Feb 12, 2010, 06:43AM

The View From Berkeley

An interview with Phyllis Orrick: journalist, Webmaster, native Baltimorean and one of the last library devotees.

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An eon ago (1978), I first met Phyllis Orrick when she appeared, her mother Ruth in tow, at the City Paper offices in Baltimore, looking for a job. I’d started the weekly a year earlier and was always on the lookout for talented young writers who were willing to work for low wages and long hours. She’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve met over the years, and now, after a career at City Paper and then New York Press, she’s living in Berkeley, working for the university there at the Institute for Transportation Studies. We conducted the following interview by email last week.

Splice Today: You've now lived in Berkeley for 15 years after growing up in Baltimore and spending five years in Manhattan. What's the state of the once-iconic Berkeley today? As an 18-year-old in 1973 I remember my first visit to the West Coast and being absolutely transfixed by Telegraph Ave., which still had a hippie vibe, with plenty of student activity and all sorts of great cheap and, at least to me, exotic restaurants and independent retail stores.

Phyllis Orrick: Like you, I first visited Berkeley in the 70s, while I was working as a personal assistant to my old creative writing teacher at Yale, Harriet Harvey, ex-wife of William Sloane Coffin, Yale’s chaplain during the late 60s and 70s. It was a little later, ’77, I think, but the feeling was still there that California was new, daring and the end of the line, which was a little dizzy-making but not as self-conscious as it eventually became.

Harriet, who died a little over a year ago, was a free spirit of the old school type. She moved out to the Bay Area after breaking up with Bill and set up shop as a grant writer for New Age-y stuff. This meant that at one point she and I were living in a shack in the Green Gulch Zen Center, which required you to rise before dawn and tend the lettuce fields before breakfast of very tasty muffins and granola and such. All in total silence. It was an interesting exercise for both of us, especially considering that Harriet was a chain smoker who tossed back several cocktails every night with dinner. In fact, I think Harriet kind of excused herself from the meditation and hoeing after a few days.

After breakfast, she and I would hop in her yellow VW Rabbit and drive over the ridge, through Mill Valley and onto 101 into the city, where she somehow had obtained office space in Glide Memorial Church, the radical mau-mauing liberal church of the time, located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. It was quite a culture shock after the fog and the Zen bells and the murmuring of the Pacific fog creeping down the valley in the morning to step around the casualties on the sidewalk from the previous night’s debauchery. She also found us a place on a houseboat in Sausalito, where she dropped in on the gatefront squatter scenesters who were holed up in a grounded or sinking car ferry, and, our final perch, a hillside sublet in Tiburon, the country hideaway for San Franciscans who have so much money they don’t like to show it.

Those were the days when windmills were being talked about by people in long hair and sandals, without engineering degrees and MBAs, and before the California spirit felt “over,” a moment that is excruciatingly depicted in Louis B. Jones’ 1998 novel, California’s Over, which takes place in a thinly disguised Bolinas and what I’m guessing is a thinly discussed Jim Carroll (of Basketball Diaries fame).

Today, as a homeowner, parent of a young adult, taxpayer and “longtime Berkeley resident,” I see Berkeley as a sort of failed state, but one that has failed in a glorious way. There’s more than enough guilt to go around, and it is often expressed in a strange passive aggressive “understanding” that creeps me out. A like-minded distant acquaintance summed it up in a bumper sticker she had printed up in limited edition: “Welcome to Berkeley, Now Please Stop Doing That.” Note the “please.”

I work a block away from Telegraph Ave. and directly across the street from People’s Park and venture out for lunch about twice a month. The sidewalks are greasy and dirty; the panhandlers are too young and look too old for their years; their dogs make my heart ache; the smoke shops are expensive; the park is “people’s” in name only, with denizens who throw out a hostile vibe to anyone who’s had a bath in the last two days; and no one knows what to do to make it a happier place. What makes it especially hard is the knowledge that people I know could easily end up here.

ST: Is Sen. Barbara Boxer, as reported breathlessly by various media outlets, really in trouble this fall in her reelection bid? That seems unfathomable to me, although perhaps I'm falling prey to the East Coast tunnel vision of thinking of California as mostly a bastion of liberal politics, Orange County and all the rural areas notwithstanding. And will Jerry Brown become the state's governor once again?

PO: In such a populous and huge state, it’s hard to get any feeling about politics. And once you factor in the Northern California liberal ghetto effect, it’s even more remote. Both sides write us off, in general. The liberals don’t waste their money on ads to preach to the converted, and the OC crazies know it’s not worth trying. It’s as if national politics is taking place on some distant stage where you can see the shadows of the players and hear faint audience reactions, but nothing specific.

But Boxer is pretty entrenched, and the Republicans seem to be beating each other up. As for Jerry Brown, it is so depressing to think that he will sew up the governorship. This state is really a mirror of what’s happening in Washington in terms of dysfunction, to the point where I signed the first ballot initiative petition (other than gay marriage and death penalty and abortion) since I moved here, the Lakoff initiative to let the legislature approve taxes with a simple majority vote. Howard Jarvis is the worst thing that happened to this state, and it will take at least 30 years to recover from his Prop 13. Things will get much worse before they get better.

ST: A substantial part of your professional career has been as a writer/editor at what were once called "alternative" weeklies. Do you even read them anymore—in your case, the Bay Guardian, Easy Bay Express, SF Weekly? Do you visit their websites? Or have you found other, more interesting sources of political and cultural news?

PO: I don’t read any of the weeklies or check out their websites. I don’t go out after dark and am in bed by nine, so I’m no great loss. I enjoy following the tech world where it intersects with web design and social networking. My favorite sites are Netflix and the Berkeley Public Library.

ST: One of your friends was the late Judith Moore, whose writing (mostly for the iconoclastic San Diego Reader), personified the very best sort of writing that weekly papers offered, the kind of stories that were of New Yorker quality, say, but couldn't find a home there. What was Judith like, and what would the two of you discuss when you got together?

PO: Judith re-invented herself in her 50s, after raising her kids, as a writer. She did it by befriending and being mentored by John Raeside and Jim Holman, two refugees from the Chicago Reader, who took what they learned there and started papers in California, John starting the East Bay Express, and Jim the San Diego Reader. Judith had an incredible sense for the next thing. I remember when we were at City Paper, and she sent us packets regularly of her clips from the Express, her own way of syndicating herself. We’d take out any local references and run them if we liked them. One was about a girl in her boarding house who was bulimic. Judith figured it out from watching what went into and out of the shared refrigerator. This was around1979, years before bulimia became a hot topic.

Judith also was an early adopter of the first social network of any importance, the Well, Stuart Brand’s online community that was very snobby and cultish and high-brow, whose members’ musings would put most bloggers’ efforts to shame. She also rigged up her bedroom in Berkeley with a modem, some kind of phone connection (this was very early dial-up Internet), so she could edit her parts of the Reader without having the leave her bed. I only actually saw her about three or four times, but we talked on the phone. She had a husky voice and was good at using it to persuade you to take on a story that you weren’t terribly interested in, or, while you were in the throes of trying to finish something you’d owed her for weeks, she’d talk you through your blockages.

When I was fired from the SF Weekly in a New Times, Inc. coup, she was one of the first people I called. Within a few days, she had set me up with five or six stories I could write and report on from Berkeley, paying a generous $500 a pop. Not only did it give me some much-needed cash, but it also made me feel like I was still a writer. She also got me two or three incredibly cushy gigs as a writer in residence, whereby Holman put you up for a couple of weeks in a wonderfully shabby down-on-its-luck apartment in San Diego. I got to spend non-stop hours researching, reporting, driving around to interviews in expensed rental cars and was paid a couple thousand dollars. And these were 3,000 word stories.

ST: You've been a habitual reader of books since childhood, with, as I remember, several books going at once in your various apartments. Today, the book publishing industry, like the media in general, is capsizing and frantically trying to re-invent itself. What went wrong? Do people, at least of your acquaintance, just not read books anymore? And with the diminishing number of quality books released, do you retreat to older books, either re-reading them or just getting around to say, a Faulkner novel that passed you by? Finally, on this subject, what do you think of the Kindle and now all the e-readers which, as we're constantly told, will replace paper as a medium for reading?

PO: I stick to non-fiction, and often out-of-print non-fiction at that. I find it interesting to see how different eras portray their truths and how quaint those truths can seem even 30 years later. I grew up in a house that ended up being the graveyard for my father’s aged aunts’ collections, which in turn were the collections of their dead brother (my father’s father), who had quite a library. The house he grew up in had books double-shelved because there simply was no room. As a result, even though my mother read all the smart literary fiction, most books that entered the house belonged to the library. My father was the President of the Board of Trustees of the Baltimore County Library in the 60s, when it undertook a huge expansion and built most of the “new” branches. We were forbidden to buy books as Christmas presents. When someone slipped up, my mother would go off on a rant about where she was going to put another damn book.

As for the state of publishing, having witnessed and experienced the ineptitude of the machine that was mainstream American book publishing, I say they brought it on themselves, just as the newspaper industry did, though perhaps through different mechanisms. Newspaper owners remind me of Madoff clients: they are shocked that after two or three generations of milking their properties for double digit profits that the market has gone away and their readers think they’re irrelevant.

ST: You grew up in an affluent neighborhood of Baltimore County, not far from the city, in the 1960s, and have told me in the past about various forays you took downtown with your mother and father. The country has lost most of its regional peculiarities, for better and worse, and now Baltimore in many ways could be Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia or Atlanta, since, aside from specific architecture and historical oddities, they all look the same. But when you grew up Baltimore was morphing from a decidedly Southern city to one that, especially after the Martin Luther King riots in '68, surrendered a lot of its eccentricities. What were your impressions, as a young girl, of Baltimore, the literal and de facto segregation, and what made it unique?

PO: I don’t think the riots had much to do with Baltimore becoming less Baltimore-like. I think the roots of that were in the 19th century and the Baltimore establishment’s inability to unhook itself from the cash cow industries of railroads and steel until the new economy had passed them by. The War gave them a reprieve with Martin’s airplane plants, but no one had the vision to see the financial industry looming. Baltimore banks were swallowed in the 70s in the bank consolidation boom, and that pretty much left the city to rot.

What amazes me still is how Baltimore-like my friends who grew up there and stayed there remain. Many also remark on how racist the city still is.

ST: You used to joke that one day you'd end up as a bag lady. Obviously that hasn't happened, but a lot of people in our generation—the Boomers—are getting by with less and putting off retirement. Do you think that's just a cyclical development, or tied to something that's inherently wrong with the country today?

PO: We may be getting by with less, but I still see 40-year-olds making more than three times what my father made at that age. I think a lot of it is relative. I know we’re generally healthier, have better relations with our kids and the other youngsters. I don’t know if I can afford this added lifespan, but I expect to work until I drop.

ST: Your son is now a healthy, vibrant 22-year-old, but was born prematurely, and had a struggle in the first year or two of his life. Of course that's shaped your view of health care and hospitals in general, but I'm wondering if you've kept up with the number of premature babies in the United States today. Can you speak about your experience and perhaps offer advice to parents who may be going through similar difficulties today?

PO: One quick correction: once he was out of intensive care and home, all he had to do was grow. We were extremely lucky that he was born with a sturdy constitution and received the excellent care from our neonatologist at the Union Memorial Hospital clinic. Those people were amazing, and they helped us help our boy. I remember driving home, leaving him in the NICU and seeing mothers and fathers on the street with infants and toddlers, either scolding them or jerking their hands in impatience the way we all have done at some point and wanting to jump out of my car and shake them to remind them of what they had and what my husband Jamie and I didn’t.

As for advice, just hope you have the sort of understanding employer (thank you City Paper, for standing up to the insurer who wanted to deny payments because it was a pre-existing condition! and who allowed me a lengthy, and I believe paid, leave to attend to him) and support system of family and friends and the medical staff that we did. He celebrated his 22nd birthday on Jan. 22 and posted on his Facebook page that he had cheated death and that incubators rock.

ST: You worked, after college, for successful U.S. Senate candidate Tim Wirth in Colorado. What did that experience teach you about politics, and how, as an observer today, do you think politics has changed? And did that stint with Wirth prepare you for covering local politics in Baltimore in the 1980s? After all, it's quite a stretch going from working with a future senator to attending bull roasts for a city councilman? Which was more fun?

PO: You know the answer to that one. My favorite was getting into the Stonewall Democratic Club Christmas party. They barred me at the door and let you in. They didn’t allow women, the callow wannabe precinct walker said sniffily. I brushed past the doorkeeper and said, “I’m no woman, I’m a reporter.” When Harry “”Soft Shoes” McGuirk, who’d known my brother Ben, saw who it was, he gave the nod. I still remember that gorgeous portrait that Jennifer Bishop shot of him. Made him look like an aged Prince from the Renaissance.

ST: What do you read regularly today, either in print or online, and why?

PO: Non-fiction. The New York Times, out of habit. Also, it still sets the agenda for most U.S. media.

ST: If a young person, say 18 years old, asked you today whether journalism—in its current permutation--was a worthwhile career goal, what would you say? When we were that age, the whole field was more glamorous, with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and scads of serious magazines and daring publications on the newsstand. It was exciting. Could you, in good conscience, make a recommendation that journalism is a wise path to pursue?

PO: Sure. It gives you an excuse to go anywhere and talk to anyone and forces you to think out loud in front of thousands of people.

  • it's articles like this that make me glad that I live in baltimore. to me, our city is the diamond in the rough of impersonal, commercialism-driven major American cities. baltimore has such a personality and community, I can't ever imagine living in a place like berkeley, or even somewhere like san francisco. the way phyllis describes it, berkeley sounds like kind of a bummer! but I guess home is home.

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  • it's articles like this that make me glad to read Splice Today. Enjoyed hearing Phyllis' thoughts out loud today, thanks.

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  • Lots of interesting stuff in this interview, especially about libraries (I get my books at the local one, too), but I'm not sure about Phyllis Orrick's statement that it'll take CA 30 years still to recover from Howard Jarvis' Prop. 13 in 1978. It seems to me that CA was doing great in the 90's, and will recover from this recession, like the rest of the country, in a year or so.

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  • I remember reading her work in the NY Press, back in the good old days of the NY Press when it was worth reading. Great interview and some very interesting ideas and statement thrown out. I agree wholeheartedly with her last answer about journalism. I always tell people the thing I love about writing, isn't the writing, but the people I meet along the way.

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  • Always worth hearing Phyllis' thoughts. I haven't read alt weeklies since people like her stopped writing for them. Thanks for posting!

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