Tuesday, August 20, 2013
The Death of San Juan Bautista
Near the beginning of my newspaper days, I got sent on an assignment I still remember. It would probably have been some time in 1973. The town of San Juan Bautista (best known for having scenes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo shot there) was about to die, and I was sent out to do the post mortem.
That little old mission town, located a few miles off U.S. 101, had a population of just under 2,000 people at the time. The principal employer and only industrial activity was a cement plant or quarry that employed about 200, and the owners had decided it was no longer economically viable, so they shut it down.
The mayor, who may also have been the head of the Chamber of Commerce, was in all the Bay Area newspapers, lamenting the imminent death of the town, owing to the loss of its largest employer. One of the Bay Area TV stations had done a story that was picked up by the CBS Evening News. My boss decided that even though it would require paying 12 cents a mile for a 50-mile round trip, we had to have the story. My salary then was so low it didn’t even figure into the cost consideration.
The Community’s Last Gasp
Photographer Sam Vestal and I went over after lunch to get the story. The mayor was unable to meet with us until late in the afternoon, so we figured we’d do some man-in-the-street interviews and capture the community angst about the catastrophic business closing being the town’s death knell.
Actually, the town looked pretty good when we drove in a little after two o’clock. There were no boarded up buildings on the main street, and the restaurant scene looked fairly lively. I figured it was the last gasp of looking good before the inevitable collapse. Sam parked the car and we went into a store to ask the shopkeeper how long she expected to stay in business now that the plant had closed.
Instead of the tale of woe we were expecting, we got a derisive snort and a stream of unprintable language about the mayor. The shopkeeper explained that most of the people who worked in the closed facility didn’t live in town and that the burg had become such a mecca for antiques shoppers that it was thriving. She made it pretty clear that any municipal obituary would be premature.
Things Not What They Seemed
I figured I’d gotten lucky and scored my contrarian quote (or as much of it as I could use in a family newspaper) right off the bat. But when the next half-dozen people we talked to all said the same thing, it began to dawn on me. Maybe the news stories were wrong, and the town was OK. When we finally got in to see the mayor and he began hemming and hawing as I raised those points, I knew I was on to something.
We got back to the office, and I wrote a story about a town that had suffered a major business closure, but wouldn’t die because tourism had become big enough to keep it going. Forty years later, my story holds up pretty well. In fact when I tried to go on the Internet to find out about the closed business, there was nothing about it in any of the usual sources. The business whose death was supposed to take the town with it has been entirely forgotten.
But I haven’t forgotten the lesson of that experience and hope I never will. Reduced to its simplest form, it’s this: Be skeptical of the first version of the story.