Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Mavericks and Fanatics I Have Known
Early in my newspaper career I attended lots of public meetings. I covered school boards, water boards, fire boards, harbor boards, city councils and county planning commissions and boards of supervisors. It’s something every citizen should do, and I was lucky enough to get paid $3.26 an hour for doing it straight out of college.
Every one of those boards, I recall, had a time in the meeting set aside for anyone in the audience to address the elected officials on any subject they wished. It was fairly common for such people to introduce themselves as “Joe Smith, Taxpayer.” When that happened, I, and the other reporters present if any, would set down our pens and take a break.
We did that because, after getting excited about the utterances of such citizens a few times, we came to realize that, as H.L. Mencken once put it, “What ails them primarily is the ignorant and uncritical monomania that afflicts every sort of fanatic at all times and everywhere.” Invariably if you followed up on their claims, you’d find out that the thing they were complaining about was state or federal law or part of a contract, and that it was there for a reason that was at least arguable.
That’s not to say the elected officials and their hired help were always right — far from it. Some of them may have been getting away with worse than what the “taxpayer” alleged, but when they were tripped up, it was usually because someone who knew about it took solid evidence to the Grand Jury or the District Attorney. Going to somebody who can actually do something about it makes a lot more sense than getting on a soap box and addressing the perps.
Every once in a while, one of these complainers would run for office and actually get elected, which made him or her a maverick instead of a fanatic. Instead of derailing a public meeting for five minutes, they could derail the entire meeting. At such times it was good to be paid by the hour, but I earned it.
During those years I also spent a lot of time on the phone. Anybody can call a small town newspaper office and get right through to a reporter or editor, and you wouldn’t believe some of the people who did.
There were chirpy eccentrics like Cosmic Ladye. As soon as you said hello, she would launch into a goofy, breathless free-association monologue that lasted for three minutes before she ended with a benediction and hung up.
Some callers were seriously disturbed, like the woman who accused a prominent politician of murdering her son and hiding the body. And there were the cheerful obsessives, like the guy who claimed to have scientifically calculated exactly where the state of California would split in half at the next big earthquake. It didn’t.
Then there were the repeat callers, like Mountain Lion Lady, as we knew her. Any time we ran a story about a mountain lion poaching someone’s goat, cat or dog, she would call to say the story couldn’t possibly be true because mountain lions were non-violent persecuted creatures who wouldn’t harm a flea.
A couple of years after I left the paper, a mountain lion killed a hiker in Northern California. I never asked if she had called the newspaper to complain, but I have no doubt what her spin on the story would have been: The mountain lion was framed.