The quails never seemed to sleep, and they cooed while I walked, seeming to follow me all the way to my destination.
New line. Indent. As the first blind journalist Times Standard ever had, I was a local god. How can he write news if he can’t see? How can he write anything at all? His grammar must be absolute shit if he can’t proofread his pieces by hand like the rest of us. Why would the Standard do that to their editors? These were surely the sorts of things people said behind my back. And you’d think, now, Jericho, you mustn’t be a stranger to these kinds of things. No one in news says what they actually mean, just what sounds pretty. See, that’s where liberalism and national news have failed us.
New line. Indent. That’s a joke my old coworkers would’ve really liked. No crowd, tough crowd.
New line. Indent. The Standard was my home for forty-two years. That’s a long, prosperous career for a journalist, especially one in a small town like Eureka. I wrote local news; they originally brought me on for politics, but it soon turned into handling some business briefs, some letters to the editor, some community service stuff, and anything else that happened to come across Aspen’s desk when she was too busy. Though we’re a very politically engaged city in the national, virtue-signaling sense, for the past couple decades, there hasn’t been much by way of political conflict. We’re blue as they come. The constituents in Eureka are younger than those in Arcata and more literate than those in Trinidad or the surrounding boons. All of these towns and more reside in Humboldt County, and honestly, there is very little community interest in county politics unless you actually live in Eureka. We’re the capital of HumCo, so to speak. So if you’re writing news in Eureka, at least historically, you’ve written dash
New line. Indent. Honestly, this does not matter in the slightest. I’m just talking to talk. When I worked with the Standard, I used audio dictation to write articles for the paper but never for any sort of free-flowing personal writing. In most instances, there was an editor looking over my shoulder, making line edits as I went, adjusting the text when the dictation heard me wrong (I have a pretty clear voice, so this wasn’t often an issue). Writing without another person in the room is startling. I have no idea what’s actually making it on the page in front of me. Freeing? Perhaps.
New line. Indent. It’s probably worth saying that I was laid off from the Standard. Forty-two years, four months away from forty-three, and the young people finally upstaged me. I didn’t realize I’d become an old journalist! No one notified me when my status changed from young rebel to aging revolutionary. Perhaps they did, and I just didn’t see it. Ha. Either way, with the new homelessness problem in Humboldt—not that homelessness in Humboldt is new, just that the Cal Poly Humboldt homelessness problem introduced a new age and education demographic to life on the Eureka streets—I was ousted in a push for new voices, young people who had their finger on the pulse of what was really going on. Local newspapers love that phrase. They’re all about finding the “secret life” of this place, in the boring shit experienced by their constituents: the neighborhood bike thieves, the stores that don’t let the homeless come in to use the restroom, the dispos that change their prices depending on what you’re wearing. Not all that interesting, but I’d gotten good at finding this secret life before they ousted me. In my book, the new hires were a big optics game so university students’ parents would throw more money into Eureka. But the Standard would probably never publish that 😉
New line. Indent. Anyway. I lost my job during a very nice speech given to me by the EIC of the Standard, a very nice woman named Aspen who has always adored the “real” tone of my articles (aka, how they always sound like they’re someone speaking, which they are). I tried not to be too upset. I mean, I figure the choice was something related to funding. With me on staff, they had to pay me and my aide both, and aides tended to come and go when they got bored or found higher-paying gigs. Even still, Aspen never complained. We had a rapport. My blindness gave the paper a spark, I was told. When audio dictation became a big thing for the visually impaired in the ’80s, we were one of the first papers who had an excuse to use it. And Aspen was definitely proud of that.
New line. Indent. Honestly, I loved that place. I was sad to go. As severance, I asked Aspen to run an ad for a new aide, someone who’d be willing to work with me at home so I could keep my mind sharp while figuring out what to do next. Aspen agreed, of course. I could hear the turned down corners of her lips in the somber tone of her voice. She always spoke like that, as though she had to get across her expression through the frequency of her voice. She’s not alone in that; people love to over-enunciate around me. I think it’s a pity thing? Because I can’t see their body language? If anything, this means I’m even better at reading people because I can do it without seeing their eyes (everyone says the locus of truth is in the eyes). Either way, within a day of searching, we got a call from Dara. In her forties, college educated, from the Bay, a long history of caring for her blind mother and sister. I was intrigued. She met me at my home the next day, and thanks to her punctual arrival and deadpan tone, I knew she was the one.
New line. Indent. I’m on unemployment now. I’m not a particularly lavish person, so it won’t be at all difficult to live off of for now. Money isn’t really the problem which of course takes extreme privilege to get to say. But really, more than anything, I’m bored out of my mind! It’s simple. I’m bored. I’ve been working at a fast-paced paper for decades, and now I just sit around.
New line. Indent. After thinking with Dara for a few hours and being met with her continually lucid slash elucidating responses, I’ve decided to continue to write. My writing routine is rigorous; at the Standard, I was writing four pieces a week. And that was when work was slow. During the week of Halloween or other holidays, it’d be seven! My process was always so spectacular to new reporters, but it’s pretty intuitive: after listening to interviews with sources, I’d begin my first dictation. Then, my aide would read my writing back to me, me editing aloud, adding sections, repeating that process, and then I’d submit to Aspen when I was happy with it. And then, when Aspen returned with her edits, my aide would read them aloud to me again, and I’d edit by ear. Within the first two days of being without the Standard to anchor my days, the lull of the steps involved, I miss it deeply. What do people do when they’re not writing?
New line. Indent. Anyway, after talking to Dara, I figure I’ll try something new. Novels? Poetry? My long-awaited Memoir of a Blind Man? Borges may have beat me there, but his was just a lecture. This is, I think, my attempt at memoir, this dictated journal that I add to every night before I go to bed. Dara can’t even see this. I chose not to date it because, to be frank, I have not ever been able to remember what day it is. But surely, I have an untapped future as a writer, not just a journalist. I’ve been interested in words and sound for as long as I can remember. I can’t fathom the idea that I’d write for so long and then stop entirely just because Aspen decided a young upstart was better than a veteran. I know my resentment about this is somewhat unfounded. I was the young upstart once!
New line. Indent. So, I’m planning to try to pivot. At Dara’s suggestion, I’ll approach it as a study, a study of how literature can serve me. She says I must focus on the process rather than the goal, which sounds right. I don’t know what the goal is. I do know that literature has historically had much to offer the blind, both those who were blind at birth or those who lost their sight in childhood like myself. Homer was the writer-prophet, and he was blind, mythologically, perhaps just to prove that writing was meant to be experienced with senses beyond mere sight. Walker, Borges, Joyce, Milton, I’m not the first of these ranks. And it’s no secret that those who want to write must read. Dara and I will begin reading. Through this, I will gain clarity about my literary task or my lack of it. I’ll call it journalistic research to make myself feel more at home.
New line. Indent. I chose Steinbeck first. Not Of Mice and Men — I’m no classicist, and I have no real interest in becoming one at this age — but East of Eden, his masterclass in writing complete, ultimate change. Eden took Dara two and a half weeks. She’s a quick reader, and she keeps dropping slight comments that it has something to do with her late sister. Who was also blind, if I recall correctly? Also, Steinbeck is a poet, really, more than a novelist. He was a man with his own flow. I tried as hard as I could to memorize some of his lines, but it’s difficult to commit the exact wording to memory. “It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.” There’s one. And isn’t it odd that that’s stuck with me so closely? That one can read and then to recognize a specific turn of phrase as being the exact framework of one’s life? As static as blindness may seem at times, it isn’t dark. If we “see” anything, we see murkiness, this brownish (?) color that never changes. We too fear the great darkness that death will bring, fear that we will have nothing to show for ourselves.
New line. Indent. I believe I will have something to show for myself! I think I am writing towards it. Dara says I shouldn’t put this pressure on my vision Ha, she took it back immediately, but I can’t help myself. From the moment we began Steinbeck, I knew I had something. Even as I write here, in this audio journal, I feel myself becoming more literary, as though the lifelong distance I’ve had from writing about myself has finally closed.
New line. Indent. We’re shifting to poetry now. I’d like to begin with Ginsberg, perhaps with Howl as it was published on this very coast by people that seem similar to ours here in Eureka. I figure I’ll recognize his voice somewhat, perhaps his world on the California coast during that time. Eureka housed the original hippies. I know my way around dank Humboldt County streets and crystal shops. He’ll speak to me.
New line. Indent. Ginsberg was revelatory. “I’m with you in Rockland.” Something about the move of declaring that I am with you has startled me into presentness.
New line. Indent. When I praised him incessantly, Dara mentioned that her ex-husband enjoyed his work. The mention of any personal detail was a rare slip-up. She keeps a rigid schedule. She arrives at my home each day around 8:00 a.m. We read from then until noon. Then, she prepares lunch, usually sandwiches and black coffee. We drink and eat in near-silence, usually on the front steps so that I’ll get some fresh air. Eureka is uniquely aromatic during this season, pungent weed and tobacco wafting through the air, mingling with the sea spray from the coast and the pine from the mountains just south. I can feel the whole landscape of Eureka purely by smell. I’m grateful to sit on those front steps with Dara, to drink our black coffee, to listen to the quails coo from the yard.
New line. Indent. After lunch, I sometimes nap, but rarely. I don’t get tired anymore. Being without the intensity of the Standard means that I rarely want to sleep at all, let alone during hours when I have human company at home. Dara and I read from 1:30 until 5:00 p.m. After, she prepares dinner, we eat, and she leaves for the night. I haven’t written anything other than this journal in the four weeks since we started working together, but I feel less panicked about that than I did at first. Dara is not a melancholy, sentimental person. She doesn’t believe that we “are called” to do anything. She thinks that taking my time to read will serve me well down the line and that I should stop worrying so much about my life’s purpose. When I express my concerns to her about not writing, she just chuckles, low and dark, which makes me smile.
New line. Indent. It is nice to have an at-home aide though. My life feels more structured, but it still moves just as slowly as it always has. Blindness—and I’ve heard this is similar for the deaf also—slows the pace of life. Writing articles, reading, preparing for the day, editing, writing this journal, it all takes up more space in my day. With Dara here to help me, guiding me along with her stern voice and quiet focus, that slowness feels right. For the first time in my life, I feel very freed from the way time works for the seeing. I needn’t conform to any schedule but my own. I feel as though I can spread my arms out to both sides.
New line. Indent. When I do write, I plan to write from this place.
New line. Indent. I ask to read Kerouac, but Dara refuses, as though even my suggesting it is absurd. She says Didion does what Kerouac wishes to do. Of course, I’m familiar with Didion. I think back to decades ago, traveling down to Santa Cruz on a Greyhound to catch Didion speak at the university there. The Standard wanted a profile of her, but Didion refused our letters, our emails. Instead, I was sent to UCSC to listen to her speak on the value of the local journalist. Her voice was assured and dry, a rasp that reminded me of a metalworker or some other trade specialist. She sounded as though she worked with her hands. When Dara tells me to not give up on reading, she sounds a bit like that: as though she is in direct communion with the materiality of the world. I’m often surprised that Dara is the less dramatic one of the two of us. This reminds me of Didion too, always writing in war zones. I think this is why I trust Dara so, despite not knowing anything of her.
New line. Indent. We’ve started Whitman, and I think everything has changed.
New line. Indent. I resisted Whitman all through my youth, and I have no idea why. I think I found poetry pretentious. In my post-college years, I believed that the writer should always write in a way the layman could understand. Anyway, even though I knew Whitman wrote for paper in his time, I didn’t care to read him. I figured journalism had changed so much that even his reviews wouldn’t be of interest to me anymore, let alone his poetry.
New line. Indent. I regret how much of my life I’ve lived without Whitman! I’ve never heard a poet like him before. He’s smooth and centered, grounded in vibrant language and complex phrasings. In his work, I can hear his voice and rhythm, the performance that he’s giving through this exact configuration of words. He’s so present in his work. Literally present, as though the speaker comes from his actual, tangible body. Reading Whitman is one of those experiences that makes me grateful for my blindness. What a gift it is to not have to encounter him through reading, to get to hear him and his music, allowing him to exist in my ears alone.
New line. Indent. I think everything has changed for me because of Whitman, and I don’t know how to tell Dara this because I’m unclear about exactly how to describe this change. There’s something, I think, about the survey quality of his work. Whitman writes as though he is at the center of the universe. Everything he witnesses is so beautiful to him, so worth writing down. “Song of Myself” is an epic of the contemporary age that perfectly blends a journalistic sensibility for freshness with a poetic awareness of flow and sound. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume.” Textual authority! Whitman is speaking in my very language.
New line. Indent. I’m fascinated, too, by Leaves of Grass. The thought that one could spend their entire life working on a single book feels to me like the correct way to write. No longer this consumer-focused production of the newspapers, but a slow, sustained devotion to getting your life down exactly correctly. Or perhaps, your time, a promise to catalog the world as you recognise it. This desire fascinates me. Why was I a journalist, this makes me ask. Was it this same cataloging urge? Is this audio journal that I’m doing now some kind of sustained literary effort in the same way? Surely, Whitman’s journals were more sophisticated than this is.
New line. Indent. I think Dara knows how much I enjoy Whitman. I think she’s reading more slowly than usual. We have spent days conversing on a single poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” which we never did with Ginsberg.
New line. Indent. After a week of Whitman, I start having trouble sleeping. I don’t know if it’s the poetry’s fault or if it has to do with the coming of autumn. It gets cold startlingly early in the season here in Humboldt, so perhaps the change of temperature could be waking me? I can’t check the time when I wake, and I don’t have Dara to answer my questions during the night. My alarm wakes me each morning at 7:30, so I always know the exact time and can feel my way through the half hour before Dara arrives. When I wake in the middle of the night, I have no idea where I am in time.
New line. Indent. So, just as I am unsure why I love Whitman so, I’m unsure why I began to feel my way to the closet for my coat. I felt the need to get out, to shock myself. Perhaps it emerged from my continued boredom. Unsure, I slipped my shoes on from their usual place under my bed. And then, as though this were my usual routine, I followed the wall to my front door, grabbed my keys from the bowl on the table there, and exited into the crisp morning air.
New line. Indent. I was immediately reminded of the early mornings of my late thirties, commuting into the Standard each morning so I could arrive before anyone else and begin listening to interview transcriptions. I knew it took me more time than others, seeing as I couldn’t just glance back at a transcription for exact quotes, so I came in early without any complaint. I lived only two blocks from the building then, before they relocated more downtown, and I knew the route so well that I could walk it alone in the damp mornings, unbothered by anyone. The kinnikinnick along the walkway was pungent, an earthy, reedy smell like the Northeast, like the desert in the rain. The astors too, I could recognize when they’d bloomed purely by the sharpness of their scent. The quails never seemed to sleep, and they cooed while I walked, seeming to follow me all the way to my destination.
New line. Indent. Today, I turned right instead of left, away from the direction of the old Standard building and toward what I know to be Dead Mouse Marsh, one of Eureka’s many swaths of wetland. The murky autumn air felt good in my lungs, a nice change from the dryness of my air conditioned home. I missed the outdoors, I realized quickly. Despite meals on the front steps with Dara, I was getting disconnected from this place I’d observed and analyzed for decades. This nature, the wetlands, the air, the temperamental weather, all of that is what makes Eureka, and Humboldt at large, so special. I must do a better job at cataloging this, I realize. I must tell Eureka like she is.
I make my way down my street carefully, but after listening for a few minutes of my walk, I realize that no one is around. Only quails and light wind in the myrtle trees. I can tell the species by the waxy sound of their leaves rubbing against each other. My solitude on the sidewalk comforts me, as I walk slowly down the misshapen cement. One step, then another. I am careful not to trip, not to fall prey to the uneven nature of Eureka’s sidewalks. I’m the only early riser. Just like old times, even though this time I have no idea how early it is. Yet, I have some—probably absurd and misguided—belief that I am entirely safe on this walk in this early morning. Even though I know I am entirely alone. No one is coming to help me along.
New line. Indent. Of course, as I haven’t walked for long stretches in over a month, I feel the need to turn back relatively quickly. After fifteen minutes of walking, I feel the heaviness of exhaustion and lack of sleep built up in the cavities of my chest. I turn back. As I make my return trip, I attempt to visualize a map of my travels in my mind. How far have I traveled? How far between where I am and the marsh? Has the air become damper as I’ve grown closer to the water, or is that my imagination searching for ways to locate myself?
New line. Indent. Ha. Funny that ended up in present tense, as though I were living it again.
New line. Indent. But, like Whitman, that walk changes things. When Dara arrives, I listen to her read for two hours, but then, I stop her. I ask her to move with me into the office. And, for the first time in months, I began to dictate to someone other than my computer alone. I began to write a poem, a poem I call, quite facetiously, “Eureka.”
New line. Indent. I’ve found it.