening. Not a bit of it; Karen was most charming, and anyway I had friends who knew the real Mayflower Madam. “Oh what’s she like?” Karen asked. “I don’t—know her!” I said. I was into my own mindspace, autistically playing with the buttons on my new Timex Triathlon watch, bought earlier that day at Thrifty Drugs in North Park.
Meanwhile I was listening to the conversation among these local from the conversation among the Reader people, I gathered there were two distinct camps among Reader writers and editors. I set these observations down now, in second-hand recollection, because they may have some historical interest to San Diego journos and old-timey Reader readers.
One camp were basically mainstream news reporters, with background at the Copley papers, or the SD Business Journal, or UPI; maybe LA Times or San Diego Magazine. (Colin himself covered all bases there.) These hard-news folks were very suspicious of the other camp, who didn’t work a conventional newsbeat. No, they wrote froth, frivolity and tales of the bizarre. This infuriated our hosts, Kate and Neal. “We don’t need this stuff,” said Neal. “It’s not NEWS you can USE!”
(Actually though—speaking as someone who spent years in advertising and publishing—I now realize the Reader did need that froth and frivolity. Those 15,000-word opuses about rehearsing with an opera company, or hanging out with a sex-therapy institute for the disabled—were essential to maintaining a healthy revenue stream. In those days, the Reader was the prime local venue for print advertising, both display and classified. If you wanted to sell your surfboard, or promote your new craft-beer bistro, you put an ad in the Reader, not the Union-Tribune. And the advertisers needed those eye-glazing, frothy feature articles, with their multiple jumps—one, two three, four, five, six, seven—eight?!—from the front of the book to the back, because they needed a lot of grey text columns to separate all their display ads.)
One of the ringleaders of the froth-and-frivolity people was a middle-aged woman who lived in Berkeley, California, didn’t drive, and came down to the Reader offices on India Street only sporadically, when she was needed to sub as managing editor. As she didn’t have any local ties, she wasn’t interested in digging up school-board scandals or write about zoning propositions. No, she wanted offbeat, artistic, high-concept pieces that people up in Berkeley—and the world at large!—would read. “Articles of Lasting Interest,” as Readers’ Digest used to say. One of her brainstorming techniques was to take a cliché and bring it to life. For example: nobody really wants to see sausage being made. Ergo, she visited a local sausage factory and described in detail how sausage was made.
Colin gagged on the first paragraph: how she loved to have her tongue loll around the sausage’s fatty globules as she chewed. After that he referred to her as…The Sausage Lady.
Another cliché the Sausage Lady came up with was the unliveability of Phoenix in the summer, when all the Zonies came out to their summer homes in Bird Rock and Solana Beach. Could you really fry an egg on the pavement? So one August the Sausage Lady sent a couple of folks out to Phoenix and Scottsdale to endure 115º for brief moments of egg-breaking on the asphalt and concrete, otherwise enjoying the comfort of The Pointe resort, a rented Cadillac, and the numerous amphibian-themed bistro-bars in the area (The Happy Toad, The Satisfied Frog).
The Sausage Lady liked to recruit writers from far far away, to visit the area and write long, flowery travelogue pieces. “Visiting Englishman Goes to the Indian Casino,” that sort of thing. Then there was a bearded bohemian in a battered sunhat whom she lured in from Vermont. Arriving in San Diego, he was completely disoriented, and understandably had no local-interest article ideas at all. So the Sausage Lady proposed he become a homeless person, shopping cart and all, for a week or two. Looking through the Reader archives, I see that was good for two covers of depressive froth and frivolity.
It was around this time, 1993, that Colin broke his connection with the Reader, collected his latest awards from the San Diego Press Club, and focused on being a full-time publicist and PR man.