Hang Town Mountain Democrat

A tale of toil from Richard Wool, who worked at the Press Clipping Bureau.

Hang Town Mountain Democrat

[1]
There’ll be peace without end,
every neighbor a friend,
and every man akin

Suffering from Suffrage

"DIRECT DEMOCRACY-That phrase only" reads an index card for one client at the press clipping bureau (PCB). This one’s a lobbying group evaluating grassroots issues and activities so that it can selectively support, if not direct, democracy. Unlike topics such as GANGS, SECURITY GUARDS, AUTO EMISSIONS, and RENAISSANCE FESTIVALS, the subject is never featured and is rarely mentioned in the daily press even though registered voters will be demonstrating again this November.* [*FN: This piece was finished before the electorate overwhelming approved the Republican’s anti-social contract in 1994.]

The PCB invested nine months in me but I never learned how to read the newspaper. There are thousands of accounts and a reader has to memorize those that apply to his/her territory. The good reader learns not really to read but to scan each article for proper names (corporations, politicians, entertainers) and valued concepts like RECYCLING, AFFORDABLE HOUSING, and YEAR-ROUND SCHOOL, mark it to the proper account(s), and surrender the paper to an excruciatingly divided and repetitive labor process where everyone works nonstop but remains behind the times. This is news: People are blacking-out with methamphetamines, illegal aliens are stealing social services, and petroleum "diluent" is oozing into the soil and ground water[2], even on legal holidays, so half-days on the Saturday following a holiday are often required to make up for lost time.

Absorbing the bombardment of untruths, violence, disasters, and absurdities hour after hour, day after day upon day is a consistently enervating experience. At most previous jobs I was glad to have enough down­time to read the paper but I didn’t read every article, obituary, letter to the editor and activity calendar. The paper used to be a quasi-informative, occasionally humorous, and usually frustrating means of killing time until I had to read every paper published in San Luis Obispo County -- a cozy locale on California’s central coast occupied by a lot of people occupied with fears of second-hand smoke, drought, killer bees, and the likelihood that the economic development their local representatives are pushing means becoming more and more like L.A.. It’s the reader’s duty to read the same newsworthy items several times since the facts are sometimes written or edited differently in the various papers. I learned to appreciate that I wasn’t reading for the sake of comprehension. I can't assess how much all the newsprint I literally absorbed has affected me.

Unless you're Alan Greenspan or unemployed you probably hate your job too, but I absorbed a lot at the PCB: the cramped environment at a small business where the boss/owner is always present, and you always know it; understaffed and underpaid -- I made $8.65/hr., with the understanding that once I could produce more than 300 clippings in a day I’d start earning a piece-work bonus; the woman who does payroll putting a pencilled check-mark (which I’d erase) next to my name on the sign-in sheet each day when I was five minutes late. Most of the staff seems obsessed with the well-being of this possible casualty of infotech (this PCB has existed for over 100 years, and the workplace environment and routines have changed little in the last 30), so the paranoia instilled from reading the paper was heightened by the feeling that at any moment my performance was being evaluated. In fact it was, since the number of clippings a reader produces is tabulated. I never exceeded 200 clippings in a day and was told that I was costing the PCB money.

No one there likes what they're doing -- it's not possible -- but they have health insurance and their landlords are eating. Many readers eat lunch at their desks (still reading) to bolster their clip counts. Except for break periods there is almost no conversation; just the sound of the Cutters slicing newspapers with x-acto knives, and an inordinate amount of sneezing due to the paper particles in the air. The other newly hired reader and I never grew inured enough to the news of the world not to laugh occasionally at the egregiously ridiculous items we came across, which is something that the more seasoned readers rarely if ever do at this point in their careers. For "Bill" (not his real name, but he answers to it), I guess it's only a mat­ter of time. For me, it's back to the headlines and classifieds.

The Sweet Smell of Success

One of my tasks was to read the periodical American Banker every business day: 8 AM, half asleep and a bit shaken because I can’t believe that this is real. It was a trial to have the concerns and Weltanschauung of these movers and shakers inflicted upon me, although at times the Banker which publishes straight-faced articles with lead-ins like "Banking lobbyists rejoiced yesterday" and "Mortgage bankers’ prayers have been answered," and quotes sources who counsel: "The banker you know is harder to hate" and "We’ve spent every year since the Great Depression trying to restore the public’s confidence in the integrity of banks" -- helped me appreciate that I could (and will) be worse off. This is the "I’m OK, We’re OK" publication for achievers with enough common sense to make the most of the world as it is.

We’re all grown-ups now, although the Banker’s editorial staff and the suits they admire are the stuff of a tame high school yearbook or newspaper. This time the reported goings-on profoundly impact lives across the globe. This world, this multinational market is for sale and the Banker’s reader gets the latest about software for tracking credit card spending patterns that may indicate fraud; the banking lobby’s efforts to fend off government oversight of the industry’s practices; and investors’ activities in increasingly salable territories like China, Mexico, and Vietnam. (Vietnam has the potential to be an especially lucrative market since most of those alive there are under the age of 20 -- young enough to learn new tricks. I learned this from the Banker where no explanation for this improbable demographic is deemed necessary.) And there’s always at least one large spread about some guy (it’s always a guy, and his skin, if not his hair, is white) in the Midwest who took over a failing "community bank," re-engineered operations, and brought home a handsome bonus. The most lasting effect of reading this respectable, institutionalized cognitive dissonance has been an increased appreciation that the entire financial system is truly a hoax. This is known but, like US aggression, is never publicly acknowledged [see side­bar] since it’s an uncontrollably serious and deadly hoax that supplies and demands regulators & winners & corpses.

Another of my duties was to read Public Notices in papers throughout Northern CA for contractors and opportunists seeking Trustee's Sales on defaulted proper­ties, or the Notice of Public Sale of Personal Property. ("Personal" property is not "Real" (land or a house -- something you can rent out); in most cases it’s the haunted, confiscated belongings of another who couldn’t pay the self-storage facility anymore.) Public notices are usually buried with the funny pages and advice columns so I was exposed to the same "Dear Abby" headline, horoscope (I'm an Aquarius), and "Family Circus" countless times. I knew I shouldn’t do it but like an innocent in Singapore I assumed it wouldn’t hurt to look. It still does.

The most ludicrous service I performed for a public notice client was for a company that sells bar equipment and furniture. I needed to look through all the Fictitious Business Names and use my best judgment to decide whether the FBN most likely belonged to a bar. I was told to ignore "cafes" since these days they’re solely trendy coffee houses for those who get better returns from a caffé latte than a Pabst Blue Ribbon. But not all FBNs betray the nature of the business; e.g., The Memory Stop, Beyond Flowers, or Martini’s Bait ‘n’ Tackle might be just the place to celebrate a workday’s evening or commiserate with the inconsolable. When I was particularly tired and/or hangovered more and more FBNs sounded like potential watering holes, and I apparently wasn’t very good at discerning likely bar names since the client stopped the account.

The Big Carnival

The PCB classifies papers by point of origin, circulation, and frequency of publication, so, e.g., the San Francisco Chronicle is a Major Met, the Salinas Californian is a Large Daily, the Paso Robles Daily Press is a Daily, and the Carmel-By-The-Sea Pine Cone is a Weekly and is of limited interest to most clients. The weekly Soledad Bee is part of a chain of newspapers throughout Monterey County, and most accounts only take articles "once in chains," as the jargon goes, unless the account belongs to a politician or corporate criminal estimating the number of eyes likely to have read about his/her/its bad or good deeds.

Having lived in metropolitan areas the last 11 years I’d for­gotten that there are small-town newspapers publishing "Police Logs" recounting arrests and reports of suspicious activities. Although some papers pick and choose which acts to publish, and even edit the logs to emphasize the entertainingly bizarre, it’s significant that the cops’ concerns are presented as the community's concerns (a surprising number of 18-to-25-year-old Latinos get arrested for DUIs in Monterey County). In places like NYC, Boston, or L.A., where the cops are at best the lesser of evils and at least too savvy to invite scrutiny, non-homicidal violence doesn't sell; in a place like Cambria, CA -- often described in the weekly The Cambrian as "paradise" or "the Middle Kingdom" -- a group of kids who aren’t bowling is a gang and you’ll read all about it.[3] Then comes an in-depth exposé probing the alienation and despair of today’s youth followed by letters to the editor calling for drug-free dances or public floggings -- if not for rehab, then for rebirth.

Cambria is interesting because (at least from what I read) these folks know they have it made, so of course they support their local law enforcement. Everyone else is going to hell, but on their way they should stop by the Middle Kingdom to admire its quaintness, locally owned business, and relatively unsullied environment. It’s a nice place to visit ‘cause you can’t live there, and the money you can’t take with you is good for their local economy. You might even be lucky enough to get a snapshot of a vacationing Hollywood icon.

One of the biggest reported controversies is the proposed construction of a McDonald’s down on Main Street even though Cambrian kids and senior citizens don’t need minimum-wage jobs, and there are already plenty of low-paying, service-sector jobs supporting tourism. Op/Ed submissions and "Street Scene" questionnaires stress public indignation toward the idea of paving paradise for a fast-food corporate clown, while The Cambrian, where the subjects of the Middle Kingdom exercise their First Amendment rights, is published "by [Ohio-based] John P. Scripps Newspapers, a Scripps Howard company."

I did learn to appreciate small-circulation newspapers when compared to large-scale, 100,000-plus periodicals because the former tend to focus on a world without professional sports, Washington, DC, or the week’s top-grossing films. Most of the articles are written by newspaper staff members -- who most readers probably know -- rather than AP, McClathchy, or Gannett newswires. Then again it’s a given that the local reader has already been deluged with matters of global significance thanks to larger papers, national magazines, and their less-than-500 channel TVs.

Banished Knowledge

Propaganda manipulates people; when it cries freedom it contradicts it­self. Deceit and propaganda are inseparable. A community in which the leader and his followers come to terms through propaganda--whatever the merits of its content--is a com-munity of lies.[4]

Those shapes and symbols, I know their meaning
The shameless riches of another world[5]

Most of the clients are California based and they employ the PCB to profit from destructive acts of God and other special events, (re)construction, pollution, and statewide politics, while for the most part ignoring national/international matters. A reader’s interests are limited to the clients’ needs and unlike an editor or publicist you’re not making up minds. It’s your job to unquestioningly, if not willingly, pass on what’s been circulated even though the client might be trying to revive The Eagles’ career or promote "Three strikes you’re out."

Reading the paper for the status quo uniquely accents one’s complicity in the reproduction of an all-consuming system that reduces knowledge ("Information") to the power to manipulate and prognosticate; the biggest-spending clients use the service to stay on top of other big spenders by purchasing a more faithful allegiance from those at the bottom. I’ve worked reading legal documents--arcane, boring, soulless creations--but they aren’t produced for public consumption. It’s legal-ease that even a lawyer can recognize as the bullshit it is. The PCB reader serves a multitude of predictably venal interests mining public space for private gain. That’s The Paper’s raison d’étre, and despite widespread acceptance that the media are (liberally) biased and sensationalistic, and general public cynicism about "politics," the paper and the PCB still deliver a highly valued commodity -- the pre­emptive opinion poll -- to public servants and less conspicuous profiteers.

This is cheap tragedy without catharsis. The horror stories the paper tells and the ad space it sells are debilitating because nothing else can ever happen. The inexorable is that you’ll relive the dead-ends. If you read enough you discover that anything may befall nobody you can know in the global village -- over and over, without coherence, and not quite explained due to limited column inches. Chances are it’ll never happen to you -- unless it’s cancer, but that’s not news -- but it always could. The world is defined by a jingle recurring in the fragmented unconscious of a paranoid but desperately trusting chorus. Suffering, whether by chance or by force, is all there is without the Help Wanteds, Services Offereds, and other broken promises.

-- Richard Wool

Footnotes

[1]The newspaper of record in Placerville, CA, is the Mountain Democrat. It has been reported that Placerville (in El Dorado County, between Sacramento and the Nevada border) was at one time nicknamed Hang Town. In April '94 a 40-year-old Placerville woman was mauled to death by a mountain lion.

[2] To be fair to UNOCAL [United Oil of CA], this isn't happening [in San Luis Obispo County] anymore, but it went on unnoticed by either the press or UNOCAL for 30 or so years. Now UNOCAL is closing up shop and heading south of the border while paying meager fines, trying to replace the sand, and keeping a safe distance from surfers and shellfish eaters from the area where at least 8.5 million gallons (UNOCAL's estimate) of contaminant happened to leak into the sand and sea.

[3] According to The Cambrian more than half of the Class of '94 had a GPA of at least 3.5. This is a tourist town near Hearst Castle with a population of about 5,500, made up of generally wealthy and laid-back families/ artists/retirees. Venom for the delinquent is more frantic in neighboring, less preserved communities. In Cambria most delinquency is attributed to "runaways"; other crimes to "transients."

[4] Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer & Adorno, 1944

[5] "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian," Mekons, 1988