"What do you want to be when you grow
That has to be the most common question that adults ask kids; the ones who can't think of anything else to say, that is. Being
a product of the 60s, it was no surprise that I often perked up with,
“An astronaut like John Glenn!” Other kids stored up baseball
stats; I memorized the details of the American space program. I had
instant recall for the names of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts, could recite the names of the planets, and knew more about NASA than most
kids knew about Mickey Mantle. I also wanted to escape my father
and live on Saturn - but that's another story.
By 5th grade, I had pulled my imagination down
to more Earthly pursuits. Sometime during the year, I read a book
about the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright and began to fantasize
about designing wondrous buildings, sweeping towers, and grand
pavilions. By 7th grade I had built several models of buildings
I created - one was a museum for the American space program another
was a home based on the Monsanto house that was on exhibit at
Disneyland. But what really changed my life was the way I wrote about these topics and any other subject matter that I studied closely. It was then that teachers started telling me that I had a real talent for writing.
To me - especially early on - writing was accidental thing - a means of release and to grow opinions and understanding of the world. Around this time, I started writing into a personal journal that I dubbed "Lifelog". The first entry was dated
December 10, 1969 and the first words were, "I hereby dub
this journal 'Lifelog' as tribute to mariners on long journeys..."
I then went on about the nation I would create on Saturn, the
peace I would bring to the solar system – even to chaotic Earth.
“All the leaders everywhere, including parents and teachers, have
to come to the meetings and be nice to all Earth kids.”
Additional secret entries followed; some about
Saturn, some about my Dad, some about the candy I ate or a movie
I saw. By the end of high school, I had managed to work up to
a second edition. "Lifelog" would
have remained a personal secret were it not for an assignment from my senior year English teacher. The assignment was to write a journal. We had to bring proof
of the journal itself, but we could select entries for review
by the teacher. What luck. Mine was already done. It even had a catchy little title.
I edited a few of my existing journal entries
to fit the assignment and dutifully handed in what I considered
a cheap way to get some homework done. To my complete surprise,
the teacher loved my work. Not only did I earn an ‘A’ on the assignment,
she read several of my entries (with my approval) to the rest
of the class. Despite the affirmation of 'talent' - the event failed
to move me toward becoming a writer.
After graduating from high school, I practically forgot about
my journal, and Saturn. I spent an interminably long summer as
a cashier at a rundown low-end retailer called Zody’s Department
Stores and continued there until September when my high school
art teacher found me stabbing away at the keypad of a NCR cash
register. Mr. Tijarda had appreciated my talent for drawing and
personally sponsored me for a few statewide awards. He was noticeably
upset to find me at this seedy little place doing work that he
considered well below my ability. We shared some brief pleasantries
as I rung up his purchases then he hauled me aside for a firm
lecture about self-worth and "having a passion for the future."
The incident forever shattered the Depression Age superstition
I inherited from my father that any job is okay, so long as the
paycheck clears. When I attempted to raise that defense, Tijarda
cut me off. "Bullshit, Ray," he said sternly. “You can
He handed me a name of a company and a phone
number. “I know this place will hire you,” he said, shooting a
glance over the rims of his glasses for emphasis. “Call them.”
Then he left. A few days later, I called the place, got an interview
and, just as he had predicted, they hired me on the spot. Several
years later, I found myself making a decent living (for a high
school graduate) working as a technical illustrator and production
artist. It was a long way from writing, but it was a substantial
improvement in terms of income and my personal esteem. It was
also the only way I was able to afford college. By the way, thank
you Mr. Tijarda – wherever you are.
While in college, I practically stumbled into
a journalism class. I was late registering for classes and the
pickings were pretty sparse. Journalism 101 was the only open
class that didn't enter a reaction from my cringe o’meter, so
I enrolled and hoped for the best. As it turned out, I loved the
class. Soon I was submitting articles for the campus paper, posting
op-ed pieces in various departmental newsletters, penning public
service announcements for the campus radio station.
Encouraged - and looking for a quick way out of what became a 7 year B.A. program,
changed my degree to journalism - but still, I did not consider myself
a writer. Instead, I saw it as a means to qualify myself for work in advertising
and public relations where I saw writing as a secondary function,
a mere by-product of production. Looking back, I see now that
I was impaled by another superstition: writing was something that
smarter and more sophisticated people pursued as careers - not me.
Then late Spring 1979, I applied in person as
a freelance illustrator at a now defunct local publisher. It was
a routine activity for that period of my life. I learned early
that success in freelancing was proportional to the size of the
network. I was almost as busy introducing myself to other freelancers
and agencies as I was with actual work.
I found nothing significant or even outwardly
interesting about the building that housed PDF Publications. It
was a little run down; an older tilt-up one-story with a decaying
rustic mission-style façade. Things were no better inside. When I opened the door, I was assailed by a strong smell of nicotine that was baked into the walls and disused carpet.
The lobby area was adorned with an algae-encrused aquarium that had long since ceased housing fish. There was a dead potted palm tree sitting in one dark corner
near the door. The old beige walls held a ramshackle assortment of taped up posters.
Incidentally, most of the production shops that I had worked up to that point - even the place that Mr. Tijarda directed me were a bit better off, but not by much. I strolled up to the receptionist’s
desk where an ill-tempered girl, who was either a niece or a daughter
I forget which, greeted me with a sneer. She directed me to an
open door that led into the office that held a sign: "Mitch Rorer, President,
Publisher, and Editor-In-Chief of PDF Publications." The extra
large sign on the wall opposite the door bore broad brushed lettering:
“Editor At Work. Prepare to be crushed.” The word "crushed"
was italicized and underscored with red paint.
Under the sign sat a man who was a perfect characterization of a two-bit publisher; master of a tiny empire of cheap community newspapers and
coupon magazines. Charles Dickens himself couldn't have conjured a more
apt character to fill the role. Mitch wore
a coffee stained t-shirt and beige corduroy pants that were nearly threadbare
at the knees. Birkenstock sandals and white socks completed the
ensemble. Light blue beady eyes framed by gold wire-rimmed glasses,
which always drooped over his constantly perspiring nose, punctuated
his pudgy red face. His most remarkable feature was a shock of
salt and pepper hair that crested above a sharp widow’s peak then
crashed around his ears and neck. A battered vintage-age US Government
Issue office chair strained to contain his rotund body as it squeaked and groaned.
Mitch was engaged in a rapid-fire conversation
with a vendor laced with thick printing jargon: “Yeah, two signatures, three over one on
book, self cover, saddle stitched… no book stock all the way through.”
As he continued, I looked around the room. He was the vortex of a shrine to “throwaway” advertisement publications; columns of paper
that were so tall that they hid the stained ceiling panels in
several places. Girded by three desks, Mitch’s lagoon was the
quiet center of a tornado of junk. On one side was a layout table
straining to hold an unruly stack of paste-up boards, amber film,
negs, photo stats, and Xeroxed layouts. Its opposite was a regular
desk that resembled the rest of the office, albeit with fresher
piles of crap. A third desk was one of those fold-up banquet tables
with the fake brown wood grain. Unlike its companions, this surface
was clear of flotsam and held a sparse array of office accessories
and equipment: an old fluorescent desk lamp, a filthy beige telephone,
two Rolodex spindles stuffed with blackened and feathered cards,
an overfull dinner plate-sized ashtray, two wire baskets, one
marked “IN” and “OUT” (“in” was full, “out” was empty), a cup
full of red pens, and a battered brown and tan IBM typewriter.The tiny metal wheels that supported his chair
complained as he rolled between a lagoon of desks assembled in
the middle of an amazing pile of clutter. I estimated that his
actual workspace was reduced to no more than a third of the available area.
I imagined that Mitch Rorer's empire was a failed dream or a work-in-progress
that never materialized; caught mid-stride between a never-ending cycle of near-death and barely surviving margins that small businesses often find themselves. In hindsight, Mitch's world was emblematic of much of late 20th century publishing - choked off by its own grand design and destroyed by diminishing interest and newer means of communication and technology.
After a moment,
he glanced at my direction and nodded. The emperor of PDF Publications ended
his phone call and with very little in the way of ceremony or
introduction began rifling through my portfolio. A problem that
has dogged me nearly all my professional life is that much of
my best work is often wrapped up in secrecy. These days, I ghost
write for people who don’t necessarily want their colleagues to
know that they have such a manifestation closeted in their curriculum
vitae. Standing in Mitch’s office twenty-five years ago, much
of my best illustrations were part of classified military weapons
reports and procedural manuals – I could show you the work, but
then I’d have to kill you or face life in prison. Thus, the work
that Mitch saw was my second tier and I sensed that he was unimpressed.
Then I noticed a sudden change as he stopped
over a pair of recent additions. In an audacious afterthought
the night before, I had added clippings of a pair of my better
articles that had been published in the Cal State Long Beach newspaper,
The Daily 49er. One was a review about an off-campus production
of “Butterflies Are Free” and the other was a short op-ed entitled
“Interview Me.” Not only was Mitch reading them, he was chuckling
and nodding at all the right places. He openly laughed when he
read my description of the play where the lead actor (playing
a blind man) had to stop several times to read his lines. He creaked
in his chair thoughtfully while pursuing my insights on the Sisyphean
struggle of writers seeking a worthy audience and the topics worthy
of passion. “When a writer writes, who does he serve?” I had asked.
“Does he pick up the heavy pen and scribble only to satisfy the
masses or does he do it with selfish drive for pure
He closed the portfolio and tilted his head
back as though to run a quick calculation on the wall above my
head. “Are you a writer?” he asked abruptly.
I was stunned. Nobody had ever asked me that
question before. After a nervous pause, I croaked, “Yes.” But
an unintended lift betrayed my uncertainty.
He looked at me and grinned. “Look, (I think
he said “kid” here), I really need a writer. Now you could wish
that you lived on Saturn for all I care. You don’t live on Saturn,
The problem with blatantly obvious questions
is that the unprepared mind tends to forget even the most elementary
answer. Moreover, the abstractness of the question – Mitch was
an artful user of abstractions and metaphors – caused me to realize
that any dream of being a writer might as well be on Saturn. As
good as I was as an illustrator, my true passion might as well
be buried by the second largest planet in the solar system, and
only I had the power to lift this self-imposed prison. This question
also offered the shock of certain unflattering feelings I had
about my father – but again, that’s another story. All I could
do was gape at Mitch like someone who, having just arrived from
the ringed planet, was hearing English for the first time.
This time he didn’t grin. “I can get art production
from anybody,” he continued. “Two guys were just here and I can
hire either of them. But, I really need someone who wants to write.
Are you sure you're a writer?”
I pushed away the Saturnian tombstone and produced
a firm response, “Yeah. I’m a writer.”
“Then you are,” he proclaimed, waving a meaty
palm at me as though he were the Pope of Copy.
I worked for Mitch’s company for about a year
writing articles about entertainment venues around Southern California
and second-hand reviews of new films, music, and even a few restaurants.
In retrospect, I learned a great deal about myself – about how
much Tijarda’s stern words affected me and my weird little hang-ups
about paychecks and occupations. But I also learned to appreciate
a few things about writing. For one thing, the writers' paycheck
is a paltry affair (especially compared to what I could make with
art production and illustration). I also learned that writers
(especially newbies) serve only one master - the editor; you and
the audience come last.
After I left PDF Publications, I opened my own
small commercial art studio in downtown Long Beach and added writing
services to my list of capabilities. Later, I took a corporate
job as the chief marketing “kid” which involved a great deal of
writing. In 1984, I opened an advertising agency and began writing
full-time as my business turned to specializing in publishing
newsletters and booklets. Nowadays, I have the pleasure of writing
to my heart’s desire – both as a ghost and as a real person (and
I still make regular entries in Lifelog). I am cultivating my
own crop of salt and pepper hair and I have a coffee habit that
is almost as bad as Mitch's chain smoking. And I am most thankful
to the people who helped guide me down this path – my high school
English teacher, Mr. Tijarda, and Mitch. And I seldom think of